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Best islay whisky

10 Best Islay Whiskies To Warm You Up

If you’re new to single malt Scotch, there’s a chance you’re confused by one thing in particular. You’re likely wondering what the deal is with the robust, smoky single malts. Where do they come from? How do you know if the bottle you crack open is going to be mellow and filled with candied orange peels, heather, vanilla, and honey or tastes like a smouldering campfire? Well, lucky for you, we’re here to take a deep dive into the memorable, peaty, smoky, indulgent single malt whiskies from the Scottish island of Islay.

RELATED: Best Scotch Whisky Brands

How Man of Many Chose this List of Best Islay Whisky

This list of the best Islay whiskies has been collated by Man of Many’s experienced teams of drinks writers and reviewers. In addition to tasting every Scotch on this list, we also turned to the wider public for their overall ratings. Our list takes into account three major perspectives to determine the overall rating. In addition to our own opinions, we take into account reviews via alcohol retailer Dan Murphys and the Australian drinks forums such as Master of Malt and The Whisky Wash. Each Scotch identified in the list was measured on:

  • Flavour profile
  • Value for money
  • Appearance

Best Scotch Whiskies From Islay

Best Islay Whiskies

While there are only nine distilleries (with one yet to release any whiskies), there are myriad, award-winning, notable, flavourful expressions available. Since we want to save you the time it would take to stroll down the aisles of your local liquor store or peruse the selections on an online retailer, we did the work for you. We found 10 of the best, smoky Islay single malt whiskies. Each is guaranteed to warm you up on any chilly evening. Keep scrolling to see them all.

Ardbeg corryvreckan

Ardbeg Corryvreckan | Image: Dan Murphy’s

1. Ardbeg Corryvreckan

Brand: Ardberg
Release: Corryvreckan
ABV: 57.1%
Closure: Cork
Whisky Style: Single Malt

This non-age-statement single malt whisky gets its name from a well-known whirlpool that is situated in the ocean just north of the island of Islay. This 57.1% ABV, bold, high-proof Ardberg whisky is non-chill filtered and known for its mix of ocean brine and robust smoke. Named “The World’s Best Single Malt” in the world in 2010 at the World Whiskies Awards, its other flavours are candied orange peels, salted caramel, dried fruits, vanilla beans, and wintry spices. The finish is slightly briny, smoky, and sweet. It’s a bold, flavourful drop that is guaranteed to find a place on your whisky shelf for years to come.

Recently, we caught up with the director of Distilling, Whisky Creation and Whisky Stocks for Ardberg and Glenmorangie, Dr Bill Lumsden, who revealed the fabled Islay distillery is working on some big projects. The whisky icon spoke about how the brand is developing new in-roads internationally in a two-pronged approach that included core products such as Corryvreckan, along with more contemporary efforts such as Ardbeg Fon Fhoid. In fact, the label has even launched a small amount of whisky into space, so perhaps we might soon see a new member on the list.

Buy it here (Ardberg) Buy it here (Dan Murphys) Buy it here (Master of Malt)

Port charlotte islay barley 2013

Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2013 | Image: Bruichladdich

2. Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2013

Brand: Bruichladdich
Release: Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2013
ABV: 50%
Closure: Cork
Whisky Style: Single Malt
Price: AUD$135

Bruichladdich is a big name when it comes to Islay whiskies. The only problem is that most of its expressions (like Bruichladdich’s The Classic Laddie) are unpeated. On the flip side, the whiskies it makes that aren’t under the Bruichladdich name are some of the peatiest, smokiest single malts on the market. This includes the Port Charlotte series, specifically Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2013. This 100-proof, heavily peated whisky is made with 100% barley grown on Islay. It’s matured in American whisky barrels before being finished in Pessac-Léognan wine casks. This results in a fruity, rich whisky with notes of sticky toffee, vanilla beans, dried cherries, and robust peat smoke. The finish is a mix of campfire smoke and sweet dried fruits.

Buy it here (Bruichladdich) Buy it here (Destination Cellars) Buy it here (The Whisky Exchange)

Laphroaig 10 year old sherry oak finish

Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Sherry Oak Finish | Image: Laphroaig

3. Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Sherry Oak Finish

Brand: Laphroaig
Release: 10-Year-Old Sherry Oak Finish
ABV: 48%
Closure: Cork
Whisky Style: Single Malt
Price: AUD$169

If you pay close attention to single malt Scotch, you should at least be a little bit aware of the connection between Scotch whisky and Spanish sherry. Many well-known brands mature or finish their single malts in sherry seasoned or former sherry casks. Laphroaig‘s 10-Year-Old Sherry Cask Finish is the same medicinal, salty, sweet, smoky single malt drinkers crave with a finish in Oloroso sherry casks for more than twelve months and bottled at 48% ABV. The result is a sublimely peaty, smoky whisky with hints of chocolate fudge, maple candy, iodine, ocean brine, caramel, vanilla beans, and clover honey.

