The beautiful and has risen to iconic status in the world of whisky. Famed for creating some of the richest peated Scotches in the world, Islay Scotches are full of peaty smoke and sea spray. They can vary from medicinal to fruity. But whatever your palate, the quality is impossible to deny.
But which Islay Scotch is best?
After a deliciously smoky taste-test, we’ve created a ranking of the best Islay whiskies in 2019. Though it was a hard choice, Lagavulin 16 Year was at the top of my list. It’s an unwavering classic that any Islay-lover should keep in their collection. The deep rich caramel notes blend so divinely with the Islay peat and salt.
If you’re looking for rankings in more detail, scroll to the bottom! Otherwise, let’s dive deep into the crown jewel of Scotch Whiskies!
What is an Islay Scotch?
Simply put, an Islay Scotch is a single malt scotch or blended malt scotch that originates from the island of Islay.
And whisky distillation has been a part of Islay’s history for over 500 years.
There is a more in-depth discussion below, but single malt is mostly made from malt produced, distilled and bottled all in one distillery.
While most Islay scotch is the recognizable single malt, there are a few blended malt scotches from Islay as well. These are a combination of different malts from different distilleries.
Caol Ila also uses their whisky in a number of blended whiskies (different from blended malt whiskies) that are sold around the world. Blended whiskies are a combination of different malts and grains.
Where is Islay located?
The Island of Islay sits just off the west coast of Scotland. Slightly south of the other islands, the temperatures do not reach freezing and are milder than say, the Highlands.
It is a tiny island with a population of less than 5,000.
Islay is always wet, drenched by rain and swept by sea breezes. The combination of salt, seaweed, water, and a mild climate creates a sort of bog.
The moss and vegetation that covers the island decay and remain wet adding layers on top of each other to create a thick, black muddy substance – peat. Peat is often dried and used for fuel.
How is Islay Scotch Made?
The Islay distilling process is very similar to other scotch locations around the world.
Barley is grown, harvested, then malted (soaked to promote germination and then dried to halt germination.)
While many distillers on Islay credit the unique water flavors of the island (salty, full of sea minerals, and often brown) as key factors in adding flavor, the real difference lies in the drying process.
Much is Islay’s scotch is peated, meaning the malted barley is dried over burning peat rather than burning wood. The peat, Islay’s form of coal, has a very specific and unique flavor and imparts heavy smoke, moss, and salt to the barley flavors.
After drying the malt is combined with water and this mash is fermented. The fermented liquid is drained off into stills to go through first and second distillation.
The distilled liquors are then blended and place in barrels to age. Some for 5 years, some for decades!
Each distillery has unique elements they add or specific processes they follow in each of these steps that distinguish their final product from anyone else’s! (For example, Laphroaig flavors their barley with smoking peat for 17 hours, then uses hot air for another 19 hours to fully dry it.)
What does Islay Scotch Taste Like?
Islay Scotches are typically described as “smokey and medicinal, with notes of sea salt and sea minerals.” At least, that’s how I describe it!
All of the location factors: peat, mild temperatures, constant rain contribute to the flavor of the liquid.
In fact, it is these very characteristics that make Islay the gem of the single malt regions and producer of some of the finest scotches in the world.
Let’s look closer at each factor and what it brings to the whisky.
Peat adds smoke flavor to scotch. It’s far stronger than any wood-burning smell, but when combined with other flavors, adds a feeling of campfire smoke. Barley dried over peat absorbs the phenols from the peat and creates the smokey whisky we all know and love.
The mild climate allows the grain to mature into a rich fruity flavor. Many Islay whiskies, especially the unpeated ones, have strong fruit and notes.
Seaweed and Sea Salt Spray
The seaweed and sea salt combined with other vegetation helps dry out the peat and adds a marine, sea salt note.
The endless rain and sea spray blew across the island maintain the constant bog-like environment that allows the peat to form over years of decay and compaction.
