Exports have been the Scotch whisky industry’s big success in recent times, and sales now top £4.3 billion with Scotch sold in 200 countries. Though high duty and tough competition have held back sales of blended Scotch in the UK, single malt has achieved solid growth, helped by a traditionally conservative industry’s willingness to engage in product innovation by tinkering with strengths, maturation, barley types and pack descriptors.
Although this was one of the biggest voting pools in the Hot List series to date, the number of companies receiving recognition was one of the smallest. Partly this is down to the significant barriers to entry to the market, which keeps new operators to a minimum, but also reflects the degree of loyalty that whisky producers bring out in both trade and consumers.
Glenmorangie-owned Ardbeg is one of those brands that attracts legions of fans, in the manner of a rock band or a football team. That it does so from a reputation as the peatiest of Islay malts shows that, in whisky, challenging doesn’t have to mean inaccessible. The most ardent of those fans are on the Ardbeg Committee which has 50,000 members worldwide. Galileo whisky came on the back of Ardbeg’s participation in an experiment on the effect of maturing whisky in space.
OWNED BY: LVMH
ONE VOTER SAYS: There is something lovely about the history and the incredible liquid that entices consumers to become passionate advocates. Greg Dillon, brand strategy consultant and whisky blogger
The 2012 acquisition of this Islay distillery by Bruichladdich has done little to dent the esteem in which it is held by whisky aficionados. Bruichladdich’s lofty place in the Scotch world is born out of a mix of bold modern packaging, broad experimentation and tradition in the use of much of the plant’s Victorian machinery – a winning combination developed by ex-managing director Mark Reynier and master distiller Jim McEwan after taking the distillery out of mothballs in 2000.
OWNED BY: Rémy Martin
ONE VOTER SAYS: It only uses Scottish barley, and when possible produces an Islay barley expression. It also produces the world’s most heavily peated whisky. Fraser Barrett, training ambassador, LA Group
3. Compass Box
The year 2000 was a good one for Scotch whisky. As Bruichladdich was brought back to life, former Johnnie Walker marketing director John Glaser began playing around with whisky samples to make blends in his Manhattan apartment. It soon became Compass Box, a whisky company that makes no spirit of its own but takes the best malt and grain whiskies to a lab in Chiswick to create sought-after blends with evocative names such as Hedonism, Flaming Heart and Peat Monster.
BUSINESS TYPE: Independent blender
OWNED BY: John Glaser
ONE VOTER SAYS: Its range is super- interesting and highlights the art of blending. From the most affordable drams such as Asyla to the more expensive like The General, the range is superb. Gal Granov, blogger, Whisky Israel
The Speyside distillery is another that inspires devotion among its admirers. But, while others get attention for new bells and whistles, Glenfarclas wins fans by doing things pretty much as it has for a century and a half. That’s how long it has been owned and run by the Grant family, with the fifth and sixth generations now in the saddle, sticking to a distinct sherry-heavy style and age statements that leave drinkers with no doubt about what they’re going to get.
OWNED BY: Grant family
ONE VOTER SAYS: The style is appealing to whisky newcomers but complex and fine enough to appeal to connoisseurs. No expensive packaging or gimmicks. Tim Carlisle, sales and marketing manager, SH Jones
Glenmorangie’s head of distilling and “whisky creation”, Bill Lumsden, was a pioneer in finishing mature Scotch by putting it into port, sherry or wine casks. Where Glenmorangie began many others followed, making the LVMH-owned distillery arguably one of the most influential. In Glenmorangie’s game- changing Cask Masters programme, the decision- making about ingredients, ageing and packaging is being crowd-sourced to the brand’s devotees.
OWNED BY: LVMH
ONE VOTER SAYS: Glenmorangie produces continually high quality without significantly raisingprices and has some excellent annual releases. Nathan Keeney, blogger, The Scotch Noob
Gordon & MacPhail is loved by independent drinks shops as a go-to whisky wholesaler and independent bottler – but in Benromach it also has one of the most admired single malt distilleries and brands. The distillery was restored and reopened by G&M in 1997 after more than a decade in mothballs and this year is the 10th anniversary of the first single malt bottling of its new era, marked by new-look packaging for its flagship and award- winning 10-year-old.
