Islay Scotch, one of the richest peated whiskies in the world, offers you a unique taste filled with smoky flavors and seaweed notes that remind you of campfires by the seashore. Definitely an acquired taste, this whisky is loved by so many people all over the world.
From the western coast of the Scottish islands comes this unique and mysterious tasting scotch whisky that you might want to try.
Before we go any further, let’s see exactly..
What exactly is Islay Scotch?
It is a single malt scotch or blended malt scotch originating from the island of Islay, which is part of Scotland. Single malt whisky is made from water and malted barley there and it is aged in oak casks for a minimum of three-years. The difference between single malt and blended malt is that the single malt is made, distilled, and bottled in one distillery, while the blended malt is distilled in more than one distillery.
The island of Islay is off the west coast of Scotland, a little further south than the other Scottish islands. Their temperature is milder and it doesn’t reach the freezing point, which does have an impact on taste. It is always rainy and wet, and that, combined with the salt from the sea and the seaweed makes the layers of vegetation create the thick muddy peat that gives their whiskies their particular taste.
How is Islay Scotch Made?
Islay scotch, just like other Scotch whiskies, is made by malting the barley that is grown and harvested on the island. Malting means soaking the barley for germination, then dry it by a special process of using burning peat instead of burning wood. The barley that is dried over the peat absorbs the phenols from the peat which is what gives Islay scotch its unique flavor they are renowned for.
After the drying process, the malt is combined with water, after which this mash is fermented. This fermented liquid is then distilled for a first and second distillation process, and then blended and placed in oak barrels to age. This process could take anywhere from three years to decades.
The final taste depends on the particularities of the process each distillery uses. Some distilleries flavor their barley with smoking peat for a specific amount of time, then use hot air to fully dry it for another set time. This drying process and the steps they use are what differentiates them from one another.
So what is so different about the Islay scotch taste? It is the peat, combined with the mild temperatures, and the seaweed and sea salt that add the smokey marine taste. Their peat is like coal, which is what adds the smoke flavor when they use it to dry their barley on. Some of their more popular flavors are smoke, campfire, peat, salt, iodine, sea minerals, and seaweed.
Islay Scotch Distilleries
Once there were 23 distilleries operating on the island, but today there are only nine Scotch brands.
The southern Islay distilleries, which use quite a lot of peat for flavor are:
- Laphroaig ages their scotch for ten years on average. It is one of the strongest tasting scotch, and they claim their water gives its unique flavor.
- Ardberg is now owned by Glenmorangie, it is the one that tastes the most of peat.
- Lagavulin is one of the oldest distilleries dating back to 1742. Known for their strong iodine and peat flavor.
The central distilleries are full of peat and salt spray, yet contain a milder flavor as well as more varieties.
- Bowmore is the oldest on the island, they started this business in 1771. Its whiskies do contain peat and salt flavors, but have some of the widest ranges and varieties, with milder notes than the other distilleries on the island.
- Caol Ila is the biggest producer of blended whiskies of the island, such as their famous Jack Daniels and Chivas Regal.
The northern distilleries distinguish themselves with their more nutty and moss-like flavors, which are affected by the slightly colder temperatures.
- Kilchoman is one of the newest distilleries on the island. They opened their doors in 2004, and along with Bowmore and Laphroig, one of the three that have their own malting floors.
- Bruichladdich produces whiskies with strong alcohol content but a creamier texture, and a few unpeated varieties. It was recently purchased by Remy Cointreau.
- Bunnahabhain is known for its low level of peat used in their process, which makes the taste a lot different than others on the island.
- Ardnahoe is officially the youngest distillery on the island. With their two copper pot stills, they are considered a daring newcomer.
Now we’ll take a closer look at the 15 top-rated whiskies from the island of Islay, and we suggest you try at least one of them.
15. Bunnahabhain Toiteach A Dha
This low peat whisky is aged in old bourbon and sherry casks. With notes of vanilla, caramel, and dried fruits, the seaweed brine and smoke from the peat is evident, and we can detect a hint of mushroom as well.
Although some might consider this a weird combination, it works somehow. Give this taste a try, you will be surprised.
14. Caol Ila 12
Their 12-year-old expression has got to be their best yet. The intense aroma of malted barley and smoke will first fill your palate, but then you will notice the light and fresh notes of toffee, vanilla, and fruit.
The nice finish will surely take you by surprise, so give it a chance and don’t get put off by the potent and intense flavor.
13. Kilchoman Machir Bay
The newest distilleries on the island bring you this barley-to-bottle offering with its medicinal nose of sea salt, seaweed, and honey cream. It is aged in ex-bourbon and sherry casks, with hints of apples and vanilla.
Light body and light in color as well, this low-peat flavored whisky is fruity and warm on your palate.
12. Octomore 6.3
The barley used for this variety is grown at the farm of Octomore, and it leads to a heavy peat profile. For the lovers of peat flavored whiskies, it is recommended that you allow it to oxidize in a decanter for preferably a few months.
An intense palate, there are hints of vanilla and floral notes to make the smoky flavor a bit lighter.
11. Ben Braken 22 Year
This 22-year offering is deserving of the praise and awards it received. A well-balanced mix of nutty, citrusy, and smoky nose, it is backed up by hints of dark chocolate and ripe red fruit.
It is rounded up nicely for a salty and smoky finish on your palate. A great all-around single malt worth a try.
10. Smokey Joe Islay Malt
A blended single malt believed to come from Bowmore and Laphroaig, this is a strong and incredibly peaty offering. Its rich color, the marine and citrus notes, and the balance of smoke and peppery spice fall nicely on your palate.
