Calling out the year’s “best Scotch whisky” feels very subjective. And for the most part… it is. You’re relying on my expert opinion as a whisky critic, judge, and consultant. You have to give me a level of trust based on my whisky palate (something I’ve been developing my entire adult life). I can assure you that I take that trust very seriously, and I take calling out something as the “best” as a solemn assignment.
So when I announced yesterday that Talisker 30 is the best Scotch whisky of 2023, I meant it in my bones.
This year’s Talisker Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged for 30 Years is both divine and special. The “divine” aspect is admittedly where the subjectivity comes in — so we’ll get to that later. Let’s focus on the objective fact that this is a truly special expression of Scotch whisky, full stop. First and foremost, Talisker is one of the most unique distilleries in the world. The nearly 200-year-old distillery is nestled on the quiet Loch Harport in the tiny village of Carbost on the Isle of Skye off the northwest coast of Scotland. The Oyster Shed next door has informed generations of whisky makers as they’ve refined the process of making Talisker all those years, and that shines through in the final products.
But perhaps more importantly the slow life and subdued pace of the surrounding region also informs one of the most delicately peated whiskies on the market today. Yes, this is a peated whisky but it’s never a medicinal smoke bomb or ash/asphalt-driven sipping experience. Talisker has this balance of bright fruits and seaside vibes that don’t square on paper but somehow sing on your senses — hence, it being beloved for generations.
What makes 2023’s Talisker 30 so special is the process. The softly peated malts are slow-fermented in old washbacks that have seen eons of yeast, water, and malt pass through them — think of this like a well-seasoned pan in an old professional kitchen that’s been producing the best food in the region for centuries. Once that distiller’s beer has just the right balance of fruity tang and alcohol volume, the juice is then distilled through old copper pot stills that are cooled by a special line of pipe that runs outside and into a wood vat that’s fed with seawater (from mere feet away) to cool the steam into the spirit — a process wholly unique to Talisker.
Finally, that spirit was left to rest in refill ex-bourbon casks (casks that were already used for aging Scotch whisky at least once before) for 30 long years in a warehouse a few feet away from both the stillhouse and the sea. Amazingly, the angels were light in taking their share of the barrels that made it to 30 years, and we were gifted with a beautiful elixir.
Over those years, the whisky took on a different vibe entirely. Science became magic. Stuart Morrison, Diageo’s Master Blender and Whisky Specialist, breaks it down for us:
“As the spirit aged through its twenties, the fruit flavors became even more complex, giving us fragrant tropical notes and the peppery smokiness that moves from coal-tar to a warming, smoldering bonfire.”
This process reminds me of the Lincoln County Process that Tennessee whiskey produces uses. Bear with me. That process — in a very broad brushstroke — of filtering hot distillate through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal strips the heavy oils from the distillate left by the grains, allowing the softer fruitier yeast notes to shine through before aging. Then those fruity notes become the dominant factor as the whiskey ages on new American oak. Talisker is going through something similar but in a very different way. Instead of accelerating the stripping of the heavy peated grain notes via charcoal filtering, they’re using time — and a lot of it — for those heavy oily chemical phenols to fade away on their own, leaving those fruity yeast esters to take center stage all while the thick sea air slowly makes it mark decade after decade until this whisky turns into something completely new and unique.
The French call it “merroir” in that the terroir is driven by the sea instead of the land.
Time, space, and place are what makes this bottle of whisky so damn special. And you cannot replicate that with science or engineering. This is magic that simply takes time and we get to taste that magic in each glass of this whisky. So let’s dive into what’s actually in the pour:
The nose is soft and subtle to an almost shocking level. You’re best suited to pour this one and let it rest in the glass for a good 10 minutes before you start your journey. Once the whisky takes on some air, this soft sense of a smoldering beach campfire will start to sneak in from far down a rainy beach as someone puts nori in the embers. And just then, the nose shifts towards this buttery rich dark chocolate over dried cranberries, currants, and huckleberries with a good pinch of sea salt next to a fleeting sense of seafood chowder loaded with bacon, clams, gently smoked salmon, freshly cracked black pepper, and oyster crackers.
The first sip brings that nori-filled campfire a step closer as the wet grey and black rocks of a pebbly beach crunch underfoot. The chowder takes on a mild sense of smoked salmon fat and oyster liqueur before seared peaches come into play with a fleeting moment of pear brandy over marzipan, adding a whole new dimension to the mid-palate of the sip. Then this faint moment of malt arrives like a salted oat milk cut with nutmeg, clove, and soft white pepper (that cask strength coming through).
The finish is like getting kissed by merfolk on a beach next to a campfire that’s heating a cauldron full of spicy stewed peaches in more of that smoked cream before this beautiful sense of the nori-stacked campfire fades back into the far distance and the pear brandy, grilled peaches, and soft orchard leaves mellow the final notes toward a delicate warm hug from your dearest relative.
This, folks, is where the “divine” comes into play and the subjectivity of my palate. This whisky speaks to my youth growing up in the Pacific Northwest. After all, I can only tell you what I sense based on my lifetime of building my palate. There’s more here beyond my sense memories, though — and that’s exciting. You’ll surely find things that I do not when you sip this whisky.
This is a sipping whisky through and through. It’s so balanced yet runs this gamut of vibrant, deep, and dark while being bright and refreshing. Over a single rock, that creaminess mounts with the fruit, creating an almost cream pie vibe before hitting reminiscent notes of eggnog, mocha espresso, and oyster bisque with a sense of the campfire fading further down that rainy rocky beach until you start to sense the dry grasses of the hills more than the sea breeze.
While you can drink this neat, add water. Let this bloom in the glass to experience that deeper whisky. Pour it over a single rock and see what you find there too. And then … make a Manhattan with this (well, Rob Roy technically). It’ll be astounding. That creamy smokiness with a light and floral French sweet vermouth, a hint of orange oils, and a touch of Angostura spice will elevate this whisky into the stars. Add a smoked brandied cherry and you’ll be dialed in for one of the best cocktails of your life.
All of this leads us to the elephant in the room. This is not an everyday experience for most whisky drinkers. There were only 3,195 bottles released this year and only 561 made it to the U.S. market. The price is steep. Expect to pay around $1,500 at retail. But it is 100% available for the right price right now. If you’re out of the “full bottle” convo, a bar pour of this will be closer to $150 an ounce (maybe more).
The good news is that Talisker 30 is also going to be a yearly release for the first time (another reason this expression is special this year). The last Talisker 30 dropped in 2021 after an even longer hiatus. Going forward, there will be a Talisker 30 release every year for the foreseeable future. It’s very exciting, as anyone who gets to taste this dram will surely agree!