Salt. Smoke. Seaweed. I consider these strong, yet pleasing aromas with my nose plunged deep inside a snifter of whisky.
“Now, take a sip and write down what you taste—whatever comes to mind,” instructs John Campbell, manager at the Laphroaig Distillery.
I am taking part in Laphroaig’s “Water to Whisky Experience,” and so far I’ve visited the water source, tried my hand at cutting peat and toured the distillery. Now it’s time to sample Laphroaig’s range and learn to differentiate between whiskies—writing down my impressions is supposed to help.
There are no right or wrong answers, Campbell says. Whisky appreciation is personal and comes down to the spirit and how it engages your palate.
I sip, I contemplate and then I set pen to paper, determined to come up with a better adjective than “boozy.”
Full disclosure: though I write about spirits professionally, Scotch has never been my go-to. When my husband savours a single malt, I sip a glass of wine or shake a blended whisky into a cocktail. I rarely drink whisky straight up unless I’m suffering from an illness that requires liquid medication.
But I’m on Islay, an island off Scotland’s west coast that’s one of the country’s five whisky regions. Islay (pronounced eye-la) is famous among whisky connoisseurs for its peated single malts, those distinct smoky Scotches that are made from a single distillery, with malted barley as the only grain ingredient. The island is home to eight distilleries that produce and age Scotland’s uisge beatha (“water of life”), so, while I’m here, I’m intent on drinking the spirit neat—and on gaining a stronger appreciation of my husband’s go-to nightcap in the process.
Besides, the rugged beauty of this windswept isle and the charming brogues of its friendly inhabitants invite whisky consumption as a means of getting to know the place and its people.
For the next several days, I find myself having one “wee” dram after another, from the sweet, smouldering spiciness of the Ardbeg’s Uigeadail, which was named World Whisky of the Year in 2009 by whisky aficionado Jim Murray, to the honeyed complexity of Bowmore’s 12 Years Old. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when my sipping turns from duty to delight, though I suspect baptism by fire helps speed my appreciation of Scotland’s spirit. Like a slab of peat, I’m thrown onto the coals and forced to surrender to Islay’s whisky culture.
The birth of Scotch whisky as we know it can be traced back more than 400 years to 1644, when Scotland passed its first taxes on whisky production. The move basically sent Scottish whisky distilling underground to avoid taxation. There, in the most remote and unreachable parts of Scotland—its highlands and islands—distillers secretly turned an ancient grain into whisky by perfecting the art of malting barley, infusing it with cold smoke from a peat fire, adding fresh water and then fermenting, distilling and aging it.
By the time the whisky stills came out of hiding, in 1823—after the Excise Act sanctioned whisky distilling in exchange for a licence fee of £10 and a fixed payment per gallon of spirit—Scotland was arguably producing the best single malt in the world.
Scotch whisky speaks to the country’s terroir, and nowhere is this more apparent than on Islay, where distillers such as Bruichladdich are once again sourcing barley grown on-island, or, like Laphroaig, where they hand-cut peat from local bogs to infuse the grain with unique flavours of peat, moss and heather. You can, literally, taste the island in the whisky.
“That connection to the land is so important,” says James Brown, a teddy bear of a man whose Octomore Farm grows the barley for Bruichladdich’s cult favourites, the heavily peated Octomore whiskies. Brown also keeps a herd of highland cows and points out that the hairy beasts eat the draff (spent grain) from the distilleries. Their slurry (waste) is then spread onto the barley fields as fertilizer. “It’s a virtuous circle,” he says, with a wink.
Rain, that accursedly common Scottish element, is also part of the equation. Regular and frequent showers supply the fresh water used in distilling whisky and create the cool and damp conditions necessary for the slow aging of the product in barrels. “If there’s no rain, there’s no whisky,” signs across Scotland remind tourists.
Whisky pilgrims to Islay don’t seem to mind the dreary weather as they travel from one distillery to the next, touring facilities that are centuries old—many topped with the iconic “pagoda roofs” that historically vented the kilns (and still do, in some cases) where the malted barley was infused with peat smoke—and then tasting the fruits of that long dance with time.
All of Islay’s working distilleries offer tours that provide an introduction to the whisky-making process and let visitors see the steps involved in creating single malt. While the overall chain of events is basically the same from one distillery to the next—from malting to peating to mashing to fermenting to distilling to maturing—each distillery might use slightly different equipment, differ in the number of distillations or adhere to traditions a bit more closely than its neighbour.
Some distilleries, such as Bowmore and Laphroaig, for example, still malt a percentage of their own barley (the process by which water is added to the grain to promote germination). Others stick with tradition in other ways, by using ancient equipment, for instance. Bruichladdich still employs its original cast-iron mash tun and wood fermentation vats made of Oregon fir.
Ultimately, the final taste of a future dram depends on the barley, the peat, how long the spirit is aged, the type of cask it rests in and how the distiller blends casks together to create a consistent product.
It’s through the tours that I begin to see each distillery’s passion and personality emerge, and it’s through tastings that I come to recognize the subtle differences between whiskies and brands.
Beyond touring distilleries, there’s not a great deal to do on Islay, but that plays into its appeal. Only 3,200 people live on the island, divided between a few towns that are so wee they’re called villages, and the farms in between (the island’s dairy products and lamb are delicious).
Islay’s countryside is stark, yet beautiful, coloured by bunches of yellow gorse, brown peat bogs, cultivated green fields and outcrops of gneiss covered in lichen. The towns’ whitewashed buildings, and those of the distilleries dotting the coast, amplify nature’s muted palette—structures were historically painted white to be easily spotted by ships pulling into the island’s ports. The tradition continues today and the effect is stunning, with rows of white storefronts creating a quaint, tidy scene.
The islanders add even more colour to Islay, and seem to genuinely enjoy meeting visitors who are there to chase the water of life.
“Folks just like coming to Islay for the culture here,” says Rachel Whyte, proprietress of the Glenmachrie Country Guest House, where I’m staying. “People are friendly—they welcome you with open arms.”
She falls short of giving me a slab of peat, which was once a traditional welcome gift on the island (a literal house-warming present, as it was used as a heat source), but she does offer to add whisky to my porridge every morning; it’s a friendly gesture, and demonstrates how the spirit has seeped into so many aspects of island life, including breakfast.
As my time on Islay draws to a close, I realize I’m beginning to stoke my own passion for Scotch, and not just for its complex and smoky flavours, but for the place and the people that carry forward the whisky tradition.
With each dram I’ve made new friends—islanders and folks from away. It’s this coming together over the water of life that, in part, makes Islay so unforgettable.
“The whisky and the people, it all becomes one,” says Laphroaig’s Campbell, who confides that whisky is a taste he grew into over a lifetime spent on Islay. “Now, whisky is just second nature.”