Few modern spirits may initially come across as intimidating as Scotch whisky. Between its storied history, the subtleties between expressions, age statements, and the often highly opinionated connoisseurs who favor it, it can be hard for even some established whiskey lovers to find a foothold in which bottles are worth the effort to seek out.
Strict rules regarding its production add to scotch’s daunting perception. The Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009 were the last major codification of these rules, replacing the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988 and Scotch Whisky Order of 1990. These regulations govern everything from the various official categories of scotch to permitted production techniques and ingredients and legally protected geographical indications, as well as bottling, labeling, packaging, and even the types of wood the spirit may be aged in.
Within this system, 141 distilleries currently operate across Scotland, grouped into five official regions: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown. While there is variation within each based on style and blends, each region has certain hallmarks that drinkers have come to expect, be it Islay’s typical peat influences or the softer profile of Lowland scotch.
Scotch also must be produced within one of five distinct styles—single malt, single grain, blended malt, blended grain, or blended scotch whisky. The first two are parent categories that denote the distillery and ingredients used to create the scotch, while the others indicate the type of blends that may be created from the combination of single malt and/or single grain scotch whiskies. None is inherently “better” than another, though many drinkers hold strong preferences.
This is to say, even for a category as exacting as scotch, so much variation can make it hard to specify what constitutes an essential bottle. But while certain flagship brands have come to dominate shelves at whisky bars and home bars alike, scotch is a spirit that has long begged whisky lovers to taste across the spectrum of regions and styles to fully appreciate its characteristics.
These are the eight bottles that Scotch whisky experts feel should be on every scotch aficionado’s bar cart.
Bruichladdich is an Islay producer that has made waves for producing some of the most heavily peated whiskies in the world, often as a counterpart to its flagship Classic Laddie line of unpeated whiskies. Chief among these is Octomore, which releases annual limited-edition bottlings, no two of which are alike, that many scotch lovers have come to eagerly await.
“Bruichladdich’s Octomore is a must for those who love peat,” says Jamie Boudreau, the proprietor of Canon, a whiskey-focused bar in Seattle that houses one of the world’s largest collections of spirits. “While there are other great, easier-to-find expressions that celebrate smoky brine, like Ardbeg, Laphroaig, or Laguvulin, this neighbor to those more popular distilleries creates some of the biggest smoke bombs on the planet.”
Beyond simply aiming for in-your-face peat, Bruichladdich’s head distiller takes pains to tame these increased levels and shape them into an array of aromas and flavors that demonstrate why scotch lovers should look beyond simple ppm (phenol parts per million) statements on bottles. “Think about burning the heck out of a marshmallow over a smoky seaside campfire on a rainy night, dousing the flames in single malt, and then devouring the whole thing while it’s still smoking,” says Boudreau. “Welcome to Octomore.”
Compass Box burst onto the whisky scene in 2000, and its creative approach to blending, maturation, and consumer transparency has led to a resurgence of innovation in blended Scotch whisky. Not a distiller itself, the company sources component whiskies from other distillers and then blends these whiskies and matures them further until a specific desired profile is reached.
The Glasgow Blend leans into a style of scotch said to be historically preferred by Glaswegians, which means fuller bodied, with an emphasis on heavy flavors and a classic sherry finish. The result is a whisky that comes in at the value end of the cost-to-quality spectrum, but more importantly, has a profile that is tailor-made for use in mixed drinks. “This is my go-to for scotch cocktails,” says Cory Atkinson, the owner of Elemental Spirits Co. in Atlanta. “It’s bold enough in its flavor profile to really punch above its weight in a cocktail, and with a touch of smoke it reminds you unmistakably that it’s a Scotch whisky.”
As with all its blends, Compass Box publishes a full breakdown of component whiskies and percentages in the Glasgow Blend, which include those from Laphroig, Clynelish, Cameronbridge, and Aberlour, among others. The result is a scotch that offers plenty of smoke, spice, and sherry notes that hold up in cocktails, managing to complement additional ingredients rather than overpower or be overshadowed by them. “Seriously, have Compass Box shift your paradigm and prejudices towards non-single malt scotch,” says Boudreau, who favors the brand’s Hedonism line. “Its lineup is amazing, with whiskies in everyone’s price range that will teach newcomers and holdouts alike that the words ‘blended’ and ‘grain’ are no longer a bad word in scotch's arena.”
From Campbeltown, Glen Scotia is one of only three distilleries that remain in operation there. This makes it a fantastic entry point to those who seek to explore the regional diversity of scotch, or as an alternative to the often hard-to-find Springbank. “Glen Scotia is like the Scottie Pippen of Campbeltown,” says Brett Adams, the education manager and spirits curator at Multnomah Whiskey Library. “We’d all be talking about how great it was if it wasn’t for the fact that it was excelling in the shadow of Michael Jordan—a.k.a. Springbank.”
This full-bodied whisky is a faithful expression of many of the region’s archetypal qualities. Robust and bottled at a cask strength of 54.2% ABV, it features notes of caramelized fruit and crème brûlée that meet Campbeltown’s signature maritime influence, evoking saline and sea spray.
