Earlier this summer, the Scotch Whisky Masters convened in London to award its coveted medals to the best liquids of the land. The esteemed panel of judges were not stingy with their prizes. In fact, dozens of golds and silvers were doled out across a total of 42 subcategories of the spirit, ranging from non-age-statement blends to cask strength single malts. The bottles that took home a distinction of ‘Master’ were fewer and farther between. We’ll get into some of the surprises there below.
But first we need to look at the single expression that triumphed over them all. Each year, the competition designates one—and only one—Taste Master; the top of the heap out of hundreds of entries submitted. For 2023, that honor belongs to Craigellachie 13 Years Old, a Speyside single malt that benefits from a unique maturation process through an intricate combination of ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks.
The exemplary scotch is characterized by an unexpectedly tropical nose. There’s both pineapple and banana to ponder as it sits in the dram. Upon first sip you’ll sense a hint of the meatiness indicative of the house style. This particular trademark is owed to the 132-year-old distillery’s use of worm tub condensers. But all of the elegant, floral flourishes atop are a result of malt master Stephanie Macleod’s commitment to creative cooperaging techniques.
For Craigellachie 13 she pulls stock that has sat in a combination of bourbon and sherry barrels. The supply is divided in two and she finishes one half in first-fill sherry casks; the second half in first-fill bourbon. They are then reintroduced for bottling, in a 46%, non-chill-filtered presentation. It’s a complicated process, but one that clearly pays off in the final product—as confirmed by the judges at this year’s Scotch Whisky Masters.
Scotch enthusiasts in the US can easily find the liquid on shelf priced somewhere between $50 and $70, depending on the friendliness of your local liquor store clerk.
Now let’s delve into some of those aforementioned ‘Master’ winners. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has to be quite happy with the results. Out of 21 expressions to achieve the status, four of them belonged to the prestigious independent bottler and members club. If you’re not already familiar with the organization, catch yourself up.
And while you’re in the researching mood, it’s absolutely essential to acquaint yourself with what’s happening over on Arran. This idyllic island off the southwest coast of Scotland is home to a namesake whiskymaker, which began laying down liquid in 1995. That’s a veritable youngster in the world of scotch, of course, but Arran Distillers is quickly becoming one of the most prominent players in the industry.
Just look at its performance at the Scotch Whisky Masters for proof: two Master awards for two separate bottlings in the same category—the only distillery to pull off such a feat. In addition to the prize for its ‘The Bothy’ release, Arran also won the praise for a cask strength, non-chill-filtered sherry-bomb known as ‘The Bodega.’ It was matured exclusively in first-fill sherry hogsheads and it is brimming with cherries and dark chocolate. A treat at any price, it’s a downright steal at under $100.
The Arran now operates two facilities on opposite ends of the isle, after opening the Lagg Distillery in 2019—where peated malt is the focus. The land between the two is actually bifurcated by the Highland/Lowland demarkation. So not only are the operations making different styles of whisky, they belong to different whisky-making regions, altogether. Expect more big things from this producer in the years ahead.