Five Scotch Whiskies Under £50: Part 6 Islay

by Matt Chambers
at Whisky for Everyone

Welcome to the final part

of our series about Scotch whiskies under £50. This price point is where most distilleries and brands have their first bottling or two in the core range. And where they sell most.

Within the series we have looked at some of the best value for money whiskies from the six different whisky making regions of Scotland.

This time we take a trip to the Hebridean island of Islay, the spiritual home of the peated smoky style. Prior to this we have covered the Lowlands, Campbeltown, Highlands, Islands and Speyside.

Region history

Islay offers a crucial glimpse into the history of Scotch whisky through its use of traditional ingredients and working practices. The island is the southernmost in the Hebridean chain. It sits off the west coast of Scotland and is known as ‘The Queen of the Hebrides’.

While Islay covers just 240m² (620km²), it is home to 10 operating distilleries. The most recent, Port Ellen, distilled its first new make spirit in over 40 years just last month. Another two have planning permission and will further swell the ranks in time. Founded in 1779, the oldest is Bowmore. Caol Ila is the largest at 6.5 million litres per annum and Kilchoman the smallest at just 450,000 litres.

Whisky flavours

Islay is known for its rich and smoky style of whisky. This is created by burning peat to dry barley grain at the end of the malting process.

This traditional practice has largely died out due to modern alternatives, but Islay remains a stronghold. The Port Ellen Maltings provide most of the island’s distilleries with peated malt, each to their own specification.

Ardbeg | Wee Beastie

The Ardbeg distillery has risen from troubled times in the 1980s and 90s to be one of the dominant forces of Islay whisky. A combination of creative marketing and branding with innovative whisky releases has elevated the brand to cult status. The result has seen the distillery double its production capacity in recent years and its visitor centre win multiple awards.

Wee Beastie was launched into the core range in 2020 and is bottled at five years of age. It offers everything that you expect from a youthful smoky whisky – feistiness, vibrancy, aggression, and boldness. Certainly not one for the faint hearted. Notes of peppery peat smoke, fresh kippers and coal tar soap lead the way and are supported by vanilla, toffee apple and honey, plus a hint of liquorice.

Cost = £41

Bowmore | 12 years old

The Bowmore distillery is the oldest currently in operation on the island and dates to 1779. It is one of just a handful of remaining distilleries in Scotland that were founded in the 18th century. Bowmore sits on the shores of Loch Indaal, the large sea loch of Islay. It is also home to the oldest bonded whisky warehouse in the UK – the legendary No.1 Vaults.

Bowmore is a classy and elegant smoky whisky that offers something different to the big, bold single malts from Islay’s south-eastern coast. The 12 years old forms the cornerstone of the core range. Take a sip and experience a heady mix of dried fruit, caramel and mocha mingling with gentle baking spices and orange oil. Everything is wrapped in a cloak of velvety, soft peat smoke with a hint of brine.

Cost = £38

Bunnahabhain | 12 years old

Not all whisky from Islay is heavily peaty and smoky. Bunnahabhain is a great example, although they do make peated spirit from time to time. As is classic Bruichladdich. Bunnahabhain is on the rugged north-eastern coast of the island and feels remote. It sits overlooking the fast-flowing Strait of Islay and the neighbouring island of Jura beyond.

This Bunnabhain 12 years old has a decent percentage of ex-sherry cask matured spirit in the mix. Dried fruit, toffee and milk chocolate combines with hazelnut, caramel, and a hint of fresh sea spray. It is an uplifting whisky. Is there just a whiff of distant peat smoke towards the end? Yes, and this helps to bind all the characteristics together superbly.

Cost = £45

Caol Ila | 12 years old

Just down the coast from Bunnahabhain is Caol Ila. The distillery is the largest on the island but one of the more difficult single malts to buy. Why is that? Caol Ila is a key ingredient in the Johnnie Walker range of Scotch whiskies, lending its aromatic smokiness to the blend. This fact is mirrored by the visitor centre, which is one of brand owner Diageo’s ‘Four Corners of Scotland’ Johnnie Walker sites.

The 12 years old is a classic Islay whisky. Not as heavily peated as Ardbeg and Laphroaig, but at a good accessible level. The smoke has an ash-like feel, reminiscent of dying embers and there is a distinct malted biscuit quality and oily mouthfeel. Notes of earthy spice and candied lemon add depth and complexity, as does a pinch of black pepper on the finish.

Cost = £49

Laphroaig | Quarter Cask

This iconic distillery is the best-selling of any Scotch single malt in the smoky, peaty category and by some distance. Laphroaig regularly sits in the top five for total sales behind only Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan and Glenmorangie. It also has the Friends of Laphroaig club, which has been running for nearly three decades and boasts over 100,000 members.

While the famous 10 years old is Laphroaig’s flagship malt, the Quarter Cask is an absolute gem. The whisky involved has seen maturation in smaller casks, which in this case are around 60 litres in capacity. This accelerates maturation and gives great structure. Expect plenty of vanilla, white chocolate and drying wood spice married with Laphroaig’s signature medicinal and ashy smoke.

Cost = £43


Download our investment guide


Download our