You’re a regular Scotch connoisseur. You know your Glenlivet from your Glenfiddich and your Bruichladdich from your Bunnahabhain, but sometimes your glass could really do with a dash of something unusual. Scotch whisky may be one of the most tightly regulated spirits in the world, but that doesn’t mean the category is staid; there are plenty of innovative and alternative drams if you look in the right places.
Tired of single malt? Try a single grain. Bored of Islay smoke? Bring on the peated Speysiders. Here are five unconventional Scotch es you may not have tried but are sure to breath new life back into your passion for whisky.
Grain whisky has never really been considered a drink on its own merit. First established in Scotland in the early 19th century, distillers quickly found that blending it with malt whisky produced a smooth, palatable whisky. Aside from a very small handful of releases since then, grain whisky has never really been bottled for sale on its own.
That changed in 2000 when independent bottler Compass Box introduced Hedonism, a blend of grain whiskies sourced from across Scotland that has led the charge in establishing a new category for grain whisky. Despite grain’s naturally lighter style in comparison to malt, Hedonism delivers depth and complexity with buckets of vanilla cream and custard swirled with runny toffee and sprinkled with toasted coconut shavings.
It’s a real dessert dram and not only hits the mark on flavour, but breaks the mould of what we’ve come to expect from Scotch whisky.
Mortlach Rare Old
Known as the ‘Beast of Dufftown’, Mortlach has established a reputation as the meatiest Speyside whisky, making it a perfect base malt for blends. In its almost 200-year history the Beast has rarely been bottled as a single malt, existing in the shadows behind blended brands such as Johnnie Walker Black Label. Until now.
Recently launched as a single malt in four different expressions (one of which is a travel retail exclusive), the bottle you’re most likely to come across is the Mortlach Rare Old. The others, while wonderful whiskies, have a price point a cut above the means of most of us. Still, the Rare Old’s thick and oily texture, palate that’s chewy with juicy raisins, maraschino cherries, dark chocolate and vanilla fudge and just a hint of leather (that’s a good thing!), makes this a dram to seek out.
Caol Ila unpeated
The Isle of Islay, located off the west coast of Scotland, has a reputation for producing peaty, smoky and sometimes medicinal whiskies. Its eight distilleries all produce a peated spirit of varying intensities in keeping with the historical traditions of the island, but only a couple also produce unpeated whisky as well. Despite being built in 1846, Caol Ila only began its first small batch run of unpeated spirit in 1999.
Since 2001 the unpeated variant has been released annually as part of Diageo’s Special Releases range, which while tricky to get hold of, is a Scotch not to miss. The 2015 release of Caol Ila Unpeated is a 17-year-old, and while no peat was used in the drying of the malted barley, some residue smoke remains from the production process. The overall impact is a green, grassy dram with fresh pear and stewed apple notes entwined with a small puff of smoke. It’s a complex spirit that will defy your perception of Islay whiskies.
Old Particular North Britsh 21 Year Old
This is a milestone dram, both for independent bottler Douglas Laing and the industry. A single cask, single grain whisky from North British distillery, this expression was recently bottled under the Old Particular brand alongside three other grain whiskies – Cameronbridge 25, Girvan 25 and Strathclyde 27-year-old.
Their release marks the very first time a collection of grain whiskies have been introduced from a selection of distilleries under the same brand. While whisky enthusiasts are encouraged to sample them all, a special mention must go to this ex-American oak-aged gem from North British. Rich and complex, it defies preconceptions of grain whisky with its robust delivery of butterscotch, marzipan and velvety custard flavours with a hint of spice. Its complex layers present an experience to rival any single malt.
Glenrothes Peated Cask
Speyside is a region known for its fresh, fruity and grassy distillery style, and while Glenrothes in Moray falls into that category, a recent release defies expectations. The no-age-statement Glenrothes Peated Cask is part of a new wave of Scotch whiskies undergoing a finishing maturation in casks that once held peated whisky, in this case Laphroaig.
This particular dram is a 1992 vintage that’s been matured in refill American oak casks before finishing in peated casks for three months. The result? An unexpectedly smoky whisky for such a short period in peated casks that still allows much of the distillery’s fresh and vibrant character through with a toffee and dried fruits influence from the American oak. Balanced, complex but not overwhelming, this is a perfect non-threatening introduction to peated Scotch whisky.
About Becky Paskin
Becky Paskin is editor of Scotchwhisky.com, an online magazine for all levels of whisky enthusiast dedicated to exploring the diverse world of Scotch.