Special Report – Scotch Whisky

The Single Malts of Islay

By Steve Thurlow

I have been tasting and drinking single malt scotch whisky since I was 20. I have been fascinated by the complexity and diversity of single malts ever since I bought my first bottle of Laphroaig 10 Years Old.

For decades, I have taught hundreds of wine classes, taken tours to wineries all over the world and have reviewed thousands of wines. However for some reason, I have not until now written about malt whisky.

Wines differ from one another by reason of location as do single malts, so one can analyze wine and single malt using the same methodology.

Over the next few special reports I will be writing about many of the 130 or so whisky distilleries in Scotland and will review some of their whiskies, focusing on those available in Ontario. My detailed whisky reviews can all be found at WineAlign and reviews for all whiskies in this article are listed on Steve’s Whisky Report 2020 (filter on All Sources and check Show Wines with Zero Inventory).

The Dalmore 12 Year Old Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 

However first let me describe how malt whisky is made and examine the many variables that influence how each single malt is distinct and unique.

It is true that the grape variety has much more to do with the final wine than does the variety of  barley from which the whisky is made.  Also, until recently, I had thought that the location of the farm had little to do with why one single malt was different from another, whereas a wine vineyard’s location is very important. However it seems I was wrong and there is a location influence to whisky. More on that later.

Fine, expensive, luxury wines are usually derived from grapes from a great vineyard in a great year. These wines are typically made with minimal intervention from the winemaker, whose principal role is to sensitively express the amazing fruit during its fermentation, blending and maturation. Thus creating the best possible wine from that harvest.

Single malt whisky is certainly more of a manufactured product than most wine. Differences between single malts depend much more on the process after the barley is harvested.

Let’s look at the factors that can express themselves in the glass. These include the variety of barley, the harvest date and location of the farm plus the climate during the growing season, just like wine grapes. However the malting process and in some cases the amount of smoke used when drying will change the raw material before it is fermented.

Malting is turning barley into malt. The barley grains are stimulated to germinate by steeping in water to make the starch they contain more readily available. The germination is stopped by heating in a kiln where the malt develops sweet biscuit flavours. Most Islay distilleries also pass peat smoke through the drying malt which takes on the peated, smokey, medicinal and seaweed flavours characteristic of Islay malts.

The malt, after having been ground in a grist mill, is mixed with water in a mash tun and that mixture is then fermented with added yeast in a large vessel called a washback. The sugars in the malt are converted to alcohol and the result is called wash. This is essentially the same basic process that is used in the manufacture of beer. Whisky is the result of distilling wash which is a special type of beer.

To turn the wash into spirit it needs to be distilled by heating it in a closed vessel until it boils. The steam and alcohol vapours are collected and condensed by cooling so as to return them to a liquid state. Malt whisky is made using a pot still. A batch of mash is added to the copper still. This batch is then boiled and the vapours collected until all the alcohol has been extracted. The still is then emptied ready for the next batch. Scotch Malt Whisky has to be made from barley using a pot still. Continuous or column stills are used for making spirits from other grains such as American Whiskey.

Most major distilleries in the north of Scotland follow a 2-stage distillation process. The wash is first sent to a wash still and the fermenting vapours, once condensed and cooled, are then sent to a spirit still for a second and final distillation. The output of the spirit is divided into three parts in a spirit safe. The vapours arriving in the first 30 to 40 minutes of boiling contain more than around 70% alcohol. These condensed vapours are called the foreshot which is not used for making whisky. It is the next portion of spirit condensing, with an alcohol content below 70% or so, that is collected separately. Collection continues until the alcohol falls to around 60% . This portion is called the new-make spirit. It is this spirit that will be matured in casks to make whisky. The still will continue to run until the alcohol content falls to around 1%. This third portion called feints is also not used for whisky.

As you can imagine there are many variables that can be adjusted in the process I just described. It is these differences which explain why one new-make spirit differs from another before it is sent to cask for maturation. Let’s look at some of these variables.

The water source and the size and construction of the washbacks (fermenting vessels) are surely important. As are the dimensions and design of the wash still and the spirit still. That must significantly contribute since every distillery I visit has a different set-up. The height of the still and the shape of the spirit still’s swans neck is often the most obvious difference.

However in addition every distillery has a different range of alcohol concentrations by volume (ABV) gathered to create the new-make spirit. For example Laphroaig typically collects from 72% to 60% whereas at The Macallan they use a very narrow range of 72% to 68% alcohol; the smallest range that I have so far encountered. That must go some way to explain The Macallan style.

