Everyone knows Scotland is famous for her fine single malt whiskies, and they are each as unique, and distinctive, as the regions where they are distilled. Visiting Scotland for a whisky tour is the ideal way to experience the whisky wonders Alba has to offer, but that isn’t financially feasible for everyone, so over the next few Whiskyisms posts I’m going to guide you through each region, and the whisky they offer. So, let’s kick off our 2016 grand tour with my favorite whisky region, home of the best peated scotch in the world, where distillers have been producing whisky for over 200 years, the Isle of Islay.
Peat is not for everyone, a friend of mine equated it to “licking a dirty band-aid that’s been on a horse’s ass” and while I can somewhat agree with her, I still love it. The peatiest of the peaty whiskies are distilled on one of Scotland’s Hebrides islands, the Isle of Islay. Pronounced “eye-lah” Islay is home to eight of Scotland’s famous distilleries, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig. If you haven’t experienced the hearty flavors of peated scotch, I must warn you, it can be a bit overpowering at first, which is why I suggest you start out with what I call “Islay lite” such as Bowmore Small Batch. Fresh, crisp citrus, and honey with a subtle waft of smoke that melds nicely to a creamy malt finish. This is my go to summer dram. If you like a deeper, more savory whisky, Bowmore 15 Darkest is a lovely aroma of dark chocolate, just a light haze of Islay smoke, and pleasing blend of wood, and fruity treacle, and compliments the sherry finish. A decadent dram for an evening by the fire.
Graduating up the peat scale Kilchoman (Kill -homan) offers several expressions with a ppm between 20 and 25. My picks are the Kilchoman Machir Bay, which I like because I like the taste of salty/sweet, the aging in both bourbon barrels, and sherry casks, mixed with peat and smoke gives it a nice balance. Kilchoman Single Cask, which is released in a special bottling several times a year. giving each one a singularly unique, and exceptional palate. I really like the sherry finish. Bunnahabhain is also a lightly peated whisky from Islay with a peat range between Bowmare, and Kilchoman, some expressions might be a wee bit stronger. I’ve only been privileged to taste the Bunnahabhain 25 yr, which is a fantastic compilation of creamy fruit, leather, and finishes with a soft, dry spice. The one thing I highly recommend when experimenting with finding your peat capacity, is savor each new Islay you sample, take notes, and make comparisons as you build up to heavier peated whiskies.
Speaking of heavier peated whiskies, lets wander further up to peat-o-meter, where you will find a similarly peaty, yet diverse group of distillers, such as Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, and my personal favorite, Laphroaig. Ranging between 35 to 60 ppm, when it comes to the peat, in my opinion, this group of distillers are the heart of Islay whisky. Aroma is important in a good whisky, because we also taste with our noses, as sense of smell plays a major role in how we perceive flavors and tastes of food, and drink. I’m a southern gal, so when I take that first heady whiff of Ardbeg Uigeadail, I am reminded of smoked meats cooked over an open campfire, the tang of pine, and sea salt lurking in the background. I can sit and smell the stuff for several minutes before savoring my first sip, and savor is an understatement. Uigeadail, (oog-ah-dahl) is the Gaelic for “dark and mysterious place” and that is quite appropriate. The full flavored, mouth coating texture starts sweet, but deep and hearty like a not quite burned pound cake, quickly followed by a soft nip of spice, pine, and salt, that bursts into a sensory delight of sweet smoke, and burnt sugar cane that dwindles to a lovely lingering finish. I always think of thatched cottages deep in dark green woods the scent of crispy pork fat, like the charred fat on top of a brown sugar glazed ham, wafting on the cool, damp air.
Caol Ila (cull-ee-lah) means the sound of Islay in the Gaelic, and the Caol Ila 18 yr also tastes like what I would think the island tastes like. Oily, smokey, earthy, rich with the flavors of sea, land, and open sky. While I don’t recommend this one for a newbie, if you’ve enjoyed your peat exploration so far, give it a shot. On par with the Caol Ila is the Lagavulin 16yr, which is a classic Islay single malt. Thick, creamy, heavy on the smoke and peat, but sweet with sherry, dried fruit, and vanilla, with a little pop of spicy oak, and a lingering rich finish. Again, not a dram for beginners.
