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One of the whisky capitals of the world, Islay (pronounced eye-la) is located off Scotland’s west coast and is home to pristine beaches, stunning scenery, and eight distinguished whisky distilleries. The distilleries on this island have become synonymous with maritime, heavily peated styles; however, beyond these more pronounced tones lies a highly diverse and sophisticated spirit, making the identity of Islay malts trickier to pin down than Scotland’s other regions

Each of the eight distilleries uses the readily available Islay staples in their own way, creating exceptional peated single malt whiskies that boast their own unique smokey character. 

From heavily peated, smokey whiskies to lighter, fruity drams, the various offerings from Islay’s distilleries are sure to delight those who prefer stronger flavours in their whiskies. Read more about this renowned region below, or place your order for your Islay dram with The House of Whisky today.

There are several unique characteristics used to some extent by the Islay distilleries when distilling their signature whiskies. Islay is primarily composed of several layers of various types of mosses and other vegetation, which have rotted away and created a compact black bank of peat. This peat is an essential element in Islay’s whisky-making process, giving its whiskies their distinct smokey taste. 

Additionally, most of the water on Islay is brown, including the water in the burns. This, combined with the salt spray blown inland by the winter gales, saturates the peat to add another special touch to the result. The peat is then dried by the sea breeze, which gives it the touch of brine.

It’s thought that Irish monks first brought distillation to Islay during the early 14th century. Since then, the island’s eight distilleries continue to use its fertile grounds, pure water sources, and peat to distil exceptional malts that have become famous and sought-after all over the world by connoisseurs and beginners alike. Each distillery features some genuinely unique expressions while still maintaining the distinctive elements that make Islay stand out among the other whisky-producing regions in Scotland. 

Whiskies produced in the south of Islay are the most powerful on the island, boasting robust medium-bodied whiskies with full flavours of peat smoke, iodine, and brine. In addition to their use of heavily peated malt, the distilleries in this area, namely Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin, also use the island’s naturally peaty water during every stage of production. 

As well as the peat, Ardbeg predominantly features a turfy smoke, seaspray, and seaweed character in their bottlings, Laphroaig a more medicinal flavour with touches of iodine, lychee, seaweed, and leaves, and Lagavulin more elegant notes of clove, lemon, fruitcake, and seaweed.

By contrast, the northern distilleries of Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain produce considerably milder, less assaulting offerings. They draw their water before it has had any contact with peat, and use only unpeated or lightly peated barley. This results in whiskies with lighter, mossy flavours with hints of nuts and seaweed and a dry finish. 

Kilchoman, the only farm-distillery on the island, produces slightly peatier whiskies, while still maintaining a well-balanced flavour profile with notes of vanilla and fruit to contrast the warm peat smoke.

On the shore of Loch Indaal lies Bowmore, a distillery that stands between the two extremes of their northern and southern counterparts. Bowmore’s expressions are peaty but not medicinal, with notes of toffee and linseed oil and a floral nose. Similarly, Caol Ila produces a malt with peaty, salty flavours balanced out with floral notes and a peppery finish. 

In addition to Islay’s active distilleries, the island is also home to one of the whisky industry’s legendary lost distillers. Port Ellen was founded in 1825 and operated without incident until it was mothballed in 1930. The distillery reopened in 1967 after some expansion and refurbishment; however, its doors closed again in 1983 when its parent company, Distiller’s Company Ltd, experienced a downturn. The distillery itself was dismantled, and the site now houses a malting and produces a large amount of the malt needed on by the other distilleries on Islay. 

While there are plans to reopen the distillery in 2020, we may have to wait until 2032 to see the first release from the revitalised Port Ellen. Until then, the slowly decreasing number of bottlings from this much-loved distillery will continue to be among the most expensive and sought-after whiskies in the world.

Islay whiskies tend to have the opposite characteristics of their Speyside cousins. They are generally pungent with peat, smoke, and salinity, with a complexity that continues to reveal itself layer after layer. Between them, the various distilleries across the island also evoke notes of gentle moss, linseed, pepper, spice, and flowers in their palates, with a general dry finish across their expressions. 

Typical flavour notes of an Islay whisky include: 

  • Smoke. 
  • Brine. 
  • Seaweed. 
  • Kippers.
  • Apple.
  • Carbolic Soap.

If you prefer smokier, heavily peated whiskies, the Islay drams at The House of Whisky are sure to appeal to your palate. Browse our range here.

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