I have had the opportunity of tasting many new-make spirits over the years and the differences are often dramatic from one distillery to another.  However it was at Bruichladdich this year that I was able to experience for the first time the impact of the barley farm. I sampled new-make spirit that had been made identically from the same variety of barley. The spirit from a farm on the Black Isle on the northeast coast of Scotland was much more herbal and intense than from a farm on Islay that was fruity floral and more elegant.

New-make spirit is a colourless liquid that is taken from the spirit still after distillation. By law, it can’t be called Scotch whisky until it has spent a minimum of three years maturing in an oak cask in Scotland.

I am in no doubt that the most important factor in determining the characteristics of any particular single malt must be the maturation period in cask. The sizes and origin of the wood vary and most casks have been previously used for bourbon whiskey, wine, sherry or port ,etc. Also spirits are often transferred from one barrel to another of a different origin after a few years and some are  moved even later to a third type. For example, it has become fashionable to finish whiskies that started the maturation in an ex-bourbon barrel for 10 years or so, with a period of a year or two in say an ex-port cask or ex-sherry cask.

Finally a whisky that is 40 years old does I can assure you taste much finer than something similar that is only 8 years old. After 8 years it has come a long way from being new-make spirit but the next 32 years will make a big difference.

Scotch Whisky distilleries are located throughout the Scottish Highlands and Islands however there are 2 concentrations on the hebridean island of Islay [pron. EYE-LA] and on Speyside around the valley of the River Spey with a concentration around the town of Dufftown.

Recently I spent several weeks in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. I was there in June and  November 2019 to compile this report and to plan a Wine for Life Tour to Scotland that I will be leading in October 2020. We will explore Scotland’s history and culture, play some golf and visit a few distilleries making both single malt whisky and gin. There are still a few places left on this tour if you would like to join me.

This is the first of a complete report that will eventually cover all of the whisky regions of Scotland.

I start with examining the single malt whiskies of Islay, an island halfway between the Scottish mainland and Northern Ireland.

Subsequent chapters covering the distilleries of Speyside, the Highlands, Campbeltown and the Lowlands will be published during 2020. Most of the reviews are for whiskies commonly available in Ontario. (Click on the Scotch and click on Find This Wine to find inventory at an LCBO near you.)

The Distilleries of Islay

There are at present nine distilleries on the island of which eight have whisky for sale. Most of the malted barley is supplied to these by Diageo’s Port Ellen maltings on the island. It is an industrial scale malting and smoking complex which operates around the clock producing batches to each distillery’s specifications.


This is the oldest distillery on Islay and has been making whisky for over 240 years and has the world’s oldest whisky maturation warehouse. It is part of the Beam Suntory group and is the most popular among visitors to the island, so I am told.

They operate one of only four remaining distillery malting floors in Scotland. Their own floor supplements malt provided Simpson’s Malt on the mainland. Peat smoke is a feature of their whiskies and when you taste the new-make spirit iodine, kelp and salt are clearly evident. Once you add three drops of water, oatmeal and smoke aromas and flavours are liberated.

Bowmore 12 Year Old ($62.95) is the standard expression. It is one of the least smoky on Islay with gentle aromas of honey, orange, apricot, vanilla and salt mixed in with the smoke and floral notes. It is mild and round on the palate with a mild salt tang and is a lovely delicate sipper. Not very complex but balanced with excellent length.

Bowmore 18 Year Old ($149.50) is definitely a step up and is a pale mahogany wood colour with a complex of toffee, raisin and baked lemon with nicely integrated delicate smoke notes. The palate is rich with flavours of raisin and toffee with light smoky flavours and fine balancing acidity. Very gentle and complex with outstanding length. Complex, powerful but not overpowering and so finely balanced.

In 2019 they released Bowmore Islay Single Malt 1997 Distillery Manager’s Selection. ($1600) Only 3000 bottles were made. It was one of the best single malts I tasted last year. It had been in first-fill Oloroso Sherry Hogsheads since 1997. Complex, round and so mellow with outstanding length.


Ardbeg lies on the south coast near Laphroaig and Lagavulin. It was founded in 1815 and makes complex smoky malts. As a result of the whisky depression in the 70’s it was shut down and mothballed in 1981. For the next 15 years it operated occasionally since its malts were needed for some blends. In 1996 it was closed for good it seemed, until Glenmorangie bought it on behalf of the luxury group LVMH.

It has been a great success since then and they are planning on doubling capacity once the new still houses, under construction when I was there in November, are complete.

Ardbeg 10 Year Old ($99.95) is their standard expression. It is often regarded by many as one of the smokiest of the Islay malts. This has not been my experience. They use a purifier in the neck of the spirit still to remove impurities and this also removes some of the peaty smoky notes. I have not seen this used anywhere else in Scotland. So though they start with very smoky (55ppm) malt from nearby Port Ellen maltings, their malts are smoky but balanced like this one which is one of the lightest in weight of all the singe malts.

