Islay: where peat and Scotch are a perfect marriage

If you are looking for a big brawny Scotch whisky, redolent of peat and the sea, then Islay’s distilleries will suit your palate

islay scotch peatPORTLAND, Ore. Oct. 11, 2016/ Troy Media/ – The malt whisky producing island of Islay is nestled amongst the Inner Hebrides on Scotland’s west coast and boasts eight storied distilleries. A ninth, Gartbreck, has just started operation.

Rugged, windswept and barren, the island generally produces single malt whiskies with powerful peaty aromas that are unmistakably rugged, powerful and bursting with flavors. They range from the immediately recognizable medicinal and smoky notes apparent in almost all offerings to the more surprising elements, such as the distinctive black pepper found in Bruichladdich’s Octomore series, the distinct maritime notes of Bowmore and Caol Ila, and the complex sweetness that comes from sherry cask finishing.

Islay is a small island located not far beyond the westernmost edge of the ruins of the Roman era Antonine Wall. It has three regions, the north shore, the south shore and Loch Indaal. Interestingly, because of their archetypal peaty style, most Islay whiskies are immediately recognizable as such. The peaty, smoky character of Islay malts, however, isn’t a unique “regional” trait as such. Mainland distilleries like Brora, BenRiach and Edradour can also produce “peat monsters.” Moreover, being an Islay malt doesn’t necessarily mean it will be heavily peated. Bunnahabhain distillery creates exceptional unpeated single malts.

The peaty, smoky style of many Islay malts has nothing to do with the brown “peaty” water that is sometimes used during production. It is caused by the fact that a separate peat furnace is used to generate peat smoke to pass through the drying malt. The peat furnace is in addition to the main, typically oil fired, furnace that is used to dry the germinating barley. The fragrant smoke carries over first into the barley, then the whisky, imparting the trademark “peat reek.” Every peat bog in Scotland has a distinct chemical signature. This same chemical watermark carries over into the finished whisky.

mapThough the Lagavulin distillery claims to be an 1816 startup, records show 10 illegal distilleries operating there since 1742. Today, Lagavulin 16 YO (43 per cent ABV) is a highly sought after brand, and often considered amongst the top 10 single malt Scotch whiskies in the world. Its characteristic peat and smoke flavor profile, and its powerful  [glossary slug=’phenolic’ /] aroma, are considered the archetype of Islay peated whiskies.

Another whisky worth exploring is Caol Ila (pronounced Cull Eela, the Gaelic name for the Sound of Islay). The sound, which separates Islay from Jura, is one of the most remote, desolate, yet beautiful parts of Scotland’s west coast.

The Caol Ila distillery marketed its “whisky by the sea” for over a century. The fresh marine aroma is hardly surprising. An unsung whisky, Caol Ila has become highly sought after by “peaty” malt lovers globally. It’s Distillers Edition (43 per cent ABV), won the top Single Malt Scotch Whisky at the 2005 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The opulently flavoured and complex expression of Caol Ila is created by finishing the whisky is casks that previously held sweet Portuguese Moscatel wine. These casks are specifically chosen to meld with the malt, creating a sweet, fruity, peaty, smoky intensity in the resulting whisky.

Bowmore is the oldest distillery in Islay and the second oldest in Scotland. Its whiskies are heavily peated and have a distinctive salty tang on the finish.

Octomore, a new whisky, is produced at Bruichladdich. Described as the most heavily peated whisky in the world at 169 ppm of phenol, this is the ultimate “peat monster” and is definitely not for the faint hearted. Bruichladdich also produces a number of unpeated expressions.

In a deviation from the highly peated Islay whiskies, Kilchoman, established in 2005, has released 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 YO (46 per cent-59 per cent ABV) single malts, some of which are lightly peated, and two which also had some sherry cask maturation. The sweet, peat and briny notes are well integrated and offer that winning sweet and smoky combination. Its location made it the most westerly distillery in Scotland, until the Abhainn Dearg Distillery started distilling on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

Port Charlotte distillery, formerly known as the Lochindaal distillery, was shut down in 1929. It was taken over by Bruichladdich in 2003, and reopened on September 2, 2007, but on a limited scale. With the acquisition of Bruichladdich by Remy Cointreau, enough capital has been made available to restore the Port Charlotte Distillery to its full 1929 capacity. The Port Charlotte malts were for a time produced at Bruichladdich. These malts were heavily peated, typically to between 40 ppm and 44 ppm phenol, in the classic Islay style. Perfect for the “peat head” looking for the next “peat monster.”

Laphroaig distillery is an iconic Islay single malt Scotch whisky. Its name, a Gaelic word, stands for “beautiful hollow by the broad bay.” It has such a distinctive medicinal taste that during Prohibition in the United States, its enterprising importer had it classified as a medicine. You needed a doctor’s prescription, however, before you could buy “medicinal whisky” at your local pharmacy.

The medicinal character of Laphroaig malts is exemplified in the classic 10 YO bottling. This is a big, muscular, smoky malt redolent with peat, phenol and brine.

On the nose there are additional notes of spice and licorice along with iodine, phenol, disinfectant and wood smoke. On the palate there is an unmistakable maritime influence of salt air and drying seaweed at low tide. Add to that sweet notes, along with vanilla, cream and a whiff of Band-Aid adhesive. On the palate there are spices, some black pepper, tar and smoke, with traces of iodine throughout all, ending in a long, drying, savory finish.

Islay whiskies are not for the faint hearted. If you are looking for a big brawny Scotch whisky, redolent of the sea, peat fires and powerful phenolic aromas, then Islay’s distilleries will suit your palate.

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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