Islay whiskies were already my favorite in the world when I first visited the remote Scottish island in 2016. And as much as I love the rich, peated single malts produced at its nine working distilleries, it’s really the lush, wild landscape I fell in love with. (Also, you have to love any place where the sheep outnumber the people.)
This year saw the release of many new Islay whiskies—including Nick Offerman’s third collaboration with Lagavulin and the exquisite Ardbeg Ardcore. And in the next year, the vaunted Port Ellen distillery is expected to fire up its stills for the first time in 40 years.
Until then, here are the best new Islay releases of 2022.
The Best Islay Whiskies of 2022
In the world of Islay whisky obsessives, Laphroaig Càirdeas is a much-anticipated annual release—and rightly so. Laphroaig, one of the few legacy distilleries that still makes use of a traditional malting floor, has produced hit after hit throughout the years. And this year’s Càirdeas (which means “friendship” in Scottish Gaelic, by the way) is especially interesting: The robust 104.4-proof expression was fully matured in first-fill Maker’s Mark bourbon casks—all strategically placed in the distillery’s four-story Warehouse 1, which is exposed to the sea and known to imbue Laphroaig’s whisky with the rich and briny maritime notes Islay is most prized for. On the palate, the whisky is as lush as it is complex: It’s bonfire. It’s vanilla bean. It’s dark chocolate-covered stone fruit. It’s everything.
Released just a few months ago in the fall, Ardbeg Hypernova is certainly not for the faint of palate. The latest in the esteemed Supernova series, this expression—which boasts phenol levels north of 170 ppm—is the peatiest whisky the distillery has ever made. Clocking in at 51% ABV, it’s more intense than most other Ardbeg bottlings, which typically hover at the 46% mark. On the palate, it’s significantly more complex than it looks (which is quite pale) and its intensity is remarkable in that it doesn’t taste overly alcohol-forward at all. Instead, the strength of the peat gives way to a kind of honeycomb sweetness that evolves as you make your way to the bottom of your Glencairn.
Bowmore released the first edition of its Masters’ Selection series as a creative collaboration spearheaded by two great innovative minds: Aston Martin chief creative officer Marek Reichman and Bowmore master blender Ron Welsh. And it’s a wildly delicious whisky—with an elegant finish that lasts eons. The 103.6-proof expression—which teems with opulent notes of dark chocolate-covered coffee beans, burnt caramel, Morello cherries, and dried nectarines—was conceived with the golden ratio in mind. Meaning: Proportionality played an integral role during the cask selection process and the formulation of the whisky’s recipe. To achieve the perfect blend, Welsh selected six key casks: Oloroso puncheons, Pedro Ximénez butts, first-fill American oak barrels, Pineau des Charentes barriques, white Port barriques, and second-fill oloroso hogsheads. “We identified which casks could be used and how much of each is available. The first stock we found was 21-year-old Pedro Ximénez butts and Oloroso puncheons, sufficient to fulfill the full volume we needed,” said Welsh, who happens to be retiring at the end of the 2022. “With the final flavor package in mind, we identified stock that would give the taste and mouthfeel we needed. And once we had the idea of using the golden ratio, we put together pilot blends with different golden ratios of each component until we found the ideal recipe.”
There’s no going wrong with any Lagavulin expression—whether it’s the 16 Year, one of the Offerman Editions, a Feis Ile bottling, or a Distillers Edition. But here’s the deal: Diageo offers a limited-release Lagavulin 12 Year in every single one of its annual Special Releases collection (this is its 21st year)—and they’re phenomenal. And naturally, 2022’s “Flames of the Phoenix” is no different. At 114.6 proof, this particular cask-strength Lagavulin was matured in heavily peated refill American virgin oak casks—with whiskies finished in virgin oak casks added in. The result? A whisky that provides a simultaneous burst of heat and peat, accompanied by an iodine salinity and mellow fruit-forward sweetness. A definite must-buy—for yourself and for people on your “nice” list.
My first ever sip of Kilchoman was a little more than month ago at The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, where the whisky ambassador helpfully recommended Kilchoman Comraich Batch No. 5. And it was truly remarkable in the most eye-popping way. Unfortunately for those of us who live Stateside, Comraich—which means “sanctuary” in Gaelic—is only available by the dram via the distillery’s 98 approved “comraich bars” around the world. And in the east coast, only Keens in New York and Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington D.C carry it. (Although a quick Google search will yield you a few retailers who do have that exact bottle, quite possibly smuggled without consent from an accredited bar or the distillery itself.) But here’s the good news: Kilchoman’s 12th release of its 100% Islay series is beyond excellent and easy enough to find. The 100-proof, lightly peated 12th edition—having been distilled from Kilchoman’s 2011, 2012, and 2013 barley harvests—was matured in 29 bourbon barrels and six oloroso sherry butts for at least eight years. Mellow on both the nose and the palate, it’s an elegant way to close out an evening. But beyond all that, what makes the 100% Islay range extraordinary is so unusual that it borders on the spectacular: It’s a true barley-to-bottle expression. For this range of whiskies, Kilchoman grows its own barley on its more than 100 acres of farmland, in addition to doing its own malting the old-fashioned way: on a malting floor, turned by hand. And if that doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what will.
For those who love big and bold flavors without the peat, Bruichladdich Black Art 10.1 is where it’s at. Unlike its cousins, Octomore and Port Charlotte, Black Art is unpeated—as it always has been. And as its name implies, this entire series of whiskies is cloaked in mystery: Head distiller Adam Hannett has carte blanche as to how he creates this highly-anticipated annual release—no guidelines, no restrictions, and no need to tell the public what kind of magic goes into the making of Black Art. (This is the only line that transparency-forward Bruichladdich keeps mum about.) But here’s what we do know about this latest release, which launched just last month: The casks are “pre-renaissance” from 1993—which means the whisky was distilled before Bruichladdich’s closure (in 1994) and reopening (in 2000) and it’s bottled at 41.5% ABV. And palate-wise, it’s a viscous beauty with rich notes reminiscent of coconut cream, cloudberry preserves, and candied ginger. And then there’s that everlasting finish, which is always a plus in my book.