There are so many good whiskies available to us, that it can be difficult to choose where to start. Islay whiskies are super popular, and are an absolute treat after a long day’s work. They are the marmite of whiskies, love it or hate it. I have yet to meet someone who is indifferent about the strong character of these whiskies.
What is an Islay whisky
An Islay whisky is a whisky that is distilled at the Isle of Islay in Scotland. If you have every tasted or even smelled a typical Islay whisky, you will know that these whiskies are characterized by their heavily peated nose and palate. It really is the marmite of the whisky, you will love it or hate it. For me, peated whisky is something I had to try a couple of times before falling in love.
There are 8 distilleries that produce whisky on the Isle of Islay.
- Caol Ila
With anything that is as subjective as taste, it is impossible to create a list of the best whiskies and accurately rank them. Therefore, I have composed this list of affordable, available and typical Islay whiskies that many people love. If you have yet to try an Islay whisy (be prepared, they are smoky) you can buy all whiskeys on this list and get a great first experience with an Islay whisky.
1. Laphroaig 10 Year Old
Nose: The first time you will smell this whisky you will be blown away by a heavy, strong peat note. There also is a lot of salt, and you can already smell some of the maritime notes that are prominent in this whisky. I remember first smelling Laphroaig 10 Year Old, and it really is quite something.
Palate: This whisky has a strong taste, where the peat will dominate. The smoky taste will remain for a while, even after a small sip. When you keep the whisky in your mouth for a brief moment, the taste will start to open up and you will be able to taste vanilla, nuts, but also seaweed and iodine. The peat in this whisky can be described as slightly medicinal and you may find some notes from the first aid box.
Finish: In the finish of this whisky the iodine peat dominates as the savory, tarry notes slowly build up.
2. Ardbeg 10 Year Old
Nose: This Islay whisky smells young and fresh with some prominent fruit and citrus notes. Of course there is the vibrant and intense peat that will immediately grasp your attention as there is no way around it. All this comes together with complex vanilla notes.
Palate: A sweet and fruity, though heavily peated whisky. The Ardbeg smoke is phenomenal and is something that many whisky lovers have enjoyed for many years. Sweet vanilla notes are present, as well as lemon and lime aromas. The whisky has as complex flavor, that is created by letting the liquor age for a decade before bottling. If you have never tasted Ardbeg 10 Year Old, make sure you try it the next time you get the chance.
Finish: The finish can be described as long and glorious. If you are looking for a whiskey which represents the coastal air, this might be the one for you. It really has the sea salted caramel together with bonfire smoke in the finish.
3. Lagavulin 16 Year Old
Nose: The Lagavulin 16 Year Old is one of the most intense, heavily peated whiskies of the Isle of Islay. There is a rich smoky note that smells more like wood smoke than like the medicinal iodine smoke that is prominent in the Laphroaig 10. This is a heavily sought after whisky. There is a noticeably note of dried fruit aroma in the whisky, as well as sweet spices. You can also notice the influence of the Sherry casks. There is a slight marine note, but I find this is not as noticeable as in other whiskies.
Palate: Tasting Lagavulin 16 Year Old is quite a mouthful. Center stage will be taken by wonderful big and powerful peat notes together with the oak influence of the cask. The oak is there because the whisky has been aged 16 years, and therefore has had a good change to influence the taste of the whisky. The taste can be a little sharp, with the taste of white pepper spices.
Finish: Just like most heavily peated whiskies, this whisky has a long finish. The smokey flavor will last, and will be accompanied with digs, vanilla and again the sweet spices that were also in the nose. There will be some warm, chili notes in the finish. Some heat. Overall a very good and popular whisky.
4. Caol Ila 12 Year Old
Nose: First impressions will be fresh and herbal. There will be slight peppermint notes, and you can look for damp grass notes as well. Of course there is the recognizable Caol Ila peat smoke, with just a hint or harbor, maritime notes. There is some moss/leaf fire wood smoke notes. The smoke is very different from the smoky notes in Laphroaig or Lagavulin. Look for the spicy white pepper that is definitely present in Caol Ila 12.
Palate: The taste is intense, but not as nippy as other whiskeys. There are various oily aromas, as well as some citrus, sour and even some tar. All these aromas are carried by the elegant but present peat smoke. The peat smoke has a lot from surface vegetation fires. The real distinct burning of little bushes on warm days. There are also some maritime notes in there, with some salt. The salt is not intense.
Finish: The whisky has a long and warm finish. There are some hot spicy notes in the palate as well as in the finish. Of course there is the peated smoke that will stay with you for a while and prolongs the finish. There is a touch of vanilla as well of complex citrus notes.
5. Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old
Nose: Right of the bat there is a soft, delicate texture on the nose. There are fresh, sweet notes as well as some chocolate notes that you may be able to smell. This is a whisky from the Isle of Islay which you will be able to smell by the characteristic smokey peated smell, but this is only a lightly peated whisky compared to other Islay drams. There are some maritime, sea salt, coastal notes.
Palate: The flavor of this whisky is supple, dry. There is a rich, creamy spirit flavor. There are some sherry and nutty influences. You can really taste the influence of being aged in former sherry casks. There are sweet caramel, cinnamon, sultana notes. It is a rich and complex taste that is phenomenal for a 12 year old, entry level single malt whisky. You will also be able to taste the brine, maritime notes on the palate.
Finish: The finish of this Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old is shorter compared to the other whiskies in this list. There are sherried, mochaccino notes in the finish, as well as some herbal tastes. The finish is relatively simple.
6. Kilchoman Machir Bay
Nose: After allowing this whiskey to breathe a little and open up, you will be able to find citrus notes hidden behind the Lagavulin-like peat smoke. There are some Bourbon notes that result from the pre-used Bourbon casks. While this whisky is young, it has a very interesting nose.
Palate: First of all you will find the peat smoke coming through. It is not overwhelming, as you will soon find a lot of fruits and dried raisin on the palate. There is a fruitiness with grapes and berries. The warming smoke together with a soft brine/maritime notes will continue to give. The smoke is not medicinal, iodine smoke. It can be better described as campfire smoke.
Finish: The finish of the whisky has a lot of sherried fruit as well as a black pepper spiciness. In this whisky, there is not a lot of complexity going on. It is a very young whisky, but really enjoyable.
7. Bowmore 12 Year Old
Nose: The nose can come in rather nippy, but you will soon find the Islay peat smoke in there. There is some honey, barley sugar and sweet lemon slices. I struggle to find a lo in the nose of this whisky. The smokyness is rather ashy, which is distinguishable in the Bowmore smoke.
Palate: The taste of this whiskey is a bit sharp and sour. There is some sweet honey, vanilla, perfumed smoke and some coastal/maritime aromas. The flavor also has an oily sweetness to it.
Finish: The Bowmore 12 Year Old has a long and smoky finish. The coastal air, together with the ashy smoke and citrus notes compose the finish of the whisky.