The power of Islay whisky can be overwhelming for less
experienced noses and palates. Most Islay whiskies are
very characteristic and immediately recognisable because
of their trademark peaty character. There's just one
notable exception; Bunnahabhain. This is the only distillery
on the entire island that produces an unpeated single malt.
The Bruichladdich distillery produces a fairly lightly peated
whisky, much subtler than the heavy spirit of most other
Islay distilleries. However, they also produce two heavily
peated varieties; Port Charlotte and Octomore. These two
brands should appeal more to peatheads.
Other Islay distilleries like Ardbeg have experimented with
different peating levels too. They didn't carry out these
experiments at the distillery though - all the malted barley
for the distilleries on Islay is produced at the Port Ellen
maltings on the South shore of the island.
The fact that Islay is a small island doesn't mean there aren't a lot of differences between
the malts from these eight distilleries. All three 'Kildalton' distilleries (Ardbeg, Lagavulin
and Laphroaig) produce powerful, peaty malts but they all have their own accents.
Medicinal notes like iodine and band aids usually betray a Laphroaig while a combination
of fruit, peat and organics is the mark of an Ardbeg. Caol Ila usually has plenty of peat as
well, but especially at a younger age it's lighter and more 'transparent' than the Kildalton
malts. Well, that used to be the case in the 1990's at least - nowadays the Caol Ila single
malts seem to be a little 'dirtier' with more organics and meaty notes - which is good...
That leaves the three B's which are all far less peaty, Bowmore (more smoky than peaty),
Bruichladdich (lightly peated) and Bunnahabhain (unpeated).
Please note that these differences in 'house style'
don't seem to be caused by regional factors. Except for the three 'Kildalton' distilleries, I haven't found any obvious connection between the style and character of an Islay single malt and the location of the distillery. Choices that are made during the distillation process, the maturation process and the cask selection seem much more important factors than location.
And that puts the whole 'geography' issue into perspective...
Islay is the birthplace of the peatiest malts in the world, even though more and more peat monsters
are distilled on the Scottisch mainland. As you may have picked up before, I'm not into subtlety - at least not as far as single malts are concerned.
That's why I love those 'in yer face' Islay malts; peat, smoke, salt, seaweed, iodine, liquorice, sweat and leather are just some of the typical Islay traits.
Needless to say, my trip to Islay in 2005 (together with a contingent of almost a dozen other certified malt maniacs) was a real pilgrimmage for me - or rather: a pildrammage. The picture at the left shows Serge, Olivier and Davin dramming at a rocky beach on the Oa peninsula. The trip was a truly wonderful experience; I got to see all distilleries except for Caol Ila. I can really recommend visiting Islay during the week long Islay Festival. Plenty of time to soak up the wonderful scenery...
In case you won't be able to make the trip to Islay yourself 'physically' in the
foreseeable future, I can recommend 'Peat Smoke & Spirit' - a book by
Andrew Jefford. It is very well written and tells a lot about the long - and
sometimes tragic - history of the Island. This book enables you to make
the trip 'virtually' - and will probably inspire you to try and make the trip
yourself a.s.a.p. too...
The current population of the island is circa 3,500 people, who call
themselves 'Ileachs'. It's fascinating to learn that this tiny island once
was the centre of a considerable empire. From the 14th to the 16th
century, most of the west coast of Scotland was ruled by the 'Lordship
of the Isles'. They controlled their realm from Finlaggan on Islay.
And that's not the only claim to fame from Islay; a flint arrowhead that was found near the town of Bridgend dated from circa 10,500 BC, which makes it the earliest evidence of human presence found so far in Scotland.
Please note that the peaty character of most Islay malts
isn't a real 'regional' trait. In these modern times, distilleries
on the mainland can produce peat monsters too, like Brora
and Benriach (to name just a few) have proven.
What's more, I imagine that the whiskies that were distilled
at many mainland distilleries during the 18th & 19th century
were much peatier than their modern successors. Before
railways and electricity arrived in the Highlands, peat was
an important source of fuel; at the time there were not
many forests in the area where distillers could chop wood
to fuel the fires under their stills. Coal was also hard to
transport into the remote areas of the Highlands.
So, the Port Ellen distillery isn't active anymore, but the owners managed to put aside
quite some stocks of its malt whisky. As a result, I managed to savour a few dozen very
fine expressions of Port Ellen over the years - although they are getting increasingly rare
nowadays. The good news is that the loss of Port Ellen was 'compensated' in 2005 by
the construction of a brand new Islay distillery: Kilchoman.
The weather on Islay can be rough, but the island provided a fairly safe haven
whisky distilleries. During the economic crisis of the early 1980's, many of the Scottish
distilleries were forced to close down. Especially 1983 was a bad year for single malt
whisky lovers; over a dozen distilleries were mothballed or closed permanently in that
year alone. On Islay, Port Ellen was the only malt whisky distillery to suffer closure.
And it's not even gone completely, the buildings have survived as a maltings facility that
supplies the other distilleries on Islay with malted barley.
Is the distillery or