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.
All of this is based on bottles which are mostly sub-£50, and all sub-£100 (UK retail prices), so of course I might be missing some really lovely whisky I can’t afford. In some cases it’s based on one or two bottles. So this is not “my favourite distilleries after a long and distinguished career as a whisky anorak”, but rather “distilleries which have stood out to me in my relatively short foray into whisky”. Roughly in order of preference:
1) Longrow – I agree Springbank (the organisation) are to be praised for their “unfussy dedication to their own spirit”. I am inclined to treat the three Springbank makes as essentially separate entities, and Longrow is definitely my favourite. Hazelburn I find a bit sweet and cardboardy and essentially dull, and Springbank (the spirit) has its highs and lows for me – some bottles are amazing, some do very little for me. But Longrow I find more reliable (though I have yet to try any of the red wine casks…), and I love its clarity, intensity and robustness. So Longrow in first place both for the spirit and for Springbank’s ethos.
2) Benromach – Not entirely reliable across the range, but when it’s good I really enjoy it – it has earthy, leafy, foresty qualities which I find sort of comforting and grounding. Highlights for me were the old 10yo 100 proof, and one of the younger Organics (2010-2017 I think? That one I found pleasantly savoury and liquorice-y, whereas the 2010-2018 I found overwhelmingly bourbon-y in a sort of overbrewed-black-tea way – virgin oak is a fickle mistress!). I am a bit worried about the new range though, time will tell.
3) Ben Nevis – It’s a shame about the limited range of own bottlings, and their limited availability, and I have to say I’ve had some trouble with the OB 10 and some rather cloying sherry separation, but the spirit is just fabulous. I’ve had a couple of bourbon cask indies and they were delightful. Minerally, oily, with yellow fruit and flowers and some idiosyncratic funk – very distinctive, but arguably more subtle than some other characterful makes.
4) Ardmore – This is on the strength of a single teen-aged Gordon & Macphail bottling (the first one in this post of Serge’s: http://www.whiskyfun.com/archivenovember15-2-Aberlour-Glenmorangie-Macallan-Kilchoman-Laphroaig.html#231115 – a delightful example of the tasting note which manages to say almost nothing at all about the taste) which was stunning. A delicate, herbal peat (fried sage) carried by a butttery, mouth-filling spirit. Sadly the OBs I’ve tried have been pretty dodgy, and the young indies which seem to have proliferated in recent years I find competent but a bit dull – not unlike young Caol Ila in that respect.
5) ??? – I can’t think of an obvious 5th, but I have a few contenders:
a) Glenfarclas – For their reliability, and the large and reasonably priced range. I think they deserve a lot of recognition simply for making their spirit so readily available in a broad range of ages and expressions with a very low level of bullshit. The spirit doesn’t have the same stand-out qualities of some of the makes above for me, but the 15 for example is lovely.
b) Daftmill – I have only tried samples of this (I would struggle to find the money for a bottle even if I managed to find one in stock before they sell out!) so this is an extremely preliminary judgment, but based on that handful of samples this could be my favourite make out there – fresh, green-fruit-y, floral, mouth-coating. Sort of like a Ben Nevis that went to finishing school, in my book. Or like a fruit eau-de-vie pretending to be whisky. Perhaps one day I’ll manage to source a full bottle!
c) Capreolus (not whisky!) – A wild card to end with. I recently discovered this distillery and have bought a bottle of one of their pomace eaux-de-vie (http://capreolusdistillery.co.uk/products/bacchus-grape-eau-de-vie – the tasting notes are spot on for me) and I am pretty much bowled over. Different to whisky obviously, more single-minded and ingredient-driven, but still has wonderful depth for me.
There you go MAO! With this information you should be equipped to make your opinions less annoying and more good (i.e. identical to mine).
In terms of the simple criterion of ‘distilleries that have produced my favourite whiskies’:
If we factor in other things, it would get more complicated than I have time for right now.
Tough to unsentimentally update a list. Knocking out distilleries I own more bottles of than any other because they’ve gotten weaker over the years shouldn’t necessarily make them no longer a favorite, but I suppose that’s the game. I tried to use the criteria of “at any age, from any bottler (own or indie), would I see this distillery’s name and think: oooh, I wanna try that, it’s gonna be good.” With 4 out of 5 being a product of the last 20 years, it’s a surprisingly optimistic list.
