The Island of Islay (pronounced 'Eye-la') is the southernmost of the Western Isles, and lies on the eastern side of Kintyre. It is flat and green and very largely composed of peat - the water on the island is brown with it. Winter gales drive salt spray far inland, and this saturates the peat, which is dried again by the briny, seaweedy breeze. All these characteristics go into the whiskies of Islay, to a greater or lesser extent.
There are eight distilleries on the island, all coastal and battered by salt-winds. Among their products are the strongest flavoured of all malt whiskies, a property which endears them to some and disgusts others.
The southern distilleries - Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Port Ellen (the latter was closed in 1983) - are the most powerful, producing medium-bodied whiskies, saturated with peat-smoke, brine and iodine. Not only do these disilleries use heavily peated malt (50 parts per million at Ardbeg, 40 parts per million at Laphroaig), they use the island's brown water for every stage of production - until they were closed in the early 1980s, Ardbeg had its own floor maltings and used to steep the barley in the same water.
The northern Islay distilleries - Bruichladdich (the 'ch' is silent) and Bunnahabhain ('Boona-hah-ven') are, by contrast, much milder. These draw their water direct from the spring, before it has had contact with peat, and use lightly or un-peated barley. The resulting whiskies are lighter flavoured, mossy (rather than peaty), with some seaweed, some nuts, but still the dry finish.
Bowmore Distillery, in the middle of the island, stands between the two extremes - peaty but not medicinal, with some toffee, some floral scents, and traces of linseed oil. Coal lla ('Cal-eela'), although close to Bunnahabhain, produces a delicate, greenish malt, with some peat/iodine/salt balanced by floral notes and a peppery finish.
Islay Malts' Characteristics
Islay whiskies generally reverse the characteristics of Speysides, tending to be dry and peaty; behind the smoke, however, can be gentle mossy scents, and some spice. The southern Islay distilleries produce powerfully phenolic whiskies, with aromas redolent of tar, smoke, iodine and carbolic. Bowmore, in the middle of the island, shares these characteristics but is not quite so powerful, as does Caol Ila. Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain are lighter and much less smoky. All Islays have a dry finish, the southern ones with quite a bite.