Let’s be honest, nobody is born a whisky connoisseur, every whisky enthusiast will have at one point had their view of the amber liquid turned on its head, the pivotal moment when a truly great whisky passes the lips and you realise that you’ve just taken your first step on a journey that will last a lifetime. I remember my first dram of single malt, how its vapours enveloped my olfactory senses rendering me powerless to do anything but fall under its spell, how its complexity was too much for my tastebuds to handle – I realised in a second that I knew nothing but wanted to know everything that this magical liquid time capsule had to teach me.
I met up with my friend Karl one night who had recently returned from a trip to Edinburgh, he told me about a drink which blew his mind, a drink he had been waiting to tell me about since he tried it – he described it as having such a pungent aroma of bonfire smoke that you could smell it from across the table and that the flavour was the richest and most complex of any drink he had ever tasted…That drink was the 10 year old Laphroaig.
A few nights later Karl and I were out on a pub crawl with our other good friend Mike, in one of the pubs Karl spotted a bottle of Laphroaig at the bar and we all got a dram each, I wasn’t sure what to expect but as soon as I brought that glass to my nose I knew this was going to completely change my perspective on whisky and it did, it was a sensory overload, I couldn’t comprehend how a single drink could produce such complexity on the nose and palate. That night in the pub with two of my closest friends and a dram of Laphroaig was a defining moment for me and I think it was for Karl and Mike, we were 18 years old and had just embarked on a journey of discovery. Needless to say the journey continued, we’re all 28 years old now, have drank our way through most of Scotland’s distilleries and there’s no sign of that stopping anytime in the future and unsurprisingly the smokey whiskies of Scotland’s western isle of Islay remain amongst our favourite…so we decided to take a trip there.
Islay is a protected whisky producing region of Scotland meaning that only whisky distilled on Islay can bear the name ‘Islay whisky’. There are currently 8 distilleries in operation on the island, this figure used to be much greater due to the number of distilleries which fell silent over the past 200 years, most notably the Port Ellen distillery whose remaining stocks are owned by the Diagio conglomerate who release bottles each year, with each new release commanding a higher price than the previous.
Expect to pay somewhere in the region of £1000-2000 for a distillery bottle of Port Ellen, and these prices will only go up in the future. You might ask yourself the question “If Port Ellen is so good that it demands such high prices, then why did it fall silent?”. The answer is actually quite simple, back in the day Port Ellen single malt fell out of favour with the already small single malt drinking community, it was more harsh and less refined than its peated counterparts like Lagavulin and Laphroaig and this lack of demand caused the distillery to fall silent. Many years later, long after Port Ellen’s closure people started to realise that the older casks of Port Ellen tasted fantastic, more and more people started to discover that Port Ellen was a whisky which ages very well and that when given enough time produced a flavour and nose to rival some of the best Islay malts…unfortunately for the consumer this was discovered too late, fortunately for Diagio who own the remaining stock this whisky is now in high demand and with few bottles available people are willing to fork out massive wads of cash for it.
The eight remaining distilleries are Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig which are located very close to Port Ellen on the south of the Island, Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila which are located on the north east close to the island of Jura and finally Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Islay’s newest distillery, Kilchoman which are located on the west of the island.
The flavour profile produced by each distillery differs, however most distilleries on Islay produce whisky with a smokey flavour profile with the exceptions of Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich. A new addition to the Bruichladdich distillery is Port Charlotte, a distillery which fell silent in the 1920’s but has since been reopened by Bruichladdich and produces a peated spirit to add to the range.
For those of you who are reading who are maybe not too familiar with whisky production and don’t know what I am talking about when I say a peated whisky or don’t quite know how a whisky is made ‘smokey’ then allow me to explain. In the UK there are some wetlands known as peat bogs, these peat bogs contain a primordial fossil fuel, plant matter which has decayed under anaerobic conditions over a period of thousands of years producing something that looks like a cross between dirt and clay, dark brown to black in colour, the locals refer to it as turf, this is a term I have heard used by my family in Ireland quite often although most people know it as peat.
Barley is malted by moistening the barley and turning it in warm conditions and allowing it to sprout, when the barley sprouts it triggers enzymatic reactions within the grain resulting in the breakdown of complex carbohydrates into simple sugars to be used in the fermentation process, it is important to stop this reaction by heating the barley, the heat deactivates the enzymes halting the reaction. When smokey whisky is desired, peat is burned in the drying furnace and the smoke produced by the burning peat is absorbed by the malted barley as well as halting the enzymatic reactions, this will eventually impart a smokey flavour on the distillate.
Ex-Bourbon barrels stacked in the Bruichladdich warehouse filled with spirit of varying age.
All of the distilleries on Islay have different things to offer, each has its own interesting history and each produces very unique tasting whisky. Some distilleries like Laphroaig and Ardbeg mainly focus on producing whisky for the single malt market (which still only makes up around 1% of the Scotch whisky market with the remaining 99% going into blends). Distilleries which produce a larger volume mainly distill single malt whisky which will ultimately end up in blended whisky such as Johnny Walker Black Label (most of Caol Ila’s spirit is used for Johnny Walker, only a small amount ends up as single malt), Caol Ila produce over 4,000,000 litres of high strength alcohol each year. The northern distillery of Bunnahabhain produces whisky for a blend called Black Bottle which is actually one of my favourite blends and Bunna is one of my favourite Scotch whiskies, so I was pretty sad to find that it was closed when we arrived.
Me at the closed Bunnahabhain distillery many years ago
The very eerie looking Caol Ila distillery
I have mostly been writing about travel at the moment and I guess this post has mostly been about travel to Islay but it has been good to write about whisky for a change. I am currently travelling around Asia with my fiancee, Becky, we’re travelling on a budget so there is no whisky consumption at the moment for me I am sad to say, but maybe I will treat myself soon if we come into a bit more money 🙂
I hope you have enjoyed this post, stay tuned for more. Have a dram for me because I can’t 😦 Fortunately I have more than enough to keep me occupied at the moment.