If I were to tell you about a wondrous place that looked like the backdrop for Game of Thrones, is populated by more whiskey barrels than people and produces the finest single-malt whisky in the world, you might think I’ve had a few too many. Thankfully, for those who indulge in the “water of life” (which whiskey translates to in Gaelic), this mythical malt paradise is no fantasy island. Whiskey Island is indeed real and we’re going to take you there.
The rugged island of Islay (pronounced EYE-lah) is located off the coast of Scotland and is a magical landscape of hidden beaches, windswept cliffs, remote hills and medieval castles. There are two main roads and only 3,500 residents, most whom work at one of the eight scotch distilleries located on the island: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig. A ninth one, Gartbrek, is set to open in August 2015.
The island specializes in the production of some of the finest single malts in the world. Single malts, the Rolls Royce of scotch whiskey, are whiskies distilled from one lone distillery and have matured in casks for at least three years. Ironically, over 90 percent of the casks used to make Islay single malt whisky, have been previously used to age American bourbon, and bought second hand from U.S. distillers. It's a testimony to the ingenuity and frugality of the Scots who have very few oak trees on their harsh, rocky island. The Islay single malts, of which no two are exactly alike, are known for their full-bodied, smoky flavor, which comes from peat (a mossy bog soil) that is used to fuel fires that toast the barley used in the complex distillation process. Legend has it that the spirit’s recipe was taught to locals by Irish monks in the 14th century and locals have have been perfecting it for the last 600 years.
Wonderfully enough, all of Islay’s iconic distilleries offer guided tasting tours that will educate you about the ins and outs of their outstanding, hand-crafted spirits. If you’re feeling thirsty by now, (we are too) know that the best time of year to visit is during the annual Islay Festival of Malt and Music (Fèis Ìle) in late May. This incredible celebration features a week-long celebration of Scottish food (haggis anyone?), Gaelic festivities, Celtic bands (pray for Flogging Molly) and special whiskey tastings, of course. If all that isn’t your thing (read: you’re hungover), Islay is ripe for exploration. The stunning landscape features mountainous lookout points for you to snap Instagrams of the steel blue ocean, green hills and over 100 species of birds that inhabit Scotland’s fifth largest island. If you can’t make the pilgrimage, you can always experience Scottish hospitality at home and have the Islay brands delivered to your door by online retailers like the Whiskey Exchange. Our current favorites are the perennially awesome Ardbeg 10 ($65) and the rich and timeless Bruichladdich Laddie 10 ($110).
Slàinte Mhath (cheers in Scottish)!