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Fib of the Week #6: 'Islay Whisky is Incredibly Smoky'

For this #FibFriday, we’re taking a look at whisky regions with the myth - Fib of the Week #6: “Islay whisky is incredibly smoky.”. You’ll often hear about how heavily peated and smoky Islay whisky tends to be, and people will tend to suggest that this is simply traditional for the region and possibly to do with locality as the distilleries make use of the local peat which can be found in abundance. But did you know, for example, that the Port Ellen Maltings on Islay, owned by Diageo, doesn’t usually supply any barley to either of their distilleries on the island, 2 of the biggest whisky producers on Islay, which instead are predominantly fuelled by English barley? We don’t know ourselves about sourcing plans for the revived Port Ellen Distillery itself, but we’d recommend consumers be wary about presuming the barley will come from the Port Ellen Maltings either until this is confirmed. There are peat sources all over the world, with some of the best being in the Highlands or on Islay, and in the world of big companies and international ownership, you would be fool to think every smoky whisky makes use of local peat, just as it isn’t feasible to always use local barley. Furthermore, what if we were to remind you about our good friends at both Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhainn distilleries, both of which produce most of their spirit completely unpeated?

Of course, we’d be lying if we said that the idea that Islay whisky is usually smoky is a myth. With market trends and expectations, the vast majority of distilleries on Islay purposely produce peaty spirit, including the 2 distilleries that consciously want to make a lighter dram that doesn’t have to include peat. The important point, however, is that none of them have to. Bruichladdich is an interesting case in point - they produce 3 ranges: the majority of their spirit, bottled as simply Bruichladdich, is unpeated, with nice orangey and creamy barley notes (identified by some as baby sick). Later, in part to experiment and in part to harness market trends, they began to produce Port Charlotte at ~36-40 PPM (parts per million, a measurement of compounds within the barley, in this case relating to phenolic compounds that make whisky taste smoky), and also Octomore, billed as the most heavily peated whisky in the world and usually containing >120 PPM of phenols. This gives 3 product ranges, each unpeated, heavily peated as they call it, and super or very heavily peated respectively. But each of these latter 2 are limited ranges with less spirit produced. So too with Bunnahabhainn - the vast majority of their spirit throughout the core range is unpeated, with only 1 or 2 limited editions influenced by peat. And then we could talk about Bowmore, by comparison, which while it includes peat represents a light waft of bonfire smoke just overlaying the whisky, as opposed to the big hit of medicinal character peat in something like Laphroaig or asphalt tones you get in Ardbeg. Obviously, a part of the difference is in how heavily each distillery peats it’s barley, and a much bigger part is in the stills themselves and how the distillery chooses to treat its spirit. Equally, however, we as consumers don’t know and shouldn’t presume that each distillery is using the same, local, peat.

Expanding from this treatment of peat, it doesn’t make sense to think of Islay as traditionally “the peaty region”. Until the middle of the 1800s anyway, more like the start of the 20th century, the vast majority of distilleries in Scotland, probably all, would dry their barley with whatever fuel happened to be to hand, and in a lot of Scotland that would mean peat. Various woods might also be used, as well as e.g. juniper or heather (and if you would like to taste what that is like, we can recommend one of the releases from a Danish distillery, Stauning, which does exactly that). Until the invention of the rotating, mechanised maltings in 1876 by Galland, and improved upon not much later by the Saladin box created by a French engineer of the same name, all barley was malted by hand, usually locally on a distillery’s own malting floor. This lent itself to local solutions, although coal fires were obviously becoming common domestically but more importantly in industry throughout the 19th century. It was not until the later part of the 20th century, however, that it became possible to dry barley simply with warm air, and so our very light, completely smoke-free whiskies are a relatively new innovation. If you were to go back 150 years, maybe a little more, maybe a little less, all whisky would be a bit smoky, most of it peated, and that includes even your light and fruity Speysiders or Lowlanders that we know and love today.

So in terms of peat, the whisky regions are clearly a fiction. The idea of regionality comes in part due to taxation reasons with the introduction of the Highland line in 1784, when the Wash Act declared that taxation north of the line would be determined by the size of the still while south of the line it would be determined by the volume of the wash, thus resulting in much greater taxation proportionately on Lowland spirit (and, funnily enough, many distillers cawin’ canny and moving north of the line, where it was also harder to be tracked - it’s not for nothing that there have always historically been more distilleries in Speyside and the Highlands than in the Central Belt). But in terms of the 5 or 6 whisky regions we know today, that was a result of marketing initiatives by organisations like the SWA throughout the 1980s and 90s, maybe also a touch earlier, to try to make Scotch more appealing and easier to understand for example to the American and other international markets. You get an Islay, expect peaty, you get a Speyside, expect autumn notes and dried fruit, you get a Highlander, expect rich and spicy. And so on.

