McClelland’s Islay Single Malt

Most reviewer’s naturally migrate to higher quality, more complex – and more expensive – whiskies as time goes by. But it is always worthwhile to take a step back and explore entry-level malts and blends, so see if there are any good value buys out there.

McClelland’s is an unusual “brand”. It produces what is known in the biz as “mystery malts” (or more colloquially, “bastard malts”), where the source distillery for each single malt expression is not identified. McClelland’s was originally a Glasgow-based whisky blending and export firm, until it was purchased in 1970 by what was to eventually become known today as Morrison Bowmore Distillers.

Morrison Bowmore owns three malt distilleries – the Lowland Auchentoshan, the Highland Glen Garioch, and Isle of Islay’s Bowmore. They sell a wide range of official bottlings of single malts from these distilleries. But Morrison Bowmore has long used the McClelland’s brand for unspecified single malt bottlings of “Lowland”, “Highland”, and “Islay” regional whiskies.  Care to make any guesses as to where they are likely sourcing the barrels for those three regions? 😉  It’s not much of a stretch to imagine.  Since 1999, they have also been producing a “Speyside” expression (source of barrels unknown).

There are plenty of independent bottlings of these three distilleries as well – which raises the question of what sorts of barrels are finding their way into the budget McClelland’s offerings. As a point of reference, all the McClelland’s regional single malt whiskies sell for $45 CAD at the LCBO – whereas the entry-level NAS expressions for these three distilleries all start at $60 CAD.

I had skipped over these McClelland’s in my early scotch drinking exposure, and didn’t even bother incorporating them into my Meta-Critic database initially.  But I had the chance to sample the McClelland’s Islay Single Malt recently at a bar. Here is what I found in the glass:

Nose: Wow, that’s more potent than I expected – heavy medicinal peat, with lots of salty seaweed. Very strong coastal Islay presence, with greater complexity than your typical entry-level Bowmore (with its typically simple smoke). Has a decaying vegetative character, with a touch of iodine. Unfortunately, with that also comes some unusual funky notes, like old sweats socks. Beyond that (and it takes a while to get past that), some lemony spirit asserts itself, along with some sweet light caramel and vanilla. A bit of ethanol burn. While young, this is actually a surprisingly promising start.

Palate: Ok, where did it go?  After that heavy olfactory assault, it just seems to disappear in the mouth. Lightly sweet, with standard caramel and vanilla. Some kind of vague fruitiness, but artificial. Nutty (peanuts). Extremely watery mouthfeel, hard to believe this is even 40% ABV. All the smell of Islay and none of the flavour – I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a single malt evaporating so quickly in the mouth.

Finish: Fairly short (although that’s not necessarily a bad thing here). Touch of vegetal character comes back, with that funk in particular. Smoke lingers, but then so does the funk. Sweet vanilla lasts to the end.

I actually spent a fair amount of time nosing this one, as I was taken aback by its complexity. Perhaps I had unfairly misjudged these entry-level mystery malts, I thought.  But the first sip made it clear why this falls into the category it does – there is really not much here.

Here is how the McClelland’s compare in my Meta-Critic database, relative to their underlying base distilleries owned by Morrison Bowmore.

McClelland’s Speyside Single Malt: 6.71 ± 0.48 on 6 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Highland Single Malt: 7.08 ± 0.47 on 7 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Lowland Single Malt: 7.04 ± 0.51 on 4 reviews ($$)
McClelland’s Islay Single Malt: 7.94 ± 0.64 on 8 reviews ($$)

Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.55 ± 0.91 on 7 reviews ($$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.29 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Bowmore Small Batch: 8.28 ± 0.56 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Bowmore 12yo: 8.39 ± 0.29 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve: 8.35 ± 0.38 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Glen Garioch Virgin Oak: 8.12 ± 0.50 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Garioch 12yo: 8.65 ± 0.32 on 14 reviews ($$$$)

McClellands.IslayAs you can see above, this Islay is actually the highest ranked member of the McClelland’s family – although all are ranked well below the official bottlings from the (presumed) source distilleries. I would personally score the McClelland’s Islay lower than the Meta-Critic average.

