Spirit Guide—Smoke on the Water
Islay is the whisky drinker’s road not taken.
No one—not even Robbie Burns—is born with a taste for Scotch. It’s a journey, one that starts with something accessible: a mass-market blended scotch like Johnnie Walker Red or the Famous Grouse. And then you move on up the line, where after many years of challenging and refining your palate you end up with your signature malt, perhaps an elegant Speyside (like The Macallan) or even Orkney (Highland Park) both of which have been described as “perfect” malts.
But some drinkers never get there. They make a left turn early on and it takes them to the Inner Hebridean Island of Islay, and, enchanted by its unique style of whisky, they never leave. That this windswept rock, a third the size of Maui with half the population of Revelstoke, has eight active distilleries is nothing short of a miracle. The dominant, though not universal, trait of Islay whiskies is their lingering smokiness, which comes as a result of using peat during the malting process. And by “using peat,” I mean burning what we North Americans would commonly think of as earth—an adaptation to a topography that’s bereft of what we North Americans would call trees.
The result is evident even before the spirit hits your palate. It’s a primordial mix of fire, grain, salt water and heaven that either immediately seduces you into its smokey saline charms or has you running for the exits. There is perhaps no more classic example of this than Laphroaig (LA-froyg), the most iconic of all the Islay malts. In its classic 10-year-old incarnation ($85 in B.C. and Saskatchewan, from $45 in Alberta), it’s also the greatest deal in all of whiskydom (and the choice of Prince Charles when he takes dram). The limited-edition (1) Cairdeas is on offer right now and at $100 it’s likewise a steal—I’ve seen it from £130 in the U.K.—and it’s a beautiful whisky: light golden colour, layers of warm smoke like the campfires of your youth.
Just up the way from Laphroaig (everything is just up the way here) stand two other giants, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. If Laphroaig is a classic old-school Porsche 911 then the (2) Lagavulin 16 ($125) is a Bentley Continental—rich, luxurious, a tad less challenging in the corners but supremely capable. Ardbeg, was resurrected in the mid 1990s, by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, but despite its chi-chi pedigree, its standard(3) 10-year-old iteration ($95) is among the most challenging malts and really pushes the envelope on the peat scale. It’s wonderfully bold.
And the other Islay malts are also great. There’s the re-incarnated Bruichladdich (BROOK-laddie), reborn a few years back by a consortium that includes master distiller Jim McEwen (but now owned by Remy Cointreau), with an excellent and lightly peated Laddie 10 ($70) is worth a taste. The awesomely named Caol Ila (Cowl EE-la), whose malt has long been the backbone of Johnnie Walker Black but whose own 12-year-old ($80) is wonderful. And then there’s workhorse Bowmore, the supremely odd Bunnahabhain or the tough to source Kilchoman. Everyone of them has their staunch defenders because sometimes there’s nothing better than when the detour becomes the destination. wl