The idea that this has ever been accurate or set in stone is largely nonsense. There have always been distilleries in the Highlands and Speyside that have resolutely produced peated spirit, and market trends be damned. One of particular note might be Ardmore in the north-west, which is known for its intensely smoky spirit and can be quite delicious for a peat-head, even one who has only before tried Islays. A few distilleries even in Speyside also burn peat for a week or so allegedly to help clean their kilns and stills, and making a virtue out of necessity produce a limited run of peated spirit, e.g. the Balvenie Peat Week or Week of Peat (they’ve used both names). Some might use very little peat even today because it is traditional but try to use so little that it is very hard if not impossible to taste (as is actually the case with Balvenie generally, which is peated to about 2-4 PPM as standard), or else a distillery might decide that they want some releases to be peated and some not, as is the case for example with the brilliant Benriach distillery whose spirit is currently in Dr. Rachel Barrie’s capable hands. Thus to Highland and Speyside, so too with the Islands - Tobermory produces its standard light Tobermory spirit, as well as Ledaig which is heavily peated; and the Isle of Arran Distillery has for a long time produced limited quantities of peated Machrie Moor in contrast to its much lighter, apple-y spirit, before the company also founded the Lagg Distillery at the other end of the island to specialise in peated whisky. And that’s before we talk about Talisker also in the Island region, which has always been lightly peated. Campbeltown, similarly, has had smoky whisky in Springbank, which distillery also produces the heavily peated Longrow and the unpeated Hazelburn ranges, as well as the usually peated Kilkerran owned by the same folks; and the oily but fruity, almost always unpeated Glen Scotia, owned by the Loch Lomond Group who funnily enough also own the Loch Lomond Distillery - the only distillery in Scotland currently to make grain as well as malt whisky, including, in fact, a peated range of single malt - Inchmoan.

At first glance, the Lowlands might mark an exception, with Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie long-running producers of light, grassy, slightly fruity spirit. Certainly, with the many distilleries popping up recently, many of them in Fife, the majority have continued with this trend of light and fruity with orchard fruits, as opposed to the Speysiders’ preserve of raisins and other dried or cooked fruits, or of Highland spices. But the Glasgow Distillery has recently added a peated offering to its core range, which just goes to show that if you like a style, it doesn’t matter where you are as long as you have the skill and nerve. In terms of Fife, we can even tell you that the owners over at Lindores Abbey Distillery are huge fans of peated spirit and have considered once or twice experimenting, if not with the main spirit itself (which we hope they at some point do), then at least with perhaps producing a peated rum - things like this were perhaps unthinkable around a decade or so ago, when whisky regions were treated as gospel and it would be unthinkable to have a peated whisky from Fife, in the Lowlands - gasp! - but watch this space. We live in an exciting time for whisky, when quality comes first, but experimentation and innovation are key. Almost no distiller now is willing to be put in a box and constrained by something as silly as region. Some distilleries might want to produce a different style spirit because they like and enjoy it, others might do so consciously to stand out from other distilleries in their region that more match the supposedly “traditional” style of e.g. a Speysider or an Islay. But Speyside doesn’t need to be malt and raisins, Highland needn’t be rich and spicy, and Islay does not have to be smoky. It’s up to distillers, being creative and innovative to bring you incredible whisky. Everything else is just how you market it.* Slàinte!

*And yes, for the attention it might bring, we are all for the idea of Fife becoming its own unique whisky region. If Campbeltown got to keep its status because it had 3 distilleries, we are definitely already there, and there is something special about this place. We’d love to see people coming down for a few days to explore all of the Fife distilleries and whisky haunts, maybe taking part in a Fife Whisky Trail, maybe even visiting Fib itself. It’s a beautiful idea and something to look forward to, unifying drams by place rather than necessarily by style so that future distilleries can continue to push for innovation and beautiful spirit, while Fife, or any other region come to think of it, can get recognition as a space and culture for drams. Don’t you agree? Slàinte na Fìobha! Slàinte na h-Alba! Slàinte na h-uisge beatha!


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