The Islands Region of Scotch whisky is one of the most diverse and expansive. The “region” is technically still a sub-region of the Highlands in that it encompasses pretty much all the islands around Scotland’s Highland region to the north and west (and slightly southwest) except for Islay, which is its own one-island region.
That all translates to a rich and varied Scotch whisky scene that spans serious peat monsters and unpeated sweet whiskies touched by the sea. But because of that wild variation, purists still argue about whether or not the “Islands” even qualify as a unified region. Going deeper, there is a throughline of seaside distilling and aging that does give these Island whiskies a united front and deeper seaside flavor profile, but that’s not a be-all-end-all flavor note by any stretch.
But I’m not here to debate Scottish legal regional definitions. I’m here to help you dig into this specific regional style. To that end, I’m calling out ten of my favorite bottles from the region’s nine active distilleries (the Isle of Barra distillery is already operating but they’ve yet to release a whisky). These are whiskies made on Mull, Skye, Orkney, Lewis, Jura, Raasay, and Arran. And I’d argue that they’re some of the best Scotland has to offer. Let’s dive in!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Scotch Whisky Posts of The Last Six Months
10. Isle of Raasay Sherry Cask Finished Single Malt Whisky (Raasay)
Average Price: $102
This Island malt was aged in ex-Woodford Reserve rye barrels for an undisclosed amount of time before a finishing spell in Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry quarter casks. Those whisky barrels were then vatted and bottled as-is.
The whisky’s nose opens with dashes of green peppercorns next to a line of smoked almonds and plums with a hint of medicinal menthol in the background. The palate mixes freshly ground nutmeg with clove-spiked orange rinds as a creamy almond paste leads to a wintry mulled wine sour red fruit with a light sweetness and smoked plum vibe. The end is full of earthy and almost floral smoke next to more of that almond paste and mulled wine sour spiciness.
This is a good place to start, especially if you’re looking for something very new. This Hebridean distillery is very new and fresh and dropping great expressions right now.
All of that said, pour this over a rock to let it bloom in the glass and mellow out that fruity smoke.
9. Scapa Skiren (Orkney)
Average Price: $68
This unpeated malt from Orkney starts its life on a barrel-shaped Lomond wash still. This still from the 1950s is super rare and only a few are left in operation. The whisky then spends an undisclosed amount of years mellowing barrels from Tennessee and Kentucky. Those barrels are then vatted and proofed all the way down to 40 percent before bottling.
Old apple skins and floral honey lead the way on the nose with a hint of sour cream and roasted almond with a thin line of salt. The taste has a slight damp straw funk to it as more honey smooths out the mid-palate with notes of dry anise and licorice leading to a touch of lemon pepper spice. The finish has a note of old oak stave next to a lemon creaminess and that honey sweetness with a fair amount of that proofing water calming everything down.
This is an interesting pour. It’s varied but very light. It’s interesting while being super easy to drink. Still, I’d mostly use this for highballs or on the rocks applications.
8. Abhainn Dearg Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky (Lewis)
ABV: 58% +
Average Price: $115
This whiskey from the Outer Hebrides is a peaty malt. The whisky is made from barley grown on the Isle of Lewis and malted at Abhainn Dearg. The juice is mellowed in sherry and finished in various casks — PX, Oloroso, Rioja, Sauternes — before vatting and bottling as-is.
This opens with a funky bouquet of moldy old roses next to burnt moss and plenty of minced meat pie spice and date sweetness and leatheriness. The palate is full of oceanic fats with a hint of tinniness to it next to smoked plums and Christmas spices with a hint of old driftwood and a twinge of umami that’s nearly tomato paste. The end is aromatic and bitter with a rush of cloves and anise before the sweeter dark fruits come back on the finish.
This is really all over the place and funky but sort of just works. It really needs a rock to calm it down and let it bloom. Still, this is so funky that it might be a hard sell for anyone looking for an easy drinking experience.
7. Tobermory 12 (Mull)
Average Price: $84
This unpeated malt from the Isle of Mull spends 12 years aging in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels (those are barrels that haven’t had anything but bourbon in them so far). Once that whisky is just right, the juice is transferred to new American oak barrels for nine more months of mellowing before bottling at cask strength with no fussing whatsoever.
Bourbon vanilla comes through on the nose with a deep creaminess that’s punctuated by orange zest, woody cinnamon, and a light hint of granite. The palate leans into warm and soft malts as soft hints of orchard fruit lead to pencil shavings and a touch of chili-chocolate tobacco. The end is a mix of winter spices with a woody edge next to soft suede, more vanilla cream, and soft maltiness that’s nearly chocolate custard.
This is one of those bottles that are just nice. It’s not going to blow any socks off, but it doesn’t need to. It’s an easy sipper, especially over a rock or two that also makes a really solid cocktail.
6. Jura Seven Wood
Average Price: $80
The juice from Jura is aged in ex-bourbon for an undisclosed amount of years. The whisky is then re-casked in seven barrels: first-fill ex-bourbon from the U.S. and Vosges, Bertranges, Jupilles, Allier, Tronçais, and Limousin barrels from France. The ripple here is that all of those French barrels were new (never held wine) when the whisky went in.
This is shockingly un-woody. Instead, you get a burnt coffee note next to a dark chocolate bar cut with candied ginger and, maybe, a hint of strawberry. Black licorice arrives with a note of burnt orange peels and grilled peaches with a drop of honey next to a wisp of beach campfire smoke. The end lingers for just the right amount of time as the distant smoke fades, leaving a hint of sea spray, cacao, and burnt fruit.
