Drinks Atlas: Islay, Scotland - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Drinks Atlas: Islay, Scotland

While “terroir” is commonly associated with wine, every beverage has a place of origin—though few are as unique as the Scottish island of Islay. The southernmost island in the Inner Hebrides, Islay benefits from a milder climate thanks to the Gulf Stream, and the perpetual damp contributes to the expansive bogs that yield the island’s defining substance—peat. The dense, organic material has been used as fuel for centuries, producing a pungent smoke when burned. This signature smoke imbues the drying grains, contributing to the flavor and aroma of Scotch whisky.

Islay is one of the five legally protected distilling regions of Scotland and has become synonymous with heavily peated whiskies. “When people think of Islay they think of peat, and the island does have the greatest concentration of smoky whiskies in Scotland,” says Dave Broom, contributing editor at scotchwhisky.com and author of Whisky: The Manual and The World Atlas of Whisky. “That said, not every whisky made on Islay is smoky. The whole point of single malt is to make something which is singular—a spirit unique to that specific site. Ardbeg is different to Lagavulin, as Lagavulin is different to Laphroaig, yet they are three miles apart… What sets Islay apart is the community and the place.”

Fast Facts: More than 20 distilleries have operated on the 239-square-mile island since the 18th century, with eight currently producing. Bowmore is the oldest (legal) distillery, dating to 1779, while the newest, Kilchoman, opened in 2005, and a ninth distillery, Ardnahoe, is in the works. Meanwhile, Diageo, which owns Lagavulin, aims to bring Port Ellen back into production by 2020.

Port Ellen was a distillery until its closure in 1983 and has since functioned solely as Port Ellen Maltings. They kiln about 66 tons of peat every week (harvested from the Castlehill bog just a few miles away) and provide malted barley to seven of the island’s eight distilleries, and many others throughout Scotland.

When the Excise Act was introduced in 1644 to levy the first taxes on whisky production, many Islay distillers moved their operations to remote glens and caves. However, it was more than 100 years before a tax collector dared to set foot upon the island, believing tales that the natives were wild and barbaric people.

8 Bottles to Try: Ardbeg Uigeadail Named for the loch where Ardbeg sources its water and affectionately dubbed “the Oogie” by fans, this expression from Ardbeg is aged in old sherry casks, bringing complementary notes of raisin and spice to the smoky single malt. $59.99, klwines.com

Bowmore 18 A multiple gold medal-winner from Bowmore’s core line, the 18-year is a complex release with approachable smoke balanced by chocolate, caramel and fragrant stewed fruit with an extra-long finish. $124.99, klwines.com

Bruichladdich Octomore Self-described as “progressive Hebridean distillers,” the makers at Bruichladdich set out to craft the most heavily peated whiskies on the market with the Octomore series. It’s a bold expression worth exploring for those who can’t get enough smoke. Price varies, bruichladdich.com

Bunnahabhain 12 This unpeated 12-year from Bunnahabhain is a great entry point, highlighting the whisky’s briny characteristics, with notes of apples, vanilla and woody spice. $51.59, totalwine.com

Caol Ila 12 With robust but approachable smoke, the Caol Ila 12-year is fresh and herbal but with a rich oiliness and a long, spicy finish. $90, blackwellswines.com

Kilchoman Machir Bay The signature release from Islay’s newest distillery, Machir Bay is bright with lemon zest and sweet flavors of shortbread and vanilla, with a warm peat smoke that builds on the finish. $66.99, caskers.com

Lagavulin 16 Often noted as the quintessential Islay single malt, the benchmark Lagavulin 16 is dense with pungent peat smoke complemented by a fruity sweetness, and finishing rich and savory. $93.95, winechateau.com

Laphroaig 10 Laphroaig is known for its medicinally evocative malts, and the 10-year is big and smoky, with aromas of spice and licorice, while the palate carries a briny seaweed quality and just a hint of sweetness. $39.99, klwines.com

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