PORTLAND, Ore. Aug. 11, 2016/ Troy Media/ – In the world of Scotch whisky, “the Islands” refers to the whisky-producing islands in the north and west of Scotland.
These include Mainland, the largest island in the Orkneys, Mull and Jura in the Inner Hebrides, Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, as well as Arran, between the Campbeltown peninsula and the mainland, in the Firth of Clyde. Islay and Skye, also in the Inner Hebrides, are usually treated separately.
While the islands are often seen as quintessentially Scottish, from a historical standpoint they are the least so. Norway controlled them until the 13th century.
There is no distinctive Scotch whisky style in the islands. Peat has a long association with the industry there, but the use of peat varies widely, depending on the distiller. The seven distillers on the islands present a broad assortment of house styles, as a brief survey will indicate.
Mainland, Orkney Islands
Highland Park distillery is a Scotch whisky distillery based in Kirkwall, Mainland. It was the most northerly whisky distillery in Scotland until the construction of the Saxa Vord Distillery in the Shetland Islands. The distillery is in an area called High Park, hence its name.
Highland Park is one of the few distilleries to malt its own barley and it uses local peat. Part of its flavour comes from the heather used on the peat fire to dry the malt. This imparts a delicate floral touch, resulting in the unique taste of all Highland Park expressions. The malt is peated to a level of 20 parts per million phenols and then mixed with unpeated malt produced on the Scottish mainland. It is also one of the ingredients of The Famous Grouse blend.
Scapa distillery is half a mile south of the Highland Park distillery. It produces an especially honey-sweet whisky, decidedly less peaty than most island whiskies. Scapa is the inspiration of Ballantine’s Scapa Edition. More than 40 malt and grain whiskies, sourced from all over Scotland, are blended to produce Ballantine’s 17 Year Old Signature Distillery Scapa Edition. This is a 43 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) blended Scotch that has Scapa malt as its core.
The house style of Scapa emphasizes a rich, sweet aroma followed by a burst of fruit and floral flavours featuring sweet orange and peach notes. On the palate, the whisky is incredibly smooth, creamy and luxurious.
Tobermory is the only distillery on Mull, due north of Islay and Jura. The brand name Tobermory is used for all their unpeated malt whisky, while the lightly-peated whisky is sold as Ledaig. The malt whisky produced on Mull is first shipped to the Deanston distillery on the mainland for filling into casks and then transported to the Deanston warehouses for maturation. Tobermory is often affected by drought, which dries up its water source. This occurred in 2012 and 2013. The distillery shuts down for up to two months in drought-affected years.
Ledaig 10 Year Old (46.3 per cent ABV): The nose is quite light and well balanced – a very soft peat with a gentle smoke. There are notes of barley and malt extract with walnut and pine oil and a hint of iodine, with notes of dried fruit and nuts. The palate is medium-bodied and quite rich. There are notes of spice and smoke gathering above the charred oak. The peat is subtle and dry with a touch of black pepper and earth. The finish is of medium-length and slightly smoky with spice.
Tobermory 15 Year Old Scotch (46.3 per cent ABV): This is an excellent, virtually unknown Scotch whisky, offering complex aromas and excellent balance. It has superb mouth feel with pronounced sherry and a honey, raisiny taste, with spice, candied citrus, and a hint of cedar and smoke on the finish.
Arran hosts a single distillery of that name near its only town of Lochranza. It opened in 1995. A number of versions of the Arran whisky became available to the public around 2005. The only widely available expression was the no age statement (NAS) version, released for the first time in 1998. More than 20 expressions are on the market today, including whiskies finished in Marsala and Moscatel de Setubal casks.
The Arran 10 Year Old (46 per cent ABV): The nose is herbal, straw, with biscuity aromas. On the palate, it’s fruity, with a touch of vanilla. There is a hint of digestives in the middle. It ends with a long, complex finish.
The Arran, Eight Year Old, Moscatel de Setubal Finish (55 per cent ABV, 5,730 bottles): This whisky is matured for eight years and then finished for 10 months in casks that previously held Moscatel de Setubal – a sweet Portuguese desert wine. It has a pronounced sweetness on the nose and palate, with stewed raisin, dried apricot and fruitcake, accompanied by a heavy, viscous mouth feel.
The original Jura distillery of 1810, the only one on Jura Island, was closed in 1918 and rebuilt in 1963.
Historically, Jura was a peated malt, very similar in style to its cousins on neighbouring Islay. Following its resurrection, the various expressions were produced in a lightly-peated style. Beginning with the Prophecy bottling, Jura returned to its heavily-peated roots. The distillery’s range of expressions now vary from lightly to heavily peated, with a delicate sweet, honey touch and subtle marine notes in the background.
The Abhainn Dearg (pronounced aveen jarraek) is the first legal distillery in the Outer Hebrides since 1829. It was established in 2008. A handful of limited edition three-year-old bottlings have been released, but they are virtually impossible to find. The first official release will be a 10-year-old bottling scheduled for 2018.
For the enthusiast, the Islands offer diverse and varied styles of whisky – essential and excellent additions to a Scotch whisky collection.
Joseph V. Micallef is an historian, best-selling author, keynote speaker and commentator on wine and spirits. Joe holds the diploma in Wine and Spirits and the Professional Certificate in Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (London). Bottoms Up is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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