Scotland’s Single Malts of Islay
Of the hundreds of whiskies distilled across Scotland, the heartiest and most flavorful come from the peaty and smoky malts of Islay in The Inner Hebrides
By Stewart McLaurin
Every year, I take a pilgrimage to Scotland to enjoy the history, culture, and flavors of my ancestral homeland. Perhaps chief among those is the whisky of Scotland, the “water of life,” as translated from ancient Gaelic uisge beatha. Distilled in Scotland since before 1500, the tastes and flavors of single malt and blended whiskies are as diverse as the wines of California.
Although a small country geographically (about the square mileage of South Carolina), Scotland claims six basic regions that define whisky in Scotland: Lowland, Islay, Highland, Speyside, Cambletown, and the Islands. Without question, my personal favorites are the eight distilleries on Islay in The Inner Hebrides. On my most recent trip to Islay, stepping off the CalMac Ferry from the mainland, the light, cool, summer breezes are filled with the heavy, delicious aroma of the peat bogs, which cover much of the island. This small island of peaty earth, not far from the mainland of Scotland, boasts some of the finest whiskies in all of Scotland. Certainly the most earthy, peaty, smoky flavors can be found here, as well as some light, refreshing, elegant, yet mildly peaty tones from the distilleries on the north part of the island.
Whisky is a labor of love for those who make it and also a skill handed down among generations on Islay and throughout Scotland. Distilleries producing whisky to be distributed around the world may only have a handful of employees producing and casking at the distillery, then shipping off to corporate facilities on the mainland of Scotland for aging, bottling, and international distribution. These are fine and wonderful Scots’ people who love the labor of their life and who produce something that they know and enjoy. For those of us who go on pilgrimages to learn what they do and how they do it, they are skilled artisans of their craft and proud preservers of a product that is ambassadorial around the globe for Scotland.
Of the eight distilleries on Islay – Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman, and Caol Ila – four of these are among my favorite in all of Scotland. Lagavulin is perhaps the heartiest, smokiest, and most peaty of all Scotch whiskies and is the robust master of Islay in my much-tasted opinion. Following from Lagavulin, Laphroaig, which bears the royal warrant of the Prince of Wales, is more firm than Lagavulin, but has much of the same heartiness of peat and smoke. Bruichladdich and Caol Ila, both from the northern side of the island, have strong hints of the natural peat but in a lighter, more refined and gentile palate than the stronger south shore malts. All are made from malted barley that is heated and dried through fire smoking of peat cut in blocks from the bogs across the island.
The trip to Islay is an easy half-day’s journey from either Edinburgh or Glasgow, and can become a trip back in time as you take the ferry across and stay in one of the few inns on the island and make your way to each of the distilleries. In just a couple of days, you can saturate both your knowledge of whisky making as well as your taste buds in some of the finest whiskies of the world. Surely whisky from the other regions of Scotland each has its own uniqueness and special qualities and are made with the same great pride and distinction as the whiskies of Islay. But for my taste and enthusiastic endorsement, nothing can match the range, distinction, and flavor of these great Islay malts.
The history of distilled spirits dates back centuries before Irish and Scottish whiskies appeared in the history of the British Isles, but the people of Scotland have refined Scotch whisky to its own recognized prominence. Known around the world, this distillation of wonderful spirits, in unique form and flavor, create the great whiskies of Scotland.
Stewart McLaurin is the executive director of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration. A native of North Carolina (where his ancestors arrived from Scotland 12 generations ago) he is now a resident of the Four Seasons Westlake Village where he enjoys their terrific selection of single malt Scotch.