The best whisky in the world isn’t Scottish

November 4, 2014, 11:41 AM UTC
Inside The Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery
Members of the media walk past casks containing pot still pure malt whisky in a warehouse at Suntory Holdings Ltd.'s Yamazaki distillery in Shimamoto, Osaka, Japan, on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. Suntory is a household name in Japan, selling drinks from canned coffee to beer, sponsoring TV shows, and operating its own fine art gallery and concert hall. Suntorys Japanese single malt whiskies now regularly win top international awards. Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Akio Kon — Bloomberg via Getty Images

This article is published in partnership with TIME. The original version can be found at

By Elizabeth Barber

That’s according to Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015, a highly regarded ranking of fine global whisky. Specifically, reports the Telegraph, the top title belongs to Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, from Japan’s oldest distillery, Suntory, founded in 1923.

What’s more, for the first time in the 12 years the Whisky Bible has been published, not a single Scottish whisky makes the bible’s top five. If that wasn’t bad enough for Scotland, which along with Ireland is the spiritual home of the drink, the best European whisky in the latest edition is English.

The Whisky Bible describes the winning Yamazaki whisky as “rich and fruity,” with a nose of “exquisite boldness” and finish of “light, teasing spice.” Just 18,000 bottles were made — it is sold out on the bible’s online shop, and it is available in just a few specialist shops in the U.K. for about $160.

American whiskies take second and third prize, including repeat second-place winner William Larue Weller, a Kentucky bourbon.

So what about auld Scotland? A Scottish whisky — the 19-year-old single malt Glenmorangie Ealanta — took the top spot just last year, also getting 97.5 marks.

But the book’s author, Jim Murray, writes that though hundreds of Scottish whiskies were among the more than 1,000 samples he tried from all around the world this year, they fell flat.

“Where were the complex whiskies in the prime of their lives?,” he wonders, calling this year’s rankings a “wake up call” for Scottish brands.

For sure, shock claims that make good headlines certainly won’t harm sales of Murray’s book. But beyond the marketing, Murray’s rankings are an uncomfortable reminder that even an industry as well-established as Scotland’s distillers can’t afford to rest on its laurels. The industry accounts for a quarter of the U.K.’s food and drink exports, and is a key employer in many areas of Scotland where good jobs are scarce.

Ron Taylor, an independent wine and spirit judge and educator, tells TIME it’s no surprise that a Japanese dram took first place in Murray’s list, since Japanese whiskies regularly win prestigious competitions, even in Scotland.

Still, Taylor also said that rankings often reflect the taster’s personal preferences. Indeed, Taylor describes Japanese single malts as like a Lexus —“beautifully crafted, no vibration, smooth, consistent and always pleasing” — while their Scottish counterparts are more akin to a Maserati.

“The Scottish whiskies, they’ll knock you around and slap you around the face a little bit,” says Taylor, who is from Scotland, but calls himself “a non partisan” drinker.

The Scotch Whisky Association, which represents the country’s 109 licensed distillers, refuses to panic, saying its “consistently high-quality products (are) enjoyed by millions of people in around 200 markets worldwide.”

(Additional reporting by Geoffrey Smith)