Rocking gently in a boat off the west coast of Scotland, the Island of Islay sits off in the distance. On approach it is a relatively bare and desolate landscape; just rolling hills with only the odd group of hunched over trees in sight. Small groups of houses huddle around some of the bays, almost for warmth, as the mid-summer temperature hits a barmy 16 degrees. Yet beneath the almost haunting beauty of the place lies a secret that gives the local spirits a character that is adored by whisky lovers around the world. This is Islay, the smoky isle, and home to what many consider to be the best single malt whisky in the world.
There is no more masculine whisky than that found on Islay. Much of the island is covered by peat; the remnants of ancient marshlands that once covered it. It is also a place regularly lashed by the Atlantic storms with driving winds and sheeting rain. Snow a common occurrence. And it is these local characters that that make the whiskies so special. The driving cool weather gives the spirits of Islay a fresh tang and bite. The peat, from which the local water drains through, helps to flavour the spirit as does the drying process, whereby the malted barley is heated by the burning of smoky peat. This is what gives Islay whiskies that smoky, seaweedy, almost iodine-like flavours, that lovers of the style find irresistible.
On the island ,there are currently eight distilleries with a new project currently on the drawing board. Of these the most famous is without doubt Laphroaig. Since the 1820s, it has made certainly the most distinctive of the local malts. For many its pungent medicinal and slightly tarry characters are all too much yet the brand still boasts devotees around the globe. Another classic, although in quite a different style, is Lagavulin. This very fine whisky is always a great introduction to the Islay style with rich, malty sweetness combined with some very attractive smoky characters. The Lagavulin 16-year old has always been particularly good.
Long-term barrel maturation is a very important part of whisky production, with some whiskies spending 25 years or more slowly growing smoother, sweeter and more complex. One of the more recent trends in modern whisky production has been the use of different types of casks. From the usual sherry and bourbon casks they have added sauternes, madiera, port and burgundy, among others. Lagavulin have for some years now released a Pedro Ximinez cask bottling, matured in lusciously sweet sherry casks, which is a wonderfully hedonistic and full-throttle example of the smoky Islay style. It is a seductive malt of great character and personality. Another whisky well worth searching out is Ardbeg, which is fortunately quite widely available in Australia. It is a classical Islay style full of smoky, iodine characters, although not quite as pungent as Laphroaig, which will be a relief to some.
While Islay is most noted for its smoky character, one distillery in particular is trying to break this mould by producing mainly unpeated whiskies that display, unimpeded, the finesse and salty bight of Islay. The whiskies from Buichladdich, made by the renowned Jim McEwen, are lovely, delicate and fresh spirits; light and floral, and perfect for drinking in our warm climate. The team behind Bruichladdich are also responsible for Islay’s newest distillery, Port Charlotte, which will open its doors in 2009 with plans to make a more traditional Islay peated style. What is for sure though is that with the breadth of Single Malts now coming from the smoky Isle, there is an Islay style to suit every palate.
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