There are many different aspects that can be considered when tasting and enjoying fine wine, spirits and beer. The professional, for instance, tends to be analytical – taking apart the various components of aroma and flavor as a method of storing and remembering them. Others may look to the social aspects – pure enjoyment in friendly company. Still others may consider the poetic, historic and even mystical properties of their favored beverage.All of these can bring about greater understanding and indeed pleasure in what we taste. But let’s look at yet another possible slant – time and place.
When we think about it, place can play an important part in truly understanding a wine or spirit. We have only to think of the wines of Burgundy, or Tuscany, or Jerez to recognize the importance of place, for while the same grape varieties can be planted in other parts of the world and can produce great wine, they never seem to capture the magical je ne sais quoi that they do in these regions. This spellbinding sense of place can also occur in spirits. A perfect example of this is in the whiskies of Islay.
Islay (pronounced EYE-luh) is a wild and rocky island, about 25 miles long and 15 miles wide, off the west coast of Scotland. It has about 4,000 inhabitants (and probably more than 4,000 sheep). Its major industries include agriculture, fishing and tourism. It also produces one of the world’s most distinctive styles of single malt whiskies.
While each distillery has its own individual style, the whiskies of Islay can generally said to be big and full-flavored, with great depth and complexity, and most famously – a smoky character derived from the local peat, with notes of iodine, seaweed and salt.
Peat is a natural accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter, fairly high in acidity, found in wet, boggy areas. It is cut up, dried and, because it can then burn for a long time, is used as a source of heat for most of the inhabitants of Islay. It also imparts flavor to the water that is used in the distilling process, and is burned to dry the malted barley. The result is quite unique.
At times Islay is battered by rough north Atlantic seas and by wild winds. Salt and sea air gets into everything, as does the seaweed. This accounts for the iodine and saltiness found in the whisky.
There are currently eight distilleries on the Isle of Islay (with two more pending). On the southeastern coast are Laphroaig (La-FROYG), Aardbeg, and Lagavulin (Lagg-eh-VOOL-in), all quintessentially peaty Islay whiskies. Caol Ila (Kal-EE-la) on the northeast coast is also peaty, though nearby Bunnahabhain (Bunn-a-HAHV-en) shows a lighter style as far as peat is concerned. On the west coast is Bruichladdich (Brook-LADDY) which is non-peated, and Bowmore, the oldest legal distillery on the island (1779), which has a medium/strong peatiness. All are a treat to the senses.
We’ve talked about place, but what about time? If you’ve ever looked at these whiskies in stores you will note that they tend to be somewhat on the expensive side. This has something to do with the quality involved, but it also has to do with the aging. The best Islay whiskies tend to be aged longer and as the saying goes, time – lying, waiting in barrels in the island warehouses – equals money. Hence the cost.
But as I’m sipping on my Islay whisky I must admit it gives me great pleasure to think of all those barrels lying there in lonely warehouses, with the salt wind and the sound of the heaving ocean nearby, waiting for just the right moment in time to reach perfection.
Bill Stobbs, ABC wine & spirits supervisor
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