Islay

Of all Scotland's malts, the Islay single malts are perhaps the most characteristic. But even so, there are some surprises within this group which are traditionally held to be amongst the heaviest and most pungent available. The most recognisable characteristics are due to the production methods which were developed in concert with the available distilling ingredients in this remote locality. While the mainland markets were supplied by mainland distillers in the 18th and 19th centuries, the islanders supplied a local market from stills - both legal and illegal - which were operated from farmyards, bothies on the bleak moors above Port Ellen and remote caves along the precipitous coast of the Oa.

The island of Islay, renowned as the most fertile island in the Hebrides, had three major assets in this development, a ready source of local barley - or bere as it was then known - inexhaustible amounts of peat and burns running brim-full of soft water. It is impossible to visit Islay and not notice the peat. Along the roadside crossing the enormous Laggan Moss between Port Ellen and Bowmore the peat banks spread as far as the eye can see. The fuel was the only means by which the islanders could dry their grain which was an essential process not on for distilling, but also for storage during the wet seasons. By kilning barley it could be kept longer and the dryer the grain was, the less likely it was to go mouldy.

As the grain dried in the fumes, the peat imparted to the barley a highly distinctive character which manifested itself when the spirit was finally distilled from it. These characteristics are still apparent in today's Islay malts which are renowned for their seaweedy, iodine like, phenolic character and are best experienced by trying Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig which form the three most traditional Islay malts. The other Islay single malts display this peaty-smoky characteristic to a lesser degree but it is always detectable nonetheless.