Common Flavors in Islay Scotch:
- Sea minerals
Islay once had about 23 distilleries operating on its coast. Over the years they have come and gone. There are currently around 9 functioning distilleries open today. But with a resurgence in popularity, Islay is opening around 5 more over the next few years!
Southern distilleries tend to be very heavy on peat. They produce medium-bodied whiskies, and since they are right near the southern coast, most have heavy iodine or salt flavor.
One of the strongest Islay scotches, almost always aged to at least 10 years. They claim their water is what makes their whisky so unique. One of the three distilleries with its own malting floor.
Reopened and now owned by Glenmorangie. This is one of the peaty-est whiskey options out there.
There is evidence to suggest there was illegal distilling on this site as far back as 1742! Noted for strong peat and very strong iodine.
Perfectly situated between North and South, these distilleries have the best of both worlds. Still full of peat and salt spray, they also contain a more mild flavor and wider varieties.
Bowmore started in 1771 and is the oldest distillery on the island. The second of three distilleries with its own malting floor. They have one of the widest ranges and varieties produced. It is milder than the three southern “Kildalton” distilleries, but still contains signature peat and salt.
You’ve likely had their whisky before, though you didn’t know its name. The peated variety is used in many blends including Jack Daniels and Chivas Regal. They are the largest producer of whisky on the island, though most of it is in blended forms.
The northern distilleries are milder, colder temperatures reduce fruitiness and they use lightly peated barley. Less medicinal quality with more moss and nuts.
It is one of the newest distilleries, just built in 2004 and the last of three with its own malting floor. Their entire process is done on the island, from growing to bottling!
Run entirely without computers, this distillery is a testament to how scotch used to be made! Produces several unpeated varieties as well. These have strong alcohol content but are a bit creamier in texture.
Recently was bought by Remy Cointreau and they unveiled plans to rebuild the Port Charlotte distillery under the Bruichladdich leadership.
One of the distilleries in the north. It has a remarkably low level of peat, almost undetectable in some bottles. The water that supplies Bunnahabhain flows through limestone to avoid picking up peat.
Officially the newest distillery on Islay. Number 9! The distillery is producing and had its opening ceremony on April 12th. Bottles will be available to the public soon. It is a family-owned and operated facility. There are two copper pot stills, which are somewhat new for Islay. It is definitely a new take on the classic!
To open Soon
The distillery itself is closed, although plans to reopen it were revealed in 2017. Supposedly production begins in 2020. Old bottle versions are considered collectibles.
It should be noted that the Port Ellen Malting floor is still operational and supplies malts for a number of distilleries around Islay.
Plans have been submitted, but nothing has been confirmed as yet. It would have distilleries, maltings, warehouses, restaurant, and gift shop.
Delays in planning have held up this opening. It will likely become the 10th distillery to open. They are also planning two copper stills and are using some of the old buildings at Ardanhoe.
Delayed due to financial crises and seems to have been indefinitely postponed in 2016.
Best Islay Scotch Ranked
Now we get down to the real reason you’re here. Below are the best Islay Scotches for 2019 (in my humble opinion of course!) And maybe a few bonuses we couldn’t leave off!
They are ranked according to flavor complexity, smoke-forward characteristics, and general mouth-feel.
1. Lagavulin 16 ($89.99)
So delicious I could just buy a bottle and hide it in a cupboard for myself. But that’s probably unhealthy so I’ll share it with you.
The peat and wood notes are immediate as soon as you open the bottle but there are a delicious caramel and toast note that deeps and enriches the whole bottle. The smoke is present and gives a meaty flavor to the dram. Lagavulin 16 the first peated scotch I tried and to this day it is still one of my favorites.
- Color: amber, medium-dark
- Nose: Campfire, driftwood, bacon, leather, sea salt, apothecary shop, apple/pear
- Palate no water: Salted caramel, alcohol comes in almost as an afterthought
- Nose water: Seaweed, Toasted wood, apples
- Palate water: Apples, toasted bread, sea spray, Toast, and smoke finish comes in much stronger
- Peat: Perfectly blended, present but not overwhelming, like being within the perfect distance of a campfire.
