There are hundreds of Scotch whisky brands available and many different types within these brands. As a result, many find exploring the world of Scotch whisky daunting. This is not helped by the snobbery and air of elitism that sometimes is associated with it. It is a world that everyone can enjoy, however. You do not need a palate as sophisticated as a 5 star French chef. You do not need to be rich. You do not need to be a Scottish history buff.
You do need patience, though, as exploring the world of Scotch whisky is a life-long assignment. You also need an open mind. Along the way you will pick up knowledge on things like the various types available, as well as an understanding of the histories of the brands. And your tastes will develop as you gain more experience.
We have decided to for this article to look at the various Scotch whisky making regions. There are six in total – Campbeltown, Highland, Island, Islay, Lowland and Speyside. We have included a short introductory paragraph on each and then listed our top 5.
Whether you are an experienced Scotch whisky consumer or someone new, the guides below will be beneficial. So, let the journey continue…
Speyside Scotch Whisky Top 5
The vast majority of Scotch whisky is produced in the Speyside region of Scotland, including best sellers like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant and The Macallan. As there are so many distilleries (around 50) producing hundreds of brands, it is almost impossible to apply a blanket description. So, accepting there will always be exceptions, Speyside whiskies typically fall into two categories – light and grassy; and rich and sweet. It is an enormous category, but our top 5 will give you a good grounding.
- Glenfarclas 40 Year Old – an award-winning 40-year-old that is as oakey and complex as you might expect from a single malt of this age. And it is fairly priced.
- Balvenie 12 Year Old DoubleWood – a smooth and rich 12-year-old single malt that finishes its maturation process in fresh sherry casks
- Glenfiddich 12 Year Old – a classic that barely needs an introduction. It is light, elegant and affordable.
- Macallan Gold – a single malt with no age statement, but made from whiskies aged between 9 and 15 years. It is a new brand, but is excellent: fresh, dry and toasty.
- Glenfiddich 18 Year Old – a more robust and powerful single malt than the 12-year-old. It is smooth with sherry notes and a long, delicious finish.
Islay Scotch Whisky Top 5
For may people, the soul of Scotch whisky resides on the island of Islay, the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean Islands off Scotland’s west coast. There are nine distilleries on Islay and, broadly speaking, they produce powerful whiskies that are peaty (sometimes heavily so) and smoky. There is also a distinctive medicinal note in many whiskies from Islay and, given the proximity to the ocean, some salinity. Whiskies from this region continue to gain legendary status so it is difficult to narrow down to a top 5. Here is our attempt:
- Lagavulin 16 Year Old – the perfect example of an Islay whisky in all its peaty, pungent awesomeness.
- Laphroaig 18 Year Old – strong, award-winning, smoky single malt with clear peat and a smooth finish
- Ardbeg 10 Year Old – the youngest in our list from a much loved distillery. Powerful and peaty with complex flavors.
- Bowmore 12 Year Old – this 12 year old single malt is less peaty than the whiskies before it on this list. It still has a traditional pepper and smoky character though.
- Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old – this is the alternative newcomer It is lightly peated and delivers a soft, coastal experience.
Highland Scotch Whisky Top 5
The Highland region is the biggest and most diverse of the Scotch Whisky regions. Some try to explain the general characteristics by breaking the Highlands down to north, south, east and west distilleries and then generalizing. The does not really tell us anything, though. Each distillery has unique characteristics that in our view prevent blanket descriptions with one exception – most highland whiskies are of the powerful, put-hair-on-your-chest type. Official (as in according to the Scotch Whisky Association) distilleries based on the western islands of Scotland (except Islay) are regarded as being in the Highland region. It has become common practice to separate Island whiskies from those made in the Highland region, so we deal with them in their own category below.
- Dalmore 12 Year Old – a fantastic and excellent value 12-year-old single malt that is clean, crisp and full-bodied.
- Oban 14 Year Old – a 14-year-old single malt from the western Highlands. It is full-bodied, fruity and smoky.
- Glenmorangie 10 Year Old – a medium-bodied, creamy and fruity single malt that has been aged for 10 years.
- Old Pulteney 21 Year Old – this is the oldest and most expensive on our Highland list. It is a mature whisky packed full of flavors.
- Royal Lochnagar 12 Year Old – a single malt with royal connections. It is grassy, light and fresh.
Island Scotch Whisky Top 5
The Island region comprises whisky from distilleries on the western islands of Scotland, except Islay. This includes Orkney, Skye, Mull, Jura and Arran. Except for Orkney, each island has just one distillery – Orkney has two. Broadly they are whiskies with maritime characteristics. So there is marked salinity as well as being oily in nature.
- Talisker 18 Year Old – one of the greatest single malts ever produced. This is an award-winning 18-year-old that has a rich, sweet and peaty smokiness. Made on the island of Skye.
- Isle of Jura 16 Year Old – this is a smooth and sophisticated single malt that has been aged for 16 years. Made on Jura island.
- Arran 10 Year Old – this is the youngest and cheapest in our top 5. It is also from a distillery, based on the island of Arran that only opened in 1995. It is medium-bodied with astonishing complexity.
- Highland Park 30 Year Old – this is a very old – and special – single malt made on Orkney island. It is intense, deep and complex.
- Tobermory 10 Year Old – this is an unpeated single malt produced on the island of Mull. It is a gentle, medium-bodied Scotch whisky that is light but not smoky.
Campbeltown Scotch Whisky Top 5
Geographically, Campbeltown is one of the smallest regions, but it used to be one of the most significant, with around 30 distilleries in operation. That was in the 1800s, however. Today, there are three – Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia. General characteristics of whiskies from Campbeltown include dryness with salt and smoky tastes.
- Springbank 18 Year Old – an award-winning single malt that has been aged for a very long 18 years.
- Glen Scotia 12 Year Old – a 12-year-old single malt that delivers a full palate that is quite woody.
- Longrow – a well-balanced, smoky single malt without an age statement. Slightly medicinal taste.
- Hazelburn 8 Year Old – an unpeated and triple distilled single malt that has been aged for 8 years.
- Springbank 10 Year Old – the younger Springbank, but still award-winning. It is a creamy single malt.
Lowland Scotch Whisky Top 5
There are only three distilleries left in the lowlands and they produce light and fresh whiskies. Peat is not used and the whiskies are generally triple distilled. They are usually slightly sweet and dry and have a short finish.
- Auchentoshan Three Wood – a single malt that is aged first in bourbon casks then in either Oloroso or Pedro Ximenez casks. Sweet and complex with a syrup-feel.
- Glenkinchie 12 Year Old – a light, smooth and excellent value 12-year-old single malt.
- Auchentoshan 18 Year Old – a light and refreshing single malt that is aged for 18 years in American oak casks.
- Bladnoch 20 Year Old Distillery Label – a light, non-chill filtered single malt that is aged for 20 years. Excellent value for money.
- Auchentoshan 12 Year Old – a smooth, sweet and dry single malt, just as Lowland whiskies should be.