A few weeks ago, I had the very good fortune to spend four windy days stomping around the island of Islay. Shaped like a crab claw, it's a wild and windswept corner of the world where sheep may well outnumber people and waterproof shoes are your good friend indeed, as the sun may be shining in the morning but torrents will slap your legs on the way home in the afternoon.
It was harvest time in the barley fields—barley is the only grain used to make single-malt Scotch whiskies—and in the mornings trucks loaded up with unmalted kernels heading for the malt house bounced down the narrow, winding streets lined with neat, white cottages in the tiny hamlet of Port Charlotte where I was staying, dropping bits of grain along the road and leaving a trail to be gobbled up by the local birds looking for a tasty breakfast. That's the thing about Islay, though—this island located in Scotland's southwestern slanted corner lives and breathes Scotch—peated Scotch. It burns in household fireplaces and in the island's duo of malting houses (two of only six in the entire of Scotland, which has over a hundred distilleries), harvested from the acre upon acre of bogs, sweetly smoking the crisp, salty air with an aroma that is completely unique to the place.
"One thing that separates Islay is the depth of flavor," offers John Campbell, the Master Distiller for Laphroaig, one of Islay's most virile examples of its peated, smoky style of whisky. "There's heavy peat, but there's also a sweetness to our whiskies. There are floral notes and red fruits."
Peat, if you don't know, is decomposed organic matter—grass, heather, moss—that melds into a chunky, ever-deepening formation along the coastal, boggy lands of places like rainy, verdant Scotland and Ireland. It's amazing stuff—an ever-renewing resource—as it can plunge more than a meter deep and take up to a 1,000 years for the lower parts to form into hardened, coal-like, fossilized organic matter, which gets cut into brick-like shapes and used for heating homes. But the softer, newer top part—that's the stuff that holds the most moisture and smokes when you burn it. That's used in part to truncate the germinating of the little barley bits via heat and, in its most vital act, flavor the malted barley in Islay. And it's what makes it utterly different from any other Scotch whisky you will have.
There was a time up until the nineteenth century that much of Scotland peated its whiskies. But the advent of oil burners changed all that, and the arduous task of harvesting and burning peat fell from favor. But as Nick Morgan, the head of Whisky Outreach (yes, that's a real title) for Lagavullin said, "In Islay, we're rather stubborn." The islanders kept to the old ways and the eight distilleries here—Bowmore, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavullin, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich—still make their whisky with the particular perfume of peat.
And yet, they each have their own very distinct calling cards. Kind of like the way no two cooks will make a recipe in exactly the same way due their light or heavier hand with seasoning, distilleries in Islay dial in the particular amount of smoky, salty influence they want from the peat in measurements of parts per million in the initial malting process. Some, like Laphroaig, give you the sensation on the nose and palate of sitting front and center at a bonfire loaded with sweet fruit wood; others, like Bowmore, take a more delicate hand; the smell of a fire in the far, far distance—unmistakably smoky, but more sneaky traces of aroma. These whiskies are —when considered individually and collectively—complex and unique members of the spirits world.
If you've never ventured into trying Islay Scotches before, or were put off by their big-personality profiles, this is as good a time a year as any to give them a shot. Take them in slowly, though. Kind of like life in Islay, this isn't a rush-rush, bang-it-down kind of spirit. To un-tangle the layers of Islay whiskies, get comfortable and get to know that dram.
Give it a couple of gentle sniffs (e.g., don't go sticking your nose all the way in the glass; there's a lot of alcohol there, so take it in easy!) to take in that first burst of sea spray and smoke, and then try to see what else you find underneath that. I'd recommend that you consider adding a drop or two of water, which you'll find really teases out some of the underlying orchard fruit, citrusy, or caramel-vanilla notes that are lurking beneath the peaty surface. This is, after all, uisge beatha—the water of life. It's worth a wee moment or two to enjoy it.
About the Author: Amy Zavatto is a wine/food/spirits writer in NYC, ever-striving for the elusive title of Lightest Suitcase Packer. Amy is a Contributing Editor to Imbibe magazine, and the author of A Hedonist's Guide to Eat New York, the Renaissance Guide to Wine & Food Pairing, and the Complete Idiot's Guide to Bartending.