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In Defense of Islay Whisky

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The musty scent of damp earth, the slightly bitter smell of fallen leaves, the complex aroma of fireplace smoke—fall is in the air.

Is the season a time of reflection? Of melancholy? Well, there’s no better drink to match the former and banish the latter than smoky single malt. That is if you can find one…


Ardbeg, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Laphroaig are so popular now that they’re being rationed by distributors. Other distilleries may produce batches of heavily peated whisky, but these five are the ones I like to call “The Big Smokies.”

All are from the small Scottish island of Islay, the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides, where there is a long tradition of producing pungent, elemental whiskies. It used to be said that they were just for drinking outdoors, and that they were a taste acquired only after one had a deep appreciation of other, gentler single malts. But in recent years, these complex, savory Scotches have been enthusiastically embraced by all sorts of drinkers. (Hence the supply problems.)

The smoky and medicinal flavor of these spirits comes from the peat fires used to dry the malted barley from which they are made. Peat is a layer of decomposed vegetation (mosses, heather and grasses) found in waterlogged bogs. (It develops at the glacial rate of about a yard every thousand years.) It’s dug out of the ground and dried prior to burning, producing a smoke with an evocative natural fragrance that differs slightly from bog to bog depending upon the local plants.

Try some of my favorite Islay whiskies this fall. And to fully appreciate their aroma and taste, use a snifter or spirits nosing glass. Cheers!

Ardbeg 10-Year-Old ($55) & Airigh Nam Beist ($85):

The most heavily peated Islay whisky, Ardbeg has an antiseptic, iodine-like aroma, so its sweet taste comes as a surprise. That’s followed by a blast of beach-bonfire smoke and a trace of licorice. The 10-Year-Old is pale and fresh, while the Airigh Nam Beist is rich and fruity.

Bowmore 18-Year-Old ($94):

Thanks to floral notes and tropical-fruit aromas, the smoky element is barely apparent on the nose, but it’s obvious in the taste. Aging in sherry casks lends this malt a distinctive richness.

Lagavulin 16-Year-Old ($90):

The “Prince of Islays” has the most sophisticated smokiness—reminiscent of Lapsang Souchong tea, bergamot and camphor. The most complex of the bunch, this Scotch features a big, rich texture, a sweet start and a lingering, smoky finish.

Caol Ila 12-Year-Old ($50):

Caol Ila may be the younger sister of Lagavulin, but its flavor profile is completely different: smoked ham or cheese on the nose with a sweet taste, then smoldering barbecue with antiseptic cream on the finish.

Laphroaig 10-Year-Old ($46):

“The most richly flavored of all Scotch whiskies,” the label says, but modern expressions of this famed brand are less extreme than they once were. Here, the peat comes across as coal smoke with seaweed; the taste is sweet, then salty and dry with tarry smoke.


Charles MacLean, Master of the Quaich and James Beard Award winner, is the author of ten books on Scotch, including the Whiskypedia.

Series & Type: ProductsIn Defense of
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