by Aiden FitzGerald
ISLAY, SCOTLAND—“You may not like it, but you’ll start to appreciate it,” said thirty year old Edinburgh native David Blackmore, whose passion for single malt whisky is as ardent as his hair is red. He poured a couple of drops of amber colored Ardbeg into his hands, quickly rubbed them together and inhaled. “Aaah,” he said. “Smokey, beautiful, delicious.”
Such adjectives are uttered frequently on the island of Islay (pronounced eye-luh), home to the world’s largest concentration of whisky. Seven distilleries within the island’s narrow bounds, just 25 miles long by 20 miles wide at its broadest points, produce the world’s most bold and briny malts. Enthusiasts pilgrimage from far off places for a taste from the source of the peaty mystique of Islay. Ardbeg. Laphroaig. Bowmore. Lagavulin. Bunnahabhain. Bruichladdich. Caol Ila. The names themselves conjure images of an ancient fairyland.
This often-overlooked island, with a population of 3,000, holds plenty of allure for teetotalers, too. The pace of life is as slow as aging whisky. Wooly sheep and shaggy Highland cows graze freely. Drivers wave to passersby on winding, one-track roads. Fishermen unload their day’s catch of lobster and crab. Great stones standing since Neolithic times are scattered on granite hills. Storms give way to sunshine. Islay’s weather seems to change in the beat of a bird’s wing.
“People come to Islay for mainly one thing—whisky,” said Ian Munro, who, with his wife Mavis, owns the Bowmore Bed and Breakfast. He gestured to the bottle of ten-year old Ardbeg in his hand. “But once they arrive, they enjoy the rest of the island.”
In the Muro’s comfortable living room with a view of Lake Indaal, we sipped “wee drams” of the smooth and smokey single malt. “There are many drinks that I enjoy,” Ian said with a smile, “but whisky is my favorite. More so than others, it’s meant to be savored and sipped slowly.”
Islay‘s past is never far from its present. Relics and ruins rise from green pastures like cliffs from the sea. On the southeastern coast of the island, at the end of the road past the Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries, stands a place of worship that far precedes the creation of whisky. The Kildalton cross is Scotland’s only surviving complete Celtic high cross. Raised in the 8th century, the cross seems to unite elements of Christianity and more ancient faiths. Monks from Iona carved the nine-foot tall cross from a single slab of local blue stone. Biblical scenes of the Virgin and the child and of David slaying Goliath decorate one side of the cross, while the other is carved with animals and Celtic patterns. Weather worn and unprotected, the cross is in remarkable condition. It rises among chapel ruins in the Kildalton churchyard. Across the single-track road, deer frolic in a field.
The only road to the Kildalton cross begins beyond Bowmore, the capital town in the heart of the island. On the return inland, we pass Seal Bay, where seals swim and sunbathe on rocks. A hen and her chicks stop traffic as they cross the road. “It’s like a safari out here,” calls Christine Logan, our guide and driver. Logan has recently started her tourism business, “Queen of the Isle,” a fitting name considering her apparent personal popularity. She knows every islander’s name and story. Turns out, we were Logan’s first clients, her “guinea pigs,” as she said.
In Bowmore, a main street leads directly from harbor to hilltop where The Round Church overlooks the town. Made round to ensure that there were no corners in which the devil could hide, it was built in 1767. In medieval times Islay was the center of a kingdom encompassing much of Western Scotland, the Western Isles and parts of Northern Ireland. On the northern part of the island remain fragments of Finlaggen, the home of the Lords of the Isle for almost four hundred years. At its height, during the 12th to 16th centuries, the Lordship governed virtually the entire west coast of Scotland From this tiny island. Surrounded by expansive moorland, a stream brown with peat carves its way to Finlaggen Lake.
Islay is the most southerly of Scotland’s western isles, the Inner Hebrides. It is a half an hour flight from Glasgow. On a clear day, you can see the coast of Ireland, just 25 miles south.
Single malt scotch appears to be the most natural spirit. More than any other, the single malts are formed by their environment. Whisky is all about the place from where it comes. Those derived from the rugged, peaty land of Islay, with great exposure to sea-air, are said to be the most smokey single malts. Malted barley is infused with water and fermented with yeast, then distilled in a copper pot-still. It must mature for a minimum of three years in Scotland. Despite being priced on the high end – typically, a bottle of Ardbeg 10 year costs $55; Ardbeg 1965 sells for $4,000— single malts are growing in popularity. The term single malt indicates that the whisky in one bottle came from one source, unblended with other malts.
Whisky connoisseurs treat their beverage favorites as saucy and sensuous.
“I want to spank it. I want to calm it down,” said one man, who sips his whisky “neat”—without water or ice—the way most Scots do.
“It fires me up,” said another. “This is for troops preparing for battle.”
Islay scotch is a taste that is worth acquiring. Slainte!
Aiden FitzGerald is a freelance writer pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction at Emerson College. She loves to travel and mingle with the locals wherever she goes.
She’s also The Cocktail Guru’s Sister-in-Law.