The following is an excerpt from our most recent issue of Highball. Read the full article here!
Islay is situated off Scotland’s western coast at the southern end of the Hebrides islands that lie disbanded in the northern Atlantic. The island herself and her residents are known for their adherence to history, stubbornly rebuking any modern amenity that might prove life on this frozen, sea-swept island any easier. Islay is stuck in time—an irony these days, considering that her malts are among the most prized and sought after in the world.
She is a home of wind, fog, brine, smoke and peat—the peat beds still vast, quiet, deep. And while many places around Great Britain have done away with the ritualistic cutting of peat, in Islay, where its number one export is directly affected by the acrid, oily smoke of a peat brick, men young and old stand shoulder to shoulder in cold, damp bogs cutting turf from the earth. Peat also remains a primary source of fuel and heat on the island—a testament to the island’s perseverance to remain unchanged.
For its small size, Islay is home to eight of Scotland’s most recognizable malts. And these malts are known for being the most complex, mind-bendingly peaty, smoke-ridden, salted, sticky malts there are. These are not for the faint of palate. That said, Islay’s reputation precedes its quality, its status likened to that of Grand Cru Champagne or classed Bordeaux.
Looking at a map of Islay, the general rule is the malt becomes more peated the further south one goes. The northernmost distillery is Bunnahabhain, the queen of the north. Once considered so peaty as to resign herself undrinkable, the ‘Bunny’ gave up peated malts many years ago preferring instead to focus on the freshness of the malt and its surroundings. This is the most delicate of all Islay malts with aromas of heather, orchard fruit, toffee and soft sea air.
Bunnahabhain’s southern neighbor, Caol Ila is fiercely peated. Sitting very close to the channel separating Islay from Jura, Caol Ila is reminiscent of honey, charcoal, peppercorn and hyacinth— expressive if not a bit intimidating. Continuing south to the northern edge of Loch Indaal sits Bruichladdich (BROOK-laddy) and its sister Port Charlotte. Like Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich gave up peated malts in search of purity. These malts are generous, floral, saline and abundantly fruity. To maintain a peated malt, Bruichladdich purchased Port Charlotte distillery,where they’ve blown out all the windows to produce a malt likened to charring apples and smoking fish over peat fire.
Directly across Loch Indaal there is Bowmore. Protected from the region’s fierce weather and wind, this deeply-fruited malt is only medium-peated and is a great ‘starter’ expression for Islay malt. Then there are Islay’s three southerly battleships—the brash, brut-like, intoxicatingly peated malts of the southern shore: Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. Here the spirit of Islay rips from the glass in unapologetic roars of smoke, peat, brine and oak. These legendary distilleries sit as ramparts in defense of some foreign invader. The Atlantic winds whip salt air into all exposures. The brine invades everything it touches, from the grain stores to the malting floor, in through the storehouse and into the oak staves themselves. What is left is a finished whisky with pronounced saline notions—an anointment from ancient, oceanic gales.
All malts included herein are available online at at many of your local ABC Fine Wine & Spirits stores. Get out and dare yourself to explore the history of Scotch distilling in a way only Islay can!
Wid Kever, IV
Wine & Spirits Specialist
ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, New Smyrna Beach