A HANDFUL of barley, some yeast and splash of water. Mix it all together according to the recipe, heat it up at the odd key moment, stick it in an oak barrel, leave it in a shed for at least three years and voila! Whisky is born.

It sounds simple – as easy as making a cake – and, in essence, it is, but the finished product, a beautiful glass of fine whisky, is a beguiling, mysterious, puzzling, wonderful creation.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article on the opening of the new Macallan distillery on Speyside, and as part of it I needed to describe exactly what whisky meant to me. This is what I said:

“It’s friendship and memory, wonderful moments and the emotions that go with them – the perfect partner to unforgettable events in all our lives.

“It is the heady night my first daughter was born, when I arrived home from hospital and poured an Old Fettercairn to make a joyful, tearful toast to my wife and tiny new baby.

“Or the bright May evening outside the King’s House in Glen Coe after my friend and I had climbed Agag’s Groove on the Buachaille Etive Mor. We shared a hip flask of Springbank as we stared up at the mountain, and it was the best I’d ever tasted.

“It is the evenings around my kitchen table with my pal from across the road, music playing a little bit too loud into the wee small hours as the whisky and stories and laughter flow.

“These moments, these images of times to treasure, that ability to create wonderful memories. That is, at the absolute basic, the essence of whisky.”

People often say that something is greater than the sum of its parts – well, that phrase could have been coined especially for Scotland’s national drink.

Since I first fell in love with whisky in 1990, I’ve been lucky enough to try some unforgettable drams ... including one or two whose price tag ran into five figures.

But over the years it’s become clear to me that you don’t have to pay thousands – or even hundreds – to get your hands on something really special.

If you know what you’re looking for you can find a spectacular dram on a supermarket shelf or in your local whisky shop, and you certainly won’t need to spend as much as you think.

Over the following four pages, I’ve listed a few of my favourites – some of the most interesting and exciting whiskies around today. And nearly all of them cost less than £50.

If you like what you read, go out and buy a bottle – I promise you that you won’t be disappointed.

Good luck!

Ardnamurchan 2018 AD

ABV (alcohol by volume): 55.3%

Price: £55

Let’s start at the very beginning … with a dram so young we’re not even allowed to call it whisky.

It’s generally accepted that the older whisky is, the better it gets, but Ardnamurchan 2018 AD is definitely the exception that proves the rule. It boasts a depth of flavour that belies its youth – a heady mix of sweetness and citric sharpness, but with the richness of dried fruits and a satisfying biscuity creaminess. Far off there are hints of pepper and the odd waft of smoke. Yum!

The 2018 AD continues parent company Adelphi’s pioneering use of blockchain to give unique levels of provenance to every bottle. By scanning the unique QR code on the back label, consumers can trace every ingredient and every stage of the “manufacturing” process, from field to bottle.

And, if you’re still not convinced, just look at the bottle. Simple and sleek, it won 2017 Scottish Design Awards for packaging.

So with just 5,000 bottles of this beauty ever made, it’s definitely worth a quick dash to grab one. It will probably be a collector’s item if you don’t open it. But having tasted it, that will be a really big “if”!


Glenkinchie 12-year-old

ABV: 43%

Price: £36

I’ll never forget it.

It was a pub in Dundee – I can’t remember the name but I do remember the location (opposite the Queen’s Hotel at the bottom of the Perth Road) – and it was 1990, I think.

And I didn’t like whisky, until that amazing night when I tried Glenkinchie.

My friend had bet me he could find me one that would change my mind. When he handed the Glenkinchie to me he said: “Look for the ice cream.”

And when I drank it, it was there, coating my mouth and at the back of my tongue … and I was hooked!

Nowadays, I’d say there’s far more to this dram than hints of vanilla and a lemon cheesecake creaminess. In fact, I think that for a Lowland malt – it’s distilled just outside Edinburgh – it has a wonderful richness and depth, and it really stands scrutiny against the biggest guns of Speyside, and some of the great Highland malts.

Add to that a lovely natural, almost herbal note and you have a dram that really is one to remember.


Arran The Bothy Quarter Cask Batch 4

ABV: 53.2%

Price: £49.99

They say the Isle of Arran is Scotland in Miniature. But, believe me, there’s nothing miniature

about this fantastic dram from a lovely distillery in the north of the island.

It packs as impressive a punch as any expresssion I’ve tried over the years.

As you can guess from the name, this is the fourth release of the Quarter Cask. Each one so far has been an absolute winner, and this is no different.

The idea is simple: take the usual Arran whisky and, for the last 18 months of its maturation, move it into smaller casks – yes, you guessed it, a quarter the size of the original and made of American Oak.

