The Ardbeg warehouse was dark and musty, the air thick with the yeasty odors of aging whisky. “You never know what you’ll find here,” said distillery manager Stuart Thomson, as we walked past rows of ancient barrels. Shuttered for years before being purchased in 1997 by Glenmorangie, Ardbeg is one of eight distilleries on the fog-shrouded Scottish island of Islay. Ardbeg long had been known as the producer of the most peat-heavy whisky in this region characterized by smoky single malts, but what we discovered, in an isolated corner of the warehouse, were a few barrels of unpeated Scotch distilled in 1980, shortly after Ardbeg closed its malting operations.
Thomson pulled the bung from the barrel and, using a long copper tube appropriately called a “thief,” withdrew some of the pale golden whisky and poured a splash into each of our sampling glasses. Tasting the spirit, we noticed Ardbeg’s traditional fruitiness and multiple layers of spice, but we detected only a hint of smoke, a remnant of the island’s peated water used in the fermentation process. “This is a rare one,” said Thomson, pounding the bung back into the barrel. “It bears watching.”
A few years later, in November 2004, Ardbeg bottled this uncharacteristic Islay whisky at 115.2-proof cask strength. Labeled Ardbeg Kildalton in honor of Scotland’s oldest Celtic cross, which is located near the distillery, the 1,200 existing bottles of the spirit sell for £95 (approximately $183) apiece. But you will not find Kildalton at any restaurant, tavern, or wine and spirits shop. The 24-year-old whisky, like many other small-production single malts, is available only at the distillery from which it hails.
Several of Scotland’s more than 100 distilleries, which produce over 350 different single malts, bottle specialized whiskies that are available exclusively at the source. Talisker, a distillery located on the rocky shores of Loch Harport on the Isle of Skye, is known to most U.S. connoisseurs for its dry, peppery 10 Year Old and, more recently, its 25 Year Old cask-strength single malts. However, Talisker offers through its visitor’s center a cask-strength, un-aged whisky (£49, $93) that is, depending on the bottling, about 120 proof.
Set in the Livet Valley in the Scottish Highlands, The Glenlivet distillery is the only place to procure the company’s 16 Year Old cask-strength whisky (£30, $57), a 113.2-proof spirit that was bottled in 1987 and is notably bolder and meatier than the company’s other offerings. At Glen Moray, a Highlands distillery with just 15 employees, you may find one of the few remaining bottles of its 1971 Vintage (£75, $142) or one of the 276 bottles of the 1986–2004 Commemorative (£65, $123), which was produced to mark the opening of Glen Moray’s visitor’s center.
The only way to purchase one of the 5,400 bottles of Highland Park’s Capella (£40, $76) is to travel to Scotland’s northernmost distillery in the remote Orkney Islands, where rusted hulks of World War II–era ships protrude from the ocean at low tide. Named for a local chapel, this single malt brims with soft, smoky heather and, like Ardbeg Kildalton and other distillery-only whiskies, is a rare find that is well worth the journey.