The most positive reviews for this Islay expression come for the guys at Quebec Whisky. My own assessment is more in line with Jan of Best Shot Whisky and Josh the Whiskey Jug. Josh’s review in particular closely matches my own tasting notes. I also share his assessment that Morrison Bowmore is likely using McClelland’s as a dumping ground for poor quality barrels they can’t otherwise offload.

In my view, I think you are best sticking with the entry level age-statement expressions from the underlying distilleries here. And if you are ok with a bit less smoke, for $5 CAD less than the McClelland’s Islay you can pick up the quite decent Te Bheag blended scotch whisky at the LCBO.


  • Martin N Anderson

    I’d rather drink Laphroig. But I’m retired. McClelland’s gives me the chance to drink my beloved Islay regularly. I actually like it better than some high-end Islays (not Laphroig or 12-year Bowmore though). It’s a great compromise.

  • Christopher Molloy

    Yes it is, as is Finlaggan Old Reserve.

  • At $23.00 USD per bottle, it is hard to beat, I think it has better taste than blends in its price range

  • I truly liked it. I don’t like the Highland nor the lowland Mcclellans this is definitely a decent scotch for the price. The hint of Peat is really what I like over the other scotches of the McClellans. What I would prefer is balvenie which is a dual cask single malt.

  • Worst scotch I EVER drank. And believe me I am a scotch drinker. Saw it decided to take a turn off my usual chivas glenmorange offerings. What a mistake. Tastes like medicine ugghhh!!!

    • Common dude! You have had few scotch whiskies ( chivas and glenmorangie offerings) but by no means you know scotch whisky. I respect the different preference and taste but the examples you give shows you have no clue.

      • Truly agree . I’m an average SCOTCH drinker.
        I found this one honnest an pretty Good for the price. I drank Glennfidich, Glenmorangie, The BALVENIE Aberfeldy an many other’s. I love to experience a variation of taste. To be honest at the beginning… i have tasted a “smoke” scotch and I didn’t like it at all.
        But recently I’ve tasted a bowmore 12 years for the first time and I appreciate that experience. My taste has changed and I beginning to appreciated “petty” kind of scotch. Last week I was searching for weekly scotch and I bought this one. Surprisingly I’ve loved it right away. Now I like the taste of Petty kind of scotch and I beginning to experience in that area.

    • yup! turpentine with a diesel fragrance. whaaaackkk…..

  • thought it tasted like it was blended with grain alcohol

  • When I can’t afford my favorite Laphroaig, this Islay hits the spot and is well worth the $23 USD! Great Smokey taste with that Islay peat linger.

  • For the price, I was pleasantly surprised. It really isn’t too bad. Recommend if, lime me, you are on a budget and love peat.

  • So, my new favorite cocktail is a variation on the Blood and Sand made with Islay whisky. This isn’t Lagavulin, but if you are mixing it anyway it is EXCELLENT for the price.

  • McClelland’s is great for someone who is new to the Scotch world, and is wanting to explore the regions that Scotland has to offer. I spent a happy Michigan Winter a few years ago exploring Scotland for about $25/bottle, and learned a lot about the different regions. The good thing about McClelland’s is that the notes that make each region unique are almost exaggerated here, helping the budding Scotch enthusiast identify what they should look for (though expressed more subtlely) in higher-end Scotches. That being said, McClelland’s Islay isn’t too over-the-top that a seasoned Scotch drinker on a budget won’t find it pleasing.

  • I have Glenfiddich 12, 15, 18 single malts on the shelf and have gravitated there after trying half a dozen other (more or less) entry level offerings. So, recently, Bowmore and McCelland’s Islay single malts went on sale. Couldn’t pass them up because I’d never tried them before. What a shocker at my first try with an Islay whiskey. So, two shots on the rocks suits me well. I don’t mind the medicine. However, when I need smooth, it’s back to my Glenfiddich or Macallans.

