Islay Scotch whisky region

The stark contrast between the robust and smoky Islay malts
and some (relatively) unpeated whiskies from the Highlands
or Lowlands is often used to introduce novices to the concept
of whisky regions - and I concede that it’s a pretty good way.
However, there are issues once you start digging deeper...

For one thing, they make unpeated whisky on Islay as well.
Bunnahabhain has been doing it for decades and at Caol Ila
they are also making an unpeated single malt for blenders
since the 1980s. It’s called “Caol Ila Highland”.

Even though local traditions and micro-climates have grown
less important in recent decades, the peaty power of (most)
Islay malt whisky can be overwhelming for less experienced
noses and palates. Most Islay whiskies are very characteristic
because of their ‘trademark’ peaty character.

Islay Scotch malt whisky region

The first chapter of this guide deals w

Chaky?

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What is the pronunciation of distillery names like Aurned.  >>>>>

Chapter 2: Vocabulary - Terminology & pronunciation

The miracle of whisk(e)y distillation may (or may not) have

Chapter 3: Geography - The malt whisky regions of Scotland

WHAT MAKES A SCOTCH WHISKY DISTILLERY “ACTIVE”?

Like the name suggests, this is a 'BEGINNER'S GUIDE' - I've tried to keep things as concise & understandable as possible.Much more details can be found in the ADVANCED BEGINNER'S GUIDE - but that's not quite finished at the moment.

WHAT MAKES A SCOTCH WHISKY DISTILLERY “ACTIVE”?

For now, the overview below only lists ACTIVE malt whisky distilleries (SEO) The first chapter of this guide deals w

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SpeysideHighlandsLowlandsIslayCampbeltownScotch Malt Whisky Regions

Diageo made this unpeated Caol Ila available for mere mortals
in 2006 or 2007, but I don’t recall it causing any big waves in the
whisky community. Not surprising - it was released as an 8yo.
Anyway, the takeaway is: Not all Islay whisky has to be peated.

At the same time, using peat smoke to dry malted barley was
quite a common practice on the mainland and other islands too
(well into the 20th century in the more remote areas, in fact).
After all, Scotland had plenty of peat in its swampy wasteland.
The lighter style of (most) mainland malts became popular after
WWII, so most distilleries that could went in that direction.

Malt Maniacs during Feis Ile 2005
Islay Scotch malt whisky 'region'

ISLAY

The weather on Islay can be rough, but the island provided a fairly safe haven for malt
whisky distilleries. During the economic crisis of the early 1980s, many Scotch whisky
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 Port Ellen hasn’t even vanished
completely; the old buildings have
survived as a maltings facility that
supplies many of the other distilleries
on Islay with malted barley.

The isle of Islay is probably Scotland’s smallest whisky region.
You can cross the island by car within half an hour - although
then you’d be missing out on a lot of the island’s natural beauty,

The annual ‘Feis Ile’ whisky festival lasts for a week.
During that time all Islay distilleries open their doors to the public
and whisky lovers from all over the world gather at the island.
During Feis Ile, the ‘population’ of Islay almost doubles...

Ardbeg 1974 - pretty but pricey

Is the typical Islay whisky a ‘peat monster’?

Not neccessarily - even if we ignore the unpeated Islay malts for a moment.
Take the Bruichladdich distillery, for example. It produces a fairly lightly
peated whisky, 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.

Over the years other Islay distilleries like Ardbeg have experimented with
different peating levels as well. They didn't carry out these experiments
at the Ardbeg distillery though; all the malted barley for the Islay distilleries
is produced at the Port Ellen maltings on the South shore of the island.
They can tweak the ‘recipe’ of the peat smoke very precisely, so each
distillery receives barley dried to exact (PPM) specifications.

So, while the Port Ellen distillery isn't active anymore, part of it lives on
in other Islay whiskies. Actual bottlings of Port Ellen are virtually extinct
now, but they were still affordable in the 1990s and early noughties.
I managed to savour a few dozen excellent expressions over the years
now that bottlings of Port Ellen are priced way outside my comfort zone
the product of the fairly young Kilchoman distillery is coming of age.

That’s it for now, but some more information about Islay will be added in a few days...

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