- Body: Medium-body
2. Ardberg 10 Year ($49.99)
Definitely one of the top beginner peats on the market. If you have had enough scotch before-hand, you’ll hardly even notice the peat. However, Ardberg tends to be one of the peatiest whiskies, so if you’re going to start, go with the 10 years! Smooth, delicious, and with something of an earthy mint and green character, it will definitely soften any peat-anxiety you may encounter.
- Color: Pale Yellow, very light, sometimes I can’t tell if there’s any in my glass or if that’s just the melted rock.
- Nose: Campfire smoke definitely evident, but with a hint of evergreen and mint. It light and appetizing.
- Palate no water: Espresso rubbed steak is my first thought, followed by pine needles, wet earth, and smoke.
- Nose water: Stronger mint and evergreen notes, wet earth and moss, licorice and tobacco are much more evident. But peat doesn’t entirely disappear.
- Palate water: Strong evergreen, pine, coniferous forests, a mid-winter vacation-vibe. Hints of mint. But it’s all followed by that excellent campfire smoke and notes of green coffee beans and tobacco leaves
- Peat: Noticeable, but not overwhelming. A nice smokey flavor to everything it touches.
- Body: Medium-bodied
3. Laphroaig Triple Wood ($63.99)
Laphroaig is a classic Islay, full of medicinal peat. But I do have to be in the mood for medicinal peat to enjoy a glass. I tend to prefer Triple Wood (which is why it’s on this list) since it has a deeper wood, leather, and old book flavor, which helps offset the medicinal notes.
But Laphroaig 10 is a good place to start as well!
- Color: rich deep amber, the darkest
- Nose: Toffee, apples, leather, medicinal background
- Palate no water: Medicinal, Leather, salt, spices for a kick, fall leaves, oak finish
- Nose water: Medicine hint upfront, Apple Leather, old book, Toffee, smoked wood
- Palate water: Apple juice with hot spices, Leather, Old paper and toasted wood finish
- Peat: Strong, but blends nicely with the spices and apple, a fall festival
- Body: Medium Body
4. Bunnahabhain 18 Year ($122.99)
Imagine drinking nectar from honeysuckle, that’s exactly what I thought of as I sipped the 18 years Bunnahabhain. No chill-filtration and no extra coloring, which is new for this distillery and adds a thicker and more oily texture.. And definitely a move upward. If you’re looking for a natural whisky from Bunnahabhain, this is the way to go! Ex-bourbon and sherry barrels. The sherried notes add just enough spice to make it complex.
- Color: Deep dark amber
- Nose: Honey, plumbs, caramel, no peat noticeable
- Palate no water: Honey, burnt caramel notes, toasted wood, some smoke in the back palate with touches of salt, generally smooth and sweet, but warming going down
- Nose water: Cream notes emerge, ripe pear, creamed honey, full rounded ripe orchard fruits.
- Palate water: The alcohol has even furthered mellowed out, stronger caramel notes, the peat has become just a faint memory of a campfire
- Peat: Hardly noticeable
- Body: Fully Body
5. Bowmore 12 Year ($47)
While I normally select the 25 years, since this list is for beginners and experts alike, I’d say try the 12. It’s more accessible on the market and is a nice introduction to one of the oldest distillery on Islay. The alcohol here is strong but palatable and warming. Flavors are classic Islay peat with a bit of sweet honey.
- Color: Light Amber, almost burnt Orange
- Nose: Cherries, orange, strong peat, and grill smoke
- Palate no water: Honey that instantly dissolves into smoked meat and bacon fat
- Nose water: The peat and smoke mellow out to a stronger fruit, sweet caramel note with a tinge of burnt marshmallow.
