Wintering in the Islays

Three single-malt Scotches to savor


Strange that the things that we love about a season tend to be those things curative to the season itself. Summer people extoll all things refreshing, semi-clothed, ice-cold. For those of us happiest right about now, in a scant ten hours of burnished, muffled sunlight, it’s the love of a good coat, the palliative clasp of slow fire.

"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.
The brief: Islay (that’s EYE-luh, roughly) is the southernmost of the islands of Inner Hebrides, just to the west of Jura and only about 25 miles from the shore of Ireland. It’s a total reduction, but you could be excused for thinking of the Islay whiskies as Scotch with the volume knob at 11. The medicine, wet earth, smoke and sea-salt notes that are the quintessence of the spirit find their most emphatic expressions here. Safe bet, find a person who hates Scotch and this is what they mean: damp socks, compost, ashtray. But ask anyone who loves the stuff -- I mean the kind of prostrate, glorifying love that Scotch so often commands -- and there’s a good chance the bottle at the center of their shrine, the one marked "Open only at the end of the world," is an 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 16yo
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.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: ovid
    163374 3

    Sorry, but putting a single malt--especially an Islay single malt--in a cocktail is not only sacrilege but a waste of expensive whiskey. Why would I want to drown that complexity, richness, and subtlety in sweet vermouth?

    Jan 25, 2011 at 2:58 PM

  • Snooth User: Bish
    135655 5

    It's raining and 36 degrees F. here--real Scotch weather. Read the article while sipping a Lagavulin 16 for effect. Enjoyed them both. Of the three discussed, only the Lagavulin is commonly available here. The rarest Islay I've found is the Coal Ila 18 year, which is very nice. All of the Laphroaigs are available. While I usually enjoy the refinement of an aged Scotch, with Laphroaig I prefer the gutsyness and pure screaming Iodine that is "refined-out" of all but the 10 year variety.

    Jan 25, 2011 at 4:42 PM

  • Snooth User: dbuford
    262428 2

    Have to agree with ovid on the subject of mixing any Islay single malt in a cocktail. It's a waste of great scotch! I have tried (and loved) all of the Islay single malts, but just can kick the peaty pleasure of a snifter of 10-year-old Laphroaig on a chilly winter's day. Cheers!

    Jan 25, 2011 at 6:30 PM

  • Snooth User: parechaga
    40817 35

    Beautiful! Loved the way you described Lagavulin. It's just an unforgettable experience. Love Islays: Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. Those are my three favourite in the whole wide world.
    Pedro. Spain.

    Jan 25, 2011 at 7:15 PM

  • Oh my...those are wonderful, but for a transcendent tasting go to Bowmore and taste the difference a cask from sherry, port or bordeaux wines makes in the liquor. One of the best tastings I have ever done...with the bartender, she of numerous tattoos, hair dyed jet black with a streak of bright blue running through it, the glasses on the bar and just sipping back and forth, after, of course, some Ardbeg as a warm up. A warm memory on a cold winter night!

    Jan 25, 2011 at 8:10 PM

  • And, by the way, agreeing with the other comments. It is a crime against civilization to put anything much more than one small ice cube or just a couple of drops of water into a single malt.

    Jan 25, 2011 at 8:12 PM

  • Is there a good starting point to scotch for someone who has never tried it before? I am a wine lover but have always been interested in scotch and would like my first experience to be a good one. Thank you ahead of time for any information you can offer.

    Barry - Canada

    Jan 25, 2011 at 8:48 PM

  • Snooth User: si1vanus
    334675 1

    Chris, how can you talk of Islay single malts and not even mention Laphroaig. It's a campfire in a bottle and all others pale in comparison to the warmth that radiates from the 10 year old.

    Jan 25, 2011 at 9:04 PM

  • Snooth User: Catherine Gin
    Hand of Snooth
    592568 297

    By popular demand, we've stopped committing crimes against single malts and have removed the cocktail recipe. Our e-mail newsletter template requires a cocktail recipe be formatted with each article so that's why it was there.

    Barry, you might want to check out our "Scotch 101: A whisky primer for the uninitiated" story here: Make sure to look at the comments -- our readers are a clever lot! And helpful too, so I'm sure they will want to help make your first Scotch experience a memorable one. I have to say I just bought Highland Park 12yo (as suggested by writer Chris in an earlier story) as a gift for a first-timer and that was well received.