Want to know more about the iconic Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Sherry Oak Finish? Check out our full guide to the classic Islay spirit.

Buy it here (Laphroaig) Buy it here (Oak Barrel) Buy it here (Master of Malt)

5 caol ila 12 year old single malt

Caol Ila 12-Year-Old Single Malt | Image: Dan Murphy’s

4. Caol Ila 12-Year-Old

Brand: Caol Ila
Release: 12-Year-Old
ABV: 43%
Age: 12 Year Old
Closure: Cork
Whisky Style: Single Malt
Price: $102

If you were to poll bartenders and Scotch drinkers and ask them to tell you the one peated Islay single malt everyone should try, you’d get more than a few telling you to get a bottle of Caol Ila 12. Often referred to as an entry-level single malt whisky, you’ll still continue drinking this for years to come. Matured for at least twelve years in ex-bourbon casks. It’s lighter in smoke than some of the more well-known Islay expressions and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s known for its slight sweet, subtle peat smoke, candied orange peels, vanilla, and gentle peppery spice. It’s a memorable dram that you’ll always want on hand.

Buy it here (Vintage Cellars) Buy it here (Dan Murphy’s) Buy it here (Master of Malt)

Kilchoman machir bay

Kilchoman Machir Bay | Image: Dan Murphy’s

5. Kilchoman Machir Bay

Brand: Kilchoman
Release: Machir Bay
ABV: 46%
Closure: Cork
Whisky Style: Single Malt
Price: AUD$102

Located near Kilchoman, Machir Bay is a small inlet on the western coast of Islay. This is where Kilchoman Machir Bay gets its name. This non-age-statement single malt whisky is matured in a combination of ex-bourbon casks and oloroso sherry butts. Made with a mash bill featuring peat-smoked malted barley, Machir Bay is known for its rich, robust flavour profile featuring flavours like vanilla cookies, sticky toffee pudding, raisins, dried cherries, sweet sherry, cracked black pepper, and bold, enveloping peat smoke. This whisky is a great example of how to pair sweetness, spice, and smoke to create a complex, multi-layered expression.

Buy it here (Kilchoman) Buy it here (Dan Murphy’s) Buy it here (Master of Malt)

Bowmore 15 year old

Bowmore 15-Year-Old | Image: Bowmore

6. Bowmore 15-Year-Old

Brand: Bowmore
Release: 15-Year-Old
ABV: 43%
Closure: Cork
Whisky Style: Single Malt

We mentioned earlier that Bowmore was the first distillery to open on Islay. It started the trend that has led us to the glut of amazing whisky found on the tiny island today. The best part? Bowmore is still cranking out amazing, award-winning single malt whiskies. A great example is Bowmore 15-Year-Old. Formerly called Bowmore Darkest 15, this 15-year-old single malt whisky is peat-smoked and finished in sherry casks. This results in a sweet. Smoky, highly flavourful whisky littered with hints of buttery caramel, candied orange peels, vanilla, light pine, cinnamon sugar, dried cherries, bold oak, and robust, smoky peat.

Buy it here (Bowmore) Buy it here (Dan Murphy’s) Buy it here (Master of Malt)

Lagavulin 16 year old

Lagavulin 16-Year-Old | Image: Dan Murphy’s

7. Lagavulin 16-Year-Old

Brand: Lagavulin
Release: 16-Year-Old
ABV: 46%
Closure: Cork
Whisky Style: Single Malt
Price: AUD$170

If you only try one peaty single malt whisky on this list, make it Lagavulin 16. There’s a reason Lagavulin is actor, writer, and humorist Nick Offerman’s favourite distillery. While it makes many great expressions, none are as popular as its 16-year-old expression. Originally released in the 1990s as a limited release, it quickly became (and remains to this day) one of the most popular whiskies from the famed Islay distillery. It’s known for its in-your-face peat smoke profile that pairs well with dried fruits, sherry sweetness, vanilla, and wintry spices. It’s a wildly popular expression that deserves a permanent place on your home bar cart.

Buy it here (Lagavulin) Buy it here (Dan Murphy’s) Buy it here (Master of Malt)

Ardbeg uigeadail

Ardbeg Uigeadail | Image: Dan Murphy’s

8. Ardbeg Uigeadail

Brand: Ardberg
Release: Uigeadail
ABV: 54.2%
Closure: Cork
Whisky Style: Single Malt

Ardbeg is such a great distillery that we figured it was only right to feature two expressions. While you might not be able to spell Ardbeg Uigeadail, that shouldn’t stop you from drinking it. Named for a loch that can be found near the distillery, this epic expression is known for its rich, sweet, smoky flavour profile. Like the aforementioned Ardbeg Corryvreckan, it has no age statement. Aged in oak before finishing in sherry casks, this popular expression is known for its notes of salted caramel, ocean brine, raisins, cherries, orange peels, vanilla beans, and warming, bold peaty smoke. It’s sweet, smoky, and slightly salty. A truly memorable single malt whisky guaranteed to warm you from inside out.