- Palate water: A campfire, but with a berry and melon salad on the side.
- Peat: Strong and evident, unavoidable. But pleasingly blended!
- Body: Medium Body
Bonus: Kilchoman Machir Bay ($63.99)
Islay’s Farm distillery has created a really excellent sample in Machir Bay. Aged in ex-bourbon and ex-Olosoro sherry casks, the dram is full of spice and vanilla-flavored cookies. It’s fruity and warm, but lighter than some of the heavier peats.
- Color: pale gold, the lightest
- Nose: Medicinal, sea salt spray, seaweed, honey cream, bread
- Palate no water: Sweet honey cream, sea salt sprinkles, sea breeze
- Nose water: Apples, honey, orchard fruit, the tiniest hint of salt
- Palate water: Light and airy, honey, apple, raisins, salt, the medicinal finish lasts long on the tongue
- Peat: Present, but not overwhelming, a hint of smoke in the back, like walking in an orchard
- Body: Light body
Bonus: Port Charlotte Islay Barley Heavily Peated Islay Single Malt ($67.99)
This is a sample from the Bruichladdich distillery is exactly what it says: heavily peated. With the exception of “Octomore” bottles, all of Bruichladdich’s heavily peated options fall under the “Port Charlotte” brand. (Port Charlotte is an old, no-longer-operating distillery on Islay’s coast.) The barley in Port Charlotte is grown on Islay itself, so it absorbs even more of the medicinal, salty sea-bring flavor. You can’t get a more Islay-flavored bottle!
- Color: bright gold, medium light
- Nose: very medicinal, strong seaweeds, strong alcohol, notes of almond or walnut, tiny hint of apple?
- Palate no water: Rush of salty, nutty, alcohol is very strong
- Nose water: Strong walnut and sea salt
- Palate water: Softer, nuts, and seaweed come to the foreground, medicinal taste in the back palate
- Peat: Very strong
- Body: Light body
Blended Islay Scotch
Blended scotches are mixtures of scotches from many different distilleries.
They tend to get a bad rap and aren’t prized as highly as the “pure expression” of single malt.
However, really excellent blends can rival excellent single malts since they often combine the best malts and grains to create really unique flavor combinations.
If you are interested in trying a blended Islay, below are a few options!
1. Cragabus Blended Islay Malt Scotch $90
This is a blended malt whisky. They include peat from the southern distilleries, but additions of northern distilleries mellow the sharper notes to create a very smooth blend. Campfire, wet wood, and slight cherry and vanilla in the background. It is still a strong dram, so don’t expect something very light and airy.
2. Smokey Joe Islay Malt $40
This is an incredibly strong and peaty blend. White the specific distilleries used in Smokey Joe are a secret, general consensus holds it’s probably Bowmore and Laphroaig. Largely fruity with pears and melons and some green notes. A good way to get lots of peat at a lower price. Add some water or ice to smooth it out!
3. Sheep Dip Islay $61
This blend has no grain element at all, just pure malt. Sheep Dip highlights classic Islay notes like peat, salt, and sea minerals. Dried fruit, apricots, and firey strength keep the peat from being overwhelming. Elements of chocolate, bacon, and toasted wood deepen the flavor.. A really excellent blend that is almost reminiscent of a Talisker Storm. It can be rather hard to find in the US.
Whiskies That Are Similar to Islay
With massive numbers of distilleries on both the mainland and the islands, you’re bound to be wondering if there’s something similar to Islay that is less expensive!
Yes and no. There is nowhere quite like Islay in the world. But there are a few distilleries that have similar characteristics. And some that are quite near to Islay that surprisingly don’t!
Isle of Jura
Just to the northeast of Islay lies the Island of Jura. There is only one distillery on the island, aptly named “Isle of Jura.” (There are only 200 people living on the Island so that gives you some perspective!)
The whiskies from this distillery are remarkably different and lacking the signature peat of Islay. They are powerful and strong, but more like Highland malts than Islay.
