Well, it is that time again - the time when we reveal our Top 10 whiskies from the previous year. This always proves to be one of the most fun posts to write and one of the most popular with readers. It also allows us some time to reflect on what has happened during the whisky year. Personally we attended nearly 60 events or whisky shows, numerous press trips and distilleries, and sampled and reviewed over 100 whiskies.
2016 seemed a year of innovation and experimentation that saw big brands and smaller producers alike pushing the boundaries and released a wide spectrum of products to an ever-growing consumer base. Some of these products have impressed us and are included in our Top 10. They sit alongside more traditional whiskies that could well become modern classics.
Any Top 10 is always subjective and ours is no different. Our criteria generally include quality, value for money and availability. We are sure that some will agree with our choices and some will disagree - after all, it has happened every year that we have been doing this. This year's selection ranges in price from £25 to £16,000 a bottle. Here is our Top 10 for 2016 in alphabetical order.
One of the first new releases of the year was also one of the best. It was the first ever bottling from the Lowland distillery of Ailsa Bay, which was only founded in 2007, and the release created plenty of interest amongst whisky fans - people always want to taste what a new distillery's spirit is like. The distillery is designed to make three different styles of whisky and the owners cleverly chose to release the smoky/peaty expression. This is different from any other Lowland whisky on the market and presented a light, delicate and sweet single malt but with a pleasant level of peat smoke.
Ardbeg Dark Cove
Each year the cult Islay distillery of Ardbeg release a limited edition. Interest is always high and the bottles sell out fast. This year's offering, named Dark Cove after the history of illicit distilling on Islay, was no different in those respects but was one of the best such releases of recent years. There was a cask strength version bottled for Ardbeg Committee members and a 46.5% ABV version that went out to retailers, which was the one we sampled. The whisky was predominantly matured in ex-sherry casks, which is unusual for Ardbeg, and this created a lovely rich and smoky whisky with great balance.
Black Bowmore 50 years old - The Last Cask
Amidst all of the super premium and expensive whisky releases of 2016, one arguably stood taller than the rest - the fifth and final part of the now legendary Black Bowmore series. The single cask was distilled in November 1964 and yielded just 159 bottles, which cost £16k each. The release also signalled the final act of the retiring former Distillery Manager Eddie MacAffer, who retired shortly afterwards following just over 50 years at the Islay distillery.
It was a huge privilege to be at the launch on Islay and The Last Cask was an extraordinary, exquisite, sublime and complex single malt the like of which we have rarely sampled. A true highlight of not just the year, but our whisky career. Maybe not a whisky for everyone, but definitely a whisky for someone.
Glenfiddich IPA Experiment
One of the biggest 'experimental' launches of the year saw Glenfiddich, the hugely popular Scotch single malt brand, release this impressive whisky. They worked in collaboration with a small Speyside craft brewery, who produced a special IPA beer for the process. The whisky was then aged for a short time in the casks that had housed this beer. The result, which launched the new Experimental Series along with the lovely Project XX release, was a delicious and citrusy play on the traditional Glenfiddich house style. Great value for money also at just £45 a bottle.
Glen Grant 18 years old
This wonderful whisky from Glen Grant formed part of a revamped single malt range from the distillery that was introduced in mid-2016. This range also featured two other new whiskies, both at 12 years old - one was at regular strength and one at a higher cask strength. All were good but it was the 18 years old that shone through. A classic and well made Speyside single malt that shows exactly what Glen Grant is all about. Soft, gentle, fruity and sweet with a delicacy that belies its age. Even Jim Murray liked it and voted it his Scotch of the Year in the 2017 Whisky Bible. A superb whisky and well priced for an 18 years old these days.
Glen Moray Sherry Cask Finish
The best value new whisky of the year arguably goes to this lovely malt from the Speyside distillery of Glen Moray. The Sherry Cask Finish joined the core range alongside the Elgin Classic, Classic Peated and the Port Cask Finish (our personal favourite of the lot). The new expression comes in at an excellent £25 a bottle in most retailers, which is difficult to beat on the quality vs price scale. This whisky has been matured in ex-American oak casks before seeing a minimum of eight months finishing in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. The results is sweet and fruity, and the whole range shows the versatility of the Glen Moray spirit well.
This whisky was the second and final part of the limited edition Nordic Giants series from the Highland Park Distillery in the Orkneys. It followed on from the Ice Edition, the first part from earlier in 2016, and is named after Surtr, the evil giant that ruled the Fire Realm in Norse mythology. The whisky is 15 years of age and spent its full maturation period in re-fill ex-Port casks. Both Ice and Fire were good but the Fire pipped it for us with its extra richness, sweetness and fruitiness. Great depth, complexity and flavour.
Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish
Another of the big 'experimental' launches of the year saw Johnnie Walker, the world's biggest selling Scotch whisky brand, rolling out the first bottlings in its new Blender's Batch series. The first and most widely available of these was the Red Rye Finish, which was developed by Master Blender Jim Beveridge and his team and features just four whiskies - these including single grain from the now closed Port Dundas distillery, and has been matured in first fill ex-bourbon casks and then finished for six months in ex-rye whiskey casks. We cannot wait to see what the rest of the series may reveal. Only time will tell.
Lagavulin 8 years old
2016 saw the Islay distillery of Lagavulin celebrate its 200th anniversary and kick off the year with this whisky, the first of a number to commemorate the bicentenary. The release was inspired by legendary whisky writer Alfred Barnard who visited Lagavulin on his epic trip to every distillery in Scotland in the late 1880s. He wrote about tasting a fine 8 years old and this version was a superb example of how good a younger whisky can be. It is light, sweet and with plenty of smoke, all in balance. If we had a Whisky of the Year, then this would be very close to winning. Good value too at around the £50 mark.
Redbreast Lustau Edition
Last year saw plenty of new Irish whiskey products released to the market, including some from the ever-growing number of new distilleries in the country. None was better than this offering that joined the excellent Redbreast single pot still range. The bottling celebrates the long relationship between Irish Distillers and the Emilio Lustau bodega in Jerez, Spain. The whiskey has been finished for one year in specially selected casks that previously held Lustau's Oloroso sherry. The final product is a class act and is another that would contend for top spot if we had to choose a winner.
It is always difficult to choose a definitive Top 10, especially as we sampled so many very good whiskies during 2016. There are a few others worthy of mention and these include old single malts such as the wonderful Ardbeg 21 years old, Benromach 1974, Lagavulin 25 years old and Tomatin 1971. We were privileged to taste them all.
Our favourite single grain whisky of the year was the Cambus 40 years old from the Diageo Special Releases. Other highlights include a couple of delicious Irish offerings - Jameson Cooper's Croze and Tullamore DEW Phoenix - and Rampur Select, a delightfully quirky Indian malt.
We hope that 2017 gives as much quality and variety for the consumer. Please let us know what your favourite whisky of 2016 was via the comments section or on our social media. We would love to hear.