Islay Adventure: Introduction

To whisky connoisseurs, the word “Islay” evokes deep and sometimes polarising emotions. To those new to whiskies, “Islay” is certainly a word you must become familiar with. So what’s the big deal and what is it all about?

For a start, Islay is a place in Scotland, and for some whisky connoisseurs, a very sacred place. Known as the “Queen of the Hebrides”, it is the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean Islands, located off the west coast of Scotland.

The picturesque Isle of Islay (pronounced as “eye-la”) is arguably home to the world’s most distinctly flavoured single malt scotch whiskies. These full-flavoured, complex beasts are renowned for their smokey characters and notes of the Atlantic Ocean which laps at the shores of Islay. Such whiskies include Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Bowmore, Caol Ila and Talisker.

The Islay whiskies

Islay single malt whiskies have incredible depth and complexity, but are best known for their intense peaty, smokey characters.

The Isle of Islay has a vast coverage of peat, which is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter. This peat infuses its flavour and colour into the water sources on Islay — the water from these water sources is used to produce Islay whiskies. Before distillation, the malted barley is dried over peat fires, the barley enveloped in smoke.

Islay whiskies are often said to have “notes of the sea”. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, sea breezes wash across Islay’s abundant peat and permeate the aging barrels of whisky.

Islay whiskies are most frequently described as being “smokey”. Other common terms used to describe Islay whiskies include “medicinal”, “iodine”, “seaweed” and “salty”.

The most famous Islay whisky

Lagavulin 16

Lagavulin, in particular the Lagavulin 16-Year-Old, is probably the most famous Islay whisky. Aeneas MacDonald writes of a man who “was kept awake for hours in the night by the prolonged rhapsodies of two Highlanders, men who had nothing else in common in the world but their affection for and praise of Lagavulin”. It has, he says, “an almost legendary fame”. That was in 1930 and, if anything, its fame has grown. Today, it inspires fanatical devotion in its many followers.

The Lagavulin 16-Year-Old is a single malt with the massive peat-smoke that is typical of southern Islay. However, it also offers a unique blend of richness and dryness that turns it into a truly interesting dram. As it is probably the most pungent of all Islay malts, it is not for the faint-hearted.

Not convinced? Check out it’s relative position in the whisky tasting map!

The Lagavulin 16-Year-Old was awarded the Gold Outstanding Medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition 2012, the Non-Plus-Ultra Award (Daily Drams) at the Malt Maniacs Awards 2010 & 2011, the Best Islay (13 to 20 years) Award at the World Whiskies Awards 2012, and the Double Gold Medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2013. The Lagavulin 16-Year-Old has a rating of 95 in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2012.

Hope this starts you on an amazing time exploring the whiskies from Islay!


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