Western wonders: A traveler's guide to Scotland’s best whisky region
For whisky lovers, Scotland is about the Highlands and the Lowlands, the Isles and Speyside.
Some fall in love with the tastes generated by a certain area, the result of the combination of peat, grain, water and other materials used in production.
For this global traveler, though, with close on a quarter of a century of sampling some of the very best malts in Scotland, some great Irish whiskey, and in more recent years some decent Japanese offerings, the west of Scotland runs second to none in the variety, tastes and types of drink.
The west of Scotland has it all. Be it the western lowlands, islands and/or highlands, if you can’t find a whisky to love, it’s off to the taste-doctor with you.
The area is often battered by winds and rain coming in off the Atlantic. The locals are hearty, trees don’t grow easily in this part of the world.
Transportation in some areas is difficult -- public buses and trains are rare, but whisky fans making the effort to get up to this part of Britain, and willing to look for the distilleries listed below, will find themselves in “uisge beatha” (“The water of life”) heaven.
Yes, you can buy a bottle of all the brands below from major retailers across the globe, but there’s something special about downing a dram in the distillery, perhaps looking out over a nearby loch or mountain range.
The Auchentoshan range of drinks is impressive, stretching to three single malts (12, 18, 21 year).
The Auchentoshan Classic Single Malt, which uses a First fill Bourbon Cask and the delightful Three Wood matured, is king of the Lowland distillers, with a name known across the world.
Just north of Glasgow on the way to Loch Lomond and dating to the early 19th century, it’s one of a handful of remaining Lowland whisky distilleries in operation.
The 12-year-old is wonderfully smooth, widely available and carries a touch of various fruit and slight chocolaty taste.
Isle of Islay
Light in color, but still carrying spicy after-tones, Caol Ila, founded in 1846, is the youngest of the Islay whiskys listed here. While growing in popularity, however, it maintains a traditional, limited range of product.
The 18-year-old is a gem that shouldn’t be blended.
This distillery is set for wider global recognition in the years ahead.
Open since 1815, Ardbeg is one of the smaller distillers on this list. It’s adopted an interesting “name” not “age” approach to whisky, producing a range of differently named whiskys all aged differently and with differing final strengths.
The Uigeadail (named after the local loch) is for some the most complex whisky ever. On all critical fronts, it’s been highly praised.
There’s a good reason bottles of Laphroiag carry the three feathers of the Royal Warrant, the crest of HRH Charles, The Prince of Wales -- their 15-year-old was HRH’s personal favorite on the whisky stakes.
For those without feathers to spare, the 10-year-old offers a nicely priced, down to earth, peaty taste well suited to cigars or pipes.
For those truly in love with Islay, Laphroiag offers a share of the land around the distillery to those buying bottles or visiting. Trust me -- part owner many times over -- it’s worth the investment.
A lot of newbie’s to the world of fine malt whiskys see Bowmore as an acquired taste. I certainly did at first, but now this one ranks in my top whiskys.
Dating to 1779, and the oldest of the four Islay distilleries listed here, Bowmore is located on the western side of the island, though it’s protected from much of the worst weather.
Tours are recommended (see homepage for details), as this rounded Islay product perfectly demonstrates the local tendency toward full-bodied peaty whiskys.
This one’s been naturally filtered through the peat of the nearby Laggan River. Normally, the cellars in which the drink ages are themselves beneath sea level.
The 12-year-old is a lovely smooth, some say “oily,” whisky with hints of fruit and none of the sting of some lesser forms. It’s nicely rounded, with great aftertaste of perfectly intertwined peat and spice.
Isle of Skye
The only whisky produced on the Isle of Skye, Talisker is a less peaty whisky than those produced down south in Islay, but packs a far smokier punch.
When first sampled, there’s a very definite kick, but this soon mellows to allow the aftertaste to sit on the tongue, bringing spices to the fore.
Now, 183 years after first turning out whisky, its range of seven different ages --from 10 through 30 years -- inspire true Talisker fans to spend a lot of time and effort sampling the lot.