This allows far greater contact between whisky and wood, resulting in a faster, more intense maturation.

The result is an absolute

treat – rich and powerful with tons

of vanilla sweetness and peppery spice. It’s fruity and fresh, but at the same time really luxurious.

This is a real star in a brilliant range. The distillery is well worth a visit too – the scones are amazing!


Kilchoman Sanaig

ABV: 46%

Price: £46

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing, over the sea to Skye. We all know the song about Bonnie Prince Charlie but, seriously, if you’re looking for a Young Pretender, you’d be far better jumping on the ferry to Islay.

Kilchoman is the newest of the distilleries on this little patch of land that’s jam-packed with wonderful whisky, but it’s already giving its globally recognised neighbours a run for their money.

Following on from the Machir Bay, Kilchoman ups its game a little with the Sanaig.

It’s described as a peaty malt, but for me it’s got that beautiful aroma of Arbroath Smokies – sharp wood-ember smokiness mixed with a wonderful creaminess that’s simply irresistible.

Add to that light fruit, dark chocolate and raisins, along with red-berry richness, and you could be on a picnic on a beach with your pals, chatting and laughing until the last of the embers of the fire die down.

A real treat – and brilliant value.


Benromach 15-year-old

ABV: 43%

Price: £51.83

Sometimes whisky isn’t about posh tasting notes and fancy descriptions of complex aromas and flavours. Sometimes it’s about something that’s far more simple.

Sometimes, when you smell it, it transports you somewhere else – to a memory or a favourite place.

For me, this 15-year-old Benromach does just that. It takes me back to when I was young, six or seven, maybe, to a time when we lived in an old house, with a big open fire, and we used to sit there of an evening – it would have been about this time of year – roasting marshmallows.

I can smell the fire – not a roaring one, but mellow embers with the odd little puff of smoke. I can taste the rich toffee-sweetness of the melting marshmallows.

But, there’s something else too – is that Jamaica ginger cake? Not homemade, but the sticky one out of the packet. It’s luxurious, and it makes me smile.

So, if you have a whisky and the tasting notes don’t make any sense to you, don’t worry. More powerful forces may be at work – just open your mind and see what you can see.


Caol Ila 12-year-old

ABV: 43%

Price: £37

This is another one – another malt that holds a special place in my heart.

When my two daughters were young, this was the one I remember sitting back with as the madness of Christmas began to subside at the end of the day. And it’s still the one I’ll go for if I see it on a menu after dinner at a hotel.

Caol Ila (pronounced “Cull Eela”) is a Muhammad Ali of a dram … it dances around, all lightness and fruit; it’s fascinating and mesmerising.

But at some point or other, you just know it’s going to knock you out with a wonderful smack of smoke.

It starts off light and refined, with fresh herbal notes and hints of damp grass, but then the coastal smokiness really kicks in – not unlike hot-smoked salmon. It’s full-bodied and has a long, warming finish.

As you add water, a wonderful freshness – much like Ardbeg – takes over, making this a hugely satisfying dram.

(And if you really want Caol Ila to mess with your head, find one of the unpeated versions. Strangely superb!)


Old Particular Cameronbridge 26-year-old

ABV: 51.5%

Price: £60

We couldn’t let a list of brilliant whiskies go without including a single-grain. And what better place to find one than at legendary Glasgow-based independent bottler Douglas Laing?

The Cameronbridge isn’t exactly blessed with the beautiful surroundings of Strathisla or Glengoyne, or the rugged backdrop of Dalwhinnie – it sits in Fife’s industrial heartland, just a stone’s throw from Methil and Leven.

It may not have had the most romantic of beginnings, but this Cameronbridge is a real – and rare – treat.

In my mind, the defining characteristic of single-grain whiskies is cream, and this expression is awash with it.

In fact, when you smell it, there’s almost an aroma of

toffee sauce – salted caramel mixed with all that cream, but with a bit of honey thrown in for good measure.

You could almost pour it on your sponge pudding.

There’s cakiness too – in fact, this is more like a big, rich sharing dessert than a dram.

Now, where’s my spoon? I want another helping (it is Christmas, after all!).


Old Pulteney 12-year-old

ABV: 40%

Price: £35

If anyone ever says that whisky isn’t a product of its surroundings, this is definitely a dram to make them change their mind.

It’s made in Wick, and its warehouses are exposed to the full force of the North Sea.

This gives the whisky a wonderful coastal, salty personality – and once you get to know it, you can recognise it anywhere.

But don’t think this dram is harsh in any way at all. The 12-year-old is aged entirely in bourbon casks, and this gives the finished product a wonderful richness and sweetness – and the distinctive vanilla that is always there when bourbon casks are used.

