The Whisky Tasting Club The Whisky Tasting Club

Islay Tasting

Five fantastic whiskies from the island of Islay.

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As shards of sunlight pepper the broody, inky-blue waters around Islay, the bows of the boat rise and dip in the swell, and the white walls of a distillery appear and disappear with each surge as sea spray cleans and alerts all the senses. It is an exciting and invigorating way to arrive on the Hebridean island of Islay and at the distilleries that hug its rugged shoreline. Islay is a remote speck of rock off Scotland's west coast from where you can see across to Ireland on a clear day. The difficult to get to location underlies a history of illicit distilling in times gone by and the stealthy avoidance of tax collectors. Islay has a long history of whisky making, having currently eight distilleries, but many more have sadly closed during the last couple of centuries including the now revered Port Ellen distillery. Happily Kilchoman, which was founded in 2005 and is the first distillery to be built on Islay for over 120 years, is going from strength to strength. This small island is home to only 3,000 inhabitants but creates some of the whisky world's peaty heavyweights. The majority of Islay's whisky packs a big smoky punch which comes from the way the malted barley is dried over peat fires. It is for this style that Islay has become rightly famous. Peat is made up of decaying vegetation and grasses that have formed over the centuries in boggy and wet marshland areas. It has been used as a burning fuel in communities across the world for centuries. In Scotland, in particular, peat has played a central role in the drying of barley for Scotch whisky making. When the Industrial Revolution brought trains and they in turn carried coal across the country, many distilleries abandoned peat as a fuel, but it remained in use in islands such as Islay and it is on the islands that it is most widely used today. Peat is cut from the ground in spring and dried naturally during the summer, before being collected in the autumn. Peat differs from place to place as it is formed from the local vegetation. Most peaty whiskies derive their taste from the process of drying malted barley, and not, as is sometimes thought, from water travelling through peat bogs before feeding the distillery. Port Ellen Maltings first started producing malted barley in the 1970s. The maltings now produce malt for the majority of Islay's distilleries according to their exact requirements and peat levels. 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.


Smokehead is an independent bottling by Ian Macleod Distillers ltd, who also own Glengoyne and Tamdhu distilleries. It is an Islay single malt and is widely thought to be from the Caol Ila distillery, although Ian Macleod are tight lipped on the issue. Wherever it is made, Smokehead has a classic Islay taste profile.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Imagine a crash between four lorries, carrying, respectively: dark chocolate, diesel, bitter lemon and fruit salad, then you're somewhere close.
Palate: A little bitter to start with, with acrid black smoke, which smoothes off with a dollop of nutty vanilla cream.

Retails for around £35

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Kilchoman Machir Bay

Kilchoman distillery, located on Rockside farm a few miles to the west of Bruichladdich, began production in June 2005. They are very small, producing around 100,000 litres per year (in contrast to Caol Ila, which produces around 6 million litres) and everything about them is authentic and traditional. They grow their own barley, perform their own floor malting and generally do everything on site. Machir Bay sits a mile or two away from the distillery and is as stunning (and empty) a beach as youll ever find on this planet.

This Machir Bay release is a vatting of three, four and five year old single malt, with the four year old being finished in oloroso sherry butts for eight weeks prior to bottling.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: A very different act to the Bowmore, with red currant and blueberry mixing it with a Schnapps like spirit intensity and vaguely burnt oily dust, like you used to get off the Hornby train control box.
Palate: Initially pepper and vanilla shortbread, then the pungent peat, iodine, chlorine and pepper are gradually cranked up. Throughout it all, a bitter vanilla stays the course.
Finish: Full, intense and excellently balanced between fruit, pepper and peat.

Retails for around £40

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Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Quarter Cask is partly matured in casks one quarter the size of normal casks. The nature of maturation in the quarter cask is such that it gives the whisky a depth and concentration of flavours in a shorter period of time, making for a much mightier malt than the distillery's standard 10 year old. While there's nothing at all wrong with the latter, many Laphroaig fans believe that the Quarter Cask is a return to the distillery's glory days, when they say the whisky was more powerful. Quarter Cask is made up of whisky aged 5-8 years.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: A grinderman nose: powerful, dusty, with green fruits, coal shed smoke, engine oil. All very intense.
Palate: Concentrated and intense industrial smoke, some aniseed, a trace of liquorice. Mouth-coating.
Finish: Sharp and savoury peat notes linger.

Retails for around £35

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Port Charlotte Scottish Barley

Reopened at the start of the millennium, Bruichladdich has proved itself a very twenty-first-century distillery ever since. In addition to the numerous Bruichladdich expressions, they have also revived the name of the old Port Charlotte distillery in its heavily-peated bottlings. There was talk of the Port Charlotte distillery itself being rebuilt just down the road, but, as yet, nothing (although this expression is matured there). The Scottish Barley expression is one of the new additions, peated to 40ppm.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Slight smoky rice pudding. Cold custard. Caraway seed. A distant burst of red fruits and orange. The dry smoke slowly builds but is always restrained.
Palate: As with the nose, the peat smoke starts slowly but rises to a voluptuous and clean vanilla, tropical fruit and peat combo. Like a smoky and bitter dark chocolate orange, and in a good way.

Retails for around £40-45

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Bowmore Small Batch Release

Bowmore small batch is part of an industry wide trend of releasing whisky with no age statement. Proponents say that the focus should be on flavour, not age, and obsession with a fairly arbitrary number disguises quality. Critics claim it is just a way of flogging young whisky to meet rising demand. In reality, its a bit of both. This small batch release is priced similarly to the 12 year old, and we think it stands up well in comparison.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Very light at first, then sweet and sour. Tropical fruits with a distant sour smoke, interspersed with a hint of lemon tea.
Palate: A thin layer of creaminess as the smoke again keeps its distance, allowing the salt and lemon to flourish. The smoke, however, returns late on in peppery form, finishing with a squeeze of lime juice.

Retails for around £30-40

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