By Manos Angelakis
Drams of Islay
Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Its main industry is malt whisky distilling - there are nine active distilleries on the island. The newest distillery is Kilchoman, the first to be built in 125 years.
The characteristic that makes the Islay-created whisky so desirable and different from the product of both the highlands and the lowlands is the smoky, peaty aroma and fruity taste.
One of the oldest distilleries is Laphroaig. It is named after Loch Laphroaig, on the southern coast. The distillery was established in 1815, by Alexander and Donald Johnston but rumor has it that the brothers actually built it around 1810 when they started farming in the area.
Laphroaig has been the only whisky to carry the Royal Warrant of the Prince of Wales (the 15-year-old was reportedly his favorite single malt), which was awarded in person during a visit in 1994.
Laphroaig is one of the strongest smoke-flavored of all scotch whiskies, and the standard expression is aged for 10 years; an 18-year-old expression has replaced the 15-year old that was commonly available as an upscale version, and had received the Royal Warrant. A 30 year old expression has also become available, and though rather rare, it is a real treat for any whisky aficionado. In 2004, the Laphroaig Quarter Cask was introduced. By using smaller butts, the Quarter Cask Single Malt is supposed to taste like the type of whisky that was distilled – illicitly -- 200 years ago by the original Johnston Brothers. The Quarter Cask is also bottled at 96 proof; 20% stronger than a standard whiskey (the accepted standard for whisky is 80 proof).
This Scotch is sweet, creamy, and spicy with some meaty notes on the palate. Toffee, vanilla, a hint of melon and dried apricots are weighted by smoke on the nose. Both taste and aromas soften up and grow more complex with a small splash of water. The 18-years-old is considerably smoother than the 10-years-old almost tasting like Lapsang Souchong tea on the attack, showing licorice, dry fruits and pipe tobacco in the background; surprisingly complex for a peat monster.
Lagavulin is another upscale Scotch producer, neighboring Laphroaig. The soft sweetness and velvety feel were evident when we first tasted Lagavulin; then the intense peatiness and the warming smokiness came bursting through.
The Lagavulin showed lots of leather and smoke with some subtle fruits in the background. A whiff of petrol reminded us of a well aged Riesling. More fruit and spices show earlier-on than Laphroaig. Lagavulin is slightly sweeter, growing smokier in the center. A hint of licorice and a little bit of tar is an echo of Laphroaig. It starts out pretty smooth on the palate, growing drier in the finish. There is beautiful balance between peat and smoke.
Morrison Bowmore is another Islay producer. It claims to be an older distillery than either Lagavulin or Laphroaig having been established in 1779. The company is owned by Suntory of Japan. Bowmore also owns the Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch distilleries on Scotland’s mainland.
We received samples of two Islay expressions; the Small Batch – a light gold colored single malt that is 80 proof, and the 15-Years old “Darkest” that is darker (amber colored) and is 86 proof. Both are a little less peaty than either Lagavulin or Laphroaig but they are unmistakable Islay whiskies. Numerous other expressions are created at the distillery as well, but the two below are the ones we tasted.
The Small Batch has light aromas of peaty smoke, honey, cinnamon, citrus and a hint of sea air. It is velvety on the palate with a memorable long and slightly spicy finish with vanilla, lingering citrus notes and a touch of sea salt. It’s not very complex, but one wouldn’t expect that from what is professed to be an entry level whisky.
15-Years old “Darkest” is named for the color allegedly developed by a vatting of bourbon and sherry casks followed by three more years in strictly Oloroso sherry casks. It is priced an average of $70. On the nose it shows deep aromas of nutmeg and sherry with dark toffee and chocolate notes accented by leather and dried orange peel notes. On the finish I tasted dark wood, tar and spice with a smoky peatiness.
Speaking about it with other researchers, I was informed that the darker color is created by sometimes adding caramel coloring to the blend after it has been chill filtered. When I inquired, following is the answer I received from Manuela Savona, the importer’s PR agency: “Aging in wood imparts many different elements to our whisky, including taste profile and color. In order for us to ensure that Bowmore 15YO Darkest remains consistent for those who enjoy the product in a glass, we sometimes add a small amount of spirit caramel at trace level only, which does NOT impact the liquid's taste profile. This is a common industry practice.” I did not experience a real difference after I had three tastes of the Darkest, one from the sample sent; one purchased about 10 months ago by my nephew-in-law who resides in Dallas; and one bottle I purchased in Manhattan, after I tasted the other two. Having said that… caveat emptor!
The final sample of an Islay whisky I recently tasted and liked was the Machir Bay from Kilchoman. It is the distillery's core expression and was first launched in 2012.
I consider this as an entry level expression and it reportedly accounts for 75% of their sales. It is blond in color and comes in a rather squat bottle. On the upper left hand corner of the blue label there is a bottling date (my sample was 2014). On the back label are indications of color, nose, palate and finish; but below are my own observations.
The Machir Bay 2014 is a vatting of 5 and 6 year old bourbon barrels and Oloroso sherry butts, bottled at 46% ABV (92 proof). It did smell almost as peaty as the Laphroaig and the Lagavulin, but is fruiter and sweeter than either one, with a surprising hint of vanilla aroma and ocean saltiness on the long finish. The palate is completely clean with chocolate and citrus on the attack and then the addition of a little oak and a little sea brine.
Actually, to be honest, any time the men in kilts want to pour me a dram of any of these whiskies, they are most welcome.
© November 2014 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.