The Ultimate Beginner's Guide To Islay Whiskies
Felipe is an award-winning London-based whisky writer, tastings host, drinks competitions judge, and author. He is also a musician and co-founder of The Rhythm and Booze Project, a duo that fuses live music and whisky through gigs, tasting events and multimedia.
One of the whisky capitals of the world, the island of Islay off Scotland's west coast generates a lot of buzz among the geek community. A gorgeous setting with pristine beaches, unforgettable walks, and eight world-class whisky distilleries, there’s a reason that visiting this remote part of the world is akin to a religious pilgrimage.
Soon, three new distilleries will join their brethren on the island. The distillery of Ardnahoe on the eastern side is almost finished, the company behind online whisky giants The Whisky Exchange will be building a new one and legendary, long-shuttered distillery Port Ellen will be rebuilt and overseen by ex-Lagavulin manager Georgie Crawford.
So, given these exciting developments, together with 20-plus visits to the island, (and having written my Master's thesis on Islay whisky distillation), I want to share a useful guide to drinking your way around the island - and to dispel persistent myths that just won't go away.
For example, the one that bothers me the most is that Islay whiskies are hard for beginners to drink because they're so strong and smoky. While there’s certainly plenty of that kind of whisky, there’s also Islay whisky that's smooth, fruity, rich, unpeated and thoroughly enjoyable.
And...beginners as well are perfectly capable of enjoying a smoky whisky.
I won’t go into how peated whiskies create smoky flavors, but I do recommend taking a look here for an in-depth explanation behind the creation of smoky whisky.
For this guide, I'll classify Islay whiskies into four categoriess: unpeated, medium smoke, super smoky and peated fruity.
I can’t cover every Islay whisky, but these serve as great starters. Prices are sourced from The Whisky Exchange and Master of Malt, but you may well find something cheaper either online or at your local store.
Islay offers many incredible unpeated whiskies well worth trying. They vary in aroma, flavor, and style. A full 99.9% of unpeated Islay whiskies come from Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain distilleries. The latter, which usually has an almost undetectable amount of peat, tends to strive for a richer, fruity taste profile while Bruichladdich is a bit more robust and creamy and with a higher alcohol strength, although with significant variation among its releases. A selection:
Bruichladdich Islay and Bere Barley - £45-73 ($59-$96): Both the Islay barley and Bere barley releases showcase vanilla, cream, and cookie flavors. Beyond that, the differences are more subtle, and wonderfully showcase the vanilla element.
Bruichladdich Black Art - £288 ($381): Whisky geeks go nuts for the various editions of the Black Art - production and maturation of which remains a secret - but I don’t think I’ve ever tried one that really impressed me, or was worth the money. Many fans disagree with me, though. Maybe you will, too?
Bunnahabhain 12 - £44 ($58): One of the great "core range" whiskies. Rich and deep, you have to try it if you want to sink into single malt Scotch whisky.
Bunnahabhain 18 - £104 ($138): I love Bunnahabhain whisky, and this one shows why. I included the 18 in my Top 10 whiskies of 2016 list. Deep and smooth liquid velvet.
Caol Ila Unpeated (varies): One of the island’s less-known distilleries (though it produces the most whisky, mainly used in blends), Caol Ila releases unpeated whisky fairly regularly that can sometimes be found in specialist shops or online. Definitely worth trying.
Medium Smoke Whiskies
Caol Ila and Bowmore create whiskies that usually are not as brutally harsh on the throat as other distilleries' releases. Bottles from both are a great way to start appreciating smoky whiskies.
Bowmore Tempest - £74.95 ($99): A 10-year-old release aged in first fill bourbon casks, this is one glorious stormy whisky. Released in batches, it's a superb cross of bacon, peaches and pepper.
Caol Ila 12 - £43.95 ($58): I tend to prefer Caol Ila as a distillery over Bowmore, and I think the 12 is better than Bowmore 12. A wonderfully balanced dram, oily and herbal but not overwhelmingly so, underpineed by robust smoke that doesn't overpower the taste buds.
Caol Ila 18 - £85.75 ($113): One of the best examples of a truly great herbal whisky, and well worth trying for that alone.
