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Sipping Tour through Scotland - Islay

19-06-2017 By Whisky of the Week

It is the last leg of our amazing journey. We have traveled the length and breadth of Scotland, sipping on drams as we go. We enjoyed each whisky region for its unique characteristics and tasted a broad variety of whisky. We visited historic places, met remarkable people and ate tasty Scottish food. From train windows, we saw the distinctive Scottish landscape flash past in hues of purple and green. We went from mainland to island and back. We saw the rugged coastline and the desolate peat bogs, the hills and the valleys where the water flows. And now we are on our way to the last Scottish region, Islay, the island with its own unique style that is spoken of in revered tones.

Isle of Islay, image credit: Bunnahabhain

Islay lies just south west of Jura, around 40 km north of the Irish coast. The journey from Campbeltown takes about 4 hours, but we stop along the way to admire the views. Onto the ferry at Kennacraig and onwards to Port Asking. Islay is pronounced 'Eye-la' and whisky from the region is recognized the world over to be the smokiest and most peaty of all the single malt whiskies.

In most of the Islay whisky you taste the sea. The storms, the rugged coast, sea salt, seaweed strewn over the windswept beach, the earthy notes of the peat, all impact on the taste of whisky produced in this region. Many of the drams from this region also have a medicinal character with TCP, iodine and carbolic notes with hints of linseed.

Islay Sea Shore, image credit: Bunnahabhain

Eight distilleries call Islay home, with a ninth being built. The distilleries along the southeastern coast of the island, have a smoky character derived from the peat. They include Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. Similarly, Caol Ila across from the Island of Jura on the northern side of Islay produces heavily peated whisky. Bowmore has a medium peat level. Kilchoman is fairly new, having started production around 2005. Bunnahabhain makes lighter whisky with very little peat and Bruichladdich has limited peat in the Bruichladdich expressions but heavy peat in the Octomore releases.

Bowmore Distillery, image credit: Bowmore

The peat flavour is imparted during the barley malting process; burning peat produces the smoke used to dry out the barley.

There is plentiful evidence of prehistoric settlement on Islay. The earliest settlers were nomadic hunter-gatherers who first arrived during the Mesolithic period after the retreat of the Pleistocene ice caps.

Islay has evidence of a huge Iron Age fort that occupied a prominent crag and it must have had impressive views of the surrounding landscape. There is a ruin of a broch at Dùn Bhoraraic and the remains of numerous roundhouses.

For a bit of history, we take a detour and visit the roofless church at Kildalton with its ancient cross and mediaeval graves. The cross features an iconic image of the Virgin and Child and is considered one of the finest surviving Celtic crosses in Scotland.

Church at Kildalton, image credit: walkhighlands.co.uk

Today, Islay has over 3 000 inhabitants, mainly centered round the villages of Bowmore and Port Ellen. Islay is home to many bird species such as the wintering populations of Greenland white-fronted and barnacle goose. The landscape and scenery changes dramatically as we journey round the island from the long sand shores of Machir Bay to the rugged cliffs of Oa. Islay has plenty of impressive views and walks.

Cliffs of Oa, image credit: Charlie Leventon (Summitsup)

On our whisky journey, we start at Bunnahabhain. The name Bunnahabhain originated from the Gaelic for ‘mouth of the river’. Founded in 1881 by the brothers Greenless and William Robertson, today Bunnahabhain is owned by Distell. It sits in a large bay to the North East of Islay, drawing its water from the Margadale Spring. Bunnahabhain is one of the milder whiskies available on Islay and the taste varies greatly from other drams to be found on the island. The standard range consists of a 12-, 18-, 25-, and a 40 Year Old release as well as the Ceòbanach, Eirigh Na Greine, and Toiteach releases.

Core range of Bunnahabhain whisky, image credit: Bunnahabhain

Although Bunnahabhain has little to no peat, but it is by no means sedate. We have the opportunity to try the 18 Year Old and it is superb! It has bold rich notes of salted caramel, sticky toffee pudding, luxurious sherry notes balanced with a coastal saltiness. There are roasted chestnuts and gentle toasted wood spice. Big, rich and rewarding, this is probably one of my favourite drams on this whole sipping tour.

After a wonderful time in the Bunnahhabhain tasting room it is time to move on. Next up is the new distillery of Kilchoman situated not far from Machir Bay on Islay’s West Coast.

Kilchoman Distillery, image credit: maltreview.com

The Kilchoman distillery was founded in 2005 and the first new distillery to be built on Islay in 124 years. Kilchoman distillery is the brainchild of Anthony Wills, who wanted to create a small-scale, traditional distillery. He found Mark and Rohaise French of the Rochside Farm, who were focusing on using local produces and a traditional distillery fitted their philosophy. And so Kilchoman was born.

The farm is entirely self-contained; barley is grown and malted at the distillery, maturation and bottling take place onsite. Kilchoman is a proper farm distillery. The core range include the Machir Bay, the 100% Islay, Loch Gorm and vintages aged in a variety of casks such as Madeira and Port.

For the tasting, we try the Sanaig, also part of the core range. Sanaig is named after a small rocky creek, just North West of the distillery. This whisky was matured in both Oloroso Sherry Hogsheads and Ex Bourbon Casks.

Kilchoman Sanaig, image credit: maltreview.com

It is a No Age Statement (NAS) release with peaty notes balanced with peaches, grapes, pineapple and dark chocolate-covered raisins. Look out for spicy pepper notes balanced with salted toffee, vanilla and dark roasted coffee beans.

We are saving the best for last and ending this trip on a high note with a visit to the Lagavulin distillery. Situated at the picture pretty Lagavulin Bay on the south coast of the island, this world famous distillery personifies all the flavours of this Scottish island with its rich fruit and smooth smoke, complemented by a good dose of Islay peat and crisp sea salt. John Johnston founded the Lagavulin distillery in 1816. Today Lagavulin is part of the Diageo stable and one of the ‘Classic Malts of Scotland’ (along with Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie, Oban and Talisker).

Lagavulin Distillery, image credit: scottishfields.co.uk

Lagavulin celebrated their 200th anniversary in 2016, producing a number of limited edition bottlings. Today we taste the dram they are the most famous for and one of the most-loved peaty whiskies in the world: the Lagavulin 16 Year Old. The distillery tour takes us past the unusual pear-shaped stills.

Lagavulin is known for slow distillation and long maturation that allows the complex, rich, peaty character to develop, and what a special character! This is truly the highlight of the trip. Notes of smoke, peat, creamy oak iodine, thick rich malt balance with sherry fruitiness and spicy vanilla sweetness. Bursting with figs and ripe dates, this is the quintessential Islay dram and a perfect ending to a wonderful trip around this amazing part of the world.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old, image credit: caskers.com


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