Scotch drinkers are notorious for sticking to their brand or, at the very least, their region. You’re pretty much either an Islay drinker or a Highland hoister. But the hardcore whisky lovers know there are treasures to be found from all corners of Scotland, no matter your allegiance. These are eight Scotch whiskies from under-the-radar distilleries and blenders, along with some new and unusual offerings from major scotch houses.
As the northernmost scotch distillery in the world, Highland Park continues to produce some of the finest scotch around from the archipelago of Orkney. Its brand new single-malt release, Magnus, celebrates the distillery’s founder, Magnus Eunson, who officially launched Highland Park in 1798 and led a storied life as butcher and church officer by day and bootlegger by night. Available only in North America, this light, golden whisky exhibits citrusy, floral and vanilla notes and is gentle with smoke.
Established in 1790, Balblair’s distillery sits amid the wild heather and rugged hills of the Scottish Highlands. Balblair is one of the best-kept secrets for affordable scotch. This 2005 bottling is bourbon-cask-aged from barrels selected by distillery manager John MacDonald. It’s a classic scotch that’s both full-bodied and light with hints of green apple, spice, vanilla, oak and citrus orchards. The scotch is light yet complex, with merely a touch of peat.
Fans of Islay scotch (home of peaty, smoky whiskies) know the big names: Laphroaig, Lagavulin. But spirits geeks often gravitate toward Bowmore 15-year-old Darkest, a balanced beauty of an Islay scotch that’s certainly peaty and robust but also dry, fruity, spiced and even meaty from being partly aged in former oloroso sherry casks after aging 12 years in ex-bourbon casks. This award-winning whisky carries the tobacco and sea brine heft of the islands of Islay but also toffee and raisin (sherry) elegance.
Ardbeg Distillery is an Islay great, turning out elegant, peaty scotch since 1798. Kelpie is a limited-edition release named for the legends of the sea around the distillery. The whiskies are aged in virgin Black Sea oak casks and bourbon barrels. Salty seaweed notes play with black pepper, earthy coffee and dark chocolate, unfolding with smoky fruit. It’s a savory sail around the island for peaty scotch lovers, and since it’s hard to come by, it’s one to look for at the best scotch bars by the pour.
The Lost Distillery is an independent Scotch whisky company that specializes in current-day expressions of legendary whiskies from scotch distilleries that closed long ago. With a professor-led archiving team, it explores how a whisky might have tasted when it was last distilled, digging through documents and studying terroir, ingredients and process. Its full line of whiskies feature standouts like Gerston ($63) and Lossit whiskies. The latter operated between 1817 and 1867 and was the biggest producer of whisky in Islay’s formative years. Soft but persistent peat comes through on this malty scotch—appealing to Laphroaig fans—which unfolds with echoes of pear, porridge, black pepper and leather.
The Macallan makes some of the most expensive scotch in the world, a luxury whisky that comes from a dreamy Old World estate set on rolling hills along the river Spey in the Scottish Highlands. There is a more affordable Macallan, however: The Macallan Double Cask 12-year-old. This beauty of a whisky is aged in sherry-seasoned American oak casks so sherry and American oak fans get the best of both. The American oak imparts butterscotch, vanilla, citrus and oaky layers, while the sherry seasoning rounds it out with dried fruit, spice, raisins and a viscous mouthfeel. This is an ideal entry point for one of the world’s most coveted whiskies.
Set in the town of Rothes in the Scottish Highlands’ Speyside—a region densely populated with some of the world’s most famous whiskies—The Glenrothes has been turning out exceptional scotch since 1879. Malt master Gordon Motion carefully selects and marries specific standout vintages, and the 2001 is one such vintage (distilled in 2001 and bottled in 2012). The usual Glenrothes elegance and balance is apparent in the integrated notes of vanilla, cherries, citrus, sandalwood, briney salt and soft spices, like nutmeg and ginger. Stay tuned for the release of the 2004 vintage next year.
Located in a fishing village at the northern end of the Scottish Highlands, Pulteney Distillery has been going strong since 1826 with nautical, maritime spirit and bottle art. While we love its pricier 17-year-old scotch, Old Pulteney Navigator is a reasonably priced, no-age-statement tribute to the distillery's seafaring history, aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and sherry casks. Young but vibrant, the amber whisky exudes honey, grassy and caramel notes on the nose, unfolding with malty graham cracker and hay on the tongue, finishing with a touch of nuttiness from the sherry casks.