Anyone who is obsessive and geeky by nature will begin compiling lists at one point or another in his or her life. Since my early teenage years I’ve made lists of favourite basketball players, video games, movies (often broken down by genre or decade), superheroes, bands, wrestlers… you name it and I’ve agonizingly and meticulously considered it. Whisky list making is the obvious and natural progression of this tendency (and indeed I’ve already given you lists of my favourite Beginner Whiskies and Canadian Whiskies), so today I present you, dear readers, with a list of My 10 Favourite Scotch Whisky Distilleries. This list is by no means set in stone, and is instead a living, breathing, organic, and ever-fluctuating compilation of some of the whisky distilleries that have touched me the most at this point in my life. Also bear in mind that the distilleries presented here are merely my personal favourites, and your tastes will invariably vary from mine (“Just an opinion, not a fact!” as our malt mate Ralfy would say).
Before we move on to my official top 10, I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw a little love at the following distilleries. They fall into 4 distinct categories:
Old Favourites That Just Missed The Cut: Caol Ila, Aberlour, Benromach, BenRiach
Malts I Know More By Reputation Than Experience: Glen Grant, Longmorn, Strathisla
Feisty Young Up And Comers: Kilchoman, Glengyle (Kilkerran)
Distilleries My Wife Is Strangely Fixated Upon: Glenlossie
10) Old Pulteney
Established: 1826 Region: Highland Ownership: International Beverage Holdings
As stated above, my list will never truly be finalized, and this number 10 spot certainly has the most chance for fluctuation as my tastes change and my whisky experience broadens (any of the above honorable mentions could fill this spot quite seamlessly on any given day). None of this is to take anything away from Old Pulteney however, as this distillery in the town of Wick on Scotland’s north-east coast (and indeed until the recent construction of Wolfburn, the northernmost distillery on the Scottish mainland) produces malt whisky in a style I absolutely adore. I’m a sucker for oily, coastal, whiskies with a sweet and salty balance (a theme you’ll see unfold repeatedly on this list), and Pulteney has that in spades. Perhaps it’s because I was born and raised on an island and have never lived more than a 30 minute walk from the ocean, but I also have an undeniable affinity towards nautical themed branding and packaging, another hallmark of Old Pulteney that gives it a few superficially important bonus points in my book.
Some Favourite Bottlings: 17 Year, 21 Year, Hand Bottled at the Distillery 1997 19yr Cask #1522
Established: 1995 Region: Islands Ownership: Independent
Far and away the most recently established distillery on my list (by a good 103 years!) Arran has built an exceedingly good reputation for quality in a very short span of time. The last handful of years in particular have seen Arran, the only distillery currently situated on the Isle of Arran, roll out a range of impressive age stated whiskies, shifting away from the more dubious and unorthodox wine-finished offerings of their early years. With a spirit that veers towards the fresher, fruitier side of the whisky map, Arran is slightly atypical for an Island malt, but produces an undeniably lovely range of whiskies, including some peated runs under their Machrie Moor banner. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of being an Arran fan however, is the thrill of following the year to year progression of these relatively young whiskies, especially now that we’ve just recently crossed the 20 year threshold. Nobody knows yet what 30 or even 25 year old Arran tastes like, and we’ll all get to collectively discover the joys of this malt reaching new levels of maturity together each and every year.
Some Favourite Bottlings: SMWS 121.77 “Dunnage Warehouse Orange Boxes”, 19 Year Kensington Wine Market Bottling, 2004 Orkney Bere Barley
Established: 1881 Region: Islay Ownership: Distell Group
The first (and certainly not the last) Islay whisky to make my list, Bunnahabhain stands apart from the majority of its peers on the island known for producing unflinchingly heavily peated spirit, by staking its reputation primarily on lightly peated or indeed unpeated malts. Much like Old Pulteney, Bunnahabhain primarily excels at whiskies exhibiting a divinely harmonious balance of sweet and salty. Notes of salted nuts, chocolate, & raisins abound in the classic 12 year expression, creating a Cadbury Fruit & Nut bar quality that I’m hopelessly in love with. No slouches in the heavily peated department either, there are a host of smoky independent offerings, as well as some fine NAS (no age statement) expressions like the difficult to pronounce Ceòbanach that can stand up proudly alongside the Caol Ilas & Bowmores of the world.
Some Favourite Bottlings: 12 Year, SMWS 10.83 “Incredibly Awesome”, 18 Year
Established: 1892 Region: Speyside Ownership: Independent
One of the sister-distilleries to the world famous Glenfiddich (also sharing a distillery site with the far more recently established and lesser known Kininvie), Balvenie has built a solid reputation amongst both serious and casual single malt drinkers over the last several decades. Known for producing a rich, round, honey-like malt, the broad appeal of Balvenie is undeniable, as is the always impeccable quality of the spirit. Independent bottlings of Balvenie are an incredibly rare sight, but thankfully a range of dynamic official bottlings abound, showcasing an array of ages, strengths and finishes (the Double Wood 12 Year first released in 1993, is in fact one of the first widely promoted finished whiskies, with primary maturation done in ex-bourbon casks before spending a few months in ex-Sherry European oak). One of the last independently owned distilleries left in Scotland (under the ownership of William Grant & Sons since its inception), Balvenie also remains one of the very few distilleries to have on-site floor maltings and even a cooperage at hand.
