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Entry-Level Single Malt Scotch Whiskies From Islay, Ranked

The island of Islay may not be particularly large but it holds gigantic sway over the world of Scotch whisky. The sheep-filled interior and craggy shores of the island are also home to nine (including the recently opened Ardnahoe) distilleries. With names like Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bunnahabhain, and Laphroaig, the Islay whiskies are some of the most respected single malts in the world.

Known for their rich, smoky flavor notes — thanks to the use of peat-smoked barley — Islay single malts usually aren’t the first foray most drinkers take into the world of Scotch. Neophytes typically level up to these briny, campfire-infused drams after enjoying softer, sweeter whiskies from Speyside and the more lightly peated Highlands expressions.

Once drinkers are ready for Islay single malts, they’d be wise to crawl before they walk. Test some entry-level expressions that won’t overpower the palate. That’s where these well-known expressions come in. They’re a leaping-off point — both in terms of smoke and price. Perfect for the newcomer.

For this test, we re-sipped the entry-level expressions from eight of Islay’s distilleries (Ardnahoe hasn’t yet released its own expressions yet). Check the ranking out below and click on prices to order a bottle for yourself.

8) Laphroaig 10

Laphroaig

ABV: 43%
Average Price: $65

The Story:

One of the most iconic Islay whiskies ever made, Laphroaig 10 is distilled in the traditional style using malted barley that’s cold-smoked before being dried over peat smoke. Aged for ten years in ex-bourbon barrels, this expression is known for its unique, briny-smoky flavor matrix.

Tasting Notes:

This award-winning whisky begins with notable aromas of iodine, seaweed, ocean brine, and rich peat smoke. The palate is filled with vanilla beans, cracked black pepper, salted caramel, and a lot of peaty smoke. The finish is warming, dry, slightly medicinal with a heavy dose of smoked bacon.

Bottom Line:

Fans of Laphroaig can’t get enough of it. Others find the medicinal, band-aid, briny flavor mixed with peat smoke to be a little aggressive. We tend to agree.

7) Bunnahabhain 12

Bunnahabhain

ABV: 46.3%
Average Price: $55

The Story:

Even though Islay is known for its peat-smoked whiskies, this doesn’t mean every expression must follow suit. While Bunnahabhain does make some peaty expressions, its 12-year-old offering isn’t one of them. This entry-level expression is matured in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks.

This results in a tremendously mellow, sweet, subtly nutty whisky.

Tasting Notes:

Before sipping, drinkers enjoy the aromas of raisins, dried cherries, sweet vanilla, plus just a wisp of smoke. It’s nothing like the smoke in other entry-level Islay malts. The palate is surprisingly fruity, with fresh berries — notably Bing cherries — countered by buttery caramel, subtle cinnamon, and creamy vanilla. It all ends with a warming, sweet finish.

Bottom Line:

If you’re hoping for a smoky, peaty whisky to start your Islay journey, this isn’t it. The smoke is extremely subtle and is only used to accentuate the other fruity flavors. This lack of smoke is the main reason this expression wasn’t ranked higher (it’s an Islay-based ranking, after all).

6) Kilchoman Machir Bay

Kilchoman

ABV: 46%
Average Price: $65

The Story:

Kilchoman doesn’t have the name recognition of some of the other Islay distilleries but the distillery certainly crafts some high-quality single malts. This includes the entry-level Machir Bay. This peaty, smoky whisky was aged in both ex-bourbon casks and Oloroso sherry butts.

Tasting Notes:

This complex whisky begins with scents of orange marmalade, vanilla cookies, toffee, and gentle, rich peaty smoke. Sipping it reveals notes of dried cherries, raisins, buttery caramel, subtle spice, and a brinier, bacon-ish smoke. It ends with a combination of sweet sherry and rich smoke.

Bottom Line:

This is the single malt for fans of sherries whiskies who want to try what Islay has to offer. The sweet, dried fruits and sherry flavors work in perfect harmony with the robust peat.

5) Ardbeg 10

Ardbeg

ABV: 46%
Average Price: $60

The Story:

This is where things start to get tricky. There isn’t much separating the top five whiskies (and pretty much all eight). Ardbeg 10 is the iconic distillery’s flagship expression. This non-chill filtered, ten-year-old whisky is well known as one of the smokiest, peatiest, most robust beginner Islay bottles ever created.

