There are no two ways about it – comparing Scotch whisky by the bottle can be a herculean task. Especially considering the irresistibly attractive richness and depth of flavor that each maker brings to its own bottle. While some whisky aficionados swear by the robust, smoky peatiness of an Islay malt, others go for a smooth, mellow crafted blend that exudes a more reserved flavor.
Regardless of your taste, the best Scotch whiskies deliver bold flavors with each sip. Each bottle has its own unique characteristics while sharing one common one: that of being made from a particular region in Scotland. However, when push comes to shove, good Scotch is good Scotch, and we at the Uncivilized Man are more than happy with that. God knows we’ve had our share of the finest Scotch whiskies, and there are plenty.
But at the same time, there are exceptions. There are ones that you just have to try at least once in your life. Scotch whiskies worthy of being kept stored in a controlled environment, pouring it into your best decanter, and then again in a whisky glass deserving of the honor.
What Is Scotch “Whisky,” Anyway?
Before anything else, let’s get one thing out of the way: Scotch “whiskey” doesn’t exist. There’s only one correct term for it: “Scotch whisky.” Bar none. It has always been called “whisky.” Let’s agree to call it by its proper name.
Now, it begs the question: what is Scotch whisky, anyway?
We can go on and on about calling it all sorts of endearing monikers and write a lyrical poem out of them, but for now, we’re going to keep it simple by briefly going over the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009.
The Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009
Set forth in 2009, these guidelines regulate the production, packaging, labeling, and marketing of Scotch whisky. It is the legislation that determines what genuine Scotch whisky is, based on the following criteria:
- Must be produced from water and malted barley
- Any additional cereal grains to be added into the mash must be made of whole grains
- It should be mashed, fermented, and distilled at an ABV not exceeding 94.8% (190 proof), and aged in oak casks for no less than three years at a distillery in Scotland
- No additional substances apart from water and plain caramel coloring
- The resulting spirit must be bottled at an ABV of no less than 40%
As rigid as the Scotch Whisky Regulations criteria might appear, they leave plenty of opportunities for distilleries to experiment.
Certain variables such as how the whisky was filtered (chill or non-chill filtered) and what type of cask the spirit was aged may vary (albeit most commonly aged in old bourbon barrels).
Lastly, Scotch whisky may be subjected to finishing, which is an additional maturation step. The producer may further age the whisky inside rum barrels, American oak, sherry casks (including oloroso sherry casks), sherry oak, bourbon barrels, or any cask they have in mind. And, more often than not, you will find additional information about such details right smack dab on the label. Be sure to read it closely to understand the unique context from whence your bottle was distilled.
5 Types Of Scotch Whisky
Leave it to the framers of the Scotch Whisky Regulations to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of excellence and quality.
That’s because the regulations define five types of Scotch whisky. Let’s take a look at them and observe how they differ from one another:
- Single malt whisky. Single malt Scotch whisky must be distilled at only one distillery.
- Single grain whisky. Single grain Scotch whisky must be distilled at only one distillery; its main difference is that the whisky is made with additional cereal grains apart from water and malted barley.
- Blended whisky. Made by creating a combination of one or more single malt Scotch whiskeys with one or more single grain Scotch whiskies.
- Blended malt whisky. Malt whisky is made by blending two or more single malt Scotch whiskies that have been made by different distilleries.
- Blended grain whisky. A combination of single grain Scotch whiskies distilled at more than one distillery.
Approximately 90% of all Scotch sold globally are blended Scotch variants. Popular brands like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Old Parr, and Chivas Regal come to mind, apart from many others.
Blended Scotch often comes with a statement of their age (e.g., Johnny Walker Black Label 12-year-old, Chivas Regal 12 years old, Old Parr Superior 18-year-old, etc.) This declaration of age refers to the youngest whisky that is part of the blend. For instance, Chivas Regal 12-year-old Scotch is made from a blend of whisky that’s been aged for at least 12 years.
5 Regions where Scotch Whisky is Produced
Another important characteristic of Scotch whisky is that it has to be made in Scotland. There are five Scotch whisky-producing regions that each offer its own take on Scotch whisky as follows.
- Speyside. Home to the River Spey and teeming with fertile glens, Speyside is known as the most densely populated Whisky region in the world. Speyside whisky is known for being light on the peat and with rich fruity notes reminiscent of pears, apples, and honey with a tinge of spice and vanilla. These are commonly matured in Sherry casks.
- Lowland. Smooth, easy-drinking single malts are popular in this region, showcasing a gentler, more refined palate with notes of cream, toffee, honeysuckle, cinnamon, and grass. Lowland whisky is known to be generally lighter and is best taken for a pre-dinner libation.
- Highland Park. Highland Park offers a wide array of diverse flavors and characteristics that range from lighter expressions to salty coastal single malts. There’s a bottle for every palate in this region.
- Campbeltown. Campbeltown whiskies are varied and full of flavour. Hints of salt, smoke, fruit, vanilla and toffee mingle in whiskies of robust and rich character.
- Islay. Islay (pronounced ‘eye-luh’) is a magical island where the majority of its population are involved in whisky production, and famous for fiery, heavily peated whiskies.
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5 Best Scotch Whisky Brands From Around The World.
We at the Uncivilized Man firmly believe that there can never truly be a definitive list of the “best” Scotch whiskies.
The truth is, there are plenty of small-batch producers that make some of the best whisky you’ll only find right at their respective distilleries.
Furthermore, the industry itself is dynamic and constantly changing; there’s no telling when a new brand, a new distiller, or new management may come into the fold and disrupt things. That’s just the nature of the game.
The key takeaway is that our top 5 list of the best Scotch whisky brands should serve as a jump-off point; by no means should it be considered as a definitive list.