Some Favourite Bottlings: 2002 Peat Week 14 Year, 21 Year PortWood, Tun 1509 Batch 4
Established: 1830 Region: Islands Ownership: Diageo
The Isle of Sky’s oldest working distillery, there is nothing else in the malt whisky world quite like Talisker. Peaty, peppery, salty, always wafting with plumes of beach bonfire smoke, Talisker stands alongside Highland Park as one of the most quintessentially “Island” whiskies around. Veering more to the smoky and spicy side of the map than the sweet and salty, Talisker produces malts of great depth and complexity at a variety of ages, exhibiting deft balance and nuance at both 10 and 25 years, and all points in between. Talisker’s malts are always engaging, intriguing, and rather “moreish” as they’re fond of saying in the UK.
Some Favourite Bottlings: 10 Year, 2005 Distiller’s Edition, 25 Year (57.8% ABV)
Established: 1816 Region: Islay Ownership: Diageo
It’s quite fashionable in many whisky circles to bash the megalithic spirits company Diageo. The owner of no less than 48 (!!) single malt distilleries, the company has undeniably gobbled up a good percentage of the whisky making operations in Scotland and around the globe, and I certainly understand the concern on the part of consumers worried about the potential homogenization and dumbing down of single malt whisky as a result. As a counterpoint to that argument, I’d like to direct your attention to Lagavulin (and in fact, the recently aforementioned Talisker). One of Islay’s oldest and most quintessentially peat-heavy whiskies, Lagavulin, under the stewardship of Diageo for many decades, has consistently produced a rich and massively peated spirit of the utmost quality, and to consistent critical and commercial acclaim. Look no further than 2016’s Lagavulin 8 Year 200th Anniversary release (stripped down, distillate driven, age-stated, bottled at 48%), for proof that Diageo “gets it”, and truly gives a damn about damn good whisky.
Some Favourite Bottlings: 8 Year, 16 Year, 12 Year 2015 Ed.
Established: 1826 Region: Highland Ownership: Brown-Forman
We’re firmly entrenched in Sherry monster territory with this entrant on my list. Often incredibly rich and impossibly heavy, Glendronach does Sherry the way Octomore does peat (that is to say, turned up to 11). Notes of dried fruits, Christmas cake, pipe tobacco, leather, coffee, dates and even mushrooms abound in many older releases (the 15 Year “Revival” being a particularly fine example of this rich, sweet and earthy balance). I’m a bit too late to the party (and a bit too light on funds at this stage of the game) to have caught the heyday of old style gigantically-Sherried Macallan, but by most accounts the folks at Glendronach are the ones who have picked up the Sherry bomb mantle in the 21st century and run with it the furthest.
Some Favourite Bottlings: 15 Year “Revival”, 19 Year Madeira Finish, 1994 Single Cask #1051
Established: 1836 Region: Speyside Ownership: Independent
While much of my list is an ever-shifting collection of distilleries that could look entirely different a month or even a week from now, these top 3 selections are quite ironclad. I have nothing but the utmost love, appreciation and respect for Glenfarclas. One of the longest running family owned distilleries left in Scotland (in the hands of the Grant family since 1865), this classic Speyside malt is a continuous masterclass in a creamy, spicy, fruity, Sherry-driven style that causes me to salivate just writing about it. The Glenfarclas 12 Year was one of my very first malt whisky purchases, and I treasured it dearly. I had the great honour of arranging and setting up a Glenfarclas tasting hosted by none other than current distillery heir George Grant a few years back, and he couldn’t have been more of a class act. A timeless distillery that will always be special to me.
Some Favourite Bottlings: 15 Year, SMWS 1.179 “The Artist’s Studio”, Glenfarclas 105 10 Year (older bottling), 1977 Family Casks Sp17, 40 Year
Established: 1815 Region: Islay Ownership: LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton)
A distillery of truly legendary status, Ardbeg was mothballed and left for dead not once, but twice in the latter half of the twentieth century, only to be resurrected to thunderous acclaim. My absolute favourite of the heavily-peated Islay whiskies, Ardbeg exhibits a sweet, citrusy, briney, smoke-laden balance that speaks to me in profound ways. The official 10 Year Old bottling, launched in 2000, is easily one of my all time favourite whiskies, and remains an incredible value. 1970’s era Ardbeg is widely considered some of the best single malt whisky ever produced anywhere, and is the holy grail for many a collector and enthusiast. While official bottlings have veered to the NAS side of the road with some admittedly silly names (Supernova, Rollercoaster, Alligator) over the last decade or so, the intrinsic quality of the spirit being produced at Ardbeg remains an unstoppable force to be reckoned with.
Some Favourite Bottlings: 10 Year, Uigeadail, SMWS 33.143 “Thank You And Goodnight”, Supernova, Mid-70’s bottling of unknown origin sipped from Lawrence Graham’s glencairn at a VWF 2017 afterparty.
Established: 1828 Region: Campbeltown Ownership: Independent
Fiercely independent in every sense of the word, Springbank is one of the last remaining whisky outposts in the once booming Campbeltown region. Producers of not one but three distinct styles and brands of single malt whisky (Springbank, the heavily-peated Longrow, and the triple distilled and unpeated Hazelburn), Springbank’s whiskies are truly in a class of their own. In the hands of the Mitchell family since 1837, Springbank remains an old school family operation through and through. Check out this amazing Ralfy video series documenting his tour through the distillery grounds for further evidence of just how crafty, cool and Willy Wonka-like the Sprinbank way of whisky making is. The malts produced here are truly some of the most unique in Scotland, and have an earthy, salty, deeply funky quality that is quite unlike any whisky anywhere in the known universe. Sprinbank is truly a whisky geek’s whisky, and admittedly nerdy fellow that I am, it will always have a firm grip on the #1 spot on my list.
Some Favourite Bottlings: 10 Year, SMWS 27.105 “Too Cool For School”, 12 Year Cask Strength 2016 ed., Hazelburn 10 Year, Cadenhead Longrow 2002 12 Year