Super Smoky Whiskies
The source of Islay's fame. These super smoky whiskies are the whisky equivalents of the playground bully that shoves your head in the dirt. If you just go with the smoke, you will enjoy some truly sublime flavors. These listed here are just the tip of the proverbial whisky iceberg…
Lagavulin 16 - £55.45 ($73): Robust and meaty. Melon and Spanish ham. A pork cutlet with a dash of apple sauce. Certainly with sweet elements, but mostly umami all over the tongue and throat.
Ardbeg 10 - £41.95 ($56): Where Lagavulin’s smoky element is meaty, and Laphroaig’s more medicinal, Ardbeg’s is earthy. Light and nippy on the tongue but heavy on the throat.
Laphroaig 10 - £38.95 ($51): Famously medicinal due to the cresols that sneak in. I find Laphroaig smoother than the other very smoky whiskies, with the balance at the end tilted towards the smoke. This is a good thing. Older Laphroaigs can really deliver on this like no other whiskies.
Laphroaig Quarter Cask - £41.55 ($55): Far more fiery than the Laphroaig 10. A higher alcohol strength does contribute, though. The whisky is younger, but draws more from the wood from its maturation in smaller casks.
Kilchoman Machir Bay - £45.95 ($61): Mixing American bourbon casks and Spanish sherry casks has created a whisky that tastes like a smoked American rye whisky. Caramel, white chocolate, hints of citrus. And loads of beefy smoke.
Port Charlotte 10 - £48.90 ($65): All the whiskies listed in this section are "core whiskies" that serve as the introductory bottles from a distillery. This is the new one for Port Charlotte, actually the peated range of whiskies from the Bruichladdich distillery. A great mix of ginger, lemon peel and teriyaki sauce.
Anything Octomore (Varies): Some of the most peated whiskies in the world, released by Bruichladdich. Brutally strong and smoky. Some people love them, some hate them. I belong in the former.
Peated fruity whiskies
I feel that these whiskies manage to tease out richer fruit and spice flavors in ways that are unique. These really do it for me a bit more than the whiskies listed above.
Ardbeg Uigeadail - £56.95 ($75): Known as "the oogie" by geeks, a classic. One of my favorites. Smoke, rich fruits - think raisins or cranberries - and aromatic spices are all cranked up to 11.
Bowmore 15 - £52.95 ($70): Much more refined, the maturation in Spanish sherry casks here is subtle and perfectly balanced. Strawberries and mangoes served on leather.
Kilchoman Loch Gorm - £67.95 ($90): A clumsier version of the oogie but still manages to deliver, and well worth trying.
Though this list doesn't do full justice to the mind-boggling range of Islay whiskies on offer, I’ll add a few significant points:
First, don't count out the neighboring island of Jura, which has just released an entire new range of whiskies and is usually seen as the "little brother" distillery trying to reach the heights of big Islay boys.
Second, keep an eye out for independent releases of Islay whiskies. Independent companies, such as Gordon MacPhail, Hunter Laing, and others release their own Islay whiskies, unlocking flavors you’d never find from the distilleries themselves.
Finally, and most important, is to visit Islay to try all of these and other whiskies, at their point of creation. Whatever your taste preference, I can promise that you won't regret the trip.
By Felipe Schrieberg
Felipe is a London-based whisky writer, musician, tastings host, drinks competitions judge, and author. He writes for internationally renowned publications such as Forbes, Whisky Magazine and The Whiskey Wash. He has been awarded the Icons of Whisky Communicator of the Year award at Whisky Magazine's 2022 World Whiskies Awards.
He is the co-founder of The Rhythm and Booze Project, a duo fusing live music and whisky through gigs, tasting events, and multimedia. His past projects encompass performances at the Edinburgh Fringe of the band's own show Two Guys, Three Drams which combined live blues with whisky tasting, and building the world's first bass drum made from an entire Scotch whisky cask with a barrel of Lagavulin.
He is also a judge for the World Whiskies Awards and The Independent Bottlers Challenge. Through his online tastings hosted at The Virtual Whisky Masterclass, he has welcomed over 3,000 guests across 250+ tasting events.
His first book, London Cocktails, is now available worldwide. Follow him on Twitter/Instagram @schriebergfr, or at www.felipeschrieberg.com
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