More Than Just Peat and Smoke: The Best Islay Single Malts

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These whiskies are truly special. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Islay is a rocky island off the southern coast of Scotland, home to less than 4,000 inhabitants—about a quarter of whom speak Gaelic—and probably a larger number of sheep. Islay's main industry may be agriculture, but this remote island isn't known for its agriculture; it's famous for its whiskies, some of which have been made there for more than 200 years.

Islay whiskies are, almost without exception, big on flavor; if you're looking for a light and delicate dram, you've come to the wrong place. These Scotches also have a reputation for being "peat monsters," a reference to the peat (basically dirt made from decaying vegetation) which covers a good chunk of the island. The peat fuels the fires that roast the barley used in whisky-making, and it gives the finished product a robust flavor that recalls a campfire by the sea: smoky, earthy, a little salty, slightly medicinal. But Islay whiskies aren't just about the peat and smoke. They're a thrillingly varied lot, with distinctions both subtle and not-so-subtle between them. There are only eight distilleries currently active on the island, but each one produces a unique, distinctive whisky—more than one, in a few cases.

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If you want to explore Islay's most delicious whiskies, consider this your guide. Unfortunately, though, I have some bad news: they're not cheap. Why the high prices? First off, four of these fantastic whiskies have been aged for 16 years or longer, and the old adage that time equals money is never more true than with Scotch whisky. Storage space in a distillery's warehouse doesn't come for free, after all. Older doesn't always mean better when it comes to Scotch whisky, but given the right conditions and the right people looking after the whisky, the extra years spent in the barrel can work magic, giving the finished product flavors only time can provide.

But the biggest reason for the hefty price tags is their...well, their Islay-ness. You can't make a whisky with these big, powerful, distinctive flavors anywhere else. And Islay single malts especially have gotten more popular in recent years, causing the prices to rise, particularly on older bottlings that were laid down long before distillers had any inkling that their whiskies would become hip. If you find yourself with a bit of sticker shock, it's worth hitting a well-stocked whisky bar to try a dram before going in on a whole bottle. Splitting a bottle with a friend will also put a smaller dent in your wallet.

There are cheaper Islay whiskies, but if you ask me, there aren't any better than these six. Whether you're treating yourself or looking for a special Father's Day gift, these are the bottles to seek out.

Ardbeg Uigeadail

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No-age-statement single malts (meaning there's no age listed on the bottle, which usually indicates a blend of young and older whiskies) are flooding liquor store shelves these days. Some are better than others, and most of them aren't as good as their age-statement counterparts. Ardbeg's Uigeadail (pronounced "OO-ga-dahl," $75 for 750 mL) is the exception to the rule. A mix of whiskies aged in barrels that have previously held bourbon and sherry, Uigeadail is bottled at cask strength, a hefty 54.2% alcohol. Given the high proof and its dominant flavors of peat and smoke (Ardbeg makes some of the most heavily peated whiskies on Islay), it sounds a little intimidating. But have some courage and dive in—you'll taste a beautifully balanced whisky, with grapefruit, orange peel, and raisin flavors rounding out the whisky's earthy, smoky side. Adding a few drops of water tones down the smoke and ups the citrus a bit, but this is smooth enough that you don't need to add anything; even at cask strength there's no alcoholic burn on the finish. The combination of flavors is like a lumberjack in a tuxedo: brute power combined with refined elegance. You won't find this mix in many other whiskies, regardless of price.

Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old

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Bunnhahabhain (pronounced "bun-ah-HA-ben") has long flown under the radar, as the distillery's whisky has historically been used in blends for other brands. But Bunnahabhain 18 ($125 for 750 mL) is so much more than just a novelty. In recent years it's lost both the caramel coloring and chill filtration that were used to make it look more attractive, and the result is a much better tasting whisky, one that's gone from good to great. Matured in a mix of barrels that have held both sherry and bourbon, it's a nearly bottomless reservoir of intense wine and raisin flavors, along with caramel, honey, and nuts. There are also hints of smoke (Bunnhahabhain's whiskys are known for being lightly peated, but that doesn't mean totally unpeated) and sea spray—you can picture the barrels aging near the shore. It's fascinating to get the sense of Islay's terroir in a glass minus the expected big peaty notes. For fans of sherried whiskies like the Macallan or Glenfiddich, this is a must-try; I often prefer Bunnahabhain to either for the extra maritime flavors it imparts.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old

