Islay WhiskySmoky, peaty and sometimes termed as medicinal, Islay Whiskies are certainly unique. Lovers of these potent amber liquids tend to be loyal for life, loathers are put off by the strength of flavours in the aromas alone, let alone the taste.
Why these strong, distinctive flavours?
It’s all down to the peat. There is no local coal on the isle of Islay so peat has been used as a source of energy. It burns well and is in abundant supply. Local water is brown and needs to be filtered and processed to remove the colours. Many producers choose to work with the brown water in the distillation process. Barley grains are laid out on the floor of a large malting house. Underneath the floor is a heating system, and in Islay, this heat is produced by burning peat. The heat tricks the barley grains to believe it is Spring and they start the germination process. This germination releases stored carbohydrate and converts them to sugars which are then extracted and fermented into a beer. This beer is then distilled to produce the spirit that will become Islay Whisky.
The aromas released from the peat infiltrate the germinating barley grains and are so pungent that they remain throughout the whole distillation process. Even years of maturation do not temper these aromas, it just mellows them. Other whisky flavours of honey, lemon, warm tropical fruit and spices combine to produce the acclaimed product. Another flavour descriptor of Islay Whiskies is iodine. This comes from the salt that is blown onto the peat from the stormy sea conditions and becomes embedded into the peat.
Producers can choose the intensity of the peat flavours and different distillers on the island select their level carefully. The South of the island tends to produce the strongest flavoured whiskies (Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Lagavulin & Ardberg) with the North producing more medium peated (Bowmore) and some unpeated varities (Bruichladdich & Bunnahabhain). New distilleries are currently maturing their whiskies to be released in the next 5-10 years.
Once made, the spirit needs to mature for a minimum of 3 years to become Scotch Whisky. In reality, the maturation duration is often much, much longer. This slow, majestic maturation allows the alcohol of the spirit to mellow and the flavours develop gently. This is the opposite to American Whiskies whose maturation is much shorter and takes place in hot storage shed to speed up the process.
Why not treat yourself to some of this special whisky to celebrate Burns Night on 25th January. You may just become one of the loyal lovers.