Tasting Notes:

This nose has everything an Islay single malt fan could want. There are aromas of candied orange peels, toasted vanilla beans, butterscotch, dried fruits, and a ton of rich peat. The palate is highlighted by buttery caramel, various baking spices, sticky toffee pudding, lemon curd, and peat smoke. The finish is smoky, sweet, and sure to be a significant departure for smoke newbies.

Bottom Line:

If you stop right here, you’ll be more than happy with your choice. That is if you enjoy a wallop of peat smoke. Otherwise, move on and try some of the other options that we ranked (ever so) slightly higher.

4) Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie

Bruichladdich

ABV: 46%
Average Price: $70

The Story:

Bruichladdich makes its fair share of smoke bombs, but it does so under the names of Octomore and Port Charlotte. The Bruichladdich whiskies, including The Classic Laddie, are un-peated. This 100% Scottish barley-based single malt was aged in American oak barrels and has none of the smoky character of most Islay whiskies.

It sure is good though. And a great value.

Tasting Notes:

Unlike its smokier rivals, the nose on this expression is all candied orange peels, dried fruits, and clover honey — with just a kiss of ocean brine. Not a hint of smoke is found in the aroma. Once you sip it, you’ll be transported to a world of butterscotch, buttered toffee, sugar cookies, raisins, and subtle spices.

Bottom Line:

In between samplings of Octomore and Port Charlotte, The Classic Laddie is a welcome respite. It’s sweet, flavorful, and mellow. It may not be smoky, but it excels in so many other departments that it deserves to be one of your first Islay single malts.

3) Lagavulin 16

Lagavulin

ABV: 43%
Average Price: $99

The Story:

Lagavulin is a sneaky distillery. While other Islay distilleries are content with offering ten and 12 -year-old entry-level expressions, Lagavulin’s sits at 16 years (although it does release eight and 12-year expressions at various times). One of the most beloved single malt whiskies in the world, Lagavulin 16 is rich, dry, warming, and brimming with peaty, campfire smoke.

Tasting Notes:

Known as one of the smokiest whiskies from Islay, the robust, peaty smoke is at the forefront of the nose. This is followed by vanilla cream and slightly spicy, medicinal flavors. The palate is filled with dried cherries, raisins, toffee, charred wood, and a massive wallop of smoky bacon. The ending is a perfect combination of fruity sweetness and peat smoke.

Bottom Line:

Lagavulin 16 might not seem like an entry-level whisky, but it truly is. The best part? While it could be the first smoky Scotch you try, you’ll likely continue drinking it for years to come.

2) Caol Ila 12

Caol Ila

ABV: 43%
Average Price: $65

The Story:

One of the most underrated single malt Scotch whiskies, Caol Ila 12 was first launched in 2002. Since then, it’s gained countless fans because of its light, mellow, easy-to-drink nature with just the right amount of peat smoke to make you realize where it’s from.

Tasting Notes:

Before taking a sip, you’d be smart to give this whisky a proper nosing. If you do, you’ll be met with hints of smoky bacon, orange marmalade, vanilla beans, and a nice herbal backbone. The palate is loaded with dried fruits, sugar cookies, nutty sweetness, and a nice kiss of rich, robust peat smoke at the finish.

Bottom Line:

Few single malts ease you into the world of peat-smoked whiskies better than Caol Ila 12. While some expressions lean heavily into the smoky aspect, this whisky uses it as a complement to other flavors.

1) Bowmore 12

Bowmore

ABV: 40%
Average Price: $65

The Story:

Even though some of the distilleries grab more headlines, Bowmore is actually the oldest distillery on the island, founded in 1779. Its entry-level expression Bowmore 12 is, in our opinion, the best the island has to offer newbies. This award-winning whisky is complex, well-balanced, and filled with sweet caramel and gentle peaty smoke.

Tasting Notes:

Before sipping, breathe in the scents of butterscotch, vanilla, oak, clover honey, dried citrus peels, and peat smoke. On the palate, look for notes of sugar cookies, almond essence, chocolate fudge, and more briny campfire smoke. The finish is sweet, smoky, and savory.

Bottom Line:

If you only pick one entry-level Islay single malt, make it Bowmore 12. This is the most well-balanced, easy-to-drink expression on this list. It’s definitely not to be missed.


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