  • I really disapprove of the snobbish rejections of the whiskey. I drink Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Macallan and The Singleton and as Islays go it’s a budget peaty treat. It lacks some refinement but also comes in at a fourth the price. On a chilly night, this does nicely and is priced to share.

  • I have Lagavulin 16, Bruichladdich The classic laddie, ardbeg 10, Laphroig 10, Bowmore 10, other than kilchoman and bunnahabain, all sitting on the shelf and I enjoy them regularly. I like to devour those but like to substitute my dram for a cheaper option most of the time. McClellands Islay isn’t the best standing next to Any of these, but is in no way a bad dream. I enjoy it more than jonnie black, or the famous grous smoky black for a cheap party option.

  • Nice whisky a have on my shelf lagavulin bowmore laproach ardbeg ten and finlaggan.
    A have tried once more the McClelland so i now were i talking about.
    The McClelland and the finlaggan are young spirits from Bowmore and Lagavulin.
    When you have a low budget takes those two.

    enjoy the peatlover.

  • We bought this as an ‘after the good stuff’ drink, when our tastes buds have essentially given in and the subtlety is lost. It reserves the more expensive Ardbeg and Laphroaig that we love for fresh buds!! I also do this with fine wine. : )

  • I love Glenfiddich – for the price and taste … try McClennand’s Highland … it doesn’t disappoint … be careful the buzz comes on … delayed … I feel it increasing well after I thought I was finished drinking for the evening

  • Larry N. McConkey

    I can no longer fine the McClelland’s Isla Scotch in my area. why did the Stores stop carrying it? Spec’s, Western Beverage In Kerrville, TX

  • It tastes like cough syrup, Buckey’s, I had moonshine that tasted better than this. What a mistake and huge disappointment. Will never buy this paint remover again…

  • While there is certainly better scotch out there at $33.00 (currently here in Tulsa) It’s hard to beat.

  • Good article, I agree with the author. Islay is the best among those three. And of course, Laphroaigs, Lagavulins, Ardbegs, etc. are better in one way or another, but that’s not the fair comparison. It’s like comparing a Honda Civic se to Porsche 911. It’s a different price range and it serves different markets. It allows Bowmore to sell QC fails and still make a profit and for us to afford and enjoy taste Islay. Not so many people even who write here can afford a bottle for $80+, and if one thinks that one can, let one ask ones spouse. On the other hand not so many people who wrote here their comments would be able to distinguish on a blind sip test the difference between beverages mentioned above. Few days ago I heard a beautiful saying: the best whiskey in the world is the one which you can actually afford. Cheers guys and ladies!

  • Am a long time drinker of the more expensive Islay Laphroaig. Wow! Nice surprise this Islay McClellans! You have to be pretty picky not to love it. The nice price is a pleasant surprise as well. I found it this summer in West Virginia. Brought back 4 bottles to Arizona for the winter for under $100. I definitely recommend it.

  • Bowmore 18 is my favorite, but around $150 (us) a bottle here (the repressed theocracy of Utah) so that’s a once in a while treat. McClellands Islay, thou not quite even to Bowmore Legend standards, is an AMAZING dram of Islay for the price. And I’m sorry I’m actually drinking at right now and some of your review is just off, there is no disappearing flavor. It definitely lasts as far as I’m concerned. for being a cheap bottle of whiskey it’s relatively smooth trust me I’ve had worse I can’t stand sherried whiskey I’ve had the Glenfiddich original that came out a few years ago limited to 25000+/- bottles. And in my opinion it was pure $#!+.
    I’d of rather had 3 bottles of McClelland for the same coin.

