Perhaps Scotland’s most revered region, and one that can certainly be controversial, here’s a look at the island of Islay and some of its better whiskies.
There’s something about Islay that it seems to have become globally revered. Sure, other parts of Scotland like Speyside and the Highlands make some truly fantastic whisky, but (for example), watch an American film where they order whisky and the ‘upper class’ or ‘connoisseur’ characters always seem to ask for “your finest Islay”. So what is it about that word? What is it about this island that sets it apart? Why is it given status as its own region rather than just being grouped together like the rest of them are as whisky from ‘the islands’? Well, I think it’s got a lot to do with how strongly it divides opinion, and the sheer volume of production and number of distilleries that have crammed themselves in to the 239 sq miles of Islay.
The thing about Islay, is that it’s prime whisky making territory. Amongst other things, it’s laden with acres and acres of quality peat and, for the most part, you can taste it. Peat is one of those marmite things: you love it or hate it, and it certainly is an acquired taste. Such a perfect environment it is, in fact, that whilst islands like Skye, Jura and Mull (to name just a small selection) are inhabited by only one distillery a piece, Islay boasts 8 different distilleries that all call it ‘home’.
The historical significance of Islay is its avant-garde geographical position, specifically that it lays en route for any historical traders travelling to Scotland from Ireland. Although you probably wouldn’t catch many Scots admitting to it, there is some suggestion that this is how distilling got in to Scotland in the first place. The practice of distilling spirits (originally for medicinal purposes) was taught to the western world by Arab scholars, the cross-over point being Moorish Spain. There is evidence that would imply that the wedding of an Irish princess on Islay in the 1300 had guests in attendance that could well have bought their knowledge of distilling across to Islay from Ireland. Somewhat later, in 1493, King James IV was campaigning on Islay where he could have come across the local aqua vitae and bought it back to the mainland…the rest, as they say, is history.
So we have a lot to thank Islay for: the part it played in bringing distillation to Scotland, and the undoubtedly spectacular contribution that it makes to the modern day single malt market; here are a few of the best and some classics to give your palate an overview of the Island:
Ardbeg 10: A genuine, bonafide classic whisky; a complex peat explosion and consistently one of the top ranked whiskies in the world. You definitely need to try this whisky, and more detail about it can be read here, but maybe don’t start here if you’re just getting in to Islay.
Caol Ila 12: this might be a more appropriate point of departure for your journey into peat. The peat is strong on the nose, but much more delicate on the palate. I think this is a great whisky to get you used to the idea of peat, without being too difficult to drink. Sweet nose and some delicate citrus fruits and a sort of (awful description alert) wet cakey-ness make this dram very approachable for the nascent Islay-drinker.
Laphroaig Quarter Cask: as well as being one of my favourite words, Laphroaig makes some of my favourite whisky and the QC is a fantastic example of their marvellous spirit. Most whiskies are matured in ‘hogs-head’ barrels, which have a 500L capacity. The QC, as the name would suggest, is transferred for its final stage of maturation in to a cask 1/4 the size (125L). This means that more of the spirit is in contact with the wood, and makes a sort of creamier and more intense parody of the Laphroaig 10 year old. Highly recommended.
Bruichladdich Rocks: I’ve included this for the sheer novelty value, and because if kind of typifies what Bruichladdich distillery is all about: being different. Flying in the face of the age-old debate about whether or not you should put ice in your whisky, Bruichladdich have specifically designed a whisky to be served over ice, or “on the rocks.” A lot of what Bruichladdich does is done to push the boundaries, and this is a fine example of that philosophy, although perhaps not the finest example of Islay whisky.
Lagavulin 16: another powerhouse whisky, perhaps not quite in the same league as the Ardbeg 10 in terms of reputation, although arguably in the same league in terms of quality. Dry, peaty, smokey and layered with fruit and sherry. A really powerful finish as well, which ‘Whisky Magazine‘ describes as a “bear-hug of peat”.