Big is almost always bad in the current consumer culture, particularly when it comes to food and drinks. We want local, natural and small batch; we want to meet farmers and know the names of the animals we’re eating. For whisky drinkers, this presents some problems: while the very idea of Scotch denotes integrity and brings to mind old men sharing stories around a weathered bar, much of the industry is owned by faceless multinational companies. Many of them make very good products (there’s no shortage of Laphroaig and Lagavulin drinkers around here). But if you’re interested in a story and what’s likely a more old-fashioned production process, then the independent distilleries are more attractive. (A word of caution: When we say independent, we’re not exclusively talking about distilleries owned by a single family; we’re referring to ownership that is not Big Scotch.) To help us choose the best of the indies, we talked with Steven Abt and Moiz Ali, founders of Caskers.com, a portal for craft spirits.
Kilchoman Distillery Machir Bay Islay Single Malt
Caskers’ Take: Kilchoman opened in 2005 and is the first new distillery on Islay in over 125 years. They use a more resilient strain of barley, Publican barley, that can handle the harsh weather of Islay, and they’re one of only a handful of distilleries in Scotland that continue to malt their own barley. A great expression is the Kilchoman Machir Bay Single Malt Whisky, which is crafted from whisky that is initially matured in ex bourbon casks, after which a portion is finished for one month in ex Oloroso Sherry casks. The extraordinary strain of barley and unique maturation process give the whisky notes of vanilla, papaya and malt on the palate with a finish of peat, vanilla and caramel. – Moiz Ali
GP’s Take: This is one of the funkiest Scotches we’ve ever tasted. It combines a big smokey nose with light but super flavorful taste with all kinds of citrus notes. We also got this hint of crispy salmon skin — chewy, savory, delicious — which sounds weird, but we liked it very much.
Springbank Distillery 12 Year Old Cask Strength
Caskers’ Take: Springbank is located in Campbeltown, which was considered the whisky capital of the world two centuries ago. The distillery was founded in 1828 by Archibald Mitchell and today is owned by Mitchell’s great-great-great-grandson (how’s that for following in your father’s footsteps?). As demand for whisky rose during the 20th century, many distilleries began cutting corners by outsourcing parts of the distillation process. Springbank Distillery, however, remains one of only two distilleries in Scotland to perform every step of the whisky making process on the same premises. The Springbank 12 Year Old Cask Strength is fantastic, with initial flavors of butterscotch and plums and a finish that’s sweet with a hint of smoke. – Moiz Ali
GP’s Take: Springbank 12 reminded us why we love Scotch so much. It smells like smoke, dried fruit and citrus; it’s got a nice texture, maybe a little bit oily; the flavors are complex, with plums and figs and spices. Since it’s young and cask strength it’s still got some fire to it, which we like.
Isle of Arran Distillery Single Malt Port Cask Finish
Caskers’ Take: The Isle of Arran Distillers chose the location of their distillery because of the water supply, which is one of the best in Scotland for making whisky. The distillery uses a pair of golden eagles as its sigil, which is a reference to two eagles that built a nest adjacent to the distillery in 1995. One of my favorites from them is the Arran Single Malt Whisky Port Cask Finish, which is matured for 8 years and finished in used port casks from Portugal. It has a flavor that’s layered with touches of fruits and spices that gives way to a sweet, honeyed finish. – Steven Abt
GP’s Take: Some of us here aren’t big fans of port cask-finished whisky, but this one is really nice. There’s a ton of green apple and citrus on the nose, which gives way to the spices and dried fruits when you taste it. A really great dessert on its own.
Tomatin Distillery 12 Year Old Single Malt
Caskers’ Take: At 1,000 feet above sea level, Tomatin Distillery is one of the highest distilleries in the world and dates back to the 15th century when drovers bringing their cattle over the mountain passes would fill their flasks from a hidden still at a house adjacent to the distillery. The distillery is isolated and has seen generations of family tradition; some workers are the fifth generation of their family to work there. Their Tomatin 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky is finished in sherry casks giving it notes of sweet fruit with a hint of nuttiness and a rich finish that has a touch of citrus. – Steven Abt
GP’s Take: Pears, candy apple and Frosted Flakes (in a good way) on the nose. The taste is smooth and sweet at first and then a little oily and spicy as it develops. The finish is a little bitter and a little herbal.
Tullibardine Single Malt Scotch 228 Burgundy Finish
Caskers’ Take: In 1488 the Tullibardine Brewery was the first public brewery in Scotland. Nearly 500 years later, the same architect who designed the Jura and Glenallachie distilleries converted the brewery into the Tullibardine Distillery. For Scotch lovers who also love wine, they have three great expressions that are finished in ex wine casks. The Tullibardine Single Malt Scotch 228 Burgundy Finish Scotch Whisky, the 500 Sherry Finish Scotch Whisky and the 225 Sauternes Finish Scotch Whisky each have hints of their respective wines, giving them a modern twist on the time-honored tradition of distillation. – Moiz Ali
GP’s Take: This is the only whisky aged in Burgundy barrels that we can recall tasting — and it’s awesome. There’s just a little of that red fruit on the nose and then it’s mostly gone, giving way to honey, apples and spice.