Cask Curriculum: Discovering Islay
Just off the eastern shores of the Atlantic Ocean lies an enchanting Scottish isle called Islay. This remote travel destination may be off the radar of most of us, but to the rapidly expanding community of whisky lovers around the world, Islay represents a small slice of heaven. Or as some even refer to it, Disneyland for adults. As we begin our annual Islay Festival celebration this week, what better time to revisit what makes Islay whisky so special.
With just 3,000 inhabitants, most working in the fields of either agriculture or distillation, the entire island of Islay seems to exist for the primary purpose of producing the water of life. And if it’s not the purpose itself, one can’t deny that whisky is certainly the lifeblood of the island.
There are currently 9 working distilleries on Islay, 10 if you include the soon to be resurrected Port Ellen distillery. Of the approximately 130 distilleries producing Scotch whisky today, Islay represents just a small piece of the puzzle.
But it’s not the volume of liquid produced that has given Islay its reputation, it’s the style. Islay whisky is produced in many forms but the most widely celebrated today is the peated style. Peated whisky is made by cutting bricks of condensed earth and burning them in the kiln fire used to dry malted barley. The smoke and unique flavours that come from burning the substances contained within the peat, bonds to the barley itself and infuses a smoky character that carries through the distillation process.
The Smoke Bomb
When compared to other styles of Scotch whisky, most of the whisky produced on Islay tends to be bottled and enjoyed at a younger age. This is because younger whiskies tend to retain the intensity of the peat smoke itself, which can often fade over time. For those who enjoy the smoky character of a whisky, a young Islay whisky will give it to you in all its glory. And while it took me some time and patience to acclimate my own palate to the point where I can enjoy it, I have also found that no spirit will strike at your senses and offer a sensory experience quite like a young, peated Islay whisky. It truly is an alarm clock in liquid form.
The Slow Burner
On the opposite end of the spectrum exists another style, which is the more mellow and subdued peated Islay whisky aged for a longer period. While there is a benefit to bottling peated Islay whisky at a younger age, particularly for those who desire the smoky character itself, when you allow the spirit to age over time and lift the veil of peat, what’s left is something truly special. Beneath the smoke is a complex, maritime spirit that offers a symphony of coastal flavours you’ll rarely find outside of Islay. If you want to taste something that can instantly make any occasion feel like a special one, it’s hard to look past this style.
And yes, as luck would have it, we are releasing Islay whiskies that evoke both of these styles tomorrow! Considering the growing popularity of Islay whisky, the opportunity to taste these side-by-side is quickly becoming a rare one. But if you like Islay whisky or are just discovering it for the first time, there is no better occasion to embrace it!