Look for vanilla, tablet and almost burnt sugar on the nose, with a flavour balancing chocolate and toffee indulgence with citrusy fruit and that coastal tang.

This level of quality is great value at £35, but be aware that Old Pulteney

is regularly on offer – I think it’s £25 in Tesco right now, and at that price it’s a steal.


Kilkerran 12-year-old

ABV: 46%

Price: £34

Before we start, let’s take a moment to thank Kilkerran – because the distillery where it’s made, Glengyle, effectively saved Campbeltown’s status as a whisky region.

After many years of only having two distilleries, Springbank and Glen Scotia, it was deemed that Campbeltown could no longer be classed as a region.

However, when Glengyle was resurrected – it was an old distillery that closed in the 1920s but was brought back to life in 2004 – the three operational distilleries could maintain their status.

And just as well, as Campbeltown malts are unique – robust, oily and bursting with character – and this Kilkerran 12-year-old is certainly a classic of its kind.

It’s oaky and slightly peaty, but super-rich, sweet and velvety smooth at the same time. And, of course, there’s the oiliness and saltiness you’d expect from a Campbeltown dram.

This whisky was only launched in 2016, but it surely deserves its place among the true greats of this amazing region.

All hail Kilkerran – you are indeed a hero!


Macallan 12-year-old Double Cask

ABV: 40%

Price: £50

The Macallan has been looking a million dollars lately … literally. One of its bottles – a 60-year-old distilled in 1926 – broke that mad, seven-figure barrier just a few weeks ago, but far more importantly (in my humble opinion!) the distillery moved house … to possibly the most beautifully perfect building I have ever seen.

So, as the year draws to a close, I was pretty sure my impression of this superbrand couldn’t get any more positive … until I tasted the Double Cask.

Much of my whisky journey has been a hunt for the different and the new, but when I come back to a dram like The Macallan and its perfect richness, I remember there’s a reason why this is a worldwide favourite.

The Double Cask uses whisky aged in barrels of both American and European ex-sherry oak to take the spirit to a whole new level.

There’s the classic dried fruit. It’s creamy and you can almost see the drops of honey. But there’s the sweet sharpness of marmalade and almost the spiced luxury of a cinnamon pastry.

A finish of vanilla and more sweet fruit and I have only one challenge on my mind as we end 2018.

Go on Macallan, I dare you – top that next year.


Ardbeg An Oa

ABV: 46.6%

Price: £49

To me, Ardbeg is about only one thing – it’s what identifies it the minute I stick my nose in the glass.

Smoke – pure, perfect, wood-embers smoke.

And the An Oa – launched last year as the first addition to Ardbeg’s core range for more than a decade – doesn’t disappoint.

It’s there in spades, mixed with a wonderful cocktail of cakey sweetness and butterscotch richness. There’s a luxurious creaminess in the background too, just in case you didn’t get just how special this dram really is.

Then, if you add water there’s another treat in store – something I don’t understand from such a peaty whisky, but which I always look for in an Ardbeg.

The peaty oomph remains, but something else appears – the most wonderful freshness. It’s like a summer breeze blowing through freshly washed linen just hung out to dry on a line by the sea.

If you like peaty whisky, you really can’t go wrong with Ardbeg, but this was the first time I’d tried the An Oa.

Time to rewrite my whisky wish-list, I think!


Gordon & MacPhail Discovery Bunnahabhain 11-year-old

ABV: 43%

Price: £50

There are Islay whiskies – the ones that take a barrowload of peat and stuff it down your throat – and there are Islay whiskies – the ones that tone things down, some a teeny bit, some a lot. For me, Bunnahabhain sits in the second camp … and it’s all the better for it.

So when Gordon & MacPhail – one of the country’s small band of legendary independent bottlers – gets hold of an already interesting dram, it’s time to take notice.

This Discovery expression – part of a wider range from around the country – is rich and exciting, with dried fruit and sherry on the nose, and hints of spice, rich vanilla and orange. It’s super- smooth, and as you taste it the initial spice morphs into more richness of dates and plums. At the finish, there’s chocolate – maybe not milky bar, but definitely not bitter dark – and more fruits.

The bottler’s art is a critical part of the whisky firmament – they hunt out interesting casks and, when they find them they bottle them. So if you see a bottler’s version of one of our favourites, go for it – you will definitely be in for a memorable voyage of Discovery.


Naked Grouse

ABV: 40%

Price: £25

As I said in the introduction to this whole article, if you’re after something truly memorable, you really don’t have to spend a fortune to get it … if you know where to look. And at under £25 in some shops, the Naked Grouse is in my mind a must-have for any collection.

