The Ten Best: Whiskies

In the spirit of democracy, I have consulted the rigorously assessed
Scottish Field Merchants Challenge. Seven renowned noses have "blindly" sampled 114 whiskies, ensuring representative and unbiased evaluation. I have selected the top performers in three price bands: over £50, £30-£50, and under £30.

In the spirit of democracy, I have consulted the rigorously assessed Scottish Field Merchants Challenge. Seven renowned noses have "blindly" sampled 114 whiskies, ensuring representative and unbiased evaluation. I have selected the top performers in three price bands: over £50, £30-£50, and under £30.

'Maclean's Miscellany of Whisky' is published by Little Books, £10.00

Auchentoshan, 1973 29-year-old, £110

This is a triple-distilled vintage from one of the last Lowland distilleries. Gold medallist in the cask-strength category of the Scottish Field Merchants Challenge, it sports a huge creamy nose, bursting with apples, raisins and toffee. "A wonderfully rounded dram," says Keir Sword, of Edinburgh's Royal Mile Whiskies.

Strathisla, 36-year-old (Duncan Taylor Bottling), £97.50

An unchillfiltered cask-strength expression distilled at one of the oldest distilleries but released by one of the newest independent bottlers. This single cask exhibits Speyside elegance and gravitas. A gold medallist in the over 26-year-old category, it does not require water to open up its bouquet of rich sherry, banana and chocolate orange laced with light smoke and spice. "Heathery sweetness, mead, heaps of character - a very rewarding dram," says Regis Lemaitre of the Gleneagles Hotel.

Ardbeg, 25-year-old Lord of the Isles, £100

Hardly surprising to see an Ardbeg on the list. Who, in 1815, could have foreseen its metamorphosis from an outpost distillery to a great champion of the Islay style? Stills firing 24/7, Ardbeg-tattooed Swedes give some indication of the status this distillery has attained. Sumptuously liveried, it took gold in the 19- to 25-year-old category. "A big blast of peat smoke, tomato salsa and lots of spice - a stunner with lots going on," says Keir Sword of Royal Mile Whiskies.

Lagavulin, 16-year-old, £36.99

An expression from a white-washed distillery overlooking Lagavulin Bay. Quintessential Islay smoke marries with soft, sweet, provocative sherry tones in this 16 year old superstar. This fulcrum of the classic malts range added to its haul of international awards with a gold medal in the 15- to 18-year-old island category. "Peat smoke, harbour fumes and smokehouses. Some earthy tar notes. Cherries and maple syrup, ginger nut biscuits. Well balanced. My kind of malt," says Darren Leitch from the The Whisky Shop in Edinburgh.

Caol Ila, Cask Strength, £32.99

There are only seven working distilleries on Islay yet they always make a good showing among the top whiskies. If you ever get the chance to go, particularly if you live in a city, grab it. Caol Ila's sea-facing parade of gleaming stills belts out a big, robust, oily, smoky experience. It earned distinction in the cask-strength category. "Soft with pleasant peat-smoke and smokehouse almonds. Well balanced with a sweet-peat aftertaste. Most enjoyable," says Richard Joynson, proprietor of Loch Fyne Whiskies.

Strathisla, 25-year-old (Gordon & MacPhail Bottling), £45.99

From Speyside, a Strathisla in the guise of a Gordon & MacPhail release. This Strathisla could be described as a connoisseur's malt at a competitive price - 25 years without return is a serious investment and prices can range into the uncomfortable. It won a silver medal in the 19- to 25-year-old malt category. "Complex flavours of orange chocolate, coconut and Earl Grey. Good body and balance, recommended in bed (forget the Champagne!)" says Duncan Elphick of the Craigellachie Hotel.

The Loch Fyne Liqueur, £28.99

If you feel attracted to malt whisky but find the high alcohol content too much for your palate, this liqueur is a splendid alternative. Scottish Field's Will Gardner reviewed it as "less cloying than most other liqueurs; more of a malt experience infused with luscious sweetness rather than sickly sweet. Bursting with Jaffa Cakes, tangerine ice-cream and Terry's Chocolate Orange." Try it with a Laphroaig 10-year-old.

Bunnahabhain, 12-year-old, £22.99

The vista would evoke the pen of A E Housman. The Paps of Jura face the eastern seaboard and bay cradling Bunnahabhain. It's an Islay, though not the famed smoke and theatre; more complexity and elegance. The 12-year-old comes in a comforting dumpy bottle with a mariner embossed on it. It won distinction in the 10- to 14-year-old island group. "Complex with wholegrain bread, honey and cream. Seductive," says Darren Leitch of The Whisky Shop.

Bruichladdich, 10-year-old, £24.99

Islay has a smoke-free zone on the Atlantic coast in Bruichladdich. The distillery was recently saved from extinction and the expert Jim McEwan charged with breathing life into what was always the Islay folk's preferred dram. It is a bewitching introduction to hand-made whisky. Highly commended in the islands 10 to 14-year-old band. "Soft, mellow and inviting. Sweet sherbet, barley-sugar and vanilla. Wonderful," says Ronnie Routledge of Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin.

Compass Box, Asyla, £22.99

A blend! Compass Box is the innovative young company responsible for Hedonism and Monster. Like its siblings, Asyla is a great whisky. If blends are pooh-poohed within your circles, pour a dram of Asyla, add a touch of spring water and wait. Its character and refreshing drink-any-time persuasion captured gold in the blends up to 10 year old category. "An exciting, faultless whisky" with heavy sherry notes over a soft, fruity, smooth, vibrant dram," says Richard Joynson of Loch Fyne Whiskies.

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