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Islay Scotch Whisky Basics

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Islay, (pronounced EYE-luh), an island located off the coast of mainland Scotland, is home to the most distinctive single malt scotches in all of Scotland. Renowned for a style that is smoky, peaty, briny and sometimes medicinal, Islay malts have a reputation of being too big and overpowering for the scotch novice. A closer look, however, reveals that not all Islay distilleries produce giant peat monsters. In fact, some are gentle, restrained and elegant.

Islay is the only island recognized as its own region among Scotland’s single malt districts.  Due to its unique marine location, Islay malts are all very distinctive, and the 10 distilleries on the island can be roughly subdivided due to their geographic location as either North Island or South Island styles. The South Island distilleries produce generally bigger, smokier and saltier whiskies while the North Island distilleries are generally a bit softer, with more cereal, vanilla and dried fruit notes prevalent.

South Island Distilleries
The southern end of Islay is less protected from the elements and generally receives harsher weather, contributing somewhat to the stronger saltwater and iodine elements found in these single malts. Additionally, these distilleries generally use more peat, contributing to the characterization of Islay malts as more peaty and smoky than other single malts.

Ardbeg reopened in 1997. Stylistically characterized by strong peat notes balanced with firm citrus undertones, the Ardbeg 10 Year was awarded Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray in 2008, and the Uigedail release took Whisky of the Year in 2009. Ardbeg also currently offers Airigh Nam Beist 1990, a classic Islay with wonderful Christmas pudding, toffee and sultana notes poking out from underneath a cloud of smoke, and Supernova, peated at 100ppm, far more peating than any other single malt available at this time.

Lagavulin is an exceptionally smoky single malt typically seen as a 16 year. Their offerings have a pronounced marine-like character to complement the heavy smoke characteristic that is the house style. Lagavullin is one of the best known and most respected of the Islay malts. This makes a great compliment to a full-bodied cigar. Lagavulin has just released its 12 year old as a part of Diageo's range of single malt special releases for 2009. Sweet, with a large smoke component, add a bit of cool water to this offering to see just how great this dram can be.

Laphraoig is the most unique of any single malt, on Islay or anywhere else in Scotland. Noted for its medicinal, seaweed and iodine-like qualities, Laphroaig is controversial. People either love or hate this whisky for its unique, bandage quality. Founded in 1815, Laphroaig’s offerings begin at the 10-year range and their older whiskies are eagerly sought out by single malt enthusiasts. Newest to the Laphraoig range is their 18 year old offering, which replaces their 15 year malt in the United States. The 18 year old is highly recommended to all fans of Laphroaigs house style of whisky.

Port Ellen was founded in 1825 and mothballed since 1983. Old stocks have been released over the years, and Port Ellen whiskies are prized by single malt aficionados. Diageo has just released a 30 year old bottling of Port Ellen for 2009.


North Island Distilleries

The distilleries in the north of Islay are more atypical of the classic Islay profile. While still offering some smoke and marine characteristics, a number of these whiskies are lighter and sweeter than the brawny heavyweights to the south.

Kilchoman is the first new distillery built on Islay since 1881. It released its first offering in September of 2009 which sold out within days. The initial whiskis a 3-year version, with plans in the works for 5-, 8-, 10- and 12-year offerings in the future.

Bowmore offers a wide range of whiskies, most without age declarations, coining terms like Legend and Voyage to describe their spirits. The house style can best be described as forest floor with campfire notes and a whiff of marine air. Their whiskies tend towards a slightly sweet flavor, with toffee, cocoa and dried apricot notes.

Bruichladdich reopened in 2001 after being mothballed since 1995.  They offer the widest range of styles and finishes of any Islay distiller. The 10-year whisky is sweet, with cereal notes giving way to dried fruits and almond flavors with just a hint of sea air in the background.  Other offerings from Bruichladdich include the heavily peated Octomore and experimental whiskies with wine cask finishes. Bruichladdich is the most daring of all of the Islay distilleries at this time.

Bunnahabhain has been producing single malt offerings since the early 1880s. Its house style is a contrast to the typical Islay malt, offering up a soft and gentle dram with a creamy sweetness. Its malt also plays a central role in the all-Islay blended whisky, Black Bottle.

Caol Ila makes big herbal whiskies that are balanced with nice acidity, vanilla and almond notes. Both its 12 year and 18 year offerings are rather light bodied for their respective ages, yet both offer a very assertive and unique flavor profile. Diageo has just released a limited edition 10 year old unpeated Caol Ila for 2009 which should make for an interesting gift for an Islay whisky enthusiast (untasted).

Port Charlotte is named after a distillery that has been defunct since 1927. The first new offering, PC5 Evolution, was bottled in late October 2009. The initial style is peated to 40 parts per million, making it one of the most heavily peated Islay whiskies. Port Charlotte is owned by Bruichladdich and will use the former stills from Interleven, the now closed Lowland distillery.

Lastly, for an interesting change of pace, look for Black Bottle blended scotch. Made from a blend of all of the Islay single malts and grain whisky, this is a unique way to enjoy the variety of flavors and styles of Islay.

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