For a long time now I had been intending to organise a tasting that includes each of Islay’s eight distilleries, and tonight the time had finally come. Known for its distinctively peaty, smoky whiskies, the island of Islay is often considered a whisky region in its own right. This is no wonder, as the island lives and breathes whisky, providing the lifeblood for a population of just over 3000 people. Peat bogs are ubiquitous, the salty sea breeze can be felt anywhere and the sight of a distillery’s chimney is never far away.
Since much of the island is covered by hills and peat bogs, the production of barley has long since fallen behind the voracious appetite of Islay’s whisky industry. Most of the barley is now grown on the Scottish mainland, before being shipped to Port Ellen Maltings, where it is peated to the exact specifications of each whisky distillery. As such, each distillery has complete control over how smoky they like their whiskies to be, and can even vary this within their range (Bruichladdich for example uses different levels of peatiness for different whiskies).
While it would have made sense to compare the core expression of each distillery, I decided to go for something a little more interesting. In deciding the order of the line-up, I took into account smokiness (often measured in ppm – phenol parts per million), as well as alcohol content. The result was the ultimate Islay tasting, a true treat for a peathead like me.
Below is a short description of each of the whiskies, including a link to the full review.
Bunnahabhain Eirigh Na Greine
Given that its whiskies are virtually unpeated (1-2 ppm), Bunnahabhain is the perfect distillery for kicking off this Islay tasting. There’s enough peat and smoke still to come, so let’s start off with something more mild and gentle. Eirigh Na Greine is a new Bunnahabhain expression, and has been finished in casks that previously held red wine, adding a sweet, fruity twist to the usual maritime distillery character. Bottled at 46.3%.
Bowmore 15 year old Darkest
Upping the smoke ante a little bit, Bowmore’s whiskies are medium-peated to around 20 ppm, a similar level to Island whiskies such as Talisker and Highland Park. This particular expression has aged for no less than 15 years, with the last 3 years in Oloroso sherry casks. This whisky is the oldest dram in the tasting and it shows: the Bowmore 15 is more mellow and distinguished than some of its Islay counterparts, while the sherry finish has added a layer of sweetness and complexity. The initial gentle smoke only really explodes into full force towards the finish. Bottled at 43%.
Caol Ila 2001-2013 Distillers Edition
Of course every Classic Malt comes with its own Distillers Edition, and Caol Ila’s has been finished in Moscatel wine casks. Although peated to the exact same level as Lagavulin (35 ppm), Caol Ila produces much softer whiskies. The explanation can be found in the shape of each distillery’s stills: while Lagavulin’s are low and onion-shaped, Caol Ila’s are tall and pear-shaped, allowing only the smooth, purer alcohols to make the cut. For this reason I would not count Caol Ila amongst the ultra-smoky Islay distilleries, but they produce a very enjoyable dram, and one that serves nicely as a build up to the other whiskies in this tasting. Bottled at 43%.
Peated to a reputed 50 ppm, this whisky is not only smoky, but due to its tender age also packs quite a punch. The sherry finish adds some welcome flavour and complexity compared to the peaty onslaught that is Machir Bay. For those who like young, smoky whiskies, this a great dram, and it’s possibly my favourite in this tasting. Bottled at 46%.
Laphroaig QA Cask
Usually Laphroaig is one of the peatiest whiskies out there (40 ppm), and in many ways, the QA Cask is no exception. This dram still displays Laphroaig’s medicinal, smoky distillery character, but in a softer, friendlier jacket. The fact it’s been finished in a virgin oak cask means there’s a huge vanilla influence, taking some of the sharp, smoky edges off this Laphroaig. The resulting dram is a more welcoming version of the 10 year old, but one that’s definitely just as enjoyable. Bottled at 40%.
Port Charlotte Scottish Barley
We’re leading up to the really big guns now. While it would have been possible to pick a whisky from the unpeated Bruichladdich range, I much prefer this feistier option. Not only does the Port Charlotte Scottish Barley have a higher alcohol percentage, its barley has been peated to a level of 40 ppm. I suspect this is a rather young whisky, and somewhat similar in taste profile to the Octomore series. Although this Port Charlotte is of course far less peaty, it’s still an eye-wateringly good dram. Bottled at 50%.
Lagavulin 8 year old
Whoah this is good stuff! Lagavulins are usually old whiskies (by Islay standards anyway), and this is not without a reason. Although peated to only 35 ppm, the shape of Lagavulin’s stills allows many of the rougher, impure alcohols to make the cut. Therefore a long maturation is needed to smooth this whisky out a bit, and the 16 year old is a wonderfully distinguished dram as a result. This 8 year old Lagavulin lacks that slow passage of time, resulting in a powerfully smoky dram that packs a mighty punch. This dram is savage stuff, but I absolutely love it. Bottled at 48%.
As the most peated of Islay’s distilleries (54 ppm), it feels only right to finish off this tasting with an Ardbeg. I am a big fan of the distillery, and always make sure to have a bottle in my collection. While the 10 year old is a deliciously smooth but smoky dram, the Uigeadail raises the bar further with a higher alcohol percentage and an additional sherry finish. The sherry notes are very subtle though, and do not interfere at all with the wonderful distillery character. While I have never been able to make up my mind on whether I prefer Ardbeg Uigeadail or Corryvreckan, I can tell you that they are both very fine drams indeed. Bottled at 54.2%.