“The Victoriana is a fantastic introduction not only to the brand, but also to the category of scotch, particularly for those who normally drink bourbon,” says Adams. “Finished in pedro ximénez and heavily charred American ex-whiskey casks, there’s a strong sweetness and subtle smoke from said barrels, layered on top of a lot of body thanks to wide stills with little reflux, all kept lively due to the higher-than-average proof.”
This Highland distillery specializes in single malt Scotch whisky in the classic Speyside style and has remained family owned and operated since 1865. The region generally produces clean, fruit-forward, and floral whiskies that still possess ample body. “[The Glenfarclas 12 year] is my everyday sipper,” says Atkinson. “It’s one of the last independently owned distilleries in Scotland and is as classic Speyside as you can be—rich, bold, fruity, and finished in exclusively ex-sherry barrels. It’s a distillery that hasn’t really messed around with anything since they got it right in the mid-1800s.”
Glenfarclas continues to age its scotch, distilled twice in direct-fire stills, in European oak casks sourced from a single sherry producer in Spain and previously used to mature oloroso. “You won’t see any port or bourbon cask finishes here,” says Atkinson. “It’s a sherry-lover’s dream, and is a great reminder to those who think scotch is too smoky that whiskies from Scotland can be quite balanced and fruit-forward.”Continue to 5 of 8 below.
“Up on Orkney Island, where they make Highland Park, they use a different peat to smoke their barley than they do on Islay,” says Atkinson. “Highland Park’s smoke level is what I would consider ‘medium,’ certainly not Laphroaig levels, but the smoke is actually more rich, earthy, and organic than Islay smoke, which tends to be acidic, chemical, and mineral-driven.”
Researchers have found regional differences in peat composition between the two regions, with Orkney peat featuring higher levels of heather. In Highland Park, the result of this heather is a more floral and aromatic smoke that integrates with the scotch’s notes of heather honey and baking spices. It’s a fantastic choice for those seeking to understand the terroir of scotch and peat in particular, and can be a great experience for scotch drinkers who are more familiar with bottles from Islay. “[Highland Park] is like campfire versus [Islay’s] iodine tablet,” says Atkinson. “The Orkney smoke tends to integrate into the flavors of the whisky better and makes for a more well-rounded dram.”
Matured exclusively in oloroso sherry casks, Tamdhu, which Adams describes as “a big, unpeated Speyside malt,” offers a quintessential taste of Speyside, and is a welcome alternative for those looking to expand beyond the other powerhouse producers of the region. “As Macallan gets more and more expensive and hard to get, I’m always on the hunt for great sherried scotches to fill the gap,” says Adams. “And if you’re looking for a substitute for Macallan, why not look at distilleries its owner also used to run?” Tamdhu was owned by Edrington for years and played a crucial role in its blends, says Adams, and also benefited from its access to quality sherry casks.
Tamdhu’s line ranges from single cask expressions to a rich and deep 12 year that showcases much of Speyside’s signature fruit notes. But Adams recommends the Batch Strength series as an offering that fully brings out the potential of the distillery’s whiskies. “I love the batch proof, as I feel the higher alcohol helps invigorate the dense spirit and push the dried fruit notes from the sherry to the fore,” says Adams. “It’s really well done and very underrated.”
This distillery, located just northwest of Glasgow and founded in 1965, is notable for its use of a unique malt still design that incorporates a cooling tray in the neck, which increases the contact area for the cooling alcohol vapors. The distillers claim that in addition to creating a more efficient process, it allows them to create different flavor notes by capturing alcohol through a wider range of strength.
“Whereas it seems like the rest of the scotch world is focusing on barrel finishing right now, Loch Lomond is all about what you can do to manipulate the flavor and texture of a whisky before it goes into the barrel,” says Adams. “Utilizing multiple yeast strains, peat levels, and still shapes, the producers create myriad different flavors and textures that they then rest in ex-bourbon casks, then blend to [produce] really impressively complex and layered single malts.”
Loch Lomond also claims to be one of only four producers left in Scotland with a cooperage onsite. This allows not only for regular repairs to staves and barrel ends, but also the ability to re-char barrels at the distillery before use. The result is a range of whiskies that encapsulates the best of Highlands scotch, represented perfectly in its Loch Lomond 18 single malt offering. Peat and smoke are present, but subtle in their impact, allowing fruit aromas to shine at the forefront before finishing with tobacco and tea-like tannins, says Adams.
Hailing from the smallest of Scotland’s official whisky-producing regions, Campbeltown, Springbank once felt like a secret among in-the-know scotch cognoscenti. Though it’s since rocketed in recognition and price, it remains a must-try for whisky lovers. “Springbank is a distillery you can’t go wrong with,” says Boudreau. “The only Scottish distillery that is doing everything on-site, this once-obscure distillery has become very popular amongst those in the know as of late, making bottles a bit more difficult to find than even just a few years ago.”
Springbank’s 10 Year remains the producer’s flagship introduction to its range of whiskies, but drinkers willing to splurge for some of its rarer bottlings will find a wealth of depth in the producer’s lineup, which includes 12-, 15-, 18-, 21-, 25-, and 30-year expressions. “While you can’t go wrong with any bottling they produce, I’ve always had a soft spot for the 18 year,” says Boudreau. “Apples, cinnamon with a bit of funky smoke, this whisky has always been a delight with a finish that just won’t quit.”