Ardbeg Corryvrecken ($200.95) is much richer, more complex and more powerful. It takes its name from a famous tidal whirlpool that lies to the north of Islay. It was created with the input of the Ardbeg Committee; a group of 120,000 from all over the world that love the products of the distillery. Expect an intense nose of cedar, brine, creosote, with caramel, smoky bacon, vanilla and clove. This malt is not for the fainthearted.

Laphroaig [pron. LA-FROYG]

This distillery was founded in 1825 and is known for producing strongly flavoured and very distinctive single malts with pronounced smoky and salty notes. They maintain a malting floor and dry their malt with a smoke from peat that they hand cut themselves. They also take malt from Port Ellen produced to their own formula of between 50 and 60 ppm smoke.

It is part of the Beam Suntory group and is one of the most interesting to visit since one can participate in the entire process if one has the time and the inclination.

You can start by helping cut peat and visiting the water source in the hills above the distillery before seeing the process from the arrival of the malt until finally, a tasting from cask of several blend ingredients. In this photo one can see their spirit safe where the output of the spirit still is divided into its three components with only the central portion being used for single malt.

Laphroaig 10 Year Old ($79.95) is their standard expression and has been one of Islay’s most popular for decades. The nose is intense with smoke, kelp and brine intermingling with hints of toffee, vanilla and oak. The palate is very smooth with a hint of sweetness and some saltiness balancing the peat smoke derived  flavours. It is midweight with very good length. Savour the very appealing nose which is best appreciated with just a few drops of water and no ice.

Laphroaig Triple Wood ($94.95) results from a third finishing stage of one year on 1st fill ex-oloroso sherry and then 2 years in 2nd fill ex-oloroso sherry casks after the initial ex-bourbon cask and secondary quarter cask maturation. The nose shows initially sweet raisin aromas of subtle sherry followed by smoky peat and custard with some spicy nutty notes. The palate is very smooth with big peaty smoke flavours but elegant and not aggressive very well integrated complex flavours with salty orange notes appearing on the finish. Excellent length. A lovely complex malt very classy still clearly from Islay but with good depth of flavour and considerable elegance.


They have been distilling whisky here since 1742 but only legally from 1816 when the present buildings were constructed. It produces one of the smokiest  and most powerfully rich single malts in Scotland. It is owned by Diageo and takes its malt from Port Ellen.

The ruins of Dunyvaid Castle can be seen close by. It was from here that half of Scotland was ruled by the Lord of the Isles before the Kingdom of Scotland was established in 1493.

Lagavulin 8 Year Old ($89.95) is their standard expression. It is very pale in colour and  has an intense nose of smoke, salt and peat with hints of caramel. It is quite intense on the palate and very dry with some harshness. Good length and not that complex, but all the markers you would expect from southern Islay are there without the elegance of older malts.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old ($144.95) is the distillery’s signature expression which is famous the world over for its power and intense peat smoke. It is a pale golden brown with lots of peat smoke mingling with iodine and baked pineapple with floral, sweet herbal and sticky toffee pudding. The nose is well integrated, complex and very appealing. The palate is rich and intensely flavoured but well balanced with excellent length. Nothing shy about this malt which is complex and powerful.

Caol Ila [pron. CULL-EELA]

This is by far the largest distillery on Islay and it is currently closed to visitors due to an expansion project that will significantly increase its capacity as well as providing a new visitor centre.

It is a major supplier I am told to Diageo’s rapidly growing Johnnie Walker family of whiskies and is an especially important component in Johnnie Walker Green Label Scotch Whisky ($82.00).

Caol Ila 12 Year Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($94.95) is the signature expression. It is  a smooth, elegant, midweight malt with hints of smoke with baked apple, toffee and cedar wood notes. It is fresh with a minty tone to the palate which is a little oily with tar and caramel flavours. Excellent length with a lingering spicy warm and smoky aftertaste.


This is the newest distillery on the island and has only been making whisky for a short while; they filled their first cask on 9th November 2018. So it will be a few years yet before they are able to release their own matured single malt. The location and modern building are stunningly beautiful and, since it is owned by Hunter Laing a blender and bottler of whisky, the distillery shop is full of rare old whisky from all over Scotland bottled from their cask collection. So it is definitely worth a stop if you are in the neighbourhood.


Bunnahabhain [pron. BOO-NA-HA-VAN]

Bunnahabhain has been part of Islay’s whisky heritage since 1881. On the north-east tip of the island, it overlooks the Sound of Islay and the Isle of Jura. Its name derives from the Gaelic for “mouth of the river” and it draws water from the Margadale Spring. This remote distillery produces fine malts which are not as heavily peated as others from Islay, each bottling distinctive characteristics.

