May 16th 2023
Island Whisky: The Characteristics of a Maritime Malt
The provenance of a whisky and the impact on flavour should never be underestimated – even more so in the case of an Island Whisky.
White sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, an abundance of rock pools teeming with wildlife and miles of sand dunes – you could be forgiven for thinking you’d landed on a Caribbean beach, but the isles of Scotland are a geographical paradise all on their own.
Home to a collective population of around of around 104,000, just 93 of the country’s approximate 790 islands are inhabited. These remote communities thrive on local businesses, with island distilleries playing a crucial role in the island economies.
The most well-known of these islands is handsomely rugged Islay, famed for its peated exports, the location of nine of Scotland’s most iconic distilleries today. Islay has long enjoyed an association with whisky, dating back somewhere to the early 1400s. It wasn’t until the Excise Act was enacted in 1644, that there was a boom of illicit distilling, the island a safe haven from tax collectors due to the challenging geographic position and a reservation from the taxmen on their reception with the Ileachs.
Of course, this is not the only reason why islands have been favoured as a destination to make whisky – aspects such as source water, fertile lands, availability of peat and unique microclimate all play a part. To understand the characteristics of a maritime malt, let’s set sail on our journey of flavour.
Set Sail on the Seas around the Scottish Islands
Recent years have seen a plethora of new distilleries with the ambition of making whisky pop up across many of the Scottish islands. But for all intents and purposes, whisky is largely produced at a small selection of isles – namely: Islay, Jura, Arran, Orkney, Skye, Mull and Lewis.
Some islands, like Islay have a distinctive style. For Islay, this is a heavily peated spirit, rich in phenols attributed to tasting notes such as charcoal, bacon, creosote and medicinal qualities. In contrast, the characteristics of the other islands are far reaching, with some expressions displaying an oily brine aspect in their spirit, others a spicy yet sweet characteristic akin to a Highland distillery.
It’s worth mentioning as far as protected destinations of origin are applied through Scotch Whisky Law, the only official region of the islands is regarded as Islay, with the others falling into a Highlands naming convention. Despite this differentiation, there are similarities across island new make spirit, with an expression of savoury salinity and coastal character – a reflection of its maritime provenance.
The DNA of an Island Whisky
As explored in the Unexpected Maturation of a Rare Old Scotch Whisky, the raw materials such as barley and source water have a debatable impact on the final flavour of a whisky. Some water sources may take on maritime properties purely due to their positioning where they are situated on the island. Similarly, the island microclimate may influence the availability of source water too.
For today’s scale of whisky production, it is unsustainable to source barley grown locally on the islands – there is just not enough room! Instead, islands rely on shipments from the mainland – which can be a challenge when delivered by ferry as poor weather conditions or ferry breakdowns can impact productivity.
Peat is a fuel source that historically has been prominent across the Hebridean and Northern isles. Due to the remote nature of the islands, fuel even to this day can be challenging to supply off the mainland. Today most sustainable options are used, but the smoky fuel was historically key to heat homes and as fertiliser in agriculture.
Peat is an accumulation of organic and decayed matter, compounded. It is cut from bogs or moors before being processed as a fuel. Islands across Scotland have often been blessed with an abundance of this and hence its prominence in whisky production, used in the drying of barley to impart a phenolic, smoky quality into new make spirit. However, it is noted that like any fossil fuel, it is a finite resource, and likely to face its own sustainability challenges in the future.
It is hotly debated if the location of a whisky’s final slumber in cask impacts the final flavour, but for new make spirit which spends its days asleep on the Scottish Islands, the casks are likely to be subject to an environment unique to the location. Microclimates will influence the evaporation of the Angel’s Share – and the surround sea air can oxidise and interact with the cask itself. Whether this influence on flavour is truly detectable is down to the owner of the subsequent whisky, but it would be remiss to not consider the maritime forces of nature.
In the case of especially well-aged whisky, it is unlikely that any peated spirit, no matter how strong, will present with an overwhelming phenolic profile. As new make spends years in cask, the wood tempers the stronger flavour of new make, resulting in a nuanced, beautifully balanced expression, just like A Trail of Smoke.
Reach the Crest of the Waves with A Trail of Smoke
There’s no better way to express a sojourn of the Hebridean seas than in the epitome of the Islands, bottled in A Trail of Smoke, a 42-Year-Old Blended Island Malt Scotch Whisky. Within this bottle of golden nectar is a meandering journey of the Scottish Islands, demonstrating the very best that the region has to offer.
We begin the flavour journey with a dry, herbal aspect, before moving into signature woodsmoke on the nose. The first taste reveals luscious notes of tropical and charred fruit, redolent of Scotland’s snow-white sandy beaches, offset by the burning smoke of a campfire – the peated savoury backbone of this evocative expression.
With just 385 bottles available, this non-chill filtered, and naturally coloured cask strength release will bring about a crescendo of briny yet sweet flavour and take your palate to the crests of the surrounding ocean waves.
Catch your own bottle, before they’re gone for good – and shop the epitome of an island whisky, A Trail of Smoke, now.