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If I had to sum up the essence of Islay in a glass, I'd likely pour a dram of Lagavulin 16 (pronounced "la-ga-VOO-lin," $90 for 750 mL). It's the quintessential Islay malt, with a slightly sweet and woody opening followed by the wham! of dense, pungent peat and campfire smoke. Let it linger on the tongue and you'll quickly notice notes of iodine and seaweed; it's the closest you can get to being on the rocky shores of Islay without getting on a plane first. But it's not all peat and sea spray. Pay attention to the rich, dark fruit flavors (tart plum, dried apricot) lingering beneath the surface, and also to the subtle dark chocolate/coffee notes on the finish. This colossal whisky isn't for everyone, but if you can hang on, it's a hell of a ride. Lagavulin has offered bottlings of different ages, ranging from 12 all the way up to 37 years, but the 16 really hits the sweet spot. The peaty notes are still quite lively (they tend to mellow out after more than 20 years or so), and the wood rounds out all the flavors without dominating too much.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask

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While Lagavulin sticks mainly to classic expressions, Laphroaig (pronounced "la-FROYG") is always trying something a little experimental. There are new Laphroaig bottlings popping up faster than you can say "Slainte," each one with different methods and lengths of aging. The classic 10 year old Laphroaig is a good place to start, but if you're going to limit yourself to one bottle, my favorite of the bunch is the Quarter Cask ($50 for 750 mL). After aging in standard sized bourbon barrels for five years, it's finished in barrels a quarter the size (hence the name) for an additional seven months. The theory is that putting more of the liquid in contact with the wood helps it age faster. This theory can result in harsh, unbalanced whisky, but with Laphroaig it works beautifully. This is a young, vibrant, downright exciting dram. Sure, it has that smoky-peaty-sea-salt-mineral-iodine flavor, but here that's toned down a bit, which lets the vanilla-toffee sweetness from the bourbon barrels come through a little more. Compared to other Islay malts, which can range from pricey to insanely expensive, it's a great value. More than that, however, it's a sheer joy to drink.

Bruichladdich Black Art 4 1990

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"The Laddie," as it's known, has a checkered history. The brand dates back to the 1880s, but it changed hands many times over the decades and the distillery was mothballed for several years in the '90s. Since production ramped back up in 2001, Bruichladdich (pronounced "brook-LAH-dee") has produced some idiosyncratic and oddball bottlings, some of them more heavily peated than anything else on Islay and some not peated at all. In an industry that equates age with quality, they've gone against the grain by making some astonishingly good young (we're talking five or six years old) whiskies. But Black Art ($300 for a 750 ml bottle), laid down before the distillery was closed and aged for close to a quarter century, stands above the rest. It's named for the somewhat secretive and mysterious aging process, but we do know that it has rested in both former bourbon barrels (made with American oak) and new French oak barrels. The combination gives it rich, sumptuous notes of vanilla, caramel, and raspberry jam, plus a long, smooth finish. Its concentrated flavors belie all the time spent in oak, but surprisingly, it's not overly woody. And it's not peated, either—further proof that there's more to Islay whiskies than smoke and peat. Most of my favorite Islay malts give you a real sense of the place; this one, not as much. But it's so perfectly executed that every time I drink it, I think, "Oh, so that's what all these other distillers are trying to do."

Caol Ila 30 Year Old

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You may not know Caol Ila (pronounced "kah-LEE-lah") by name, but you've probably had their whisky before—it's what brings the smoky, slightly bitter notes to Johnnie Walker Black's blend. Caol Ila is actually the biggest whisky producer on Islay, and the vast majority of the distillery's output is used in blends, but over the last few decades the brand has built up its reputation as an excellent stand-alone single malt, too. Caol Ila 30 Year Old ($700 for 750 mL) comes out periodically in limited quantities; this batch, distilled in 1983, was recently released in an edition of less than 8,000 bottles. Aged in American and European oak casks that have held Scotch whisky before, it's intensely flavorful, with smoke and ash layering over flavors of vanilla, anise, sea salt, and iodine. Bottled at cask strength (55% alcohol by volume in this case), a few drops of water round it out and amplify vanilla and light fruity notes. It's a bracing, almost medicinal whisky, but this is a medicine I'd gladly take twice a day for the duration. The more you know Scotch whisky, the more you'll appreciate the nuances of Caol Ila 30; I like to think of it as single malt grad school. Given that the price of 'tuition' is pretty astronomical, consider it a once-in-a-lifetime indulgence. Or if you can find a whisky bar that sells it by the ounce, a once-in-a-while treat.

Note: Tasting samples of all whiskies provided for review consideration.