(McEwan-era) Bruichladdich. By which I mean distilled after 2001. Especially those bottlings now hitting their teenage years are wonderful.
Kilkerran. Even the super young heavily peated is more enjoyable, I find, than the inaugural release of any other darling new Scottish distillery. And the older offerings are universally outstanding.
Lagavulin. I’m in the camp of quite liking the 8, and though I dutifully ignored the Game of Thrones and Offerman editions, I quite like the rest of the lineup, adore the Feis Ile releases, and will always try a rare indie.
Chichibu. I’ll do these together as neither can be had for love or money and neither really sell to independents. It’s great whisky. Always, reliably, just enthralling. So why shouldn’t they be favorites?
My apologies to the people of Ireland and India (and other whisky producing countries) for not listing them among the types of distilleries you might consider for your list.
But there are so many more good ones, Bunnahabhain, Knockdhu, Benromach, Deanston, Arran, Tobermory, Glencadam, Glendronach, Glengoyne, Tomatin, Balblair. And those are just the distilleries that I can get whiskies from. Pretty sure I’d love a Ben Nevis if I could get one. :-)
I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday afternoon. I don’t believe I have five favorite distilleries for which I can explain/defend rankings. I have two, sort of, but I’ll play anyway.
1) Laphroaig. I haven’t tried the limited expressions nor have I bought that far up into their line. But everything I’ve had from them I’ve enjoyed very much.
2) Kilbeggan (Ireland). They make Connemara, a peated single malt Irish whiskey. Doesn’t hit with the peat club quite as hard as Laphroaig does; a very pleasant way to spend some time. Both the standard issue and the 12 have been enjoyable.
3) Well, if we’re leaving it at Scotch-style whiskeys, I’m done. I like Evan Williams bourbon a lot, but that’s not the same thing.
One thing that does interest me is the number of words devoted to value. How critical is value to your enjoyment of a whiskey or a brand of whiskey? It’s great if you find something you enjoy very much and it’s $40-50 a bottle. And, obviously, economics comes into play for just about all of us. But if it’s the best whiskey you’ve ever tasted but it’s $120 a bottle, do you enjoy it less? Is there a perception of lower value to a whiskey or line of whiskeys if it now costs 60-70% more than the same expression used to?
Surprised there’s no mention of Port Charlotte. which I have found to be reliably good albeit never spectacular. Sufficiently different from Bruichladdich (and Octomore) that I think it merits separate consideration.
I would go with five favourite independent bottlers rather than distilleries. If we exclude whales, the best Laphroaig, HP and Bowmore I’ve tried have been from indies, not the distillery itself.
I have liked most Port Charlotte I’ve tried but I consider it a part of Bruichladdich which I don’t on the whole care for very much. I grant that my antipathy to them stems from more than a decade ago when they were constantly putting out high-concept crap but it’s been hard to overcome.
Where are those high quality indie Laphroaigs that you speak of? Looking at various shops it’s just the usual underwhelming OB fare. The Whisky Exchange only has a couple of indies in the £500-1000 range…
A fair point which I resent utterly as it exposes that I am grasping at straws to justify keeping my old favourite distillery on the list despite their folly of the last half decade and more. The most recent one I seem to have had is one from the OMC 20th anniversary release.
All that said, Whiskybase lists quite a few released in 2020 alone.
Glenfarclas (consistent ob’s that are well-priced)
Caol Ila (remarkably consistent)
Bowmore (I love the Ib’s and even still “enjoy” the 12yr ob, haven’t had the 18yr since a bad bottle)
Old Pulteney (although I haven’t had the new range beyond the 12yr)
Glenfarclas has been mentioned a few times. I agree that they have a wide lineup and that most of it is very fairly priced (the 25 remains a bargain compared to their peers who’ve all hiked the prices on their 25 yos). The only problem for me is very little of that lineup gets me very excited.
I’m curious as to whether people have choices that are based at least partly on emotional significance and not just range and/or price. I have a friend, for example, for whom Glengoyne is his home distillery and so it’s always near his top. For me Laphroaig was the first distillery whose whisky I fell in love with and so I manage to hold at bay what would be disdain for some of their official releases if they came from another distillery.
Had to think a bit, seems I can’t name 5 favorites.