Isle of Arran
One of the last independent distilleries in Scotland and the only one on the Island of Arran. They use no peat in production except whatever is naturally in the water, though their second distillery, Lagg does use peat. The selections are aged in wine casks and tend to be highly sweet and fruity, more like a Speyside.
Talisker is the only operating distillery on the Island of Skye. They are very smokey but have a high concentration of pepper and spices. However, the maritime brine and peat subtly added via their water process in have made it famous all over the world! (Talisker 10 is my personal favorite daily sipper.)
Compass Box Peat Monster
If you’re looking for peat, this is the way to go! This is a blend of whiskies from all over, focuses on the peat and smokey flavors they bring to a mix. The distilleries involved are a secret, but we do know that at least two of them are from Islay! And there is definitely some sweet Speyside thrown in for good measure.
Compass Box Peat Monster ($48.68)
Why is Islay Scotch so smokey?
To understand the smoke flavor, you have to understand that it comes from peat.
Peat is the result of constant rain and sea spray. Islay never fully dries, so when vegetation on the island dies, it joins the wet bog beneath it.
Layer after layer of moss and vegetation decay without oxygen and create a black compound. The compound is mixed with seaweed and dried by sea salt spray, adding a salty marine flavor. When peat is dug up, cut into blocks, and dried, it can burn to produce a delicious pungent odor.
Peat was first used as fuel for fires and heating. We use coal, Islay uses peat.
When they turned to whisky distillation, Islay distillers used peat to dry out their barley. Thus, the beautiful fragrant peated Islay single malts were born.
Peat levels in scotch are measured by parts per million (ppm) with some of the most peated containing up to 54 ppm!
The specific peat characteristics can vary from distillery to distillery as their production methods differ.
Is Islay Scotch good for beginners?
There is a belief among the whisky community that beginners shouldn’t start with a peated Islay.
This is true to some extent. Islay whiskies do tend to be the most flavorful and smokey of all varieties. And if you’ve never had a peated scotch, or any scotch, before it can be a bit of a taste-bud shock.
(The first scotch I ever tasted was a peated Lagavulin and I fell instantly in love.) The issue isn’t beginner vs. expert, it’s more about flavor profiles. If you love the smoke-forward campfire flavor, you’ll like peated scotch.
However, if you’re a beginner trying a peated who hates it, don’t give up! Move on to something else you like more (a Speyside might be a nice choice). As you build up an appreciation for scotches, you might find you enjoy a peated whiskey the second time around. Keep in mind, our palates do change and adapt!
Additionally, not every single Islay is peated. There are several fruity varieties like Caol Ila 15 year that is on the lighter side but still contain key Islay flavor notes. These might be a good choice if you want to ease into Islay.
How much does Islay Scotch cost?
Bad news, here, friends. Islay Scotch does not come cheap.
Whisky is one of the few alcohols where the price actually does indicate quality. Many of the best Scotches have been aged for at least a decade, developing full flavors.
Perhaps even more important, Islay is the only place that can produce scotch like these. So, you do have to pay to get the real deal!
What pairs well with an Islay Scotch?
Islays have a strong smokey flavor, so you’re more likely to enjoy them with fatty meats like bacon, brisket, lamb, or ribs. Smoked meats like venison or even salmon also go well.
If you’re in the south and want to venture away from bourbon, try your weekly barbecue with an Islay instead!
Dessert…in many ways you could consider a scotch a dessert itself since they are so flavorful and rich. But they do pair well with very dark chocolate if you want to satisfy your sweet tooth!
Islay is one of the major regions of Scotland, and one of the largest producers of single malt scotch in the world.
No matter what you try or where you travel, you’ll never find anywhere quite like Islay with its storm-swept coasts and mild climate.
Their scotches are known for their peat and maritime flavors that set them apart as the gem of all scotch!
Take a chance and try an Islay once in your life. It’s worth it.