"Cozy" -- the word is Scottish in origin. This makes so much sense. Scotch is the invernal spirit: the cable-knit sweater to, say, tequila’s linen blouse. And among them, none are sturdier, burlier, cozier -- none better rampart against the dark weeks -- than the single malts of Islay.
But like I said, total reduction. There’s an absolute family resemblance among the various offerings of the eight (nearly nine) distilleries on Islay, but it’s the Addams Family. The island is something of an asylum, maybe, a loose confederation of misfit-freak distilleries, a drummer for every possible march. Me? I love Islay madly, perhaps most -- more than any other particular spirit-producing region in the world. I could write about it failingly forever, it’s just that complex, that defiant of explanation. I can’t sum it up. I don’t believe there’s an Islay 101, so I’ll content myself by laboriously dissecting it. Here are but three notes from the symphony.
Ardbeg ‘Airigh Nam Beist’ 1990 16yo
Ardbeg’s something of a phoenix. After 165 years of operation, the distillery was mothballed in 1981 and remained more-or-less a memory until it was resurrected (by acquisition) in 1997. In the years since… well, Ardbeg’s like that kid in high school who’s shouldered his way to something approaching popularity, some amalgam of respect and influence and deferential acknowledgment, through an earnest and maybe shameless hyperactivity. Ardbeg loves expressing itself, and with a minimal effort you can easily put your hands on over maybe nearly two dozen of its bottling. There are single cask expressions, pre-closure vintages from the 1970s, special honorarium releases and all manner of whiskies that are under-aged, over-proofed, and finished in a miscellany of casks. The flair for drama permeates the marketing, from the curious, unwieldy or bombastic names given to various bottlings (the “Almost There,” the “Arbeggeddon”) to whisky-inspired video games on their website. "Settle down," you think, but never say -- you wouldn’t want to stifle.
Yet they manage all this without forfeiting a consistent, essential Ardbeg-ness. It’s that Islay thing, the peculiar genius. And genius seems fair, Ardbeg inspires fervor and loyality; its whiskies win awards. In recent years that’s been especially true of Uigeadail (OOG-a-del), which is, and I mean this lovingly, the world’s finest luxury Molotov cocktail: an unapologetic, writ-large expression of Islay peat smoke and spirit fire.
It’s the Airigh Nam Beist (ar-rig-nam-beisht, we’re going to do this a lot while we’re here) that I prefer. Yeah, let me backpedal a little. I maintain that there’s not an Islay 101, but if there were, the Airigh Nam Beist could be the syllabus in a glass. The name means “Shelter of Beast” but don’t fixate on the last word, it’s maybe half as roaring and monstrous as the Uigeadail. What it is instead is a balanced and complex expression of all the major Islay players. A grassy smokiness develops on the nose, and everything goes rushing, oily and warm when held in the mouth. And hold it, really. It’ll love you back in return, constantly unfurling itself in new dimensions: dry florals, astringent chemicals, brack, spices.
But experimentation is the rival of constancy. True to its nature, Ardbeg replaced the Airigh Nam Beist this year with a new, hotter, cask-strength bottling: the Corryvreckan. By all accounts, it’s another successful experiment, declared (among other acclaims) the year’s Best Single Malt at the World Whisky Awards. With each emptied bottle, the Beist dissipates as if into an Islay fog, becoming a memory. If it was as I believe unappreciated in its time, that’s alright -- so begins many a legend. We need those too.
Bruichladdich 16yo ‘Bourbon Cask’
Bruichladdich (brook-LAD-dik, or brook-LAD-die, giving rise to the popular endearment “the Laddie”), may be the other side of Ardbeg’s coin. They share a story of resurrection -- Bruichladdich in 2000, to much fanfare -- and a similar experimental hyperactivity. If so, then Bruichladdich would be the good twin, or at least the light to Ardbeg’s dark. It sits on the north half of the island, home of generally mellower and less peaty whiskies, and most of the Laddie’s many, many offerings adhere to the style. It’s, I don’t know, crunchier, too. Less mad scientist, more Walden II hippie. Where Ardbeg will brand its special offerings with “Lord of the Isles” and, yes, “Airigh Nam Beist,” Bruichladdich turns out multi-vintage bottles with names like “Rocks” and “Waves.” Altogether a happier outlook.
Where the Laddie excels, appropriately, is in its use of wood, relentlessly toying with various casks and finishes. Many of these rely in some stage or other on charred American oak casks used for aging bourbon (true of most single malts now), but often in strange combinations -- say, for instance, finished in Chateau-specific Bordeaux wine casks. The 16yo ‘Bourbon Cask’ isn’t a straight up affair: it spends most of its maturation in barrels used to age Jim Beam, but receives a quick finishing in old Buffalo Trace casks. I won’t pretend I can taste the character of the latter -- beloved by me -- in the Bruichladdich, but there’s definitely a deeper connection here to its American cousins than is present in most Scotch whiskies. It’s a warm-but-not-hot Bourbon-ness, honeyed vanilla creme dancing nicely under subdued Islay music of peat smoke and salt. Or the other way around. In any event, a whisky exchange student, affecting an accent, wearing the local clothes, happy for the moment to be away from home.
Lagavulin (last one, really: la-ga-VOO-lin) comes seemingly from a different Islay entirely, one of obsessive focus rather than compulsive creativity. There is no madcap here, note the lack of quotation marks in the boldprint. Lagavulin produces a scant three bottlings, and mostly just this one. The other two are special releases: an occasional Distiller’s Edition and a limited, annually released 12-year-old. There’s no magical resurrection or savvy marketing either: legally or otherwise, stills at Lagavulin has been producing whisky since the year Thomas Jefferson was born. That’s what it does still, produce whisky; really a whisky, singular.
Singular, indeed. This is one of the most distinctive spirits -- perhaps liquids -- in the world. There are few people, I think, who have ever tasted or even smelled the Lagavulin 16 who wouldn’t then recognize it later; those few should not be depleting the stock for the rest of us. It is special in a way that words fail, special in its intensity and complexity. The first exposure is such a barrage, such a coordinated onslaught that you’d be inclined to think of it as unpleasant. In fact, there’s no way to describe its component parts using a pleasant vocabulary: it smells like diesel fuel, and fresh tar, like half-imagined medicine show elixirs. It tastes like nothing so much as a recently fired gun, warm metallic smoke and oil.
Lagavulin is perhaps the archetype of the acquired taste: the immediate neurological response is a twinging rejection to the violence and intricacy of its counterattack. It's simply too hard, the brain tells you. But in a while you desensitize to the brutality, and the mystery that remains is an eternal cycle of challenge and reward. As a metaphor, it's a whisky for people who like the weekly ramp of New York Times crossword puzzles. If you think “Who has the time? I’ll just play some Sudoku,” then it’s probably not for you.
As an experience, it's something else. Poignantly beautiful, cleansing, a profound statement of the connection between man’s industry and nature. Like watching a ship fire from shore. Divisive, sure. But this is my favorite whisky in the whole world, the center of my shrine, my death-row or death-bed bottle. Open only at the end of the world.
Chris Koch is a spirits journalist based in St. Louis, where he writes about scotch, whisky, and anything that's ever been bottled or bartended.