The following is a list I made for Food Digital in September, 2013:
With approximately 100 working distilleries in Scotland, whittling them down to a Top Ten list is no easy feat. Someone’s favorite will be omitted, another’s will be ranked too low. While there’s an imprecise science involved in formulating any Top Ten list the following ten distilleries stand out for reasons of consistent quality, competitive pricing, connectivity with fans, and innovation. Apologies if the following leaves you with a serious case of the vapors. Best to reach for your favorite dram in that instance.
10. Kilchoman - Since beginning production in June 2005, Islay’s Kilchoman distillery has impressed with a young, oily spirit that is mostly matured in first fill ex-bourbon casks from Buffalo Trace. For their 100% Islay release the distillery malts their own barley grown in adjacent fields. Machir Bay is their first widely-available annual release.
9. Glenglassaugh - Since being reopened in 2008, Glenglassugh, situated on the edge of Scotland’s north shore, has excited whisky fans with a cask purchasing program, the launch of their first two new era whiskies, Revival and Evolution, and award winning older stock. A 50 Year Old is expected in 2014.
8. Bruichladdie - Despite being recently sold to Remy Cointreu for approximately $90 million, the previous regime, spearheaded by the legendary Jim McEwan, achieved a lot in their twelve years. The distillery now boasts three 10 Year Olds (lightly peated, peated, and heavily peated), a 16 Year Old, a bere barley release, and several special offerings. Their anaerobic digester converts yeast waste to methane which provides energy for the distillery.
7. Springbank - One of a handful of remaining Campeltown distilleries, Springbank has been owned by the Mitchell family since 1837. Turning out the world’s first organic single malt in 1997 and launching a 36 Year Old made from local barley in 2001 shows the innovative spirit at the heart of the distillery. Springbank now releases their traditional single malt, a peated version (Longrow) and a triple distilled version (Hazelburn).
6. Lagavulin - One of two Islay distilleries owned by Diageo, Lagavulin, on Islay’s south shore, consistently produces excellent whisky. Their standard 16 Year Old is partnered by an annual 12 Year Old cask strength release and a Distiller’s Edition bottling while an occasional 21 Year Old (released in 2007 and 2012) gives Lagavulin lovers something worth eagerly anticipating.
5. Balvenie - Speyside’s venerable Balvenie distillery has benefitted from having the steady hand of David Stewart, Malt Master, at the helm since 1962. Balvenie malts 15% of their own barley and turns out one of the finest 30 Year Olds in the business. The recent batch releases of Tun 1401 have reinvigorated an already award worthy line-up.
4. Ardbeg - What hasn’t already been said about Ardbeg by their many legions of fans? Since being reborn in 1997 they’ve opened a beautiful visitor center, launched the Ardbeg Committee, shared their journey to a 10 Year Old with a series of 6-9 Year Old bottlings, and in 2012 launched a global Ardbeg Day. Unique annual releases are highly anticipated by the Ardbeg faithful.
3. Highland Park - Scotland’s northenmost distillery, perched on craggy Orkney, produces what many consider to be the best 18 Year Old and 21 Year Old on the market. Hjarta, a limited release that celebrated the refurbishment of the distillery’s visitor center, remains one of my favorite sherried whiskies of the last twenty years.
2. Glenfarclas - Proudly family owned across six generations, Speyside’s Glenfarclas distillery produces excellent sherried whisky without bluster or massive marketing campaigns. Ridiculously good and affordable whisky is the order of the day with the 105 Cask Strength (the world’s first commercially available cask strength whisky) remaining a necessity on any whisky lover’s shelf. An independently bottled 1953 cask is one of the finest whiskies I’ve ever tasted.
1. Arran - When spirit first ran at the Isle of Arran’s one and only distillery in 1995 the future looked bright. When the first whiskies were released between 1998 and 2002 the whisky world scratched its collective head and wondered what went wrong. Thankfully, an overhaul in management, including bringing James MacTaggart over from Bowmore helped right the ship and sent Arran on a course to greatness. The Icons of Arran series, launched in 2009 with exquisite packaging that held even more exquisite whisky helped put Arran squarely on the whisky map. Subsequent releases of Machrie Moor (peated) and Devil’s Punch Bowl (a vatting of older sherry casks with younger bourbon and some peated casks) has reaffirmed Arran’s status among the best of Scotland’s whisky producers. With a core line that includes a 10 Year Old, a cask strength 12 Year Old, and a 14 Year Old, Arran took the unusual step of launching a 16 Year Old (2013) and a 17 Year Old (2014) on the way to releasing the distillery’s standard 18 Year Old. The future outlook at Arran once again burns bright.