Bunnahabhain 12-Year-Old ($89.95) is their signature expression which is very lightly peated with a salty tang and a mere hint of smoke. It shows the characteristics of the distillery with nutty and sherry aromas and flavours resulting from malts matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. There is some sweetness with raisin and mocha hints on the lingering finish.

Bruichladdich [pron. BROOK-LADDY]

Bruichladdich Distillery, owned by Remy Cointreau, is in the west of Islay and was built in 1881 by the Harvey brothers on the shore of Loch Indaal. They were members of a brewing dynasty who had owned two distilleries in Glasgow in the late C18th. The original building was considered state-of the-art for its time. It was developed from old farm buildings and constructed around a spacious courtyard. Much of the Victorian decor and equipment is still being used  including this original open top 7-tonne mash tun, one of only a few that are still operational.

They only use Scottish grown barley and make an extensive range of whiskies under the Bruichladdich label all of which are unpeated and some of which are sourced from just one barley farm. Their barley is malted by Port Ellen to their specifications.

They also make Port Charlotte Single Malts which are heavily peated and Octomore Single malts which are the most heavily peated single malt whiskies in the world. When I was at the distillery I tasted Octomore Edition 8.3 which was made with 309 ppm peat smoke and aged for 5 years in 56% ex-bourbon and 44% European oak from Islay barley. This is the heaviest peated scotch made to date and 18,000 bottles were produced. The nose shows peat smoke with some bbq char, baked peach and creamed corn. The smoke is more evident on the palate with the bbq char plus earthy tones. There is a distinct taste of singed beef mixed with honey and baked peach with a salty tang.

This is  a very experimental distillery with an enormous range of single malts plus they also make The Botanist gin.

On my visit I saw an incredible collection of used barrels that had been filled with all sorts of different spirits including this ex- Bordeaux Sauternes sweet wine barrique from the famous Chateau d’Yquem.

The Classic Laddie ($74.95) is made from Scottish barley and is their entry level expression. It is unpeated and is a pale gold with mild fruity aromas with floral, honey, nutty and dried fruit complexity. The palate is very smooth and soft with light nutty flavours mixed with banana and apricot. It is midweight with very good to excellent length.

Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2008 ($116.95) is made from a rare strain of barley grown on Islay. Six-row Bere is Britain’s oldest strain of cultivated cereal. Some believe it was brought to the Hebrides by Norse invaders but it may have been here in the Neolithic, some 5,000 years ago. Bere is a hardy and resilient grain, adapted to poor soil conditions and a short growing season with long hours of daylight. This whisky was bottled at 50% ABV after 9 years of maturation in ex-American Whiskey casks. It is a vibrant golden yellow with no smoke but a lovely oatmeal and honey nose with apple and pear fruit. The palate is very malty soft thick and rich with a hint of oak spice and honey showing on the finish. Very good length.


Kilchoman [pron. KIL-HO-MAN]

This is the newest operational distillery on Islay which opened in 2005 and was the first to be established on the island for over 124 years. Kilchoman is a working farm which grows barley and is one of only a  few distilleries in Scotland where barley is grown, malted and smoked on-site.

The fermentation period of 85 hours is much longer than most in Scotland and their spirit stills are the smallest I saw on Islay, giving higher levels of copper contact. Moreover they use a range of 75% to 65.5% ABV for their new-make spirit which is not common practice. All of which goes to make their new-make spirit quite distinct with notable floral sweetness married to peat smoke.

Maturation is mostly in ex-bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace distillery in USA and sherry butts sourced directly from Bodega Miguel Martin in Spain. However I also saw during my visit a collection of specialty casks including Sauternes, red wine, rum, Port, Madeira and Cognac casks.

Kilchoman Machir Bay Islay Single Malt ($104.10) is their core expression and is bottled at 46% ABV. It is a very pale yellow and was created by maturation in first-fill bourbon casks for around six years, which were then married before the spirit was finished in oloroso sherry butts before bottling. Expect aromas of shortbread biscuit, warm peat smoke, vanilla and golden raisin. The palate is round and well balanced with very good length. Delicately flavoured with a lingering mild smoky toffee flavour.

Kilchoman Sanaig Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($109.20) is a smoky earthy single malt that is named after an inlet on Islay’s rugged Atlantic coast. It is a pale gold in colour with aromas of peat smoke, lemon, mint and dried flowers. It was matured in both ex-sherry and ex-bourbon barrels with a high proportion of oloroso sherry casks. The palate is delicate with mineral tone to the citrus and baked apple fruit with dark chocolate plus some hot pepper spiciness on the finish. Excellent length.