Most of my scotch-drinking friends don’t get too excited about peat. They enjoy mellower Highland or Speyside whiskies from distilleries such as The Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Oban, and Glenfiddich. Although I too enjoy those whiskies, single malts with peaty, oily, and even medicinal flavors are my favorite.
The scotch produced on Islay (required pronunciation guide: EYE-lah), an island just off Scotland’s southwestern coast, might be described as Scotland’s most exotic. Certainly its most unique. The Isle carries “a reputation for the smokiest, most robust and challenging malts, that seems to set the Islay apart from Scotland’s other whisky regions,” writes The New York Times’s Eric Asimov.
“The smokiness comes from the tradition of using peat — bog soil made of decomposed vegetable matter that was harvested to fuel kilns used for drying barley. Assertive peating has long been a trait of famous Islay malts, like Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, but it is not exclusive to Islay. And just as much a part of the Islay tradition are…names that are impossible to sound out phonetically.”
Many of my favorite scotches – Talisker, which hails from Island, not Islay (another distinction altogether) – tastes heavily of smoke and peat. As I like to tell my friends, I’ll like it more if it tastes like burning wood or grass clippings. Thankfully, my penchant for peaty scotches has led several close friends to consider trying Islay scotches, which in turn helped me learn of other distilleries like Bowmore and Caol Ila. In other words, we have each expanded each other’s curiosity and preferences.
While I have no problem drinking my Laphroaig or Ardbeg year round, these Islay scotch do taste particularly delicious during wintertime. Eric Asimov agrees: “No, for woolgathering and armchair voyaging, preferably in front of a fire…I prefer them straight, with maybe a spoonful of water and an equal amount of wonder.”
For the rest of December – and January and February, for that matter – keep your Islay scotches close at hand. Because not only will it keep winter’s nip at bay, that peaty aroma will remind you springtime’s just around the corner.