  • Drinking Islay whiskies since a nipper. Lagavulin 16 being King but for the price Mclelland was ok, first time I’ve come across it was today, cost cutting usually drives me to White Horse. Being from Scotland – they’re all great and I stay clear of any whisky with an extra e or Kawasaki Diesel

  • Outstanding every eve drink…good palate, not meant for the faint hearted and superb price point.
    Cannot enter the traditional Islay club but is an easy entry if you are looking for reasonably complex flavour and value. All in all, a must have in the bar.

  • My first exposure to smoky scotch was Laphroaig QC and Talisker 10 at a friend’s house a few years ago, then I bought a bottle of Bowmore 12 for myself. (As a retiree, around $60 is my choke point, which now gets me into the Bunnahabhain 12 range.) Later I found that McClelland’s Islay was selling for $18 USD at the time (now $28 USD due to the 25% tariff) and bought a bottle. I don’t drink it neat or iced when I have something better, but it’s great for the handful of cocktail recipes that call for a peated whisky (like the Rusty Compass).

  • Enjoy the moment. Good, bad, whatever. It suits me just fine. And I’ve had some of the best and some of the worst which is all subjective anyways. $$$$$ doesn’t mean it’s better.

  • the smell reminds me of a new car/new tires + new shoes at the store footlocker. it has that new from the factory smell. a little odd to drinks plain but mixed with other whiskeys it can add some depth and character.

  • Of course an Islay will stand out because, well, that’s what an Islay does. The “lighter”whiskies have to rise on more fragile effects. But hey, drink this one, drink that one, nod at what you can taste, and don’t ruin the evening trying to make sure you’re not insulted by an ounce below your station in life.

  • Experienced Islay folk have listed the upscale numbers (quality and price) – but those are back in the locked shelf for special days. I’m budgeted.

    This Mcclelland at $42 for 1.75 litres is the daily drams.
    Nose / palate / after – suits me up for my wife’s wonderful cooking.
    (I do have an old gallon of Teachers for when her dad comes by.)

  • My favorite whiskeys all come from Islay. A friend of mine turned me on to this budget oriented whiskey with a bit of a life hack. Take a full bottle of McClelland’s Islay and add one teaspoon of pure maple syrup….eye roll…I know what you’re thinking. But actually makes for a great tasting Islay whiskey that punches way above it’s price class.

  • My preference is the peaty smokey taste that you can only get from Islay scotches. Being retired for 13+ years, i also have to watch my budget. So what I’m looking for is value (read taste) for money (read lowest price). Having used McLelland’s Islay for nigh on 2 years, I have to say that McLelland’s Islay gives me the best (smokey, peaty) taste) value for money( lowest price) … bottle, after bottle, after bottle.

    While my preference … keeping in mind that my preference is for that peaty, smokey taste that lingers long after you’ve finished sipping that I get from a Lavagulin 8 year or a Laphroaig Select … I am on a limited budget (when it comes to my scotches … that kind of gets thrown out the window … ) … I can always rely on McLelland’s Isley to give me that taste that can still taste 24 hours after I’ve sipped my scotch on the rocks …

  • Thanks for the review. I will give it a try. The only Islay I have had that disagreed with me was Bowmore No 1, very medicinal and not pleasant on the palate.

  • Just purchased my first bottle of McLellands Islay malt and am pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it is. Not the full bodied peatyness of old favourites like Laphroaig or Bowmore but at the price it’s a good option.
    Great for folks who are more recent adopters of Scotch and who want a gentle introduction to the Islay experience. If you find you don’t enjoy it you haven’t spent too much. Makes a nice Rob Roy!

  • As my taste buds have diminished with age I decided to try budget Isla.
    after sipping with a dribble of ice water and waiting 20 minutes I still have that lovely peaty taste in mouth. I was never an Islay whisky fan but the peat/smoke makes up for my reduced taste and I know of no other Isla
    at this price $26. It is not particularly smooth or complex but I do enjoy a nip or two with some iced water.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.