Top Ten Single Malt Scotches

Over the last decade, single-malt whiskey has grown markedly in popularity and price - an understandable trend, given its richness and complexity. Here is a quick primer on the subject, along with a recommendation of John Rain's Top Ten.

First, some terminology:

Second, some points on geography. Scotland is generally divided into four main regions: Highlands, Lowlands, islands (chiefly Islay, pronounced eye-luh), and Campbeltown. Each region is known for a certain style, with the Highlands perhaps the most approachable (and most widely known), and the islands, with their strong notes of smoke and sea, taking a bit more getting used to.

To learn more, I recommend Michael Jackson's Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch.

And now, in no particular order, a highly subjective Top Ten.

1. Cragganmore. AHighland malt and a great place to begin. Approachable, suitable as a starting point for a second glass of a variety of other whiskeys or, indeed, for another Cragganmore. A good value. Try the twelve-year-old.

2. Macallan. A Highland malt and the exemplar of the big sherried style. Expensive, especially the older bottlings, but worth it. I once had the great privilege of sampling a 1949 single single and a 1954 single single. They were divine. They were also $4000 and $3000 a bottle, respectively! The best value is probably the eighteen-year-old.

3. Highland Park. From Orkney Island, the northernmost distillery in Scotland. Remarkably balanced - smoky, sweet, and smooth. A good value at all ages, with the twelve-year-old and eighteen-year-old perhaps the best values, and the 1977 Bicentenary also very much worthwhile at about $150. I once had the great privilege of sampling a 1958 single single, and it remains my favorite whiskey ever ($1900 a bottle!).

4. Glenmorangie. Rhymes with "orangey." A wonderful Highland malt that comes in a variety of excellent finishes - Portwood, Madeira, and sherry. I wasn't crazy about the fino sherry finish, though Michael Jackson rates it an 89 out of 100. I'd like to try the Sauternes finish, which sounds wonderful. Best of all: the 1971, of which I've owned and finished two bottles. I'm now more than ready for a third.

5. Balvenie. A Highland malt that Michael Jackson aptly describes as "the most honeyish of malts." I had my first (and second and third) - the twelve-year-old double wood - beside the fire in the Garden Bar at London's Goring Hotel on an unusually chilly May evening, Robert Whiting's Tokyo Underworld in hand, and the taste of the Balvenie always reminds me of the feel of that trip and that moment.

6. Laphroaig. Along with Lagavulin, Islay's best-known malt. Laphroaig was the favorite of Trevanian's assassin Jonathan Hemlock in The Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction, and of course it's a favorite of John Rain as well. The fifteen-year-old is perhaps the best value, but the rare forty-year-old is certainly worth the $600 if you can spare it. Perhaps best of all is the sherry-finished thirty-year-old - an unusual but beautiful balance between sweet sherry and smoky peat.

7. Lagavulin. From a distillery next door to Laphoaig, another stunning Islay malt. Like most of its Islay cousins, Lagavulin is characterized by its smoky, peaty notes (peat is burned to dry the sprouted barley), by the salty tang the liquid picks up from the nearby sea air, and by a distinctive oiliness you can see on the glass. The Islay malts are sublime, but probably not for beginners and ultimately not for everyone. The sixteen-year-old offers one of the best values of all whiskeys.

8. Ardbeg. Another excellent Islay malt, especially delicious in its older bottlings. Try the Provenance, cut with a little water to bring out the flavor and soften its near 56 proof. I had my first Ardbeg in Osaka's Bar Satoh, the best whiskey bar in the world, and the taste of Ardbeg always takes me back there.

9. Bowmore. Another Islay malt, but different from most: as Michael Jackson says, "The whiskies of Bowmore are between the intense malts of the south shore and the gentlest extremes of the north. Their character is not a compromise but an enigma…". Best value: Bowmore Legend. Best taste: any of the over-twenty-five bottlings.

10. Springbank. From Campbeltown, traditionally made with local barley and dried over local peat, Springbank is known for its salty, oily character, balanced with sweetness in varieties finished in sherry casks. I'm not crazy about the widely available twelve-year-old, but the twenty-five-year-old is divine. With luck, one day I'll get a chance to try the 1966.


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