Buy it here (Ardberg) Buy it here (Dan Murphy’s) Buy it here (Master of Malt)

Octomore 13 1

Octomore 13.1 | Image: Bruichladdich

9. Octomore 13.1

Brand: Bruichladdich
Release: Octomore 13.1
ABV: 59.2%
Closure: Cork
Whisky Style: Single Malt

With each release of Octomore, Bruichladdich strives to push the boundaries of what exactly a peated whisky can be. First launched back in 2003, this “super-heavily” peated line of single malt whiskies is known for its robust, smoky, in-your-face flavor profile. Each is made with peat-smoked barley and aged for a minimum of five years. Octomore 13.1 is distilled specifically from 100% Scottish mainland barley harvested in 2015. It’s matured in American oak casks. One taste reveals notes of candied orange peels, dried fruits, caramel candy, vanilla beans, and herbal, earthy, peaty smoke.

Buy it here (Bruichladdich) Buy it here (The Whisky Exchange)

Laphroaig lore

Laphroaig Lore | Image: Dan Murphy’s

10. Laphroaig Lore

Brand: Laphroaig
Release: Lore
ABV: 48%
Closure: Cork
Whisky Style: Single Malt

Laphroaig is another distillery that’s so great that it deserves two expressions on this list. This popular expression was crafted by Laphroaig Distillery Manager John Campbell. Aged in both quarter casks as well as first-fill sherry butts, it’s well-known for its complex, balanced flavour profile featuring hints of vanilla, toffee, dried fruits, chocolate fudge, salty brine, and immersive, rich campfire smoke. The finish is warming, dry, and a mix of salted caramel and peat smoke. It’s the kind of single malt whisky that you’ll want to add to Glencairn glass, take a taste, and then add a few drops of water to really open it up.

Buy it here (Laphroaig) Buy it here (Dan Murphy’s) Buy it here (Master of Malt)

Ardberg 1

Image: Ardberg

Islay Whisky Region

While you can find some smoky whiskies in other parts of Scotland, most of them (and arguably the best, most coveted expressions) come from the Inner Hebrides Island of Islay. This sheep-filled island is 619.6 square kilometres and is currently home to nine distilleries. They are Bowmore, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, and the recently opened Ardnahoe. Not only that but there are also plans to open two more distilleries in the next few years.

This large number of distilleries on such a small, craggy island is nothing new. The first distillery of the bunch to open was Bowmore which had its genesis in 1779. Ardnahoe is by far the newest, opening in 2018. On top of simply having a large number of distilleries on a small island, Islay is also known for its smoky expressions, specifically peat-smoked whiskies.

Rare 1975 ardberg islay single malt 6

Image: Ardberg

Islay Whisky Characteristics

While we know single malt Scotch gets its flavour from the use of barley, most Islay whiskies get their notable smoke from the liberal use of dry, malted barley that’s peat-smoked. The result is a robust, bold, rich, campfire aroma and flavour profile that envelopes all of the other flavours that aging imparts. While peated single malt whiskies are something of an acquired taste, fans of this style of whisky can’t get enough of the briny, salted caramel, oak, and robust campfire smoke-laden expressions from Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, and others. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, Islay whisky is best known for a flavour profile that is:

  • Fiery
  • Heavily peated
  • Salty
  • Loaded with seaweed, brine and apple

Alternatives to Islay Whisky

If you’re not quite aboard the Scotch whisky train or looking for something a little different in the drinking scene, why not check out our articles on some of the other great drams from across the world?

General FAQs

What whiskeys are Islay?

Despite being a relatively small area, Islay is home to some of the world's most revered whisky distilleries. Here, you'll find iconic labels such as Ardbeg, Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin.

What is special about Islay Whisky?

Islay whisky has a very unique series of characteristics that differentiate it from other Scotch regions. Specifically, whisky from Islay is known for its pungent peaty, smoky and oily flavours, which are complemented by a salty component typical of the coastal climate.

CONTRIBUTOR

Christopher Osburn

Christopher Osburn is a pop culture, travel, food, and drinks writer located in New York. He's been writing professionally since 2006 when he got a job as a beer columnist at his local newspaper. Since then, the culture and drinks expert has written for Men's Journal, Thrillist, Esquire, Food & Wine, Uproxx, Matador, Maxim, and many more sites and magazines.