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Best Scotch whisky: 15 to try

Whisky expert Richard Woodard trawls the diverse world of Scotch whisky to select his favourite drams.

I’m not sure that any of us needs an excuse to crack open a decent bottle of Scotch, but just in case you do, Thursday 27 July is National Scotch Whisky Day. It’s a whole 24 hours dedicated to the country’s most famous (and most lucrative) export.

If you’re experiencing a mild case of déjà vu, don’t worry… There are a few landmark dates in the diary, ensuring that, like every dog, every dram has its day.

There’s International Scotch Day in early February, marking the birthday of Alexander Walker of Johnnie Walker fame. Then International Whisky Day on 27 March and World Whisky Day on the third Saturday in May. Factor in Burns’ Night and Hogmanay and the calendar is filling up nicely.

Drawing up a list of whiskies fit to mark such an occasion reminds you of just how rich and diverse the world of Scotch is. You can’t let the day pass without referencing the classics, but at the same time there are always some cracking new expressions that deserve a nod.

If you’ve never tried Ballantine’s 17 or Glenfarclas 15, where have you been? But don’t miss out on terrific new releases such as the Mossburn Blair Athol, or Talisker’s limited-edition tie-in with the Parley for the Seas charity.

Characterful single malts, beautifully constructed blends, luscious grains. Distillates that are delicately fragrant, pungently funky, or full of the enticing aromas of peat smoke. Maturation in everything from sweet ex-bourbon barrels, via rich Sherry and spicy Cognac, to punchy virgin oak casks.

Prices can differ widely too. There are some bottles here that won’t set you back much more than £30 – and others that run to four figures.

The world of whisky is a large and cosmopolitan one these days, and there are fine liquids coming out of everywhere from New Zealand to Israel. That’s tremendous news for whisky lovers, but it’s still nice – for one day, at least – to revel in the cornucopia of flavours that only Scotch whisky can offer.

Best Scotch whisky: 15 to try

anCnoc Sherry Cask Finish Peated Edition

Smoky whiskies and ex-Sherry casks are a match made in heaven – so no wonder that a Sherried extension of anCnoc’s Peatheart variant went down a storm in Sweden, prompting this global release. Exuberant fruit, campfire aromas, spiced orchard fruit and dark fudge. Simple flavours, neatly assembled. Alcohol 43%

Ardbeg Corryvreckan

Cheekily named after a whirlpool that sits between Jura and Scarba – not Islay – this is a rich, meatily spicy whisky with lots of juicy dark fruits and dark chocolate to supplement Ardbeg’s trademark briny smoke. I know a lot of people prefer the distillery’s Uigeadail bottling, but this expression has always hit the spot for me. Alc 57.1%

Ballantine’s 17 Year Old

Blendophobes who can only drink single malts should try this, and think again. A superlative evocation of the art of blending – even after seeing its strength cut from 43% – combining fleshy fruit and an unctuously creamy, vanilla-accented and honeyed palate. Silky, smooth and utterly seductive. Alc 40%

Benriach 2010 (bottled 2023) Cask #08036 Pedro Ximénez, Berry Bros & Rudd

A cracker from Berrys’ spring release programme, but one that you need to tease out with a generous dose of water. Not only will it go further, but you’ll get the full effect of Benriach’s fruit basket aromas, alongside gentle spice and liquorice-covered gingerbread from the PX cask finish. Alc 61.1%

Blair Athol 2009 (12 Years Old), Mossburn Vintage Casks

Another whisky from the terrific recent tranche of Mossburn releases that showcase less heralded distilleries. First-fill bourbon casks have softened Blair Athol’s funkily earthy, malty character and created a beguiling beeswax note, alongside lots of walnut and dark oaky flavours. A BFG of a whisky. Alc 54.5%

Carsebridge 48 Year Old

Aged grain whisky can be a little sweet and one-dimensional, with the cask overshadowing the distillate. So when this single grain from closed Carsebridge emerged among Diageo’s Special Releases in 2018, it was mind-blowing (and, admittedly, mind-blowingly expensive). Richly vinous, crème de cassis, old polished wood and slightly dusty tannins from the cask. Glorious. Alc 43.2%

Glenfarclas 15 Year Old

You could pick pretty much any Glenfarclas distillery bottling here, such is the consistently superb quality of the distillery’s output – and its excellent value for money. Hugely characterful distillate and Sherry oak make for rich flavours of Demerara sugar, raisin fudge, cinnamon and nutmeg, all backed up by hints of smoke and butterscotch. Alc 46%

Glenglassaugh 12 Year Old

This flagship expression from the revived Glenglassaugh has been a long time coming – the coastal distillery was silent from 1986 to 2008. There’s bright, zesty fruit with elements of praline and walnut from the use of ex-Sherry wood, deepening into liquorice and stewed plum from red wine casks – and just a whisper of marine salinity. Alc 45%

Glenmorangie Astar (2017 release)

Many whisky drinkers know Glenmorangie for its ‘finished’ whiskies, but none would work without the distillery’s superlative distillate, with those tall stills giving a perfumed, floral/fruity character that links all of its output. Astar – revived in 2017 after a five-year hiatus – shows all of this alongside a beguiling strand of hot buttered toast and honey from bespoke casks sourced from the Ozark mountains. Alc 52.5%

Glen Moray Twisted Vine

Other than a mild quibble about the bottling strength, this is just a good-value and straightforwardly enjoyable single malt. Another Cognac finish (it’s officially ‘a thing’) delivers mildly tannic, darkly spiced flavours to supplement some sweet fruit from the youngish spirit. Toasty and rich. Alc 40%

Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost & Rare Glenury Royal

This series aims to highlight the ‘ghost’ or closed distilleries that play such a vital role in the makeup of Johnnie Walker’s Blue Label blend, in this case focusing on the rich fruitiness of Glenury Royal, which closed in 1985. Shy at first, it hits explosively hedonistic form on the palate, adding vanilla, heather honey and dried fruits to Glenury’s expressive style. Alc 43.8%

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2022 Release

Youthful Kilchoman’s charm has deepened over the years, and its quintessentially Islay character has always married beautifully with Sherry casks. Eight years-plus in former oloroso Sherry wood brings nutty, toasty, earthy complexity layered onto the distillate’s gorgeous fruit and perfumed smoke. Alc 46%

Loch Lomond 47 Year Old 

From a famously quirky distillery – if Willy Wonka made whisky, he’d do it here – this is the last in a trio of long-aged malts in the Remarkable Stills series. Four years in second-fill oloroso casks bring a depth of dried fruit and spice to the unmistakable timbre of age: pungent tropical fruits, caramel and a supremely silky texture. Alc 44.3%

Royal Salute 21 Year Old Jodhpur Edition

Celebrating the Blue City of Jodhpur in India, this is another tremendous whisky from master blender Sandy Hyslop, finished in virgin oak casks. Juicy tropical fruits are layered with honey, vanilla and baking spices. A multi-dimensional blend with an endless finish. Alc 40%

Talisker x Parley Wilder Seas

Beyond the headlines – a finish in ex-Cognac casks, a collaboration with Parley for the Seas to rewild the ocean – this is classic Talisker. It exhibits all of this great Isle of Skye distillery’s balance and complexity: dried fruit, malt loaf, gentle smoke, seaspray and lots of freshly cracked pepper and salt. Alc 48.6%

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