1. Springbank for sure. Lumping it all in here: Longrow, Hazelburn, Kilkerran.
2. Tobermory’s work with Ledaig has been very enjoyable of late for both distillery and independent offerings. The sherried cask strength bottles from Signatory have been exceptional.
3. Deanston for the 12. What a stunner! 14yr organic is nice too.
4. Lagavulin mostly for their releasing some younger (9 and 11 yr) quality products recently, but kinda want to not list them for letting the 16 languish a bit. Haven’t seen the Distillers Edition 16yr or Cask Strength 12yr here since 2017, but the latest available were excellent.
I’d like to add Jim Beam, but they killed one of their best products recently (Baker’s 7yr Small Batch) to replace it with a much higher priced single barrel offering offers little in return for the higher cost. However, the release of Old Tub has almost redeemed them (an excellent core bourbon). Bookers and Knob Creek remain reliable. Honoable mention to Wild Turkey too for their work in rye’s of late and the always excellent Russels Reserve Single Barrel (both bourbon and rye) offerings.
Thanks for mentioning Beam. They and Heaven Hill were the two distilleries that were just outside my own top 5. I was actually expecting people would list more American distilleries but I suppose my whisky readership skews far more Scotch than American.
Some of the Loch Lomond variations have knocked my socks off in recent years, especially Inchmoan. Same goes for the last few Auchroisk I have been lucky enough to try. So currently I would include those two alongside Lagavulin, Four Roses and Bruichladdich, which beats Caol Ila out ever so slightly.
Yes, some of my favourite whiskies in recent years have had Croftengea and Inchmurrin on their labels. And I quite liked my bottle of Loch Lomond 12 too for the price.
I feel like a have a parallel top 5(ish) – like Nate says, sentiment is important here. This list would include Lagavulin, Daftmill, Talisker, Benromach, Glen Garioch, and Balblair. All can or do make outstanding whisky, but my emotional connection to these places is greater than my need to buy the liquid. Depending on what I may have just sampled, though, any one of these can jump to the Top top 5.
The official current top 5 features distilleries is based on distinctiveness and all-round approach. Any new release from these will require a large amount of will power to resist.
1) Chichibu. Can’t afford to drink it but did visit in 2016 and everything I’ve tasted is nothing less than compelling.
2) Caol Ila. Like you, I consider this the most reliably excellent make in Scotchland.
3) Springbank. Because of what everyone else has said but also because even when a particular whisky might underwhelm, it will still be fascinating.
4) Midleton. Powers Johns Lane, Redbreast, the Spots: these are some of the most outstandingly delicious whiskeys being made today.
5) Bruichladdich. I can take or leave the eponymous make but Port Charlotte is usually pretty gripping and an Octomore is in pole position at the moment for the best whisky I’ve tried this year.
I’ve a great deal of optimism for newer distilleries such as Smogen, Cotswolds, Bimber, New Riff and Ardnamurchan. Ask again in a few years and let’s see if any of these have graduated to the big list.
You people are making me realize I need to give late-era Bruichladdich an unprejudiced reconsideration.
Springbank (it took me a few years to come around, but now I appreciate what all the fuss is about)
Benromach (I confess that my great love for the now-defunct “10/100” or “Imperial” colors this, but the basic 10 and 15 are tremendous for being only 43%, and the special bottlings of youngish CS juice have been impressive and loads of fun)
Clynelish (Not happy about Diageo’s tariff-driven price hike of the 14, but that remains relatively affordable and super-reliable, while I’ve had better luck than MAO with varied but strong IB offerings)
The last spot is always tough and leans to cheating by including a small sub-list of contenders: Glen Garioch; Craigellachie; Highland Park (the OBs have fallen tragically, but the IBs are plentiful and muscular); Ardbeg (a few years ago this would have been a no-brainer in my top 5 on the strength of the mighty core lineup. But it seems the quality of the Oogie and Corry have declined, and the special releases have been in my mind ridiculous and not worth the hefty price tags and hype. And yet… it’s hard for me to say that in today’s wacky Scotch Whisky landscape that the 10, Oogie, Corry, An Oa and the new 5 are not sound values that are consistently enjoyable.)
I have a whole bunch of unopened bottles of Ledaig lying around based on the raves from many other enthusiasts I trust, so maybe by this time next year, Ledaig will have earned a spot.