Peathead’s paradise on the Hebrides

FOR the malt whisky enthusiast, the Scottish island of Islay is undoubtedly the place to visit when it comes to exploring some of the finest and most flavoursome whiskies in the world.

Once the staple preserve for a generation of rosy-cheeked grandfathers, malt whisky is currently enjoying something of a renaissance with a new group of younger drinkers, eager to trace the origins of the spirit right back to its Scottish roots. For years wine enthusiasts have visited France to experience the “terroir” of their favourite wineries first hand – and now there is no better time than to pay a visit to a whisky distillery and celebrate one of the UK’s most unique, home grown epicurean delights.

The Hebridean island of Islay, which lies just off the west coast of Scotland, is home to eight working distilleries, famous for making highly characterful smoky whisky. Often described as the stuff that separates the men from the boys, Islay whisky represents the most richly flavoured of all scotch whiskies and a trip to this iconic island is an experience to truly savour.

Getting to Islay by air is an event in itself and the small prop plane I’m travelling in bobs about nervously between the clouds. But as we circle the island, the traditional whitewashed distillery buildings with their unusually shaped Pagoda chimneys (where malted barley is smoked, using locally cut peat to give the whisky its unique flavour) emerge from the mist and well-known names such as Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin slowly hove into view. It’s the sort of sight that gives whisky fanatics a minor heart murmur and genuinely sets the level of anticipation for trying a few pungent drams.

The Bowmore distillery, situated in the centre of the island, produces one of the most well-rounded Islay malt whiskies and its newly refurbished visitor’s centre, complete with an outdoor balcony overlooking the brooding coastline, is perfect for experiencing Islay whisky amongst the elements. Around the corner, the Harbour Inn Hotel serves up freshly caught oysters from the local Loch Gruinart, drizzled with more Bowmore whisky. It’s a combination that would no doubt taste great anywhere, but to experience it first-hand on the island just adds to the mouth-watering experience.

To the south of Islay lies Port Ellen, once home to an iconic distillery of the same name, which has now long since closed its doors, but it is also home to Ardbeg, which produces a wonderfully light, yet aromatic 10-year old single malt. One of Ardbeg’s real highlights however is the intriguingly named Supernova, famed for perhaps being the smokiest whisky in the world. If you’ve never tried a peated whisky before, this one is not for the faint-hearted and is most definitely the reserve of the truly seasoned “peathead”. But it’s easy to see why so many people fall in love with such a distinct flavour. After spending time exploring the distillery’s ancient warehouses, full to the brim with vintage oak casks slumbering away until they’re fully mature, the romance and sheer craftsmanship of single malt whisky is really bought to life. Intoxicating stuff indeed.

Neil Ridley is co-editor of the award-winning whisky website www.caskstrength.net

DECADENT ISLAND DRAMS

With its pungent peat smoke, Islay undoubtedly produces the most characterful of all single malt whisky. Here’s our pick of three you must try when visiting the island:

Ardbeg Uigeadail: Taking its name from Loch Uigeadail (meaning “dark and mysterious place” in Gaelic), Ardbeg Uigeadail is a full-bodied whisky, weighing in at 54.2 per cent abv. Rich dried fruits mix with black treacle and a waft of aromatic peat. Truly tongue coating stuff.

Lagavulin 16 year old: Robust yet elegant, Lagavulin is famed for a medicinal, smoky complexity, combining with a sweet, creamy fudge flavour. Works brilliantly as an accompaniment to blue cheese.

Bowmore Tempest: Lighter in style to Ardbeg and the medicinal Lagavulin, Bowmore Tempest has notes of caramel, milk chocolate and peat smoke, with a surprisingly fruity palate.

Getting there: Visit www.visitscotland.com/surprise for more details.

Neil stayed at The Harbour Inn Hotel: www.harbour-inn.com

Ardbeg Distillery Port Ellen, Isle of Islay PA42 7EB

01496 302244, www.ardbeg.com

Bowmore Distillery, Bowmore, Isle of Islay, PA43 7JS.

01496 810671, www.bowmore.com

For a chance to try a selection of rare and vintage single malts, visit The Whisky Show at Vinopolis on the 7 and 8 October. www.whisky-show.com