This has a nice balance to it but ultimately feels kind of entry-level. The lower ABVs don’t help but don’t hold it back either. Look at it this way, this is a good way to end the bottom five of this ranking — this is good but not “OMG” great.
5. Torabhaig Allt Gleann (Skye)
Average Price: $60
The Torabhaig Distillery is the new kid on the block on the Isle of Skye. This whisky is made from heavily peated malts and blended to highlight the seaside vibe of that northern island. The whisky was made back in 2018 from two bespoke barley varieties. It then went into first-fill and re-fill ex-bourbon casks before a touch of water for proofing and bottling as-is.
The nose on this one is subtly maritime with a hint of sea spray on cold grey rocks mingling with soft nutmeg, lemon and vanilla-laced shortbread, oyster shells, and a hint of burnt newspaper. The palate leans into smoked salmon skins with a thick line of belly fat still attached as woody spices and dried apple skins lead to a sweet fruit throughline. The finish has a hint of fennel and rye next to more sea spray, pepperiness, and a minor note of Band-Aid.
This is a big and bold peated whisky. It does really lean into the seaside aspects of the Isle of Skye with that fishy fattiness and cold rocky beach vibe. Overall, this is a great dram if you’re looking for something briny and fruity, but it might be a little too turnt up on that iodine-y peatiness for some.
4. Arran Barrel Reserve (Arran)
Average Price: $58
This Island’s whisky is all about reaching over the pond. The 100 percent unpeated malted barley juice is aged exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels (for an undisclosed amount of time) before it’s vatted, proofed, and bottled as-is to highlight that barrel.
This has a nose full of ripe apples and pears with stems and cores alongside soft and damp cedar and chewy vanilla-laced toffee. The palate counters with grapefruit pith, silken vanilla cream, and apple butter brimming with dark spice. The finish comes about with a singed cedar bark feel next to soft powdery spices, orange oils, and a very light vanilla ice cream scoop.
This is one of the easiest drinking whiskies on this list. It’s subtle and well-rounded. It works really well on the rocks or in a cocktail. It’s also very familiar, which does drop it in this ranking slightly.
3. Ledaig 18-Year Single Malt (Mull)
Average Price: $310
Sticking with the Tobermory Distillery on Mull, this brand is all about the peat. The whisky was made to mimic the hardcore peated whiskies of the 1700s that were made in the Inner Hebrides. That heavily peated barley is mixed with local spring water for fermentation. Finally, the whisky spends 18 years in used oak before a finishing spell in Oloroso sherry casks.
This opens with a nose full of smoked apple and pear chips with a woody underbelly next to dates and prunes swimming in dark spices and honey with a touch of sweet cherrywood. The palate leans into the spice with a mix of ground ginger, allspice, clove, nutmeg, and maybe some mace as fatty pork belly smokiness adds some serious depth and creaminess. The finish has a malty chocolate vibe that leads to more smoky fat, woody spice, and dark leather fruit on the very end.
Okay, we’re into the seriously good stuff now. These top three are all more of a mood than a one, two, or three rankings. This is bold and fruity while still having a good peaty depth tied to a nostalgic backyard bbq. This might be more your vibe, especially during the summer months.
2. Highland Park 15 Years Old Viking Heart (Orkney)
Average Price: $110
Highland Park’s Master Whisky Maker Gordon Motion hand-picked sherry seasoned American oak barrels of single malt to create this new expression. The whisky is then decanted/bottled in a throwback ceramic bottle from Wade Ceramics, which has been making bottles like this since the early 1800s.
Even though this is a peated whisky, the nose is all about bright notes of orange and lemon oils with a deep vanilla sauce vibe, a touch of dried heather, and old sticks of cider-soaked cinnamon. The palate lets the smoke sneak in via grilled pineapple that turns towards smoked plums, soft and moist Christmas cake with plenty of dried fruits, and a sense of cinnamon-flecked tobacco leaves that have just been singed around the edges. The peat sneaks in late via an almost sea salt element that lets the orange oils, vanilla, and cinnamon tobacco all mellow towards a silky finish.
The Bottom Line:
The subtly of this peated whisky is astounding. It’s so nuanced yet deep and inviting. It’s fruity but not overly sweet. The brininess is dailed way back before mellow spices and creamy vanilla. It’s just a really nice pour all around, especially on a rock.
1. Talisker 18 (Skye)
Average Price: $252
This is a classic single malt that also happens to hold the title of “Best Single Malt Whisky in the World” from the World Whiskies Awards. The iconic juice is rendered in Talisker’s bespoke stills and then spends nearly two decades resting in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry barrels, like most of the true classic single malts.
This is subtle. The nose has a light yet clear sense of ripe plums, orange oils, buttery toffee, and an almost sour apple next to a distant whiff of briny campfire smoke from one beach over. The orange oils remain on the palate as eggnog spices peek in gently, with hints of that butter toffee driving a rich silkiness. The smoke remains in the distance as the spices warm your senses and the meaty fruit takes the edge off on the slow and satisfying fade.
Full disclosure, this is one of my all-time favorite drams. So, yeah, this was going to be first on any Islands Scotch whisky list.
All of that aside, this is a subtle masterpiece of maritime whisky making combined with a soft peated depth and true nuance and balance. This is the whisky to buy on this list. It’ll take you to new heights and might just make you a peated whisky fan for life.