    Jan 25, 2011 at 10:32 PM

  • Hey Barry...I had tasted a variety of different Scotch whiskeys from blends to single malts. Then I learned about a Scotch tasting complete with kilted rep from one of the distilleries.

    We tasted 15 different whiskeys, each a single malt, and from all over Scotland. Google Scotch Tastings and see if anything comes up in your town. Better yet, the admission fee was 100% applied against the purchase of a bottle.

    I learned more during those two hours than in the prior years.

    Another thing I would suggest; think of the wines you like and then look for Scotch that matches the description. I like big wines, Zinfandel, Rhone wines, full bodied Syrah so the big Scotch from Islay suits me. As with wine, there is a world of different flavors awaiting you!

    Jan 25, 2011 at 11:10 PM

  • Snooth User: scottosd
    253497 3

    Yes indeed, Geoff - the Bowmore Darkest has always been a personal favorite, and my friend and I just cracked the 18-yr. last week...excellent. Also particularily like the cask-strength Caol Ilas - but ANY Isla is oustanding in my book! And, if you can get some, try the (recent) Port Charlotte PC6. Beautiful, brawny whisky - a lot of depth for a relatively young Isla. Nice reviews, Chris - cheers!

    Jan 25, 2011 at 11:19 PM

  • Snooth User: Chris Koch
    672979 10

    ovid: I'm with you, I'd even be hesitant to allow the ice. But I think it's as with the other great things in life, who are we to tell anyone they're doing it wrong? And with the right whisky, a dry Rob Roy is hard to begrudge.

    Anyway, thanks to Catherine for taking the cocktail off the recipe!

    Jan 26, 2011 at 12:30 AM

  • Snooth User: Chris Koch
    672979 10

    Barry: funny I was going to the same thing as Catherine, Highland Park is tough to beat as an intro. I'd also offer the Oban 14 as a nice, medium bodied, dry single malt. But Geoff's right, you may find yourself drawn to a simple, honey-light Lowland or a Speyside the depth and character of the ocean.

    To be honest, I think there's more pleasure in the searching than the finding. Speaking of searching, maybe Google for a local bar with a nice list (or shelf) and start working through it?

    Jan 26, 2011 at 12:53 AM

  • Snooth User: Chris Koch
    672979 10

    Thanks, scottosd. And, man, I'm dying to try the Port Charlotte. Where'd you happen across it?

    To all the Friends of Laphroaig: I hear you. There's no reason at all for the omission here - except maybe that it's such the colossus of the island, deservingly so, that there's too much to write. But it'll come in time.

    Jan 26, 2011 at 3:12 AM

  • Snooth User: KawaiiNai
    651601 9

    I thought the Rob Roy recipe was a nice addition. I feel these articles educate people who are not currently versed in the subject. If you already know so much, great. But others with a more immature palate, like me, would be more likely to take a chance on a nice bottle of scotch if there are recipes with which to mix it. That way I know the bottle won't just sit in my spirits cabinet for the next 10 years after only having one glass.

    Jan 26, 2011 at 7:43 AM

  • Snooth User: KawaiiNai
    651601 9

    I misspelled "palate" (*_*)

    Jan 26, 2011 at 7:50 AM

  • If you can't find something in Dalwhinnie to love, as an introduction to single malt, you must seriously consider that this spirit is not for you. A nice gentle one, but with hints of complexity to chase and seek more of in other malts. And Laphroaig ain't whisky; it's Laphroaig, a spirit apart. Smells like a cowshed floor and a tyre fire, but can taste glorious in the right circumstances.

    Jan 26, 2011 at 9:28 AM

  • Of all the single malts, the Islays are my favorite, however I think this list is missing a few.
    Caol'Ila - Is a recent discovery for me, but is an amazing Islay.
    Bowmore - Which was my first real love in an Islay, tastes like sitting by a campfire.
    Others have commented on Laphroaig, which is a GREAT whiskey
    I agree with what was said about Lagavulin, but I have to say that I found Bruichladdich to be a little disappointing.

    Jan 26, 2011 at 10:04 AM

  • Snooth User: Gaelchef
    Hand of Snooth
    286292 35

    Re 3rd paragraph.