It is mellowed out with fruity hints of pears and melons. If it is too intense for you, add some ice to it to smooth out the taste.
9. Sheep Dip Islay
This is a pure malt blended whisky, which will remind you of Talisker Storm. The distinctive presence of iodine, seaweed, and salt that is typical of the island is obvious.
The fruity notes of apricot along with hints of chocolate, bacon, and toasted wood keep the peaty flavor from being overwhelming. Excellent blend, although not very easy to find in the US.
8. Cragabus Blended Islay Malt Scotch
This blended whisky includes peat from northern and southern distilleries, which make this a smoother scotch. Notes of campfire and wet wood, with hints of cherry and vanilla, are pleasing on the palate, but do not make this a light offering.
The smoky nose and a tarty sweet finish accompanied by a fruity sweetness make this a complex yet pleasant blend.
7. Laphroaig 25-Year-Old Cask Strength
This 200-year-old distillery brings out limited-edition expressions quite often, and if you’re new to the peat game you should start with their 10-year-old cask strength. If you already are seasoned with this unique taste, you can give the 25-year-old a try. It makes an appearance every two years or so, which makes it all the more interesting.
It is aged in ex-bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks and is bottled at cask strength. More delicate than its newer expressions, you can still taste the peat and smoke, but the hints of vanilla, fruit, and honey balance it out nicely.
6. Bowmore 1966 50 Year Old
The oldest distillery on the island of Islay brings out several limited editions every now and then that are so in demand, they are hard to get hold of. The 12 and 25-year-olds are a great option and are slightly more accessible, but the 50-year-old is truly special. This amazing malt is limited to only 74 bottles, so count yourself lucky if you get hold of one.
Its intense taste of roasted pineapples paired with Bowmore’s smokiness will take you on a virtual trip by a campfire at the beach. Enjoy a sip while fantasizing of better times to come!
5. Bruichladdich Port Charlotte: Islay Barley 2011
This distillery is well known for producing the most peated whiskies on the market today. Except for the malting, all the steps in the production process are taking place on the island. The barley is grown by six Islay farms and is aged on the coast of Loch Indaal. Aged for six years, it is not as peated as their other expressions, but the ash and smoke are still predominant flavors.
The tart citrus hints, along with the sweetness and nuttiness of the walnuts balance out the palate, although the strong alcohol and strong peaty notes are what is most noticeable. Who wants to enjoy a few whisky glasses?
4. Ardbeg Uigeadail
After Octomore, Ardbeg is the distillery that produces the peatiest whiskies in all Scotland, measured by the phenol parts. For the beginners, we recommend their 10-year expression, but for the aficionados, we think the Uigeadail is quite something. One of their most popular ranges, it is aged in ex-sherry casks, and it is considered a mystery by many.
The campfire flavor is prominent, but its complexity must come from notes of caramel, candied orange peel, and dark chocolate. An overall great choice, and it won’t break your bank.
3. Compass Box Peat Monster
For some reason, blended whiskies are not favored by connoisseurs, but this expression from Compass Box might change their minds. Its superior craftsmanship and one-of-kind configuration will impress anyone. Caol Ila and Laphroaig are the distilleries that came up with this unique blend.
The iodine and seaweed notes from Laphroig are the prominent ones, while the medicinal, oily aspects of Caol Ila are the more subdued ones. You can also notice hints of creamy vanilla and smoke, which make this a real refined peated malt.
2. Port Ellen 37 Year Old
This 37-year-old expression was distilled in 1979 but was released to the public in 2017. Unfortunately, it is most probably the last of their batch. If you know a little about them, Port Ellen officially shut down in 1983 but kept the barrels to age in their warehouse for decades, and every now and then they come up with a Special Release.
The green apple notes and citrus offset the dry pepper and oak, making this offering very special indeed. Having spent all those years in barrels have dimmed the peat and smoke elements slightly, but it is still worth trying to get your hands on one of those babies.
1. Lagavulin 16 Year Old
And now, to round up our list, the most popular of them all, the 16-year-old Lagavulin is the quintessential Islay malt that you must try. Easier to procure as well, this does not take from its worldwide fame. Many prefer the ashy smoke, salty sea air, alongside some seaweed and iodine notes this offering is known for.
Marry that with hints of fruity sweetness, burned caramel, and vanilla with a dash of oak, and you’ve got a perfect balance. Need we say more? If there’s one bottle you want to consider, this one must be it.
This concludes our list, and we hope you liked the virtual tour. If you’re lucky enough to have the chance to taste some of the collectible bottles, you know you’ve made it. But for the rest of us mere mortals, there are many others to choose from. Cheers!
- What exactly is Islay Scotch?
- How is Islay Scotch Made?
- Islay Scotch Distilleries
- 15. Bunnahabhain Toiteach A Dha
- 14. Caol Ila 12
- 13. Kilchoman Machir Bay
- 12. Octomore 6.3
- 11. Ben Braken 22 Year
- 10. Smokey Joe Islay Malt
- 9. Sheep Dip Islay
- 8. Cragabus Blended Islay Malt Scotch
- 7. Laphroaig 25-Year-Old Cask Strength
- 6. Bowmore 1966 50 Year Old
- 5. Bruichladdich Port Charlotte: Islay Barley 2011
- 4. Ardbeg Uigeadail
- 3. Compass Box Peat Monster
- 2. Port Ellen 37 Year Old
- 1. Lagavulin 16 Year Old