Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Best Whisky in the World Comes From Islay....Probably

I own a whisky's great, I earn a living by indulging in one of my favourite pastimes...I know, I'm a very lucky man.
People often ask me "what's your favourite whisky", and they're surprised when reply "I haven't got one". I haven't got one because I've got dozens of favourite whiskies, the best dram for returning home from a cold and wet fishing session, the best dram to accompany a fine dark ale, the best dram to watch the match with, the best dram to go with Chicken Passanda, the best dram as an aperitif, the list goes on......

I also get asked "What's the best whisky in the world", and the answer to that is simple, there isn't one. Every few months, a customer will drop in to the shop to say that they've seen a write up in one of the Sunday papers saying that GlenMcSuchandsuch Single Malt has been declared the best in the world...and it really gets my back up.

How can one whisky, one expression from one distillery be deemed to be better than all the rest and on what criteria? Usually, the reason that GlenMcSuchandsuch has been declared "Best Whisky in the World" this year is because it's owners have committed to a great deal of advertising in the special supplement...what a come, in the following year's best whisky supplement is GlenMcSuchandsuch no longer the best, giving way to GlenMcTartan? Neither whisky has changed, just the advertising arrangements.

The best whisky in the world is the one that you decide to drink this evening, and that's because you have chosen it for a reason, to match the occasion, the dram that feels right tonight, and don't let anybody tell you any different.

Whisky, like wine, is very much down to personal taste and this is the reason that we have so many bottlings, or expressions to choose from. I'm surprised when people buy the same big brand bottle of whisky time after time again, often unaware of just how many hundreds of other choices there are. Enjoying whisky is often an emotional connection to a particular time and event. If when you taste a whisky, it takes you back to a certain place or event, or if it reminds you of someone, that is saying much about the character, complexity and individuality of the dram. When I taste Bowmore 17 year old (now is the fate of all ace whiskies), I am immediately transported to the harbour walls in Bowmore as that was the first place I tasted it, in fantastic company, the first time I visited Islay.

The only way to buy whisky is to taste it. Buying whisky by name can lead to disappointment. Often, a distillery will produce different types of spirit to suit it's commercial customers.For example, since 1997, Bunnahabhain Distillery on the Isle of Islay, famous for its easy going, non peated Single Malt, has produced heavily peated spirit for four weeks every year. This peated malt is now appearing quite regularly in Independent bottlings and also, Burn Stewart, Bunnahabhain's parent company have released two peated whiskies as Islay Festival Bottlings. Tasting just one whisky produced at a particular distillery and saying you didn't enjoy it is a bit like saying that you've been abroad and didn't like it...or that you don't like French wine.

Scotch whisky tends to be split into six categories....Highlands, Islands, Islay, Campbeltown, Speyside and Lowlands. In the past, Whisky writers and marketeers, in particular have talked about each of these regions producing whiskies that have characteristics specific to that region...which is why you will hear people saying things like "I don't like Islay whiskies, they are too peaty". You will also hear people talk about Speyside whiskies being easier going, richer, sweeter.....try a 10 year old Benriach, there's nothing rich and sweet about that, it's peat hits as hard as the biggest of the phenolic Islay Malts. The truth is that each of these whisky producing regions produces a vast array of amazing spirits, each distilled in stills of differing shapes and sizes, each matured in many different locations and terroir, in types of wood from ex bourbon casks to big oloroso Sherry butts. It is impossible to generalise about regions and to pigeonhole whiskies, so great are the differences across the whole of Scotland.

Islay is a very good example of what I'm talking about....and what you can say about Islay is that the whiskies made there tick all the boxes. The beauty about Islay is that if you like whisky, there will be one there that suits you. Islay isn't just about big peaty malts, it is also the home to the lightest of drams. If you are new to whisky and want to explore the taste spectrum, Islay is the place to start because it covers all the extremes. It goes without saying that if you are into the big peaty drams, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, and Lagavulin, the Kildalton Malts are the most famous in the industry, but don't forget, it doesn't necessarily follow that if you buy a bottle that says Ardbeg on it for instance, that it will be a peaty whisky, as those who have been lucky enough to buy an Ardbeg Kildalton or Ardbeg Blasda will know.....As with any whisky, beware the marketing nonsense, folks sat in settees in tranquil glens besides the babbling burn, peat imparting its rich flavours to the water that is going to flavour the whisky....absolute rubbish...peat comes from the barley malting process...end of, it's no more romantic than that i'm afraid.

In the past decade, choice of Single Malt Whiskies has grown massively. This has been driven by one or two factors. Firstly, in the past, the product has seemed to be the reserve of the wealthy, and now the way it is marketed and who it is marketed to has changed. More and more younger people are becoming interested in the product and experimenting with has become more trendy...dark spirits are 'in' again. Previous to the last decade, you would venture down to your local specialised drinks shop and you would maybe have around twenty proprietary bottlings to choose from. In those days, you could talk about a distillery's house style because all you saw was a maximum of one bottling from each distillery...nowadays a distillery may produce dozens of house styles...take Bruichladdich for instance, they release a new bottling every five minutes and the style is different every will taste Bruichladdich's that you will enjoy, and you will taste Bruichladdich's that you don't. 

As well as all the new proprietary bottlings, there are now many independent bottlers, bottling some amazing whiskies, often from single casks, nearly always individually numbered, bottled at natural cask strength and from many of the lesser known distilleries....our own Queen of the Moorlands Whisky Company of course being one of these new bottlers.

When you are buying whisky, don't do it on the net, definitely don't buy it from the supermarket (these are highly commercial, chill filtered (more of this later), comparatively dull whiskies that you will never go back to), buy it either from the distillery, when you have tasted it, or buy it from a retailer that cares about the subject, and most of all from a retailer where you can taste it.

So, there you have it...There isn't a "Best Whisky in The World" but if there was, it would probably come from Islay....don't take it from me...get tasting.




  1. Now thats a fair write up mucker!! the best whisky would defo start with Glen!!!

    Arate youth!!!

  2. Ey up,

    Dust mayn Glenpointon Single Malt Whisky by any chance?

  3. That's an overview that cuts through all the crap. I have a selection of malts at home for different times of the day. Talisker as an aperitif for instance, Ardbeg or Lagavulin as my nightcap etc etc........ The best whisky is the one you are drinking now (usually a 12 yr old Bunnahabhainn in my case).