Holiday Gift Guide 2023: The 8 Best Islay Whiskies Of The Year

Islay, the southernmost island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, is renowned for its dense wool and peated whisky—two effective winter warmers that keep its citizens shielded from the brutal cold, wind, and rain that often besets the isle. And while the fabrics are difficult to get a hold of Stateside, the single malts (even the highly coveted ones) are a relative breeze to find online—and therefore make for excellent gifts for the enthusiastic imbiber in your life. So here are eight of the best releases of the year—from ultra smoky classics to two unpeated signature expressions.

Best Islay Whiskies of 2023

Lagavulin Distillers Edition 2023 ($140)

I like to joke that Lagavulin is, in fact, my blood type—because I’ve never had a dram that I didn’t thoroughly (and gleefully) enjoy, whether it’s the classic 16 Year, a Feis Ile expression, or one of the Special Releases. And of course, a treat I look forward to every fall is Lagavulin’s limited-release Distillers Edition. For the uninitiated, Diageo’s annual Distillers Edition series, which was officially launched in 1997, showcases a small selection of fully matured fine single malt whiskies that have been finished in re-charred American oak barrels seasoned with Spanish fortified wine for up to a month. And this year’s Lagavulin Distillers Edition, which clocks in at a relatively sedate 43% ABV, is beyond exquisite—and packs more nuance and heft than its proof would suggest. Having been rested in Pedro Ximénez-seasoned casks, the whisky is honey-sweet on the nose with barely a hint of char. But take that first sip and the phenol-forward campfire flavor that Lagavulin is so well known for awakens and shines—alongside notes of dried stone fruit, grilled pineapple, dark cacao nibs, and toasted cereal. Beyond that, its mouthfeel is oily and luxurious—with a saline-sweet finish that seems to go on forever. And because the sweetness of the PX works so well with the peat, it’s a perfectly balanced Scotch that doesn’t need water to open it up (although it’s fine with a splash or two, if you need it). Drink it solo or pair it with the best coconut cake you can find—I promise you, it’s a divine pairing.

Laphroaig Càirdeas 2023: White Port and Madeira Casks ($115)

When it comes to annual releases, Laphroaig Càirdeas is up there—with its worldwide following of whisky obsessives religiously hunting down the much-anticipated limited-edition bottling. And for damn good reason: Laphroaig likes to do things old school—the way God intended. Take for instance, it’s one of the few distilleries that still uses an actual malting floor. But back to the liquid. This year’s Càirdeas (which means “friendship” in Scottish Gaelic) is quite the treat. Three-quarters of the 104.6-proof whisky was matured in second-fill Madeira casks, while the remaining quarter was finished in first-fill Port casks—most of which were white Port barrels. Those two liquids were then married and the result is a phenomenal medley of complex and nuanced flavor profiles. On the nose you get a faint whiff of macerated ginger, anise, and burnt sugar. And on the palate, Càirdeas 2023 is no doubt an Islay whisky drinkers delight: It’s dark chocolate-covered orange rinds. It’s honeyed challah. It’s iodine and char. It’s perfection in a dram.

Bruichladdich Black Art 11.1 24-Year ($600)

Bruichladdich, one of the few B Corp-certified distilleries in the world, is widely known for its dedication to transparency—and it’s made great strides to make nearly every facet of its operations sustainable. It boasts true farm-to-bottle Islay whiskies, sourcing grain from more than fifteen local farmers and undertaking all of its production within the much-lauded Inner Hebrides island. But all that transparency ends with the Black Art series—which, unlike its infinitely smokier cousin Octomore, is devoid of peat (as is always the case). No one knows exactly what goes into any of the Black Art expressions or what casks are used, save for head distiller Adam Hannett. Hannett, who has carte blanche as to what each of the annual releases is going to be. But here are the few scraps of information that we do know: The casks are “pre-renaissance” from 1994—which means the whisky was distilled before Bruichladdich’s closure (in 1994) and its reopening (in 2001) and the 24-year-old whisky was bottled at a cask strength of 44.2% ABV. On the nose, the aromas first come out as faint until citrus and floral notes come to the fore—alongside vanilla praline. On the palate, the whisky delivers a rich banana custard, complemented by a touch of marzipan and just a teeny bit of very ripe tangerines.

