Islay’s distinctive malt whiskies have become the new obsession of the world’s most fanatical Scotch whisky zealots.
Descriptions of the malt whiskies distilled on the Isle of Islay can, at times, be a bit disconcerting. Critics often use phrases such as "feral in the mouth," "reeks of diesel fuel fumes," "road tar-like," "smells of burning seaweed" and "unabashedly medicinal" when describing the robust single malt whiskies that are produced on this blustery, 25-mile-long, Inner Hebrides land mass. Overheated reports like these can be offputting to whisky drinkers who favor less aggressive drams.
Yet over the last decade, none of Scotland’s other premier whisky districts—Speyside, Campbeltown, Lowlands, Islands (Skye, Jura, Orkneys, Arran, Mull) and Highlands (Northern, Central, Eastern and Western)—has garnered more acclaim from media, and more attention from consumers, than Islay (pronounced EYE-lah). Why has this bucolic dot of sod and rock, located off Scotland’s west coast and home to 3,400 inhabitants, become such a magnet for new and longtime admirers of Scotch whisky? Two words: peat and location.
I once heard a burly Speyside peat purveyor named Edward Stuart define peat as "decaying vegetable matter like heather, grass and moss that’s halfway to becoming coal." To put it another way, peat is pungent-smelling, decomposing, compressed vegetable matter that is carbonized by natural chemical change and is used by soil as a nutrient. Large areas of peat, frequently many square acres in size, create mossy, spongy fields called bogs. Some peat bogs in Scotland’s Highlands are estimated to be about 10,000 years old. Since the deforestation of Scotland in pre-Roman times, peat has likewise been utilized as Scotland’s best and most plentiful type of fuel. Peat is both long-burning and intensely hot.
So how does peat affect Scotch whisky production? Barley, the sole grain used in making malt whisky, is either steeped in peaty water during the malting sequence or dried in kilns that employ peat as a heating fuel.
According to some reports, 25 to 30 percent of Islay is covered with peat. Some locations boast layers nearly 30 feet deep. Due to this unique topographical feature, the spring and burn (stream) waters used by all Islay malt distilleries are typically the brackish color of black pekoe tea. Though most unsuspecting tourists are at first alarmed when they see dark water flowing from their hotel bathroom taps, Islay’s water is remarkably pure and soft because of it being filtered through thick blankets of peat.
Once you sample Islay’s drinking water, it is no longer a mystery as to why the island’s fabled single malt whiskies taste so famously strong and earthy. A common practice of the island’s malt mavens is to debate the degree of "peatreek" of the various Islay whiskies. In other words, how potent is the smoky flavor? Not to spoil the fun, but there is a scientific way of measuring peatreek.
The peat levels of Islay’s malt whiskies are measured in the parts-per-million amounts of total phenols, or ppm-TPH. Phenol is the pungent compound commonly found in coal or wood tar. The malt whiskies from the island’s southernmost cluster of distilleries—Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig—register highest on this scale. Routinely registering 30-50 ppm-TPH, they taste smoky, oily and piquant, but are also seductive and luscious. These super-peaty malt whiskies are much loved by the most zealous Islay aficionados.
Moderately peaty (10-20 ppm-TPH) Islay malts include those from the Bowmore and Caol Ila distilleries; the lightest (1-5 ppm-TPH) hail from the Bunnahabhain distillery. The Bruichladdich distillery near Port Charlotte is under relatively new ownership (led by malt whisky legend James McEwan) and is still in the process of experimenting with its peat levels. Thus, Bruichladdich’s current bottlings vary widely on the ppm-TPH scale. Certainly, Islay beginners are strongly advised to start out with the malts at the lower end of the ppm-TPH scale and gradually work their way up the phenol ladder until they find their tolerance threshold.
While peat is a major contributor to the distinctive character of Islay’s malt whiskies, the island’s maritime situation contributes an elemental component that is a vital partner and complement to peat. Islay is a windy place; the malt distilleries are situated near the ocean, either near a strait, on a shoreline or on a saltwater loch. Consequently, the sea breeze invades the porous oak barrels in which the whiskies are aged, imparting a noticeable touch of saltiness to virtually all of Islay’s whiskies.
What surprises most newcomers to Islay malts is the wide variety of styles offered by the seven distilleries. Having heard through the grapevine that all Islay whiskies are notoriously harsh, novices are pleasantly astonished when they sample, for instance, the elegant Bowmore Mariner 15-Year-Old, the mildly briny Caol Ila 12-Year-Old, or the lithe, fruity Bunnahabhain 12-Year-Old. These lovely, balanced whiskies are far cries from how this island’s malts are collectively portrayed across the world. The reality is this: Anyone who relishes fine malt whisky can find a style from among Islay’s many whiskies to suit.
The best way to find the style that suits you is to make the journey to this fabled whisky outpost yourself. Breathe in the saline, peaty air while playing the windswept Machrie Golf Course, which will consume every golf ball you bring. Afterward, savor a comforting dram of 30-Year-Old Bowmore in the Lochside Hotel bar. Slainte Mhath!
|Islay Malt Whiskey Roundup|
|*** the highest level of peat and smoke flavors
** moderate levels of peat
* lightly peated
CLASSIC (96-100)/ HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED