The Isle of Islay
The isle of Islay has always been highly regarded as the ultimate capital of Scotch Whisky. Whisky enthusiasts from around the world are known to make the pilgrimage to the island every year off the west coast of Scotland. Being the fifth largest isle in the country with 10 operating distilleries on the island itself, it is most famous for its Islay malt whiskies that are often associated with a distinct peaty and smoky flavour. Aside from the two young distilleries, Kilchoman and Ardnahoe, the remaining eight distilleries located in Islay are prominently known as top tier malt whisky producers amongst more than 150 distilleries in Scotland, of which Laphroaig and Bowmore often being regarded as legendary, if not the best.
What factors contribute to the unique taste of Islay whisky?
Contrary to popular belief, smoky whiskies are not unique to Islay. There are many distilleries that also produce peaty whiskies across Scotland, as well as across the world in regions such as India, Taiwan and Japan.
To make malt whisky and achieve the signature tasting note, high quality raw barley is soaked in water before being fully dried to undergo germination. During the drying process, peat is used instead normal wood for its thicker, slower burning smoke, giving off a smoky aroma. Nowadays to avoid this labour-intensive process and resolve the issue of not having a local peat source, any distillery can create peated whiskies as they wish.
However, there are various factors that sets Islay whiskies apart. First is the source of peat. Peat is essentially the mixture of soil and decomposed vegetal matter. The composition therefore varies depending on where in Scotland it is sourced from. Even though most distilleries purchase malt from commercial maltsters, most Islay distilleries buy their malt from a local industrial malster, Port Ellen Malting. The second defining variable is the difference in peat level. Although every distillery can technically make their own peated whisky, only Islay distilleries choose to produce heavily peated whiskies as their core products. Other distilleries that produce peated whiskies, such as Talisker or Highland Park, are more medium or lightly peated when put into comparison.
Aside from these two major influences, it is worth noting that the cut of the spirit will also heavily impact how much peated flavour is retained. More foreshots and less feints in the feints receiver will retain less peaty flavours, and vice versa for stronger notes. Islay distilleries like Laphroaig intentionally cut their spirits closer to the feints to preserve as much peaty flavour as possible.
These are some of the things that sets Islay whiskies apart. On an island with only 3,000 residents, it is home to 10 renowned Scotch distilleries producing the most exquisite spirits in the world. If you have never tried a whisky from Islay, we strongly encourage you to try a bottle of Laphroaig 10 or Lagavulin 16, and we guarantee you it will be an eye opening experience that you will not regret.
(Graphics: picture of laphroaig distillery, picture of Ardbeg distiller, picture of peat blogs)