Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin Kilchoman, perhaps not household names, but music to whiskey lovers’ ears! What do they have in common? They are mostly single malts, but there are few blended malts too. They are all scotch from a place called Islay, pronounced “eye la” in Scotland.
The Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19-year-old won best Scotch Islay single malt in the World Whiskies Awards 2020. Ardbeg has been described as the highest-quality entry-level single malt in the world. In 2019, Laphroaig won five medals at the World Spirits Competition, including a double gold for its PX Cask.
By Scottish law, no-one is permitted to label a whiskey with the name “Islay” unless it is distilled on the Isle of Islay in Argyll.
So when you buy a bottle of Islay scotch, you know the part of Scotland from which it originates. Islay is the most southerly of the Inner Hebrides islands.
What Makes Islay Scotch Different?
Islay whiskeys are characteristically associated with the odor of peat smoke, some more strongly than others. Some say they have an almost medicinal taste and talk about seaweed, iodine, and salt flavors.
They have a harsher profile than the more famous single malt whiskey brands like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet.
Although Islay scotch is revered for its smoky, peatiness, there are unpeated varieties. The majority of these comes from the Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain distilleries.
Bunnahabhain targets a richer, fruity taste profile, while Bruichladdich is creamy, more robust, and has a higher alcohol strength.
Having said this, the most heavily peated whisky ever made in modern times is Bruichladdich Octomore 6.3. It is a single malt, un-chill filtered, and made from 100% Islay barley. After the peat’s heat dissipates, red grape, cherry, bitter chocolate, and mellow oak flavors emerge.
The heavily peated whiskeys may be a bit of a shock to the throat, and some people actively dislike them but make no mistake, they are sought after by whiskey lovers.
- Read my comparison of Rum VS Whiskey to decide which drink you like more.
Islay Scotch Flavors
Rain-drenched Islay sits just off Scotland’s west coast, swept by sea breezes that do little to dry out the layers of moss and vegetation covering the island. The wet layers build up over time to create thick, black, muddy peat, which is then dried out and used for fuel.
The distilling process used by the Islay distillers does not differ much from that used by other makers of scotch.
What distinguishes the Islay whiskeys is the drying process. The malted barley is dried over the burning peat, which has a unique aroma that lends a mossy, salty, heavy smoke flavor to the mash.
Some distillers argue that the distinct water quality, full of minerals and brown tannins, is the critical flavor factor. The mild climate allows the barley to develop a rich fruitiness and the unpeated Islay scotches have strong fruity notes.
Each distillery on Islay uses various elements to create its own unmistakable taste profile. There were once 23 distilleries operating on Islay, but currently, there are only around nine.
This number is expected to grow due to the increasing popularity of Islay scotch.
- For a beginner whiskey drinker, you need to know how good whiskey should taste like.
Ardbeg Islay Scotch
Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy owns Ardbeg. It was officially founded in 1815 by John McDougall, but whisky was distilled there illegally long before.
In the past ten years, six different Ardbeg expressions have won prestigious titles, including World Whisky of the Year, Scotch Whisky of the Year, and World’s Best Single Malt.
Its makers describe Ardbeg Ten Years Old as the peatiest, smokiest, most complex single malt of all. Notes of smoked fish, crispy bacon, pineapple, and pear juice float in the nose.
The taste is smoky peat infused with lemon and lime wrapped in dark waxy chocolate. There are also hints of black pepper, tar, and dry espresso. It has been described as light on the tongue but heavy on the throat.
Ardbeg 17 years old, is a complex whiskey with tangy orange and cocoa suggestions above the peatiness, saltiness, and oaky goodness.
Ardbeg Uigeadail tastes of smoke, raisins, or cranberries and spices.
Bruichladdich Islay Scotch
This distillery was founded in 1881 and is currently owned by Rémy Cointreau. The brothers, William, John, and Robert Harvey, established it on the shore of Loch Indaal on the Rhinns of Islay. It narrowly escaped closure until 1994, when it was shut down completely.
In December 2000, it was purchased by a group of private investors who revived it at the helm of master distiller Jim McEwan. In early 2001 the distillery was dismantled and then reassembled, retaining the original Victorian décor and equipment. Most of the original Harvey machinery is still in use.
The Bruichladdich range is generally described as unpeated, floral, and complex. It is made from Scottish barley and is non-chill filtered. The whiskeys are all sold as single malts. The distillery also produces a Port Charlotte range, which is heavily peated, and Octomore, which is super-heavily peated.
