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Getting to Know Scotch Whisky: Islay and Skye

Editor’s Note: This article wraps up a series of pieces we’ve had over the last few months focused upon the different major Scotch whisky regions. So far we’ve also touched upon the HighlandsSpeysideCampbeltown, the Lowlands and the Islands.

The malt whisky producing islands of Islay and Skye are nestled amongst the Inner Hebrides on Scotland’s west coast. Rugged, windswept, and barren, the islands generally produce single malt whiskies with strong peaty, maritime aromas that are unmistakably rugged, powerful, and bursting with flavors. They range from the immediately recognizable medicinal and smoky notes apparent in almost all offerings to the more surprising elements, such as the black pepper found in Skye’s Talisker, and the distinct complex sweetness that comes from sherry cask finishing.


Islay is a small island located not far beyond the westernmost edge of the ruins of the Roman era Antonine Wall. It has three regions: the north shore, the south shore and Loch Indaal. Because of their archetypal peaty style, most Islay whiskies are immediately recognizable as such. The peaty, smoky character of Islay malts, however, isn’t a unique “regional” trait as such. Mainland distilleries like Brora, Benriach, and Edradour can also produce “peat monsters.” Moreover, being an Islay malt doesn’t necessarily mean it will be heavily peated. Bunnahabhain distillery creates exceptional unpeated single malt.

The beauty of Islay (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Lindsay Brandon)

The peaty, smoky style of many Islay malts has nothing to do with the brown “peaty” water that is sometimes used during production. It is caused by the fact that a separate peat furnace is used to generate peat smoke to pass through the drying malt. The peat furnace is in addition to the main, typically oil fired, furnace that is used to dry the germinating barley. The fragrant smoke carries over first into the barley, then the whisky imparting the trademark “peat reek.”

Though the Lagavulin distillery claims to be an 1816 startup, records show ten illegal distilleries operating there since 1742. Today, Lagavulin 16 YO (43% ABV) is a highly sought after expression and often considered amongst the top ten single malt Scotch whiskies in the world. Its characteristic peat and smoke flavor profile and its powerful phenolic aroma are considered the archetype of Islay peated whiskies.

Another whisky worth exploring is Caol Ila (pronounced Cull Eela), the Gaelic name for the Sound of Islay). The sound, which separates Islay from Jura, is one of the most remote, desolate yet beautiful parts of Scotland’s west coast.

The Caol Ila distillery marketed its “whisky by the sea” for over a century. Given its location, the fresh marine aroma is hardly surprising. An unsung whisky, Caol Ila has become highly sought after by “peaty” malt lovers globally. It’s Distillers Edition (43% ABV), won the top Single Malt Scotch Whisky at the 2005 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

The opulently flavored and complex expression of Caol Ila is created by finishing the malt in Portuguese Moscatel casks. These casks are specifically chosen to meld with the whisky, creating a sweet, fruity, peaty, smoky intensity in the resulting malt.

Islay peat
Islay peat (image via Bruichladdich)

Octomore, a new whisky, is produced at Bruichladdich. Described as the most heavily peated whisky in the world at 169 ppm of phenol, this is the ultimate “peat monster” and is definitely not for the faint hearted. Bruichladdich also produces a number of unpeated expressions.

In a deviation from the highly peated Islay whiskies, Kilchoman, established in 2005, has released 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 YO (46%-59% ABV) single malts, some of which are lightly peated, and two of which also had some sherry cask maturation.

The sweet, peat, and briny notes are well integrated and offer that winning sweet and smoky combination. Its location made it the most westerly distillery in Scotland until the Abhainn Dearg Distillery started distilling on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

Kilchoman plans to release a 10 year old and 12 year old in due course. An eight year old was due in July 2013, but is yet to be seen on retail shelves.

Port Charlotte distillery, formerly known as the Lochindaal distillery, was shut down in 1929. It was mostly taken over by Bruichladdich in 2007 with plans to restore it, but woes in global financial markets put an end to that ambition. With the acquisition of Bruichladdich by Remy Cointreau, it is now possible there may be enough capital available to restore the Port Charlotte, but no decisions have yet been made.

The Port Charlotte malts were for a time produced at Bruichladdich. These malts were heavily peated, typically to between 40 ppm and 44 ppm phenol, in the classic Islay style. Perfect for the “peat head” looking for the next “peat monster.”

Laphroaig distillery is an iconic Islay single malt Scotch whisky. Its name, a Gaelic word, stands for “beautiful hollow by the broad bay.” It has such a unique taste that it was classified as a medicine during Prohibition and it could continue to be imported. You needed a doctor’s prescription, however, before you could buy it at your local pharmacy.

Laphroaig 10YO, (40% ABV)

The medicinal character of Laphroaig malts is exemplified in the classic 10 YO bottling. This is a big, muscular, smoky malt redolent with peat and brine.

On the nose there are additional notes of spice and licorice along with iodine, phenol, and wood smoke. On the palate there is an unmistakable maritime influence of salt air and drying seaweed at low tide. Add to that sweet notes, along with vanilla, cream, and a whiff of Band-Aid adhesive. On the palate there are spices, some black pepper, tar, and smoke, with traces of iodine throughout all, ending in a long, drying, savory finish.


From the western edge of the Isle of Skye, in the tall shadow of the Cullin Hills, comes an alluring full-bodied sweet spirit like no other. Talisker Distillery produces a very wide range of whiskies. Its 10-year-old single malt is consistently among the top-rated malt whisky in the world. Its 11-year-old double matured ‘Distillers Edition,’ with its last two years in sherry casks, is another example of that winning combination of smoke and sweetness.

Originally a proponent of the triple distillation system, it reverted to double distillation in 1928. As a remotely located, self-contained unit, the distillery used to do its own malting. Since 1972 they have malted their barley at the Glen Ord Central Maltings in the Highlands. Its water source is Cnoc-nan-Speireag. Talisker uses two wash stills and three spirit stills to produce approximately 750,000 gallons of pure alcohol per year.

Talisker 18 YO, (45.8% ABV)
A superb expression of the house style: the nose features the classic, but understated, peaty smoke that is characteristic of Talisker followed by hints of caramel, salt, pineapple, tropical fruit, citrus, and a lemon-lime tartness. A creamy mouth feel is followed by spicy sweetness and a little salt and warms up as the peat and smoke slowly builds. A smooth, warm lingering peppery finish rounds out this outstanding whisky.

Joe Micallef

Joseph V. Micallef is a historian, best-selling author, keynote speaker and commentator on wine and spirits. He is a member of the National Speakers Association and has also appeared on a variety of broadcast venues including, CNN, Fox News and Fox News Radio.
He has frequently spoken on the history of food, wine and spirits. He holds the Diploma in Wine and Spirits and the Professional Certificate in Spirits (with Distinction) from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (London). He is a certified wine judge for the California State Fair Wine Competition and also a judge for the International Wines and Spirits Competition (IWSC)

Among his recent books are), Scotch Whisky: Its History, Production and Appreciation (2015). A new book, The Whisky Isles, is forthcoming.

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