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The Peat Paradise: Islay from Bunnahabhain to Port Ellen

By Miguel in Tasting , Recommended , Featured , Laphroaig , Caol Ila , Lagavulin , Port Ellen , Ardbeg , Bunnahabhain , Kilchoman , Bowmore , Bruichladdich

Islay is an island in the west of Scotland that produce a style of single malts that you either love or hate: peated whiskies.

Gregor Haslinger Islay photo
(Photo on top of one of the Jura Pups looking south overseeing the Isle of Islay by Gregor Haslinger)

You may wonder why such an small island have so many distilleries and I hope this article enlighten you and share with us the passion for peated whiskies.
I have tasted already many of the whiskies created at Islay but I really wanted to taste them all in a row so I can compare them side by side. I hate when I taste blindly a whisky and I can’t decide if it is a Caol Ila ( most are ) or an Ardbeg.

So come with me in this trip around Islay in nine drams. Oh man! I am sure you can smell the smoke from there.

islay-whisky-distilleries-map

Nowadays there are eight distilleries working at Islay: Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Port Ellen that was closed in 1983.

islay-single-malt-whisky-tasting-notes

There is two big styles in the island itself, the northern malts that are usually lighter peated and the southern whiskies that are peat monsters among peated whiskies. To do the tasting I have choose the most mainstream bottle of each distillery with the exception of Port Ellen that doesn’t have such thing.

I have decided to taste them from lighter to most intense and complex whisky. So first are Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain whiskies and at the end Lagavulin and Port Ellen.

Northern distilleries

islay-single-malt-whisky-tasting-north

Bunnahabhain 12 years old

Although most Islays whiskies are peated there are some great and bold exceptions, and Bunnahabhain is one of those. Bunnahabhain distillery whiskies are very lightly peated, almost a whiff of smoke but this doesn’t make them less great at all and I have found that when aged they made fabulous peated sherried whiskies like this 20 years old from Master of Malt or this bottled for The Whisky Barrel.

“Smokey on the nose and peat on the palate. Very nice nose with a bold sherry profile”

89
Bunnahabhain 12 year
A very lightly-peated malt that serves as perhaps the mildest introduction to the Islay style.

Bunnahabhain is a single malt where floral and fruity tones dominate with the peat influence in the background. The main base for the splendid 'Black Bottle' blend.

This dram has a amber-like color.

Nose (90): more than average. honey, peaches, toffee, citrus, smoke.

Palate (90): powerful. peat, honey, citrus, wood, spices, vanilla, pepper.

Finish (88): longer than average. peat, citrus, wood.

So based on other whiskies I have already tasted I rate this Bunnahabhain 12 year with 89 points over 100.

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Bruichladdich 10 years old

Recently Bruichladdich released a new 10 years old expression aged completely by the new owners. This bottle is the older version that was aged mostly in bourbon casks and is slightly less peated.

“Nice nut meg aromas on a overall floral and spicy whisky. Not a trace of peat though”

87
Bruichladdich 10 year
Recently reborn with the great Jim McEwan at the helm in the distillery, Bruichladdich has once again started producing the kind of malts Islay fans adore.

Fresh, vibrant and as clean as a whistle.

This Islay single malt was one of the first whiskies released after the reopening of the distillery in 2000. It has been recently replaced by a bottle done totally with the whisky distilled by the new owners.

This dram has a fino-like color.

Nose (87): average. honey, floral, vanilla, citrus, nut meg. Not smoky at all, very floral Bruichladdich

Palate (86): smooth. honey, citrus, wood, spices, pepper, floral.

Finish (87): average. honey, smoke, citrus.

So based on other whiskies I have already tasted I rate this Bruichladdich 10 year with 87 points over 100.

Bowmore 12 years old

After the two softest Islay whiskies I had to choose the next one and Bowmore seems a fine option. It is peated but not as much as many of it southern Islay neightbours and after Suntory takeover it is returning to a decent malt style.

“Nice nose but a bit light flavor on this Bowmore... why not have it bottled at 46% instead?”

