Peat, Smoke, and Spirit is a borrowed title from Andrew Jefford’s excellent book on the distilleries on Islay. It’s a must read for anyone remotely interested in Islay Scotches, and it does a fine job of weaving together the island’s long, bloody but fascinating history in between chapters on the different distilleries. I picked up the book in a tiny bookshop in the Isle of Skye, rationalizing that if I couldn’t visit the distilleries there, I could at least read about them. And it has turned out to be a delightful read. As I flipped through the pages, I couldn’t help but wish that I had a dram of Laphroaig in front of me, some Ardberg, some Bowmore…
Last Friday, I got a part of my wish. After climbing at the outdoor wall, we retired gratefully to my favorite Scottish pub, Duke of Perth, to warm our tummies and massage back to life our frozen fingers (it was that cold out). I ordered a dram of Bruichladdich, one of the Islay malts I’d just read about. Unlike most of the Islay malts that are famous for their distinct smoky peat character, Bruichladdich is a light, fruity and floral Scotch with an almost sweet aftertaste. It was delicious, smooth, and simply easy to drink – I didn’t even need to add a part of water to calm down the alcohol.
Last night, I got the chance to try more of the Islay scotches when a bunch of friends and I ventured into the South Loops’s Warehouse Liquors, where Evan Cattanach, Master Distiller Emeritus for The Classic Malt Selection, had been invited to conduct a tasting of whiskies from around the world. Ewan had set up a long table at the back of the shop, where a mini crowd of people were already gathered around when we arrived. Spread on the table were more than two dozen bottles of whiskies and Scotches, and I wasted no time in trying out the multitude of whiskies that Ewan pressed into my hands. I must have tried more than a dozen whiskies there, but in my excitement and haste in tasting, I did not stop to take detailed notes and so must now only rely on my already foggy memory:
Lagavulin: Considered the aristocrats of Islay scotches, and I knew why as soon as I lifted the glass to my nose: incredibly smoky, reminiscent of smoked bacon and haddock. The taste itself is dry; intense flavors; sweet sherry; went deliciously well with the square of dark chocolate proffered. Long, lingering finish. FYI – I left with a bottle of it; it’s now my new favorite scotch.
Caol Ila: Another Islay scotch – yay, that brings my total count up to 4/7. I very nearly bought this one instead of the Lagavulin; I think I’m just a sucker for peatiness. Faint tinge of saltiness to it too, but not nearly as overwhelming as the Lagavulin; off sweet and quite light. Colleen left with a bottle.
Oban: My third favorite of the night. Again, somewhat smoky, but sweet and smooth; some fruit on the nose, I didn’t quite get which. Figs maybe?
Singleton: Speyside malt with notes of honey, sherry, and just a whiff of smoke. Quite smooth, fourth favorite.
Dalwhinney: Ewan described this as his favorite breakfast scotch. Goes with cereal, he said, only you don’t have to eat the cereal. It’s quite distinct from the Island scotches; not a single hint of smokiness. Very light, floral and fruity – apricots, figs.
Cragganmore: Sweet nose (marshmallows) and body, with an oddly bitter finish.
Glenkinchie: I think this was the one with the medicinal/herbal nose; I can’t recall exactly now. Apparently, it’s one of the remaining three Lowland whiskies in production.
Talisker: I tried the distiller’s edition, aged in sherry port. Delicious; I could taste a tinge of sherry on the nose and at the end.
Crown Royale: Canadian whiskey – Wendy said this was the first whiskey she’d ever tasted. We were treated to the special reserve edition, a $300 bottle which came luxuriously packaged in a satin-lined box. It took me by surprise – how it slid so smoothly down my throat. A ghost of a whisky really, since it was gone so fast I could barely register the faint burn of alcohol on my tongue. Quite an experience!
Bullet Bourbon: I don’t think I’ve ever tried bourbon before this one… it was an interesting experience; packed quite a punch. It was a lot stronger and harsher than the scotches, could taste the corn, charred wood with notes of vanilla.
Bushmill: Irish whiskey; sweet chocolately nose, roasted marshmallows, very smooth.