Top 5 Highland Whisky Brands
There are such a myriad of fantastic distilleries and brands spread across the far reaching Highland region, all producing an extensive variety of styles of whisky; from hidden gems predominantly destined to fulfil a quality in blended whiskies which we are only lucky enough to experience via the medium of independent bottlers, such as Teaninich; to the veritable colossi immediately recognisable and venerated all across the world like Dalmore and Tomatin. With so many excellent options available in the modern day it can be potentially quite daunting to figure out where to start on your journey with Highland whisky, so we’ve compiled a list of five beasting distilleries (in no particular order) that we feel best represent the style of the sub-region they reside in and have a wide enough variety of expressions to really sink your teeth into!
In the heart of the northern Highlands, nestled next to the Dornoch Firth and Tain resides one of the most iconic whisky distilleries in history, the legendary Glenmorangie!
Housing the tallest stills of any distillery in the country, Glenmorangie predominantly produce a very light and sweet distillate which lends itself exceptionally well to the wide array of casks the distillery uses to mature and/or finish their whisky in. Owing to their very stringent wood policy the distillery selects only the very finest casks available; going as far as to purchase an entire section of forest in the Ozark mountains of Missouri in the USA, an area known for its unusually dense white oak trees. The casks produced from these trees are left to air for two full years before being leased to a pair of very well known bourbon producers in the States to mature their bourbon in for four years, before being transported to Scotland to begin their new lives at Glenmorangie!
Furthermore, the distillery caters to a wide variety of tastes with their extensive range of sherry, port and wine cask finished offerings, spanning from their utterly delicious sherry cask dram “La Santa” to sumptuously sweet dessert wine cask finished expressions like the “Nectar d’Or,” making them an ideal place to get started with Highland whisky and discover where your tastes truly lie!
For those a little more experienced with the brand’s offerings, the distillery continues to experiment with maturation in lesser-known cask types as seen in their recent “Palo Cortado Cask Finish” release, and innovative new techniques such as kilning their barley with botanicals in the kiln for their “A Tale of the Forest” expression, and the use of chocolate malt in their iconic “Signet”!
Though the number of distilleries in the eastern Highlands may be slight, there is one clear-cut champion of the area’s style, the mighty GlenDronach!
Excelling in the art of sherry cask maturation, GlenDronach have risen to become a firm favourite of whisky enthusiasts all over Scotland and have been steadily growing an appreciative audience internationally. All the way from the 12 Year Old “Original” expression to the 21 Year Old “Parliament,” there’s an excellent sherry bomb to be found for all levels of taste and experience with whisky, though the distillery do periodically release expertly crafted peated expressions and the occasional port cask matured release, adding a healthy variety to their output. Though the real gold lies in their absolutely phenomenal Distillery Exclusives: potent cask strength beasts in a wide variety of vintages, only available from the distillery itself as the name would suggest.
We have been longtime fans of GlenDronach here at CASC and regularly extol the virtues and quality of their tremendous whiskies!
An area known for producing delectable drams laced with a tinge of peat and coastal salinity AND excellent unpeated sherry bombs, the west Highland distilleries are an eclectic bunch to say the least, but none in the area are as eclectic as our pick for this sub-region: Loch Lomond Distillery!
Built during the 1960’s in the midst of a boom in distillery construction, Loch Lomond Distillery have grown to be one of the most versatile and flexible distilleries in the entire country; creating peated and unpeated single malts, single grain whiskies and performing their own blending all on-site. The distillery is in fact SO adaptive that it is capable of producing 11 different distillates for the numerous brand names in the Loch Lomond stable (e.g. Inchmoan, Inchfad, Old Rosdhu and Croftengea to name but a few).
Not only do Loch Lomond produce peated whiskies with a mind-boggling variability in their phenolic intensity, they also regularly mature their spirit (both peated and unpeated) in a wide variety of ex-bourbon, sherry and wine casks, making theirs one of the most expansive ranges of whisky styles in the entire country let alone the Highland region.
Tucked away in the heart of Perthshire lies our recommended pick for sampling southern Highland whisky, “Scotland’s little gem” Edradour, the smallest traditional whisky distillery in Scotland! So small is the operation at Edradour that it can be managed by just two stillmen and entirely by hand, with the distillery producing a mere 90,000-100,000L of spirit per year, on average equating to eighteen casks per week. However, despite their limited annual outrun, Edradour are certainly not deterred from maturing their spirit in obscure cask types, including their heavily peated “Ballechin” expressions which the distillery commits two days of the week to producing, with many releases being matured and finished in oddities such as Chardonnay, Côte de Provence and Tokaji wine casks long before the penchant to utilise these types of casks was popularised amongst their peers in the whisky industry. This cask experimentation is currently exhibited predominantly in the distillery’s “Straight From The Cask” range, a series of cask strength single cask expressions demonstrating the flexibility of the distillery’s spirit when put to work in a wide variety of casks!
Trying to pick an ideal distillery or brand among the numerous island distilleries can be a something of a contentious topic, with many long established and beloved distilleries hailing from one of our islands or another, coupled with the recent swathe of new distilleries being built, which presents us with a huge selection of very unique options to decide from. However, working on the motif of looking for distilleries with the widest variety of expressions available, we can’t help but feel that the Isle of Arran’s eponymous distillery is producing the most diverse array of expressions across the islands today, and now with a second distillery (named Lagg) designed to handle production of all their peated liquid in full operation that diversity of styles produced is sure to expand with the vastly increased distilling capacity across both sites. Whether you’re looking to sample something matured in an ex-bourbon cask, a sherry cask, wine or fortified wine cask, Arran have all the bases covered, with many of those expressions starting at a respectable 50%ABV also making them a great jumping off point for becoming accustomed to cask strength drams!