89
Bowmore 12 year
Established in 1779, Bowmore Distillery is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland and nestles on the shores of Loch Indaal on the Inner Hebridean Isle of Islay.

Bowmore is universally regarded as the best balanced of all the Islay malts, as characterised by its wonderfully rich and complex flavors.

This dram has a amber-like color.

Nose (90): more than average. peat, citrus, honey, wood, salt, sea weed.

Palate (88): smooth, oily. peat, honey, citrus, grass, salt, spices, wood. Bottled at 46 would have done this a great single malt whisky.

Finish (88): longer than average. peat, wood, salt, spices.

So based on other whiskies I have already tasted I rate this Bowmore 12 year with 89 points over 100.

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Caol Ila 12 years old

A whisky blenders favorite and the single malt that is present on most of Johnnie Walker bottles. Caol Ila is the Islay distillery with the biggest production and there are quite outstanding bottles out there from independent bottlers as the 30 years old from Master of Malt.

“So earthy... no wonders I keep mistaking this Caol Ila one with Ardbeg, strong peat, earth and citrus aromas”

90
Caol Ila 12 year
Caol Ila lacks as single malt of the exposure and praise it has as a tool for whisky blenders.

It is a medium weight, but still packing plenty of potent phenols, this is a refined, powerful dram with a compensating oiliness. A balanced, peaty beauty.

If you like Caol Ila you should try Ardbeg Uigeidail.

This dram has a fino-like color.

Nose (90): more than average. honey, peat, citrus, wood. Pure peat-xperience.

Palate (91): powerful, oily. peat, honey, earthy, citrus, vanilla, pepper. Peated and earthy... just miss the coffee notes of Ardbeg

Finish (90): longer than average. peat, honey, citrus, earth.

So based on other whiskies I have already tasted I rate this Caol Ila 12 year with 90 points over 100.

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Kilchoman Spring 2011

Kilchoman is the latest newcomer to Islay distilleries map. Only a few years ago they released their first single malt, this Islay farm distillery is creating an awesome range of whiskies aged in bourbon and oloroso casks with some very interesting single casks bottles. Not disappointed by any of them yet.

“All Kilchoman are strongly peated but this one also has a lovely cereal nose”

90
Kilchoman Spring Release 2011
The Spring 2011 release of Kilchoman is here and the early reviews have been excellent, so we can't wait to try it!

This is the sixth official release of Kilchoman and is a vatting of three year old and four year old whisky from first fill and refill bourbon casks.

This dram has a white wine-like color.

Nose (91): more than average. toffee, peat, citrus, grass, barley, spices, vanilla.

Palate (89): powerful. honey, peat, citrus, vanilla, pepper.

Finish (89): longer than average. peat, honey, citrus.

So based on other whiskies I have already tasted I rate this Kilchoman Spring Release 2011 with 90 points over 100.

Southern distilleries

islay-single-malt-whisky-tasting-south

Laphroaig 10 years old

Laphroaig is situated on the south shore of Islay near Lagavulin and Ardbeg, the peat holy trinity. This is the most basic bottled on the range and still it is an awesome whisky.

“Medical grade Laphroaig. Love it or hate it there is no middle point.”

90
Laphroaig 10 year
Laphroaig 10 Year Old is an all-malt Scotch Whisky from the remote island of Islay in the Western Isles of Scotland. Laphroaig, pronounced "La-froyg", is a Gaelic word meaning "the beautiful hollow by the broad bay".

In making Laphroaig, malted barley is dried over a peat fire. The smoke from this peat, found only on Islay, gives Laphroaig its particularly rich flavour.

Laphroaig is the best selling Islay single malt in the world and not without reason! Great whisky.

This dram has a amber-like color.

Nose (90): more than average. peat, honey, iodine, citrus, sea.

Palate (91): powerful, oily. peat, iodine, citrus, honey, wood, pepper, coffee. Like it or not but this is 100% pure Laphroaig.

Finish (90): longer than average. peat, wood, iodine, citrus.

So based on other whiskies I have already tasted I rate this Laphroaig 10 year with 90 points over 100.

