What makes for an exceptional whisky?

James Mackay, head of rare and collectable spirits for Diageo, on the characteristics of the world’s best whiskies

(Image credit: Gary Morrisroe)

Collecting and enjoying whisky is a very subjective pastime. While connoisseurs agree that some whiskies are great and others are not, arguments about which are which, and why, will go on forever - very much to the enjoyment of all concerned.

During my 25 years working in the wine and spirits industry, however, I have observed some common threads, or principles which are helpful to consider when asking whether a whisky is truly exceptional


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Whisky starts and finishes with flavour, and to be worthy of the term “exceptional”, the flavour must possess complexity: multiple layers of taste, dimensions, brooding depths and ethereal top notes. While wine is famed for the sheer variety of flavours it can exhibit, whisky is generally acknowledged to be one of the world’s few distilled spirit drinks to offer an equally astonishing breadth of tastes and aromas, especially in the case of Scotch whisky. A whisky with only one taste or aroma, no matter how good, cannot be exceptional because one will eventually get bored with it.

With its higher alcohol content, the flavours in whisky are harder to taste and appreciate than wine, but they linger longer on the palate, suffusing not just the mouth, but ones whole body and mind. The multiple flavours of a really fine whisky should be difficult to discern; their sheer number and elusive subtleties form a crucial element of mystery, that keeps collectors and connoisseurs alike coming back again and again, almost but never quite knowing them completely.


Like people, exceptional whiskies each have their own story. They are made by someone, in a particular place and time, after which their characters are shaped by years of maturation and blending with other whiskies. The fact that a whisky’s age statement exerts such a powerful fascination is no accident, for as well as softening the young distillate’s rough edges and lending extra nuances and layers of flavour, the age of a whisky naturally leads to thoughts of the passage of time. Great whiskies that have acquired their complexity and finesse over an exceptionally long time inspire a degree of respect and awe. My recent tasting of a newly released Singleton of Dufftown 53 Year Old single cask bottling, for example, was a profound experience, not just in enjoying the sublime flavours but also in pondering the mysteries of its provenance. This is the reason why especially old whiskies hold such an appeal for the collector.

Such thoughts are accentuated all the more when tasting whiskies from so-called “ghost distilleries”, those who have ceased to operate. Port Ellen and Brora are the two most often lauded by the cognoscenti, and while they are justly admired for their near-outrageous abundance of flavour, it’s impossible to deny the added thrill of experiencing something that is essentially finite, never to be replicated. The experience is not unlike that of viewing an original old master.


In my opinion, however, it is the thoughts and feelings evoked by a whisky that ultimately make it truly exceptional. An exceptional whisky can stir the emotions just as powerfully as great music, and indeed many aficionados enjoy the two in a single sitting, letting them overwhelm the senses and emotions, then slowly fade away.

About James Mackay

James Mackay is the head of rare and collectable spirits for Diageo, a British drinks company that owns the world’s largest stock of maturing Scotch whisky and operates 28 single malt Scotch whisky distilleries. He visited his first whisky distillery at the age of 20, and, after nine months as an investment banker, spent the next 25 years in the wine and spirits industry

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