Pour it for your whisky-loving friend – but don’t show them the bottle – and watch as they muse over the malty, toffee-sweet nose and rich fudgy, fruity flavour, topped off with a little spice, and try (and fail!) to identify what high-end dram it belongs to.

This whisky is simplicity itself – even the bottle is a picture of minimalism – which actually enhances the quality of the blend. But no wonder, when it’s based around two legends of the business, Highland Park and The Macallan. The twist comes from the fact it spends its final six months in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks, and it’s from these “naked” casks that this blend gets its name (and distinctive flavour).

So if you’re looking for a superb, great-value dram, just remember one thing – sometimes less really is more.


Tomatin 12-year-old

ABV: 43%

Price: £35

As you head up the A9, by the time to reach Tomatin you know you’re in the Highlands. The bleak splendour of Drumochter and Dalwhinnie are miles behind; the Cairngorms and Aviemore are a rapidly fading memory. Inverness isn’t far off, and from there it’s on to the wild lands of Ross and Caithness.

You’d expect a whisky here to have ruggedness its heart – to be as unforgiving as a northern winter. But no, not a bit of it. The climate round here is softer and more gentle than you might imagine – and the spirit that’s born from this land reflects that.

The Tomatin 12-year-old is smooth and silky, with a rich, fruity aroma coming from its traditional mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. It’s buttery at first, but there are also notes of marzipan. The flavours are powerful, but there’s sweetness and richness, with oaky vanilla, ripe apples and pears. Hints of stem ginger and citrus add a tangy treat.

So if you ever thought the Highlands were bleak, think again. All you need to do is stop a while, look around you, and you’ll find a real gem hidden in the north.


Douglas Laing’s Remarkable Regional Malts

ABV: Various

Price: From £30 to £300

I could choose one from this range, but really, there’s no point. Quite simply, if you try one you really should try them all, because they’re as good a lesson in the different characteristics of Scotland’s whisky regions as you’ll ever need. They’re a ready-made whisky collection.

There are six names to look out for, and each blends together some of the best malts from its region to capture the unique character of each area.

The fun, light Epicurean is the lowland offering, while rich,

complex Speyside is represented by Scallywag.

If you head into the Highlands, look out for Timorous Beastie, and slightly peated, slightly salty Rock Oyster is a island-inspired tidal wave.

If you’re into a dram from Islay or Skye, why not try Big Beat (no explanation required), while the newest addition to the range,

The Gauldrons, captures the unique, excellent power of Campbeltown.

The range was launched with “basic” versions, but since then it has grown, and a host of special editions and extra expressions have turned these Regional Malts into a veritable reference library of whisky.

So put on your reading glasses, pull up a chair and get studying. You will be tested at the end of the lesson.


Old Pulteney Huddart

ABV: 46%

Price: £44

This is a strange experience. Old Pulteney has been a favourite of mine for many, many years, but trying the Huddart – released just this year and named after the street in which the distillery sits – was like meeting the younger sister of my best pal that I didn’t know existed.

I recognise her immediately, but at the same time she’s so different from the friend I know and love.

The Huddart is definitely an Old Pulteney – the saltiness and driftwood-on-a-beach coastal personality tell us that – but it’s been finished in casks which previously held peated whisky, and this gives it a wonderful far-off smokiness that adds a layer of real intensity to an already powerful dram.

But there’s a ton of richness too, with sweet vanilla balancing the intensity of smoke, and I loved the buttery, mouth-coating finish. This is definitely one to come back to on a cold, stormy night when I have some time on my hands, and the music player to myself. Van Morrison, I think.

Huddart, it’s been a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I hope we run into each other again soon.


Tullibardine Sovereign

ABV: 43%

Price: £36

And your starter for 10 – where do you think you would find the complete dram? The lush valleys of Speyside, perhaps? Or the rugged coast of Islay?

But what if I said just off the

A9 on the way from Stirling to Perth?

Chances are you’ll have passed the Tullibardine distillery at one time or another. But did you know it’s one of the few in the country where every whisky-making process is done on-site?

Fermentation, distillation, maturation, and bottling – it’s all done here.

This gives Tullibardine complete control over its whisky, and allows it to produce expressions like the Sovereign – a creamy, rich, delicious dram.

On the nose, look for soft vanilla and cocoa butter, and when you taste it the richness builds with malt and hints of maple syrup, with a little extra helping of mixed peel and pears. The finish is all cream and vanilla with a touch of cinnamon-spice.

For the whisky from the side of the A9, it’s a definite A+ from me!