OWNED BY: Gordon & Macphail
ONE VOTER SAYS: I voted for Benromach because it has eye-catching packaging, an exciting selection and is extremely moreish. Duncan Murray, Duncan Murray Wines, Market Harborough, Leicestershire
The luxury item in the Whyte & Mackay empire is fronted by the charismatic master distiller Richard Paterson, whose name on the billing of a tasting makes it a must for whisky nuts. The producer has won headlines for record- smashing prices, with the first two of the 2010 three- bottle Trinitas release taking whisky past the six- figure sterling mark, and the third selling in Harrods for £120,000 a year later. The store put the 12-bottle Paterson Collection on sale for just short of £1 million.
OWNED BY: Whyte & Mackay
ONE VOTER SAYS: I chose Dalmore mainly because Richard Paterson is a fantastic distiller and a legendary presenter. He makes Scotch whisky fun and engaging. Dawn Davies, buyer, Selfridges
Nestled in the Monadhliath mountains, Tomatin claims to be one of the highest distilleries in Scotland, among the most remote, but, paradoxically, one of the easiest to visit as it’s on the main A9 trunk road. Tomatin is best-known as a supplier of malt for blending, but its Japanese owners have been steadily building a reputation for its single malts, both under its own name and the lightly- peated Cu Bocan, named after a beast said to stalk residents of the village that gives the distillery its name.
OWNED BY: Takara Shuzo Co
ONE VOTER SAYS: A fabulous range, from the entry-level Legacy through to the 30-year-old. These malts have character – the guys at Tomatin know how to produce a delicious dram. John Mitchell, Mitchells Wines, Sheffield
9. Highland Park
Edrington-owned Highland Park on Orkney is Scotland’s most northerly distillery. Whisky has been made there for more than 200 years, and both the history and provenance are key to the style: the barley is malted on the premises and heather-topped peat is harvested locally. The aromatic smokiness is given a balancing sweetness by the use of sherry butts for ageing. It’s a core component of its owner’s Famous Grouse blend.
OWNED BY: Edrington
ONE VOTER SAYS: Highland Park is the ultimate single malt. Its quality is consistently high, with great depth of flavours and all the smoothness you need in a top malt. Barry Howarth, Lancaster Wine Co, Lancaster
Islay’s old order was shaken up in 2005 by the arrival of Kilchoman, a farm distillery founded and run by the Wills family, one of Scotland’s smallest producers and arguably the one that’s most in control of its own destiny. As well as distilling and maturing whisky it is one of a handful with a malting floor. But it’s gone a step further, growing a third of its total barley needs on the farm, allowing it to create the 100% Islay brand, where every element comes from the island.
OWNED BY: Wills family
ONE VOTER SAYS: The first distillery to open on Islay for 125 years. Family owned and run, a real score for independents when so many are owned by the major producers. Sam Jackson, Chester Beer & Wine, Chester
WHAT WE DID
We polled more than 200 buyers, independents, writers and bloggers to find their favourite Scotch whisky distilleries, blenders, blends and bottlers, based on quality and image. They were asked for a top three with a points value given for each place, then we added up the points. Votes were received for 35 producers, bottlers and brands. In addition to the top 10 they were (in alphabetical order): Auchentoshan, AnCnoc, Balblair, Balvenie, Benriach, Bowmore, Connoisseurs’ Choice, Douglas Laing, Edradour, Glen Garioch, Glencadam, Glendronach, Glenfiddich, Glengoyne, Girvan, Hunter Laing, Johnnie Walker Black Label, Macallan, AD Rattray, Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Tamdhu, Duncan Taylor, Signatory Vintage, Talisker and Tullibardine.