Wild at heart
Scotland's whisky-making islands
Quirky, remote and utterly individual, for many whisky lovers the islands off Scotland’s west coast capture all that is great about scotch. Whisky expert Dave Broom guides us through the people, the places and the distilleries at the heart of one of the most beautiful drinks regions in the world
Every island on Scotland’s west coast once made whisky. These days the art is restricted to just a few. The commonly held belief that island = peat has also resulted in these single malts being seen as interchangeable. However, just as each island has its own personality, so all of these malts vary widely in character.
As a typical Glaswegian child, my first experience of Scotland’s islands were as summer holiday destinations. Every year we’d head ‘doon the watter’ by ferry. My dad would always take me to look at the engines. Only years later did I realise that this sudden interest in things mechanical might have had more to do with the fact that the greased-up pistons were next to the bar. We headed to Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae mostly, but on occasion would head to what is the first of our whisky islands, Arran.
All mountains and moors, Arran seems to have been beamed down into the Firth of Clyde, a rugged Highland intrusion in the Lowland tedium. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. The Highland Boundary Fault line runs straight through Arran, meaning the north part is made up of tough metamorphic rocks, against the sandstone of the south.
On Arran you can play golf on gentle grassy links, or climb the steep granite ridge of Goat Fell, making it a perfect tourist destination. All it needed to conform fully to the ‘Scotland in Miniature’ cliché was a distillery. In the 18th and early 19th centuries there were plenty of them. Trouble was, they were all illegal. The last licit still closed in 1837 and the locals had to wait 158 years for a new one to appear.
Many have been seduced by the idea of owning a distillery, then reality sets in. Wait three years before you can call it whisky, five years before it’s lost its new-make character, 12 years before the single malt market begins to take you seriously. You must have either very deep pockets or a very understanding bank manager.
Arran has toughed it out. It helped that the spirit was good from the word go, and now, 14 years on, it’s hitting its stride. Lightly citric with a hint of maltiness, it has great balance and versatility: decent Old Fashioned material. There are some peated trials underway.
As whisky destinations go, Islay remains the Big One. Eight distilleries plus one maltings make it some kind of paradise for the dedicated malt nut.
Islay may not have the spectacle of Skye or the wildness of Jura but it has variety: you can walk the 12 miles of the Big Strand, commune with seals at Kildalton, find caves on the trackless north coast, eat fresh oysters at Loch Gruinart, surf in Atlantic rollers at Machir Bay. Islay works not just because it has this variety, but a coherence as a community.
Whisky is part of the culture and is here, quite literally, in spades. ‘What’s that called in Gaelic?’ I once asked an Ileach (person from Islay), pointing at the spade he was using to cut peat. ‘Spad Mor,’ he replied. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘A big spade.’ We were talking about peat because Islay’s whiskies are defined by their use of this fragrant fuel, whose phenolic lift has scented them for centuries. Why peat? There’s no coal on the island, hardly any trees and no oil rigs off the coast, so if you needed to dry your malted barley in the old days, peat was what you used and your whiskies were smoky as a result.
It’s worth remembering that the most important word in ‘single malt whisky’ is ‘single’. This is a drink that’s about individuality, singularity. Island whiskies can be bundled together, but in reality they are individuals each with their own personality, character… and use.
There are two distilleries on the remote east coast. Bunnahabhain, the most northerly, makes a medium-bodied, unsmoked style. Ex-sherry casks are important here, giving good weight to the malt.
Its nearest neighbour is Caol Ila, regarded as medium-peated. Peating levels (aka ppm) refer to the malt leaving the maltings, not the level of peatiness in the final spirit. Caol Ila’s set-up produces a smoky malt, with juniper, grass and a defining hit of smoky bacon. It also makes an unpeated style: all fresh green melon and grape.
The west of the island is equally varied. Bowmore’s distillery malts some of its own barley, using it in a medium-smoked malt that has floral touches, a hint of saltiness and chocolate orange. Across Loch Indaal is Bruichladdich, whose standard style has long been unpeated, fresh and light, now joined by the peaty ‘Port Charlotte’ variation and the smoked-to-the-max ‘Octomore’, not to mention a multiplicity of wine-cask-finished bottlings.
The west coast is also home to Kilchoman, Islay’s newest distillery, three years old this year. Peaty, sweet and clean, its malt is definitely one to watch.
The smokiest Islays come from the rocky coves of the south coast, past Port Ellen on the road to Kildalton. They are all heavily peated, but each exhibits a different aspect of smokiness: Laphroaig is tarry, with a touch of iodine, some malty dryness and a hint of vanilla on the palate; neighbour Lagavulin is bigger and bolder, with pipe tobacco, lapsang souchong, dried seaweed, beach barbecues, a touch of brine and an underlying sweetness. The furthest along the road is Ardbeg, all sooty smoke, grapefruit, lime, brine and bog myrtle oiliness. Islay is rugged, yet it is also gentle. Its whiskies reflect that.