    Last time I sailed to Islay (July ), it was on the west of Jura. Or, did I stay too long in the Ardbeg and had the chart upside down. Loved the article.

    Jan 26, 2011 at 11:55 AM

  • Snooth User: satchm0h
    554501 11

    I think I must be a freak of Nature. I'm a passionate Bourbon & Irish drinker that has never cared for scotch.

    The one exception to that rule is Lagavulin. I can't get enough of the brine and the smoke. I think I need to expand my horizons to some of the the other Isalys.

    Given my predilection for the brine, where should I focus my exploration?

    Jan 26, 2011 at 12:21 PM

  • Snooth User: Chris Koch
    672979 10

    Okay, author's apology: I'm deeply challenged when it comes to both my ordinal and relative directions! Islay is most certainly due WEST of Jura. Gaelchef, thanks for both the heads up (as it were) and the kind words.

    Jan 26, 2011 at 1:44 PM

  • Snooth User: scottosd
    253497 3

    Chris - happened on the PC6 in the Beverages and More down here in San Diego. Had a rather off-the-wall container, and was in the mood to try something unknown. Loved the first bottle so much, I bought 3 more. Could actually be a serious contender for the "end-of-the-world" bottle! Should still be able to find it - let me know if you can't and I'll try to connect you. P.S. Highland Park is always a great start point...and a great point to revisit. My friend and I are still working on a bottle of the Bicentenary for Christmas drams!

    Jan 26, 2011 at 1:59 PM

  • Snooth User: Chris Koch
    672979 10

    satchm0h: wow, what a unique challenge. Those who love whiskey but not scotch whisky usually harbor an aversion to peat, and to those I'd recommend a lowland - probably Auchentoshan 21yo or the "Three Wood" for a bourbon lover - or maybe a Speyside, like Ardmore.

    But if you share my love of Laga you can go bare knuckle with the bog monsters: so I'd say definitely make your way around the island. Laphroaig and Ardbeg are good relatives. I'd also just throw out the oft-overlooked Cambeltown single malts as perhaps an interesting middle-ground. Try the Springbank 12yo Rum Cask for something almost wholly in its own category.

    Last thing, and I'm sure it'll stir a hornets nest here: how about blends? They can often reflect a balance that's spiritually akin to much of American and Irish whiskey production. I personally prefer the idiosyncrasies of single malts, but there's much to love in the blended world, too. Compass Box is making interesting ones, maybe try their Eleuthera blend?

    Jan 26, 2011 at 2:19 PM

  • Snooth User: scottosd
    253497 3

    Nothing wrong with blends at all, if they're done well - Johnnie Walker Black is my go-to blend when single-malt offerings are temporarily unavailable (or when dining out, overpriced). It's listening to the (blended) orchestra as opposed to the (single malt) soloist......both have their charms.

    Jan 26, 2011 at 4:46 PM

  • Snooth User: Catherine Gin
    Hand of Snooth
    592568 297

    Gaelchef, thanks very much for showing us the way to Islay! I have a horrible sense of direction. It's now "west."

    I'm loving everyone's comments and thanks go to Chris for answering, and asking, some great and tricky questions.

    Jan 26, 2011 at 8:30 PM

  • Snooth User: Dr Mac
    742821 1

    As to starting out: don't neglect any of the major regions. Try Speyside (The Glenlivet, Macallan), try island peat (Talisker as well as the Islays), try Highland (Glenmorangie) and Lowland malts. I, too, have a favourite, a "go to" malt, but would be seriously bereft if I could only drink it and nothing else. For premium blend I suggest The Antiquary and for regular "cooking" whisky Black Bottle.

    Jan 28, 2011 at 5:42 AM

  • Snooth User: Peaty
    755323 1

    You hit the nail on the head with these three. Lagavulin is the ultimate. Your description of the aromas & flavors of Lagavulin, for myself vs. my wife (a non-single malt drinker), were right on. Thanks for the reassurance and the tears.

    Feb 02, 2011 at 9:08 PM

  • Snooth User: orilea
    759361 1

    I agree with Bish. The times that I really want to soothe my troubled soul - I look over my delightful collection and most times reach out for my 10 year Laphroaig - a true friend.

    Feb 05, 2011 at 10:40 PM

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