Here at Dream Whiskies we are big fans of Islay whisky. Made on Islay, one of the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean Islands located off the west coast of Scotland, Islay is one of five whisky distilling localities and regions in Scotland whose identity is protected by law. There are nine active distilleries and the industry is the island's second largest employer after agriculture. Islay is a centre of "whisky tourism", and hosts a "Festival of Malt and Music" known as Fèis Ìle each year on the last week of May, with events and tastings celebrating the cultural heritage of the island.
The whiskies of the distilleries along the southeastern coast of the island, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg, have a smoky character derived from peat, considered a central characteristic of the Islay malts. Many describe this as a "medicinal" flavour. Caol Ila, on the northern side of the island, also produces a strongly peated whisky. Islay peat is reputedly the best flavoured for scotch production.
The other distilleries on the island make whisky in a variety of styles. Bunnahabhain makes much lighter whiskies which are generally lightly peated. Bowmore produces a whisky which is well balanced, using a medium-strong peating level (25 ppm) but also using sherry-cask maturation. The Kilchoman distillery started production in late 2005; in location it is unlike the other distilleries, which are all by the sea, and the newest distillery is Ardnahoe, the island's ninth, which opened in 2019.
So, ladies and gentlemen, for your delectation we have selected 5 of our absolute favourite whiskies from the island of Islay.
1. Lagavulin 8 Year-Old
After the wonderful reception that the Lagavulin 8 year-old, 200th anniversary edition received when it was released in 2016, the Islay-based distillers decided to add this delicious expression to their permanent core range! As Alfred Barnard (author of The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom) said of an 8 year old Lagavulin in the 1880s, this stuff is "exceptionally fine". This eight-year-old is big and smoky, with sweet spice that becomes apparent with a drop of water and for those of you that are familiar with the Lagavulin 16 we can categorically state that the age statement of 8 years in no-way diminishes the quality and delivery of this fabulous malt.
2. Laphroaig PX Cask Triple Matured
The Laphroaig PX Cask is made with whisky matured in three types of cask - American oak casks, Quarter casks and the titular Pedro Ximénez casks. This leads to a flavour profile which ties together classic, powerful Laphroaig smoke and wine-like sweetness. It was originally released for Travel Retail where we first picked up a bottle more than 5 years ago.
From our perspective, the PX cask finishing imparts an undeniably fruity note to the more familiar Laphroaig character. The result is one of our favourite Laphroaig releases. And, for those of you that like to experiment beyond simply adding ice, water or nothing at all, the PX cask release makes for a stunning Old-Fashioned too!
3. Bowmore 18 year-old
Bowmore's 18 year old expression is bottled at 43% abv. Andrew Rankin, Bowmore's Production Director, specifies a mix of cask types for each bottling of the Bowmore 18. The casks are matured in the distillery's No.1 Vaults, built in the late 1700s and the oldest maturation warehouse in Scotland. It is also the only warehouse below sea level – dark and damp, and the thick stone walls seep salt water. So when you taste this splendid malt, think of where it spent the last eighteen years. There is no substitute for time in the right casks under the right conditions!
We defer to the Whisky Shop's tasting notes: Polished beech in colour, the aroma seems to match this: polished wood to the fore, with gentle smoke behind. In between are scents of dry seaweed and canvas, hemp ropes and lanolin, then caramel rises to dominate. The taste is a surprise after the mellow aroma: big, sweet, salty and smoky at full strength; more floral, less salty and smoky at reduced strength. Both with some spice in the finish.
4. Ardbeg An Oa
The latest addition to the Ardbeg range, An Oa takes its name from the Mull of Oa, one of the most untamed parts of Islay with cliffs towering over the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean on one side and the calm shelter of the southern coast on the other. The contrast is reflected in the liquid, marrying Pedro Ximenez sweetness, virgin charred oak spice and a high proportion of ex-bourbon casks giving an intense hallmark Ardbeg flavour.Bottled at 46.6% abv without chill filtration, the nose is subtly smoky with creamy toffee and aniseed atop fruity peach and banana notes. The palate is smooth and creamy with orange chocolate, treacle, smoky tea leaves and sweet spices. Gentle aniseed and hickory linger with subtle smoke on the finish.
5. Caol Ila 18 year-old
With stunning views from the still house across the Sound of Islay, Caol Ila is Islay's hidden malt, lighter and more subtle than other Islay whiskies with a malt smokiness that makes it highly prized by connoisseurs. Additional maturation in the 18yo introduces a golden colour and complexity along with a smoky, peaty taste profile with peppery notes and a citrus spiciness that engages the tastebuds.
So, if you've never been the biggest fan of Islay whiskies but were interested in finding a route in, we are confident that any one of the 5 we have mentioned will open you up to the truly amazing phenomena which is Islay whisky. On the other hand, if you are already a fan and are looking for a few new ones to try, have a go at picking one of the above. We're sure you'll love them.