Bruichladdich launched its popular Links Series in 2003. It makes The Classic Laddie an Islay single malt that varies from year to year. The distillery claims to have no interest in consistency or uniformity, so each batch of The Classic Laddie is unique.
The character of unpeated Bruichladdich whiskey is sweet, floral, and honeyed with a lemon-butter note.
Bunnahabhain Islay Scotch
Bunnahabhain, pronounced “boona-HAB-venn”, was founded near Port Askaig on Islay in 1883. However, its origins can be traced back to 1879, when William Robertson of Robertson and Baxter Blending House joined with the Greenlees Brothers to create the Islay Distillery Company. The distillery was built near the Margadale River.
In 2006, three years after being purchased by Burn Stewart Distillers, the packaging of the 12-year-old was redesigned, and the 18-year-old and 25-year-old variants were launched. Alongside the 12-year-old, they soon became part of the core range.
In 2014 Burn Stewart merged with Distell, which brought more investment in the brand and the distillery.
It is one of the milder single malt Islay whiskeys, and its taste varies greatly from other whiskeys originating from the island.
Bunnahabhain Islay 12-Year-Old single malt is an excellent sipping scotch and seems to go down well with bourbon drinkers.
The nose is sweet with hints of smoky oak together with malt and a light saltiness. It tastes of sweet sherry followed by light smoke, but it is not peaty. The long finish is sweet and spicy with a suggestion of soft honey.
Bunnahabhain Toiteach A Dha is the first peated whiskey in the core range. It is a smoky single malt with a sherry twist and is matured in both bourbon and sherry casks.
Caol-Ila Islay Scotch
Caol-Ila is pronounced “Cull Eela” and is the Gaelic name for the Islay Sound. The Sound is a stretch of water that separates Islay from the island of Jura.
Although not as famous as other brands, Caol Ila is the largest whisky producer on Islay. It was founded in 1846 near Part Askaig on Islay by Hector Henderson and was taken over in 1854 by the Isle of Jura distillery owner.
In 1863 it changed hands again when Bulloch Lade & Co of Glasgow acquired it. It is now part of Diageo plc, a British alcoholic beverage company.
The distillery was rebuilt in 1973, resulting in two different “before” and “after” spirit styles. Before reconstruction, Caol Ila was made in an older, traditional style. The whisky was fruity, oily, and full, classical old-style Islay.
The post-1973 style Caol Ila is delicately citrusy, more ashy, coastal, and flinty. Both are recognized as consistently good.
Most of it comes in blended form and is used in many other blends such as Johnny Walker Black Label, Chivas Regal, and even Jack Daniels.
Caol-Ila sells Islay Scotch as a single malt under its own name, and its whiskeys are on the lighter side compared to the others. It is generally pale with floral, peppery, and peaty notes.
The Caol Ila 12-year-old has an intense aroma of smoke and malted barley. It is fresh and light on the palate, with notes of vanilla, fruit, toffee, and robust smoke, but does not overwhelm the tastebuds.
It received two double gold, three gold, and one silver medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition from 2005 to 2010. In 2015 it won Silver Outstanding Medal Winner at the International Wine and Spirits Competition.
Caol Ila also regularly makes unpeated whiskey. Their peated whiskeys are softer on the throat than other smoky whiskies.
Kilchoman Islay Scotch
Kilchoman is a relatively young distillery. It was founded by Anthony Wills in 2005 and is Islay’s only farm distillery. It is produced entirely on-site from growing the barley to bottling.
Matured in ex-bourbon barrels and sherry casks, Kilchoman Machir Bay teases the nose with aromas of peat smoke, citrus, and vanilla. Notes of tropical fruit and a warm smokiness follow on the palate.
The Oloroso sherry cask plays into the finish, with hints of black pepper. Kilchoman has been compared to smoked American rye whiskey.
Kilchoman Loch Gorm has notes of apple fritters and peanut butter, merging into a salty pepper and spice finish. It is 92 proof and made entirely from malted barley.
Aged in 21-year-old Oloroso sherry barrels and heavily peated, it is named after Islay’s largest freshwater lake.
It is a blend of whiskeys ranging in age from nine years old to 13 years old.
The Loch Gorm smells of campfire and smoked meats and is a clear deep gold color. The finish is rounded out by black tea and roasted nut flavors.
