Searching for the Perfect Dram on Islay
Whisky and I got off to a rocky start. The first time I tried it was in college. It tasted like rocket fuel. I only drank it when I had no other options — and drowned what little I poured into my glass under a ton of Coke.
Then I met my friend Dan, whose home collection of various Scotches and whiskies rivaled any bar I knew. He and Choun, the manager of Rye House in NYC, slowly walked me through the world of whisky. From sweet to smoky to heavy to peaty, I got to taste everything.
I went from whisky hater to whisky lover, and soon I learned that there was nothing I liked more than the smoky, peaty whiskies that come from the Scottish island of Islay. I came to love their campfire smell and strong bite at the end.
Last month, I finally had the chance to visit Islay with Sean, my other whiskyphile friend. Located off the west coast of Scotland, Islay is a large island battered by the sea, wind, and rain. (The weather is so bad that planes can’t land often enough that the island’s carrier FlyBe’s nickname is “FlyMaybe.”)
As my whisky-loving friend Sean and I flew onto the island, I gazed out my window in glee. I was finally in the whisky drinker’s promised land and it looked beautiful. Through the cloud cover, I could see a vast green island with rocky shores, endless farms, grazing sheep, and rolling hills dotted with diminutive stone houses. The land looked pastoral and untamed. It’s hard to imagine that so much of the world’s whisky originates here.
Whisky has a long history on Islay. It’s been made there since the 16th century — first in backyards and then, starting in the 19th century, in big distilleries. Over the years, whisky from the island came to be considered a specialty and was used to flavor a lot of other blends on the mainland. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Islay whisky became world famous. The island produces mostly single malt Scotch, which means they only use one type of grain (barley).
Sean and I visited seven of the eight distilleries on the island (sorry, Coal Ila, see you next time!). We began our first day at Bowmore (Sean’s favorite), famous for its mildly peaty whiskies. Bowmore was founded in 1779 and is one of the oldest and largest distilleries on the island, producing 1.5 million liters per year. Located on the shores of Loch Indaal in the town that bears it name, the white painted buildings behind the walls of Bowmore made it seem less a factory and more like a housing complex. (All but one of the distilleries are located near the water because it was easier to get supplies in and out of the bays rather than overland.)