If ever there was an island that should make a wild whisky it’s Jura. The ferry that carries you there from Islay has to cope with the fast-running tides meaning you often set sail for Mull and pray the tide will bring you in to Jura’s landing strip. Then it’s a matter of avoiding cows and sheep and deer on the island’s only road that goes halfway up one side of the island to its one village, with its one pub (great venison by the way) and distillery.
There are fewer than 200 souls living on Jura and that requires a very specific personality: happy on their own but also able to cope with the close attentions of a small community.
Those who revel in remoteness can climb the quartzite domes of the Paps, explore the caves on the raised beaches of the west or wander through the seemingly enchanted garden at Jura House.
And Jura’s whisky? The distillery was built in the early 1960s and has always made a light style that has a dry, bracken-like character. In recent years, peated malt has been used as well – it appears as part of the Superstition vatting.
Some people, most notably that great chronicler of islands Hamish Haswell-Smith, no longer count Skye as an island since the road bridge opened, but that’s a tad pedantic methinks. Skye is clearly not of the mainland, but a place apart. Indeed, sailing remains the best way to get there, not out of some tartan-hued nostalgia, but because it is the best way to appreciate the island’s multiplicities.
Its coastline is 365 miles long, indented and folded back on itself, dotted with isolated moorings like Loch Scavaig, where the bulwarks of the Cuillin hills embrace you then send down fearsome gusts of wind – williwaws – from the heights.
Like Islay, it is slathered in peat, which has given its sole malt, Talisker, part of its defining character. Some call it ‘the lava of the Cuillins’, which is poetic but misses something essential about Talisker.
Yes, Talisker has smoke, it has saltiness, it has a heathery dryness, but its five stills also add an underlying soft sweetness. Its oiliness clings to the middle of the tongue as if reluctant to let go, then releases into pepper and peatiness once more.
From the west coast of Skye on a clear day, the low blue humps of the Outer Hebrides nudge the horizon. This now is scotch’s furthest outpost after the opening this year of Red River distillery on the west coast of Lewis (next stop Newfoundland). There are also plans for a distillery on Barra, which seems likely to be in place within the year. Is a new wave of island whiskies starting?www.visitscotland.com/autumn
Dave’s top half-dozen island malts
This was tough (and maybe even unfair), but here goes. The whiskies below will give your selection a spread of flavours and also potential usages.
Ardbeg Renaissance There seems to be a new Ardbeg bottling every month, but this 10yo statement of intent by new(ish) owner Glenmorangie shows that its Ardbeg is suitably sooty but with added fennel, cassia and cream.Moët Hennessy UK, 020 7235 9411
Arran 12yo Island whiskies aren’t all about big smoke. This citric, yet crisp little number from Arran is refreshing and versatile.Malcolm Cowen, 020 8965 1937
Bunnahabhain 12yo My first Islay distillery and still one of my favourites. Again, no peat, but rich gingerbread notes. Has some heft.Burn Stewart Distillers, 01355 260999
Caol Ila Anybody’s bottling will do. CI is the Mr Consistency of single malts. That oiliness makes it great with food as well.Diageo, 0845 751 5101
Lagavulin 16yo Islay fans fight long into the night as to which is the top dog on an island with more of them than Crufts. For me, though, Lagavulin 16yo wins for complexity every time.Diageo, 0845 751 5101
Talisker 18yo The first malt that woke me up to whisky. The 10yo is a belter, but the 18yo has an extra layer of sweetness. Elegant, but still with a growl.Diageo, 0845 751 5101
COCKTAILS Mixing, island-style
Scotch whisky has a bad rep when it comes to making mixed drinks, yet the often smoky subtleties of island whiskies make them a fascinating option for some creative play. It could be as simple as a long, smoky whisky-soda (smoky drams can hold up to serious dilution), or as elegant as the recipes below.
First up The Frisco from Philip Duff of Door 74, Amsterdam, who says: ‘A deliciously smoky whisky in a mixed drink balances fruit beautifully and reminds the guest that they are grown-ups, drinking a real spirit, and one packed with passion, rebellion, history and truth to boot.’ Couldn’t agree more Phil!
Next the Juniper Smoke from Scott Gemmill of Glasgow, who says: ‘Your smoky, peaty malts tend to work better as a light seasoning, not unlike bitters. Accordingly, here is a cheeky wee number that could work.’ We like the Glaswegian chib for a garnish Scott!
- 1 shot Benedictine
- ¾ shot freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 shot The Big Smoke single malt (or Compass Box Peat Monster or... hey, you get the idea)
Garnish: Grated flamed nutmeg
Method: Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain.
- 60ml gin (Boudier Saffron or Old Raj)
- 5-10ml dry French vermouth
- 5-10ml sweet Italian vermouth
- Dash of orange bitters to taste
Garnish: steel sword, two black olives
Method: Use 5-10ml of Bowmore 12yo or 15yo to rinse the glass. Stir rapidly with cubed ice in Boston glass for 15-20 seconds, stir and strain into a chilled Martini glass. Flamed grapefruit twist on top (discard twist).
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine - November / December 2009