The whisky distilleries in Scotland are divided into several distinct locations: Speyside is famous for its single-malt whiskies, and half of all Scottish distilleries are located here, although it only shows up twice on out top 10 list. The Isle of Islay off the southwest coast of Scotland is a short 25 miles long and 15 miles wide, but it is home to eight distilleries, of which four are on our top 10 list. Known for their strong peaty flavors and salt-sea influence, there’s a reason so many are in our top 10. The Highlands have provided three of the spots on our list, as they are well known for heavier and more robust whiskies. The last spot on the list is reserved for the Isle of Skye and its lone distillery. The history of these producers is often a bit, well, dodgy, with illegal distilling taking place long before a license was in hand, but that just makes them all the more interesting to visit.
10. The Macallan
Located in Craigellachie in Speyside, the Macallan is one of the most recognized names among whisky aficionados. Only 16% of their final distillation makes it into the casks for aging. They mature their Sherry Oak Range in 100% ex-Sherry casks. Whiskies from Macallan are some of the most prized in the world: in 2014 a “Macallan M Imperiale” in a Lalique decanter sold at auction for $628,000. For a more approachable price, the 2006 Macallan currently goes for about $50.
Glenfiddich is well known for its single-malt whisky. Founded in 1887 and built by hand in Speyside by the Grant family, the distillery is still family run. They keep copper smiths on site to look after their stills – all handmade – and a cooper to look after the casks and barrels used to age the whisky. They regularly produce old vintage whiskies including a limited release of 50 bottles of 50-year old single malt each year. In 1937 cask 843 was filled and laid down to mature. 10 different warehouse masters watched over it, until it was finally deemed ready in 2001. By that time, the angels had taken more than their fair share, and only 61 bottles were made of the 64-year old single-malt.
Glenmorangie has the tallest stills in Scotland at 17 feet making a lighter, smoother, and more elegant whisky. On the shores of Dornoch Firth in the Highlands, they use casks sourced from all over the world and like to use interesting ones for extra maturation. After the first ten years in American oak casks, the whisky will be moved to Ruby Port casks, Sherry butts, or Sauternes casks for extra maturation, imparting a unique taste to their spirits.
7. The Glenlivet
The Glenlivet started as an illegal distillery in Speyside but became the first official distillery in Scotland in 1824, presumably set underway by King George IV requesting a glass of Glenlivet on a visit to Edinburgh in 1823. The other illegal distillers of the area were so upset by his decision to go legal that George Smith, founder of the Glenlivet, took to carrying pistols with him everywhere he went. The tour of the Glenlivet will give you a history of the bootleggers and you can follow the trails of the smugglers through the glen, as well as visit Josie’s Well where the water for their whisky originates.
Lagavulin dates back to 1816, and was producing whisky illegally back to at least 1742. After several early legal disputes over water use with Laphroaig, its neighbor on the Isle of Islay, the two have settled down and get along peacefully with each other. Lagavulin’s signature 16 year old whisky is made in ex-bourbon casks, and production is rarely enough to meet demand. Characterized by strong peat – typical of Isle of Islay whiskies – and iodine flavors, it is not for the faint of heart.