While the consumption and appreciation of quality whisky was once a luxury reserved for landed gentry and those dining at the captain’s table, we live in a time when the Sea of Whisky is open to anyone with some spare cash and a willingness to teach their palate a thing or two. One excellent way to spend your monetary and corporeal currency is on an Islay whisky. On more than a few occasions I have awoken to find myself washed ashore on the sands of an Islay whisky. Surely the blame for the bleary and dehydrated state ultimately rests with me, but the Islay whiskies play no small part. Still, like Ulysses’ Sirens, I am unable to escape the lure of Islay whenever my drinking voyages take me near Scottish waters.
What is an Islay whisky you might ask yourself…hell, how do you even pronounce it? Islay (pronounced “eye-la”), besides being an actual island, is a distinct Scotch whisky-producing region. To know something about Islay whiskies, one must first know something about whisky, and Scotch in particular. A few fundamentals will go a long way, so let’s knock them out in short order. First, you will notice that there is an “e” missing in whisky whenever we refer to Scotch. The Scots might argue that we Americans along with the Irish and Canadians have it all wrong with our whiskey spelling. But however you spell it, whiskies are all spirits distilled from grain. Different grains can come into play depending on your local and your desired end-product, but it is going to be a grain and that is the end of that. No fooling around with potatoes, grapes or very small pebbles.
As for Scotch, it is essentially a whisky made of malted barley in Scotland according to the local and very specific rules. These rules also state that it must be mashed, fermented, distilled and aged in Scotland. Additionally, in order to be deemed Scotch, the whisky must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years and the final product must have an alcohol content of at least forty percent by volume (80 proof). The Cliff Note’s version: If it isn’t made it Scotland, it isn’t Scotch. If you are in Canada and you are drinking local whiskey, you are drinking whiskey but you aren’t drinking Scotch. If you are in the United States and you are drinking bourbon or rye, you are drinking one of two varieties of whiskey but you still are not drinking Scotch. You get the idea. And while whiskies from the U.S. to Japan are probably all the relatives of Scotland, they don’t get to use grandfather’s eponymous title: Scotch. However, some whiskies, including the Japanese Yamazaki, do choose to retain a little of their Scottish heritage by using the word “whisky,” which derives from the Gaelic word usquebaugh (uisge beatha), or “water of life.”
To further prepare for our exploration of Islay whisky we should briefly acknowledge the other regions of whisky production in Scotland. There are six different Scotch producing regions in Scotland: Highland, Speyside, Lowland, Campbeltown, Island, and Islay. These regions each boast distinct styles, but all must play by the same fundamental rules in order to bear the title of Scotch on their labels (and yes, even the labels have to pass official muster). These are general characteristics as there are always exceptions and different nuances to each whisky: Highlands (Glenmorangie, Dalmore, Old Pultney) tend to have a lighter, fruity and vanilla profile. Speyside (The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, The Macallan) tend to be sherried with hints of spice. The Lowlands (Glenkinchie, Bladnoch, Auchentoshan) are generally softer and more delicate with floral and heather influences. Islands (Talisker, Arran, Highland Park) have coastal flavors of brine and seaweed and some have a smoky profile. Campbeltown (Springbank and Glen Scotia) is a bit of an odd fellow. It used to have the most distilleries in Scotland, now it has the fewest. The flavors can be slightly smoky with a hint of peat.
Then there are the Islay whiskies. A little confusion can arise because of the Island region of Scotland that was mentioned earlier. The Island region is composed of many distilleries scattered across numerous islands. The Islay whiskies, however, all hail from the Isle of Islay, an Inner Hebridean Island off of the south-west coast of Scotland. And what of the Islay whiskies that I find both perilous and attractive? Islay whisky is most renowned for a single characteristic: peat.
Peat is mostly vegetation in a state of decay and is found all over Islay. Give it another hundred million years and additional pressure and you would have oil. As it is now, though, peat is an earthy-looking muck commonly found in a moor, mire, or bog. While still immature compared to some stuff we pull out of the ground, peat is a fuel and is often dried and burned. So when it comes time to dry your malted barley on Islay and get on with the whisky process, more than a few of the Islay distilleries go in for using copious amounts of the abundant fuel to get the job done. As a result, Islay whiskies often exude flavors along the smoke, ash, coal, dust, or just plain burnt-earth spectrum (mind you, those are complementary terms). While Islay is by no means the only area of Scotland producing peaty whiskies, peat, above all else, characterizes Islay whiskies.
Perhaps now is a good time to put names to a few of the Siren’s that entice people from the safer channels of the Sea of Whisky to a blissful, recurring demise upon the shores of Islay. Novel-length odes have been written describing the attributes of individual whiskies, but we’re going to run with some quick, dirty, occasionally inaccurate, but utilitarian descriptions of the nine active distilleries currently operating on Islay. Laphroaig (“la-froig”) and Lagavulin (“lagavoolin”) are two better-known inhabitants of Islay. These two are often found in even the most rudimentary, single malt whisky selections at your local bar. In addition to the numerous flavors particular to each Scotch, Laphroaig boasts a smoky peat and Lagavulin additionally brings ocean-born salt to the palate.
Caol Ila (“cull eela”) (with its iodine and coal/ash-peat), Bowmore (“bo more”) and Bunnahabhain (“bunna habin”) (with their own distinctive combinations of peat, sometimes dark fruits and sea-air) contribute to a lush variety of seductive flavors straddling the island. And then there are Ardbeg and Bruichladdich (“brewk lawdy”), two Islay whiskies skilled in their own rights, striving to artfully entrap as much peat as possible into the spirit of Islay. Finally there is the new kid on the isle, so to speak: Kilchoman (“kil ho man”). Opened in 2008 their distillations release feisty, youthful and ashy expressions. There are almost as many silent letters on Islay as there are peat-fires burning at any given time, so worry not about the pronunciation of any given distillery. Enough trips to Islay and you will slowly retain an appreciation for the local dialect, even through the oft-addled fog of memory enshrouding this singular isle.
An Islay whisky, like any good whisky, should be enjoyed neat. On occasion (rare occasion in some books, including mine) a few drops of water can open up the flavor and enhance certain characteristics. Enjoying whisky should be a personal experience though. You are the one drinking it so you should drink your way. You will, unfortunately and often unfairly, be judged accordingly. Some like their whiskies on the rocks. Many view this as a crime to do to any single malt whisky, as well as better blends. Expect to incur the arguably just ire of Islay’s inhabitants should you be caught imbibing in such a manner. Some like their whisky with a cigar. And while you may enjoy both enormously, you might miss out on some of the finer details of the whisky. The cigar smoke can dull your taste buds and some of the great flavors in the whisky might be missed. If you leave your water and smokes behind, you may find everything you need in the right whisky.
Take Ardbeg’s Corryvreckan, for example. One whiff will fill the nose with a dusty peat, an oily salt, and some smoked-and-peppered malts. And when you take a sip… what you will get is a deluge of sweet brininess, a lush, slightly viscous mouth-feel filling your cheeks with peat and a surge of heat that evens into a slow burn, a gentle numbing. Dough and smoke and a dense, malty bite will mix and linger with an enduring peat and spectral traces of floral sugars. Welcome to Islay.