Islay whisky is Scotch whisky made on the Isle of Islay (pronounced ‘EYE-la’), which is one of the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean Islands, located off the west coast of Scotland. Islay is one of five whisky distilling localities and regions in Scotland whose identity is protected by law. It is also one of my favourite places, having visited there twice and the desire to return again.
There are nine active distilleries on Islay which measures only 40 by 24 kilometres. With peat soil, freshwater and homegrown barley all available on the island, it is the perfect location for producing scotch. It is interesting to note that there is just not one style of whisky being produced on the island but in fact several.
The distilleries along the southeastern coast of the island, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg, have a smoky flavour that results from the water from which the whisky is made and from the peating levels of the barley. My introduction to Islay scotch came from my B & B host on my first arrival on Islay. Each guest was given a dram as a welcome to the isle. On this particular day the scotch of choice was a 10 year old Ardbeg. What a shock that was to my system! For me, it was like drinking turpentine. However, since then I have gained an appreciation for peaty Islay scotch so I owe it to myself to try Ardbeg again. Lagavulin, which was introduced to me by my wife’s uncle on a subsequent trip to Islay several years later, has become a personal favourite. On that same trip I was served a dram of Laphroaig by another B & B host, who warned me that the scotch was rather “medicinal” tasting. His warning did not deter me as I was already familiar with the whisky. Interestingly, my wife’s ancestors were the original distillers of Laphroaig.
Here is a brief description of the 9 distilleries and some of what they offer:
Ardbeg produces one of Islay’s peatiest whiskies. It was opened in 1815 but closed in 1981 after falling into disrepair. In 1997 it was purchased by Glenmorangie who refurbished it and got it back up and running.
The Ardbeg 10 is considered to be complex and smoky. However, I must admit I have not had any since my inaugural tasting on my first adventure to Islay many years ago. Peat lovers are said to enjoy Ardbeg Corryvreckan and if whisky aged in a sherry cask is to your liking, Ardbeg Uigeadail or the blended Ardbeg An Oa may be for you.
Ardnahoe is Islay’s newest distillery, only getting approval for development in 2016. The first whisky was only produced in the fall of 2018. Therefore it is only this year that the brew has aged long enough to call it whisky. Thus it will probably be another few years before you see an Ardnahoe whisky on store shelves.
Bowmore is Islay’s oldest licensed distillery, operating since 1779. The whisky produced by Bowmore is one of Islay’s lightest, making for a sweet and sea-salty flavour. Bowmore produces a variety of different cask types.
Their whiskies include the Bowmore 12 year old which has flavours of honey and lemon. The Bowmore 15 is matured first in bourbon barrels then Oloroso casks for a sherry finish. Finally, for those who like older whiskies there is the Bowmore 18.
I was first introduced to the pleasurable Bowmore 12 by a close friend a few years ago while relaxing at his cottage. In my opinion it capped off the perfect weekend.
The Bruichladdich (pronounced brook-laddie) distillery operated from 1881 to 1995 and re-opened in 2000. Today it is one of the island’s most modern and innovative distillers even though their equipment is Victorian and no computers are used in the whisky-making. Bruichladdich also produces Port Charlotte whisky, Islay Botanist Gin, as well as the world’s peatiest whisky, the smoky Octomore range.
Whiskies to try from Bruichladdich include the Bruichladdich Classic 10-year-old “Laddie”, which is an easy-drinking, non-peated whisky and the Port Charlotte 10-year-old. Both are sweet, salty and mellow.
I stumbled onto the Laddie while in a liquor store quite a few years ago. There happened to be a display close to the check-out where my wife noticed the pretty blue bottle and thought it would be a nice addition to my bar. It is now a regular scotch go-to.
I was fortunate enough to be gifted their Black Art a few years ago by my son. Unfortunately, it was a one-time offering, so I savour it and save it to drink only occasionally to make it last.
Bunnahabhain (pronounced Boo na hab hain) has produced whisky since 1883. Bunnahabhain doesn’t have that traditional smoky Islay taste. Instead it is double matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks.
Whiskies to try at Bunnahabhain include the classic Bunnahabhain 12 and the Bunnahabhain 18. Both whiskies taste of honey and sea salt. Bunnahabhain also produces Toiteach A Dhà which is Bunnahabhain but with a little bit of peat.
Caol Ila (pronounced Cull-eela) is the largest distillery on Islay producing up to 3 million litres of spirit a year; though mainly for blends such as Chivas Regal. Except for a brief interruption from 1972 to 1974, Caol Ila has operated since 1846.
Coal Ila produces a traditionally peated Islay whisky. Having a light smoke, it is one of the more accessible and popular of the Islay whisky distilleries.
Whiskies to try from Caol Ila include the Caol Ila 12-Year-Old, which is sweet and lemony and the Caol Ila 18-Year-Old, which is more smoky and sour.
Kilchoman ( pronounced kil-ho-man) is Islay’s smallest distillery, opened in 2005. It produces Single Farm Single Malt, a whisky produced entirely on-site.
Whiskies to try from Kilchoman include Kilchoman Machir Bay, a traditional Islay whisky.
Lagavulin has been in continuous operation since 1816 and produces an intense smoky whisky classic to Islay. The taste of Lagavulin is very distinctive, in part due to its medical iodine smell along with seaweed and salt.
Whiskies to try at Lagavulin include the Lagavulin 16-Year-Old, one of my personal favourites, the Lagavulin 12-year-old and a Lagavulin Distillers Edition. I enjoy visiting their tasting room where you can relax in a high-back leather chair while sampling their whisky offerings.
Similar to Lagavulin, Laphroaig also has an intense smoky medicinal taste. It has been operating since 1815. My most memorable Laphroaig experience was having a dram before dinner while staying at Mingary Castle at Kilchoan on the Ardmanurchan Peninsula, which was originally held by my wife’s ancestors.
The most popular Laphroaig is the Laphroaig 10-year-old, but they also have a Laphroaig 16-year-old and a 25 and 30-year-old. There is also the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, which is a young whisky aged in old barrels for a sweeter taste.
Whatever style of whisky you like you are bound to find one from Islay that will strike your fancy.