Most of you who know me well, know I love my single malt scotch, particularly the Islay whiskies, which for some are an acquired taste, but for me it was love at first sip (Laphroaig 15 yr was the first single-malt Islay I ever tasted). I’ve been told most women don’t care for the heavily peated flavor of my favorite whiskies, and I can understand that. I enjoy the pungent aromas and flavors of the Islay whiskies, redolent of forests, earth, oceans, and fire. It is a matter of preference, but ladies, before you take a sip and deem that whisky as (quoting my friend Ashley T.) “tasting like licking a dirty Band-Aid” consider there are many different whiskies to choose from, and not all taste like “wood fired dirt.” The fact that there are so many single malt whiskies to choose from can be very confusing, and the term “single malt” simply means that whisky was made at one particular distillery from a mash using only malted grain, which in the case of scotch is barley. Knowing where to start geographically is key for the novice whisky drinker, same as it is for new drivers. You have to know how to navigate, and scotch distilled in Scotland has distinctive flavors depending on the region, or area they’re made in. This particular blog post is focused on my favorite, the Islay whiskies.
“The Queen of the Hebrides” aka Islay, (pronounced eye-la) fifth largest, southernmost island of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides chain, is the ideal location for whisky production thanks to it’s fertile soil, outstanding pure water sources, and abundance of peat, which comprises much of the island . Peat plays a major role in the Islay distillation process, the source of it’s whiskies rich, smoky, earthy flavor, giving the Islay single malts the highest PPM out of all the single malts produced in Scotland. What is PPM? Hell what is peat for that matter? Peat is compacted layers of decomposed matter, such as sphagnum moss, rotted vegetation, you know, organic matter, or to put it bluntly… dead shit, enhanced by sea salt washed/blown in by storms. When dried it is a very economical fuel source, used by the local distilleries to fire the malting floor kilns. The peat smoke infuses the barley as it’s malting, adding phenol that creates the smokiness of the whisky’s flavor and aroma. The amount of phenol is rated by PPM (parts per million).
Home to less than 4000 inhabitants, and nine world famous distilleries, Islay produces some of the most unique flavors found in single malt whisky. These distilleries are scattered around the island, creating a scenic tour route, that I hope to experience next year. Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich (Brook-laddy), Bunnahabhain (Bunna-ha-ven), Caol Ila (coov-eel-eh), Kilchoman (keya-homan), Lagavulin, and as previously stated my favorite, Laphroaig. Each one of these distillers produce amazing whiskies, each distinctive, and rich with unique flavors that come only from Islay. I haven’t tried them all, but I’m slowly, yet surely working my way through a list of the ones that are available here in the states.
Aroma can tell you a lot about a whisky without even tasting it, and the Islay’s are very aromatic, which is another reason I like them. Their rich, sort of briny odors of smoke, peat, recall memories of my early childhood growing up on a farm, riding on the tractor with my daddy on a chilly spring evening as he finished plowing the field, the smell of freshly broken soil, and newly sprouted grass pungent and earthy, mingled with daddy’s own scent of soap, sweat, tobacco, and saddle leather. The single most distinctive odor among the Islay whiskies is smoke, the single most distinctive flavor is peat, some being more powerful than others. If you’re just starting to explore this particular scotch region, I suggest you start light and work your way into the whiskies with higher PPM. Each distillery makes several variations of their product, so there is a wide range to select from. For the newbie, I recommend Bowmore Small Batch, which is exclusively matured in first fill (virgin casks never been used), then second (used) fill bourbon casks. (American bourbon casks can only, by law, be used once, so the used barrels are sold to distilleries overseas to be re-used.) The aroma is an invitingly subtle mix of peat smoke, vanilla fudge, a tang of salt air, with hints of honey and spice. Even better is the first sip crisp with citrus, yet sweetly smoky with a hint of toasted coconut. Upon adding water, the flavor expands, and you can savor the oaken vanilla bourbon, purled with wisps of smoke and lime. Although not as peated as I prefer, the Bowmore Small Batch is a refreshing treat, a good dram to enjoy in warmer weather.
Another good beginner dram to try is Bunnhabhain 12 year, aka “Bunny”, a pleasantly nutty, lightly smoked whisky tinged with butterscotch and salt, that is sweet and full bodied, just like me, but if you call me bunny, I will probably punch you in the throat. If you’re the type who prefers a mixed drink, this particular scotch might be okay with a mixer, but I really can’t imagine defiling any whisky, much less one this lovely, and well balanced, with anything other than a splash of water, or a single ice cube, if that. I’m a little more stringent on the best way to enjoy Scotch than I am bourbon, why, I don’t know. Blame that on my Highland blood!
Once you’ve figured out you like the flavor of peat smoke, you can venture further afield and broaden your palate with more buxom whiskies like Caol Ile, or my favorite, Laphroaig, (a special edition 15 year is scheduled for release this year, most excellent & I highly recommend) eventually working up to hard core peat, such as Ardbeg Uigeadail (oog-a-dal), and Octomore made by Bruichladdich which is probably as peated as it gets without pouring malted mud in a bottle. As with any experimentation, take your time, know your limits, and sample slowly. Find a well stocked whiskey bar, (here in Baton Rouge I highly recommend Lock & Key) with a knowledgeable staff, who will take your tastes into account and either make you a cocktail, or put together a flight (3) of Islays for you to compare, and determine what you like best. Who knows, once you start tasting, and experiencing the myriad flavors among the Islay whiskies you might just find that you like it dirty too.
As always, drink responsibly, designate a driver!