Our selections are globally recognized to be among some of the best whiskies in the world and have come to be renowned as the industry’s best and brightest. These brands consistently do Scotch right – and, at times, deliver some of the finest whisky to ever grace your palate.
Here are our 5 best Scotch “whiskys” that deliver the goods time and time again. These are brands that are worthy of inclusion on your bucket list. There’s only one way to find out if they are truly the absolute cream of the crop: by procuring yourself a bottle or two and tasting them. Here we go!
Distillery founded: 1816
Gentlemen, we introduce to you the incomparable Lagavulin. The venerable Isley-based distillery has perfected the art of fine single malt Scotch whisky. As we all know by now, the heavily peated flavor is what makes Islay offerings worth their weight in gold. And, if you can’t get enough of that rich, smoky, and sweet Islay flavor profile, you’ll love their offerings.
And perhaps there is no better known and celebrated expression of Lagavulin’s expertise and craftsmanship than its legendary Lagavulin 16 Year Old Single Malt Whisky. It’s the stuff of legends for a reason: there isn’t another dram produced in Islay that brings as much robust peatiness as this well-loved bottle of single malt whisky. Like luscious molasses dripping over a peat-fired hearth, there’s a tinge of sweetness, with faint notes of bacon, an oily mouthfeel, and a chewy, delectable juice that is full of style, texture, and warmth. It’s definitely a strong contender for the best single malt Scotch whisky around, and it’s one of the best bottles you’ll ever have.
Distillery founded: 1892
Master blender and malt master David Stewart has been creating some of the finest legendary Scotch whiskies at the Balvenie distillery in Speyside, in an illustrious career spanning six decades. One of the best exponents of the Balvenie distillery is the Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Year Old, which is the first one aged in American oak and European oak casks. Granted, practically all whisky distillers around the world feature a wide array of aged whiskies in their catalog, but only one stands head and shoulders above the rest: the Balvenie DoubleWood 12-Year-Old is the bottle that revolutionized the way the whisky industry ages spirits. And it’s still one of the best Scotch single malt whiskies around that features the quintessential Speyside Scotch flavor profile.
Yet another splendid bottle of single malt Scotch is the Balvenie 21-Year-Old Port Wood Finish, which showcases a proficient highwire act by featuring the classic Speyside flourish of fruity notes and balancing it out with just the right tinge of smoke. But these are just some of the best, most exquisite sippable scotches from this venerable brand.
Distillery founded on: 1881
Islay-based distillers Bruichladdich has been releasing exquisite single malts (both peated and non-peated) since its upheaval in 2001 under the leadership of renowned master distiller Jim McEwan. One of the distillery’s finest expressions is the Bruichladdich Port Charlotte or the Classic Laddie, which serve as excellent launching pads to explore what this brand has to offer without having to pay an exorbitant price tag for it.
Bruichladdich also offers a mythically rare and mysterious Scotch whisky: an unpeated, Islay single malt aged 26 years in casks that Bruichladdich keeps mum about. We’re talking about the Bruichladdich Black Art, which retails for $350 a bottle. Trust us, however – the price is well worth it. Featuring a flavor profile of raisins, apples, brown sugar, blackberries, and then finished with that characteristic charred oak typical of Islay. Unpredictable and cloaked in mystery, the Bruichladdich Black Art brings an assortment of flavors that range from notes of honeycomb to ginger.
Distillery founded in: 1824
If you’re one of those corporate types, then the Macallan may be a familiar bottle to you. And for good reason, too – the Speyside distillery has approximately 200 years of combined expertise, excellence, and superior craftsmanship. It’s as smooth and well-balanced to perfection as the best Scotch whisky can be, while loaded with robust and full flavor.
Discovering this brand leads you down a tunnel of rare and exquisite limited-edition releases which might leave you searching for hours on end, so we’ll cut to the chase. If you can afford it, go for the Macallan 18 Year Old Sherry Oak Cask and move upwards from there. Otherwise, the Macallan 12-Year-Old single malt will do in a pinch (which is undoubtedly the best-known expression of the brand).
The Macallan 18 Year Old Sherry Oak Cask used to be marketed as the Macallan Fine Oak 18-Year-Old. It features an amalgamation of spirits that are matured in a triumvirate of various oak casks: American oak seasoned with sherry, European oak seasoned with sherry, and then in American ex-bourbon barrels.
The Macallan boasts of many well-loved and superb expressions. But one of the arguably exceptional expressions of the brand is its Triple Cask Matured 18 years old Scotch whisky. It’s the best example of the brand’s identity – Scotch whisky that is uncompromisingly smooth, gentle, and festooned with a contrast of flavors that unexpectedly come together to create an exceptionally fine expression. With a taste like rich dark chocolate, mixed with flavors of orange and coconut and subtle hints of nutmeg, vanilla, and wood-fired smoke, the Triple Cask Matured 18-year-old whisky is a surefire pleaser.
Distillery founded: 1794
Oban (pronounced “OH-bin”) is located on the Scottish west coast known for being the “Gateway to the Isles.” The centuries-old eponymous distillery is also found in the same town, taking its cue from the region’s oceanic climate. The Oban distillery is known for its 21-Year-Old Cask Strength whisky (and worth including in your list of Scotch whiskies to try at least once), but for now, the distillery’s smoky 14 Year Old and it’s Little Bay expressions will do.
The Oban 14 Years Old is a veritable taste treat with a profile that balances the smokiness of the Scottish isles and the more succulent malt whisky typical of the Scottish Highlands. Its aromas will remind you of pears and lemons with a dash of sea salt, with a light but tangible smokiness. Its taste is reminiscent of dried figs and honey with an oak and malty finish. It’s perfect with seafood, just like Oban is known for.
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