The Best Scotch Whiskey
What the best Scotch whiskey? It's all a matter of taste, of course. Hard core aficionados often prefer the strong, smoky tasting whiskeys associated with the distilleries on the Isle of Islay. Others like a smoother Scotch, sometimes achieved by aging the whiskey in oak barrels that once contained sherry.
To state my own bias, I like it strong. To me, a good Scotch whiskey has some bite in it. The taste should be redolent of smoke, peat, and sea air. Nothing against the smoother varieties, which are often very good indeed, but a strong Islay Scotch is my idea of single malt heaven.
To be considered for the list below, a whiskey must (a) be distilled in Scotland, and (b) be of the single malt variety. No blended Scotches allowed.
- Ardbeg (10 year) - Smooth, smoky, well-rounded, maybe as close to a perfect Scotch as can be found. The smoothest and most approachable of the smoky/peaty Scotches from the isle of Islay. Very strong overtones of peat, but by no means overwhelming. Some might care for something a bit stronger, but considering its overall quality and accessibility to non-hardcore Scotch drinkers, I think it deserves to place on top.
- Macallan (18 year) Macallan is aged in sherry casks, which gives it a slightly sweet taste and removes any hint of bite. There's not even the barest bit of harshness here, which makes it perfect for an after dinner nightcap (served neat, of course); but it can be a bit cloying when taken more than a single glass at a time. There are better values out there, but if money is not object, why not? It's a great Scotch.
- Lagavulin Scotch (16 year) - A glass of Lagavulin is like a trip to the bottom of a peat bog. Not a drink for wimps, the smoke and peat are strong and omnipresent. The non-hardcore will want to take it with a drop or two of water to dilute the strength of flavor, but a glass taken neat will make the hair on your chest grow an inch or two.
- Laphraoig (10 year) - Smoke, peat, brine, sea air - yes, Laphraoig is a strong Scotch. Novices may find it too harsh, but more seasoned drinkers will be delighted by the power of its flavors. A glass of Laphraoig will transport you to a windswept bay in the north of Scotland in a driving rain, but you'll be too warm to care about the weather.
- Highland Park (12 year) - Great value for money at under $40 a bottle. It's a solidly smooth, neutral-tasting Scotch, very approachable to the novice. Lacks the hearty smoke and peat flavor that most enthusiasts consider the hallmark of a great Scotch, but, snobbery aside, this is a very smooth and tasty bottle that won't break your budget.
- Balvenie Doublewood (12 year) - A smooth and sweet Scotch aged in oak Sherry barrels. If you hate Laphraoig, you'll probably love Balvenie Doublewood, and vice versa. Those that like a smooth, velvety Scotch with hints of sweetness will love the richness and complexity of this excellent single malt. Comparable to the Macallen - maybe not quite as good, but a much better value.
- Bowmore (18 year) - Another Islay Scotch, and that means smoke and peat in abundance. Bowmore tends to be smother and easier on the pallet than some of its island cousins, making it a more approachable malt for non-enthusiasts. The Bowmores represent very solid value and are a good entry into the world of distinctive Isle of Islay Scotches.
- Glenlivet (12 year) - Just because you can find it in every liquor store in America doesn't mean it's not a good Scotch. Glenlivit is a solid starter Scotch with a neutral taste that's neither too smokey nor too sweet. For value and accessibility, it's a very decent single malt.
- Oban (14 year) - Oban,like the omnipresent Glenlivet, is a solid overall Scotch that lacks a strong personality. I've only had one bottle of the stuff, but it left no particular impression (and didn't make me want to run out for another bottle). In short, it's a very decent Scotch for people who like single malts, but don't like the varieties with stronger personalities.
- Glenmorangie (10 year) - Well, its the best-selling Scotch in Scotland, and that has to count for something, right? Smooth, light, perhaps even a bit fruity, it's a Scotch for those who don't like too much bite. Overall, it's a perfectly fine single malt to serve to visiting relatives who don't care for strong flavors, while you pour yourself a glass of Laphraoig.