Lagavulin Islay Scotch
Lagavulin means “the Hollow by the Mill“. It was founded officially in 1816, but evidence suggests that as far back as 1742, there was an illegal distillery on the site. Diageo plc currently owns it.
Lagavulin is in southern Islay, and its whiskeys are famous for their intense peat profile and overtones of iodine. You either love it, or you hate it, and it is not recommended for scotch novices.
Lochan Sholum, the distillery’s water source, is two hundred meters above sea level. The water flows down the hillside through the peat, giving the whiskey its distinctive taste.
Lagavulin undergoes the slowest distillation of all the Islay whiskeys. It takes around five hours for the first distillation and more than nine hours for the second.
Lagavulin has been described as a heavy dram, with a significant maltiness, hints of sherry, and fruity sweetness.
Oak and peat are strong on the palate, while the finish holds hints of vanilla and fig. It is considered by many to be among the world’s smokiest whiskeys.
The distillery uses malted barley from Port Ellen maltings, which is prepared using the Lagavulin formula. The malt is dried using hot air and peat for precisely measured periods. The whiskey matures in ex-Bourbon and sherry barrels, which sweeten it.
All the warehouses are exposed to the sea, which contributes to the flavor.
It has been described as the connoisseur’s choice when it comes to Islay scotch. The 16-year-old is in such high demand that there are often shortages. Lagavulin is a favorite of malt whiskey fans worldwide.
Expert tasters identify notes of seaweed, tar, cloves, wet dog, lemon, and fruit cake. People also say it has a strong iodine taste.
Laphroaig Islay Scotch
Laphroaig means “broad hollow by the bay“.
In 1994 Prince Charles visited Laphroaig and gave it his Royal Warrant. For this reason, the Royal Coat of Arms appears on every bottle and on the walls of the 200-year-old original building. Since then, the whiskey went from strength to strength, winning multiple awards.
This distillery’s water source is the Kilbride Stream. Legend has it that Irish monks first brought the art of whiskey distillation to Islay. The islanders learned fast, and illegal stills sprang up everywhere.
Donald and Alexander Johnston, a couple of farmers, founded the distillery in 1815 on the south coast. It stayed in the family for the next 139 years. Dugald Johnston took over the running of the distillery in 1857, assisted by his cousin Alexander Johnston.
Laphroaig continued to flourish until Dugald died in 1877. At the time, Lagavulin, the next-door neighbors, were using most of Laphroaig’s output to blend with grain whisky. This restricted Laphroaig’s own marketing efforts despite its growing reputation as a single malt.
The family decided that Lagavulin, owned by Mackie, and Co, was using too much of their fine single malt and ended their supply agreement.
Mackie and Co took Laphroaig to court and lost. Hostilities between the two distilleries continued into the early twentieth century.
In 1921 Ian Hunter took over the struggling distillery and managed to buy the land on which Laphroaig sat after many battles with Lagavulin. Hunter decided to increase the production capacity of Laphroaig after this purchase, and by 1923 the distillery’s capacity had doubled.
Hunter left the distillery to Bessie Williamson on his death in 1954. During her tenure, it continued to thrive as sales grew. In the 1960s, Bessie sold off Laphroaig to Seager Evans & Co. By the time Bessie retired in 1972, she had earned enormous respect from the next distillery manager.
Laphroaig is usually aged for a minimum of 10 years and is one of the most robust Islay whiskies. The ten-year-old has a medicinal flavor but is smoother than other highly smoky whiskies.
The Quarter Cask is stronger in alcohol than Laphroaig 10 but is a younger whisky. It is matured in smaller casks, and so the woodiness is more pronounced.
The 10-year-old is a big, smoky muscular peat on the nose. Spices, and licorice, and a large dose of salt complete the aroma. It tastes of seaweed, a hint of vanilla ice cream, and oak with strong medicinal notes.
The finish is savory, tarry, and smacks of iodine.
Ardbeg and Laphroaig are consistently two of the most highly rated Islay scotches in the world but do not underestimate Lagavulin 16-year old which won two awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
It was awarded the Best Distiller’s Single Malt of 2017 and the Double Gold Medal in 2017’s prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Arguably the best peated single malts in the world come from Islay, but heavily peated whiskeys are not to everyone’s taste. Those wanting to try unpeated Islay scotch are directed to Caol Ila, Bruichladdich, and Bunnahabhain.
The older the whiskey, the harder it is on the pocket, but the Islay distilleries’ offerings are generally reasonably priced and accessible to most whiskey lovers.