Next up is my all time favorite Laphroaig, the first single malt scotch I ever tasted, and I’ve been in love ever since. Some say whisky like Laphroaig is an acquired taste, and for some perhaps it is. I’ve always been of the mind that either you love it, or you hate it, especially considering that the first sniff smells like someone threw a box of band-aids in the fire, and tried to put it out with iodine. Laphroaig 10 yr, Quarter cask, and Triple Wood are each excellent expressions I enjoy equally, but the one dearest to my heart is Laphroaig 15 yr, which just recently enjoyed a come back in the distillery’s 200th anniversary edition. From the nose to the finish, Laphroaig 15 is everything I imagine Scotland must be, poured into a bottle, the sea, the moors, the peat, the burns, deep, dark lochs, windswept isles, and craggy mountain peaks. When I sip this whisky it tastes like everything good about home, leaving a warm and cozy trail of love that tingles down my throat all the way to my toes. It dredges up my happiest memories of campfires, being covered in mud riding ATV’s in the woods, sitting on the beach while eating raw oysters still dripping with seawater, my mama’s butterscotch pies she made every Christmas, and snuggling by the fire beneath my favorite quilt. I realize it sounds pretty silly to romanticize, and rhapsodize a particular whisky, but I don’t care. Laphroaig 15 yr is MY dram, and it always will be.
I saved Bruichladdich for last, because in my opinion, they offer the widest range of whisky in both peated, and unpeated expressions. Right in line with Laphroaig 15 yr, and Ardbeg Uigeadahl, Bruichladdich produces some of my top whisky choices. The Classic Laddie is always a good “go to” pour, but my two picks in their unpeated category are the Islay Barley 2009, a clean, crisp whisky with notes of fruit, sweet grain, and light spice of oak. A great dram for a warm summer evening. My most recent Bruichladdich acquisition is a delight like no other, truly magic in a bottle. Black Art 4 1990 is everything an unpeated scotch should be, and more. Intoxicating from nose to finish, ripe with the aroma of honey and a zing of lemon/lime, this whisky is one of the most aromatic I’ve ever tried. It is also one of the most potent. Before adding a few drops of water to open up the flavor, that first wee nip is powerful, yet well aged, and mellow. Adding water only ratchets up the flavor index, evoking rich chocolate, and fruit infused with spices, and barley sugar, building to a lingeringly sweet and tangy finish. Perfectly spell binding!
Distilling whisky on an island famous for it’s peated whiskies, Bruichladdich took lessons from Islay’s history, by revisiting the long defunct Lochindaall Distillery in the nearby village of Port Charlotte, famous for it’s long ago peat fired malting process. Their Port Charlotte Scottish Barley Heavily Peated Islay Single Malt is a true homage to Port Charlotte’s peated whisky history, embracing the earth, salt, and iodine aromas, and flavors that make Islay single malts so distinctive. Rich, hearty, flavors that represent the place where the earth meets the sea, melding salt, and sweet, with smoke, and grain with bursts of citrus, and toffee, that warms to a relaxed oak finish. A peat head’s delight!
There is peat, and then there is PEAT. Ardbeg may have taken the peat to the outer limits with its Supernova, a whisky that resulted from space age experimentation and boasts a ppm of 100. In spite of its high phenols, Supernova is a wee bit too peppery, although the sharpness of it isn’t at all overpowering, I just prefer the Uigeadahl. Go figure. So far in my foray into the world of whisky, I have yet to encounter such a thing as “too much peat.” Is there such a thing as too much peat? Well, Bruichladdich certainly put that notion to the test with their highest ppm whisky, Octomore 6.1, one in a series of Octomore expressions, clocks in at 167 ppm. This edition is brash, bold, sweet smoke, and brine. Freshly shucked raw oysters immediately come to mind with the first sip, once water is added, I can pick up on the crisper taste of oak, and barley. Octomore 6.1 is a young whisky, only five years old, but deceptively smooth and mellow. Definitely the peat lover’s nectar of the gods.
I have yet to set foot on the soil of my ancestors, and while my family clans hailed from the Highlands, my whisky lover’s heart belongs to Islay. Our next leg of the journey will be to visit the Highland distillers, but in the meantime, enjoy exploring the peat.
As always, drink responsibly, designate a driver. Peace, love and whisky wishes! Slàinte mhath!
Nancy McGehee Guillory