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If you can afford the money, do your best to taste one of the older expressions like the 25 years old or a limited released 27 years old Oloroso cask matured.

Ardbeg 10 years old

Ardbeg have turned from a mothballed distillery into a sell-whatever-we-bottle machine in just ten years. Several years in a row winner of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, this single malt stands for its strong peat, earthy and lemon zest notes aromas.

“Ardbeg 10 delivers one of the sweetest peat hammers out there. ”

92
Ardbeg 10 year old
Ardbeg Ten Years Old is a very special bottling for the Ardbeg distillery.

This Islay single malt is the first non-chill filtered whisky in the Ardbeg range. Chill filtering isn't a bad thing, in fact it created real consistency of product when the whisky industry was a little more `hap-hazard` than it is today. Ardbeg Ten Years Old is whisky with none of the goodness taken out and as good as straight from the cask.

If you enjoyed this Ardbeg, you really need to have a cask strength Ardbeg that it is only slightly more expensive. A no brainer if you ask me.

This dram has a white wine-like color.

Nose (92): more than average. honey, peat, citrus, vanilla. Very sweet aroma.

Palate (92): powerful, oily. peat, honey, wood, vanilla, earthy, pepper, espresso.

Finish (92): longer than average. peat, honey, citrus.

So based on other whiskies I have already tasted I rate this Ardbeg 10 year old with 92 points over 100.

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Lagavulin 16 years old

Built near Laphroaig and with the sole objetive of imitating Laphroaig style. Never such a failure has been so good. Perhaps the best single malt whisky £50 can buy.

“This Lagavulin is a superb Islay whisky with its amazing peat complexity. Really one of the best bang for the buck single malts out there.”

92
Lagavulin 16 year
Full amber in color with adominant sherry nose. Full-bodied yet smooth. The dryness is offset by the sweetness of the sherry character. Salty notes and a huge powerful peaty finish.

Lagavulin 16 years old is perhaps the best daily dram single malt whisky out there. You will not find anything so good for that price, as long as you like peat in your whisky.

A connoisseur's malt, and with consistently high marks from Michael Jackson.

If you have the chance, try the 12 years old expression that has been aged exclusively in bourbon barrels. Simply delicious.

This dram has a cooper-like color.

Nose (91): more than average. peat, honey, peaches, vanilla, citrus, pepper.

Palate (92): powerful, oily. peat, honey, citrus, vanilla, peaches, espresso.

Finish (92): longer than average. peat, honey, peaches, spices.

So based on other whiskies I have already tasted I rate this Lagavulin 16 year with 92 points over 100.

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Port Ellen 6th release

Port Ellen was closed in 1983 and only their malting remains open. The stock is slowly decreasing year after year and the chances of seeing it open again so does. Diageo has the money-making idea of releasing cask strength yearly releases. This one is the sixth release and I have to say that it is simply awesome.

“Even after eight great whiskies this Port Ellen stands over them. Peat-astic!”

92
Port Ellen 6th release 27 year
The six release of this awesome Islay single malt whisky, Port Ellen.

Bottled as a 27 year old and at cask strength, this Port Ellen is one of the last whiskies form this rare and defunct Islay distillery. Aged in American Oak and European Oak refill casks filled in 1978. Limited to 4560 bottles.

If you like peated whiskies this is something you must try, despite its price.

This dram has a amber-like color.

Nose (90): more than average. peat, honey, spices, varnish, citrus, vanilla.

Palate (94): powerful, oily. peat, honey, spices, vanilla, wood, citrus, espresso. Fucking awesome even after eight great whiskies.

Finish (92): longer than average. peat, citrus, honey, espresso.

So based on other whiskies I have already tasted I rate this Port Ellen 6th release 27 year with 92 points over 100.

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Not that I agree with paying £1,000 for this bottle but I completely understand.

Conclusion

islay-single-malt-whisky-tasting-notes

Have you tasted them? Which one is your favorite?
I have tasted other expressions of those distilleries that i enjoy more as Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Ardbeg Uigeidail or Caol Ila 27 years old.

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