With their reputation for a distinctive, bonfire-like aroma and strongly peaty flavour, you could be forgiven for thinking Islay whiskies are only for wintry nights in front of a roaring fire, preferably whilst tending to your beard (editor's note: non-beard owners are viable whisky lovers, too).
Look a little closer though, and it’s quickly apparent there’s a lot more depth here. Certainly, while some of these malts are more boisterous house guests than their refined highland cousins, spend a little time in their company and you can begin to discern the glorious and varied characters they truly are.
Islay (pronounced ‘eye-la’) is only 25 long and 15 miles wide, but is home to nine whisky distilleries, with two more on the way in the coming years.
Perhaps most importantly to whisky drinkers though, the island is practically made entirely of peat, which was traditionally used to dry the barley before its transformation into whisky.
Peats vary from place to place, depending upon their environment, and the peat smoke of Islay has absorbed the cool sea air of the North Atlantic, lending it a specifically salty, medicinal quality that is released when it is burned.
These days, peat is used to add flavour to the whisky rather than as an essential part of the production process, and the balance of smokiness and peatiness is carefully controlled by each distillery to preserve their house style, but it remains absolutely central to the Islay whisky flavour.
Some will favour a rich, woodsmoke nose, some dial up the TCP-like quality of the peat, some like to create an equilibrium that allows for a softer, less dramatic equilibrium of spice and smoulder.
Sometimes time can temper the beast, but we’ll also be showcasing some expressions that are everything you’d expect from Islay, and then some.
Of course, that’s just the world-renowned and time-honoured styles. But let’s not overlook some of the young upstarts kicking out the drams.
Much as hot sauces are subject to the how hot can you eat challenge, so have some malts asked how much you can peat, upping the ante with ever more smoked and peated whiskies to appeal to a younger, thrill-seeking crowd.
At the other end of the spectrum, although equally scandalous, the Bruichladdich distillery (originally founded in 1881, shut down in 1994, reopened under new ownership in 2000) produces a range of (sharp intake of breath) unpeated whiskies.
Best for: newbies
Bowmore has been in the business of making its distinctive whisky for the best part of 250 years so, as you might imagine, they know what they’re about. If you’re dipping your toe into Islay’s take on the water of life for the first time, then this is an ideal entry point. A fine thread of smoke, heather sweetness and just a smidgen of iodine makes this malt a lovely balance of all the island has to offer.
We recommend it with a little water (add carefully – you can always add more, but you can’t take it out) which really opens up the flavours and increases the sweetness, giving it a slightly sherbety, old-school confectionary vibe.
Best for: Mixologists
Islay whiskies only rarely work well in a cocktail – they’re just too big a personality to be make nice with the other ingredients. And when it comes to Islay whiskies, personalities don’t come much bigger than Laphroaig.
However, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there must be an exception to the rule, and thus we come to the Penicillin. Laphroaig’s 10-year-old expression is the one for which the distillery is, justly, famous. The initial nose is redolent of sticking plaster and old-fashioned medicine chests; salt and smoke coat the tongue, and a dash of water brings some vanilla to the party. But not much.
So why do we recommend it for a cocktail? Well, you can use a nice, gentle blend for the base, combining it with ginger liqueur, lemon juice and honey, and then just add a splash of Laphroaig to bring the noise. Shake over ice and serve. Truly, a cure for what ails you.
Best expensive Islay whisky
You’ve had a chance to try a variety of Islay malts, you know your Bunnahabhain from your Bruichladdich and your Caol Ila from your Kilchoman. But an (admittedly rather eccentric) barman puts a (metaphorical) gun to your head and demands you name the most Islay of Islay whiskies.
The one of which the merest scent will tip you into a Proustian reverie that transports you to that charmed Hebridean island like it or no. Without a moment’s thought you wheel around and grab the Lagavulin from the back bar and he gasps and crumples in defeat. As well he might. At 16 years old, this malt is a perfect fusion of Islay’s core elements. Smoke (lots of it) spice, plenty of TCP-flavoured peat, a slap of seaweed and a long sherried finish of sweet dried fruit.
We like it undiluted, but be warned, it will take your breath away.
Best: Young pretender
We don’t know your tolerance for being told something is rock ‘n’ roll. Much as with Brewdog co-opting punk, there’s something slightly suspicious about very well-packaged claims of countercultural rebellion. However, it must be admitted that this whisky is a lot of fun. It’s a single malt, which means it is produced by one distillery on Islay, but the identity of the producer is a closely-guarded secret (our bet is on Ardbeg, but we wouldn’t put money on it).
This is a cask strength whisky, coming in at a punchy 58%, so we’re going to add a little water (don’t tell the Smokeheads) which actually brings out a lot of flavour that is otherwise lost in the full-on alcohol assault of a neat taster. There’s smoke, natch, but also a velvety, sweet/sour flavour and a real blast of savoury, salty, barbecued meat.
Don’t take the advertising too seriously, and we think you’re on to something here. And if you do get too carried away, just make sure the tattoos are the kind that wash off.
Best: Special edition
Given that many single malt scotch whiskies must be laid down years in advance before they can be sold, and whisky rides the rollercoaster of being fashionable or last week’s news as much as any luxury commodity, many distilleries hedge their bets.
Special editions can be younger expressions of their flagship bottling, mixtures of younger and more mature vintages, or even stored in smaller barrels to increase the spirit’s contact with the wood and speed up the process by which the wood flavours the whisky.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it does mean there are a great many special editions out there, and not all of them are actually all that striking. Make way, then, for Ardbeg’s Uigedail. A blend of whiskies stored in ex-bourbon and ex-oloroso sherry casks, makes for a beautiful marriage of sweet and salt. Think dates, raisins and candied peel mixed with barbecued, smoky bacon and some muscovado sugar and you’ve just got started. While it’s not for the faint at heart, or wallet for that matter, we think this is one of the best Islay has to offer.
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