Bowmore x Aston Martin Masters’ Selection Third Edition: 22-Year ($425)

Bowmore master blender Ron Welsh and Aston Martin chief creative officer Mark Reichman have certainly outdone themselves this year with the third installment of their acclaimed collaboration: the Masters’ Selection. The 22-year-old whisky, which comes in at a substantial 51.5% ABV, is a combination of liquid from 1997 and 2000 that’s been matured in Oloroso-seasoned casks, European oak, and American oak hogsheads. And as Bowmore aficionados might suspect, this expression is milder, sweeter, and much more balanced—with just a whisper of smoke. (The distillery, after all, has a reputation for not overdoing the peat.) Notes of salted warm caramel, vanilla bean, tangerine peel, and a touch of berries give the whisky its richness and luxuriously viscous mouthfeel. And that everlasting finish is the stuff of whisky dreams. In the creation of every individual Bowmore, we undertake an endless search for depth; of character, of flavor and with every step we capture the very essence of the past 240 years,” Welsh said.

Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Year: Batch 5 ($355)

Now in its fifth year, this 19-year-old permanent expression from Ardbeg is named after Islay’s Tráigh Bhan beach (affectionately known among locals as Singing Sands)—and it’s developed quite the following among the distillery’s dedicated followers, of which there are many. And for good reason: It’s one of Ardbeg’s more balanced bottlings, where peat and sweet come together just so. In this latest release, the 92.4-proof whisky—matured in ex-bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks—has a lot going on. First: There’s no denying the peat smoke, maritime notes, and char typical of Islay whiskies, but because we’re talking about Ardbeg here, it’s especially pronounced. But all of that campfire goodness is complemented by the sweetness imbued by the Oloroso, delivering a multitude of tropical profiles reminiscent of passionfruit, barely ripe mangoes, and green guava. As you make your way down the dram, the whisky evolves further and you’ll start to get toffee and semi-burnt bacon slathered in maple syrup.

Bunnahabhain 12 Year Cask Strength: 2023 Edition ($115)

It’s finally here: The third edition of Bunnahabhain’s unpeated 12-Year Cask Strength. The series, which was conceived in 2021, aims to bring to the Scotch-loving masses what was once made available only to visitors of Bunnahabhain’s Warehouse 9: the distillery’s undiluted (and much-celebrated) 12 year old. And this year’s release—the strongest of the three—is a beauty. At 120.2-proof, it packs quite the punch with the kind of concentrated flavors that highlight hints of baking spices and freshly cracked tellicherry peppercorns—all while retaining the distinctive honey-sweet notes from the first- and second-fill Oloroso casks chosen by master blender Julieann Fernandez. Upon first sip, you’ll instantly get some heat—due to the expression’s alcohol content. But once you add a splash of water to open up the whisky’s bouquet, you’ll find a graceful ballet of flavors—ranging from pineapple, poached pear, morello cherries, and chocolate-covered caramel. With its prolonged finish, I recommend pairing it with your favorite cigar.

Smokehead Tequila Cask Terminado ($80)

Smokehead—by Ian Macleod Distillers, a family-owned, Scotland-based independent bottler and blender—is one of those brands that hasn’t yet fully reached mainstream American Scotch drinkers. But it’s one to take note of, considering its peat-forward experimental expressions—such as a stout finish, a Caribbean rum finish, and an explosively smoky whisky with a “mouth-numbing finish.” It’s important to note that the team behind Smokehead fancy themselves as “rebels without a pause” and you’ve got to respect that kind of thinking in an industry that has, for the most part, been rooted in conventionality, tradition, and deference to the status quo. So it’s refreshing, to say the least. And Smokehead’s latest release, the Tequila Cask Terminado, which clocks in at 43% ABV and was matured in ex-bourbon barrels before resting in aged tequila casks. The result is unusual—in the best way: toffee and meringue take a back seat to notes orange rind, charred pineapple, and roasted agave. And while it’s quite the pour on its own, its signature serve—The Palominado, a fiery take on the classic Paloma—makes for a solid cocktail no matter the season.

Compass Box Peat Monster Cask Strength: 20th Anniversary ($111)

Now in its 20th year, Compass Box’s Peat Monster—a cult favorite among whisky drinkers in the know—is commemorating the milestone with a limited-edition bottling that celebrates how the annual expression first came to be: as a collaboration between Park Avenue Liquors’ Jonathan Goldstein and Compass Box founder John Glaser. Bottled at 56.7% ABV, this smoke bomb of a whisky was made with a highly fine-tuned blend composed of Williamson Islay Malt, aged in refill American oak hogsheads (35%); malt whisky from Islay’s Caol Ila Distillery, aged in refill American oak hogsheads (34.2%), ex-bourbon barrels (17.9%), and refill puncheons (11.8%); and a Highland malt blend aged in bespoke, heavily toasted French oak barrels (1.1%). Beyond that, fifty percent of the whisky lived in grain-seasoned American white oak casks—with a #2 char— from Independent Stave Company. And let me tell you: This stuff is a winner, if you’re into big, bold hits of smoke, tobacco, barbecue char, and leather—complemented by rich hints of vanilla and saline seaweed.

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