Happy Turkey Day to those of you who mark it. For us it’s going to be our first Thanksgiving by just ourselves in more than 15 years—for the boys, their first Thanksgiving with only the family. We’ll miss the usual, excessive gathering we host every year with friends who haven’t gone out of town but we look forward to doing it again next year when, hopefully, all of this will be behind us. As I’ve been gearing up all week for the smaller Thanksgiving lunch I’m going to be making in the morning, I don’t have the usual Thursday recipe post. Instead, I have something for my beleaguered whisky readership—or at least for what remains of it. It’s a simple question: which are your five favorite distilleries?
This question arises out of a brief conversation I had earlier this week on Twitter about Springbank. As I waxed enthusiastic about that great distillery which has always been in my top 5 (I think so anyway), I began to wonder how I’d round out the rest of my top five these days.
For a long time the answer would have been both easy and unchanging for me: Laphroaig, Highland Park, Springbank, Bowmore, Talisker—probably in that order. But Highland Park and Talisker dropped out some years ago. Both distilleries’ prices rose sharply for their 18 and 25 year olds (the latter of which came down in abv in the case of Talisker) and the quality of the lines became diluted by marginal NAS releases. In the case of Highland Park, the 12 yo—which used to be a great entry-level malt—has also tapered off in quality; the Talisker 10, at least, has held the line. Indie Highland Park has also become thin on the ground.
Things have not been so good for official Laphroaig and Bowmore either. Laphroaig, which once had a small, focused lineup with quality all through it, has also gone the way of proliferating NAS/high concept releases. It has been a similar story at Bowmore. However, high quality indie releases from both distilleries continue to be available on the market, allowing us to appreciate these distilleries despite their owners’ best efforts. And so I am able to keep these two distilleries, whose malts—official and indie—were a large part of my becoming a deranged whisky person, in my top 5 list along with Springbank. There’s no question, of course, about keeping Springbank on the list. The price of the 18 yo—Springbank and Longrow alike—has shot up and the single casks often go for silly money, but until the Trump tarrifs intervened in the US, the 10, 12 CS and 15 had largely held the line. And in any case, Springbank’s unfussy dedication to their own spirit (in both senses), seemingly immune to industry trends, is to be lauded.
Which two distilleries should replace Highland Park and Talisker on my personal top five list though? Lagavulin and Clynelish had always hovered around the edges of the list. However, while the the price of the Lagavulin 16 has more or less held steady, the 12 and the Distillers Edition have risen sharply in price. And, unlike some, I am not very enamoured of the 8 yo. Everything else is only for the very wealthy. As for Clynelish, while the official lineup remains as edited as before, the indie market has seen a sharp rise in prices without—in my view—quality keeping pace. Neither makes the cut.
I’ve enjoyed most of the Ardmores and Ledaigs I’ve had in recent years, and I could say the same for darker horses, Auchroisk and Loch Lomond (across their many labels). But after agonizing over it for a while these are the two distilleries I’d elevate into my top five: Caol Ila and Ben Nevis. The former puts out perhaps the most dependably excellent whisky in Scotland (even Springbank has a few clunkers every once in a while). And the latter puts out perhaps the most idiosyncratic. Neither has let me down—or let me down too hard. And both, by and large, remain affordable. And so this is my current top 5: Laphroaig, Springbank, Bowmore, Caol Ila and Ben Nevis.
Over to you: what would be your top 5? Feel free to include American or Japanese distilleries in your list. I only ask that you not list closed distilleries or brands known entirely for putting out unicorn releases. A few sentences on your reasons for your selections would be great; bloody large dissertations would be even better.