No other region divides people in the whisky world the way the Hebredian island of Islay does. It is rightly famous for its thumping peaty, phenolic whiskies, loved or loathed in equal measure.
With no indigenous coal supply, Islay had to rely upon its seemingly never-ending supply of peat for its fuel, and when the barley was dried over peat fires, it imparted a smokiness to the malted barley which, of course, transferred itself to the whisky.
Given that it has an area of only 239 square miles, Islay has an amazing eight operational distilleries, including the "holy trinity" of Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig along its Southern coast, Bowmore at its centre, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain to the North and Bruichladdich and the recent Kilchoman to the West.
But it isn't just the peat that gives Islay malts their signature taste. With huge quantities of seaweed around its coast and the Atlantic ocean crashing against their distillery walls, it's unsurprising that many have a distinct iodine character, plus a healthy dose of tar and salt. And yet, each Islay malt has its own character that distinguishes it utterly from its near-neighbours. Ardbeg has a distinct citrus note, Caol Ila a smoky bacon aspect and Lagavulin its rich medicinal, liquorice character.
So, mention Islay in whisky circles and it is undoubtedly the heavily-peated malts which immediately spring to mind. But this immediate association with peat is slightly unfair. Two of its distilleries – Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich – produce whiskies which, more often than not, do not fit this phenolic template at all. Having said this, Bruichladdich, as if taking up the cudgels, determined to out-do the rest of the island’s distilleries, is currently locked in a spiraling battle with Ardbeg to produce the world’s most heavily-peated malt whisky.
Our Islay pack is a must for the peat freaks.