Even in the driving rain, the Isle of Islay is a heart-stoppingly beautiful spot. High in the hills behind the Bruichladdich distillery, there are sweeping views east across Loch Indaal, and I fancied I could just about pinpoint Bowmore distillery across the foaming grey waters. The wind was gusting, the sheep were bleating, the geese were honking: it was wild, magnificent and dramatic.
The lure of Bruichladdich was too strong, however, and moments later I was in the warmth of the distillery shop itself, getting a dram of the Laddie Valinch, a limited edition release available only in the shop. The 22-year-old, matured in a former bourbon cask for 18 years and then a former sherry cask for four, was invigorating. It was 50.7 per cent and I prudently added water.
It was a delicious dram, fruity and sweet with stacks of colour and plenty of leather, chocolate, raisins, spice and — I don’t know — candied orange peel maybe. One thing it wasn’t, though, was peaty. As we all know, Islay malts are peaty. You know, like Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg.
Except they’re not. Yes, the varied releases from Lagavulin and co. do indeed tend to be full of smoky notes, saltiness and iodine, but — despite the island being a magnet for so-called peat freaks — that doesn’t mean the rest are peaty too.
Indeed, Bruichladdich’s signature malt, the Classic Laddie, is light, delicate, honeyed and zesty. It’s an aperitif whisky, as far removed from the fabled Islay peat monsters as it’s possible to be. I loved it. But then I loved the distillery’s peated Port Charlotte offerings too, especially the 2007 matured in former cognac casks. Only the charms of Octomore eluded me. I found it just too overwhelmingly medicinal. For rubbing in rather than drinking.
Bruichladdich has recently been taken over by the drinks giant Rémy Cointreau. Ardbeg, across the island, is owned by Moët Hennessy while Bacardi, the largest family-owned drinks company in the world, best known for white spirits such as Bacardi rum, Bombay Sapphire gin and Grey Goose vodka, is also getting in on the whisky act by releasing fine single malts from Aberfeldy, Aultmore, Craigellachie, Macduff and Royal Brackla.
Craigellachie, in particular, confused but then delighted me. Speyside, of course, is the cradle of single malt production, and having been brought up to think that all its malts are light, floral and accessible (you know, like Glenfiddich), I was stopped in my tracks by the hot-off-the-press Craigellachie 13-year-old and the truly gorgeous 23-year-old.
The former is creamy, honeyed and citrusy, with toast, too, and spice. The latter is gratifyingly meaty and distinctive. It’s pale in colour but there’s a lot of flavour. It was sweet and fruity with a gingery, chewy spice on the finish and, although it wasn’t what I was expecting from Speyside, I relished it.
A few days after my trip up north, I headed to Holborn and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
Short of being in the tasting room, shop or warehouse of an actual distillery there is no finer place for a whisky lover to while away the hours. I sat by the roaring fire and allowed Sam MacDonald, the manager, to ply me with strong drink.
The society is the world’s largest bottler of single malts and everything they bottle is at cask strength. They give their whiskies wonderfully bonkers names such as ‘Toffee and Humbugs in a Tea Chest’ and ‘Flying Saucers and Foamy Shrimps’ and a cryptic number.
What they don’t do is reveal the name of the distillery unless you beg. This is to allow one to focus on the dram without preconceptions and it’s actually a lot of fun. I tried three or four beauties and then finished with 3.225 ‘Galleon Attacked by Pirates’. It was deliciously spicy with hints of leather, cedarwood and both honey and salt, with a definite note of peat.
It had to be an Islay, I thought, because all Islay malts are peaty. And then I stopped myself. Had I learned nothing from my trip? Sam finally fessed up and revealed that it was Bowmore 16 Year Old. From Islay of course. Dammit, there’s so much to know.