For lovers of single malt Scotch whiskies, this is a dram good time to be alive, a veritable golden age of plenty where tavern shelves groan under an ever-expanding selection of bottles.
The range of single cask whiskies from independent bottlers is increasing constantly, and the big distilleries, having woken up to the commercial potential of the liquid gold lying heretofore unappreciated in their cellars, have begun offering an expanding range of limited production, special-edition bottlings of their own.
The upside is that in the past decade dozens of new whiskies have been introduced into the U.S. and international market. There are few upmarket, and even some downmarket, establishments where a selection of single malts, as well as exclusive blends, cannot be found. The downside is that, particularly with the U.S. dollar struggling against the British pound, a slug of high-end Highland hooch can set you back $20 or more, depending on the age and rarity of the whisky in question.
Yet a growing number of Americans are willing to pay more for better whisky. In a notable shift, the trend toward these so-called super-premium whiskies has led to a decline in consumption of what the industry politely terms "value" scotches. As a result, many more established makers have begun to offer their own super-premium blends, such as Diageo's Johnny Walker Gold and Johnny Walker Blue. They have also started to acquire respected makers of single malt; for example, Allied Domecq bought Laphroaig, a leading maker of Islay malt, and Brown-Forman owns Highland distiller Glenmorangie.
Even though vodka is still the leading alcohol in the U.S., accounting for nearly $3 billion in sales, the Scotch whisky industry has plenty of reasons to blow its bagpipes. (Vodka also costs considerably less than Scotch; a 750-milliliter bottle of super-premium vodka will rarely cost more than $30, whereas the same category of single malt can easily push north of $100.)
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the overall whisky market in the U.S. generated more than $1.3 billion in 2003, a 4 percent increase from the previous year. The greatest growth, however, was in the super-premium category, which accounted for $677 million in 2003, an increase of 11 percent from 2002. Of the 9,210 cases of scotch sold in the U.S. in 2003, more than a third of them were super-premium.
Not bad for a drink that was invented by poor Scots crofters trying to keep out the chill of a Highland winter.
But let's get back to why more and more people are willing to spend so much for good single malt. For one thing, there's the taste. It's a fair thing to say that no single malts taste the same, and many connoisseurs will swear by their particular brand. Some people prefer a dry and peaty Islay, others the sweetness of a Speyside or the depth of a Campbeltown. So what's a befuddled — by this abundance of choice, of course, not the whisky itself — aficionado to do?
We at Forbes.com decided to help out by conducting an exhaustive survey, the results of which are my highly personal, totally subjective list of the best single malt Scotch whiskies.
The competition was extremely fierce, and the final list is in fact a distillation — pun intended — from the larger selection of great scotches that I have come to appreciate over a couple of decades of tasting. Frankly, there are an awful lot of good malts out there, and picking a top ten was not easy. Now, while this is a great situation for a whisky aficionado, it does make the job of winnowing down the list difficult, and some awfully good drams had to be left out.
It's also very hard to quantify beauty. It's not unlike the problem of coming up with a list of the most beautiful movie stars of all time; sure, it's hard to leave out Jean Harlow or Gwyneth Paltrow, but up against Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren they don't have a chance.
Because there are so many different styles of single malts, and a subsequent diversity of tastes, I have broken down the top ten list by regions. And, as is traditional, I am starting with the Lowlands.