-> 2008 -> What Makes An Islay Whisky Islay Whisky?

Thursday, 11/Sep/2008

What Makes An Islay Whisky Islay Whisky?

To start trying to write down my views about the question about Islay whisky I've posed in the title let me ask you a question about beer: Have you ever looked at some of the labels of some of the ‘foreign’ beers? If you look at the ‘small print’ you'll notice something:

Australian for beer? Brewed in the UK. Dutch Premium Lager? Brewed in the UK. Reassuringly expensive Belgian beer? Brewed in the UK. French beer going back to 1664? Brewed in the UK (if I'm not mistaken among other places in a very ugly concrete factory right next to the M4). I could probably go on, this list is the result of a quick poll in the supermarket earlier this evening.

Somehow takes the romantic away a little bit, doesn't it?

So what does this have to do with my thoughts about Islay and Islay whisky? Reading Ron's entry about the Bruichladdich barley, then an entry on the Bruichladdich Blog picking up a story that not all Islay malts are aged on Islay (something I had heard of before) and finally this morning an entry on the The “Officially Unofficial” Bruichladdich Blog about The Importance of Authenticity made me think.

When does a whisky come from Islay? Do all ingredients have to come from Islay? Is it sufficient if it is distilled on Islay? Does it actually all make a difference? I haven't come to a final conclusion yet, but here are some of my thoughts:

Some people say it all makes a difference to the taste where the ingredients come from, where it was aged, even the exact shape (including accidental dents) of the stills. To my great disappointment I fear my sense of taste and smell doesn't even remotely touch the areas the professionals operate in. I fear I might not be able to detect the difference, although I'd be more than happy to be shown the contrary.

But let me go back to an entry I wrote back in January 2007 about Tesco's Islay Single Malt. Something that at least to me means something:

Yet there is a difference, I believe a very important one. Simon Dunn might call it snobbery, I call it spirit and feeling. I've tried the Tesco Islay Malt, tastes nice enough. But something is missing. It doesn't really have a home. I can't really get a warm feeling, I can't connect to a bottle with a picture of nondescript beach which could be anywhere. When I drink one of the ‘real’ Islay Malts I can think of the distillery where it's from. I can think of the view over the beautiful hollow by the broad bay. I can think of the view over to the Paps of Jura. It gives me something for the mind. Something a supermarket brand can't give me, try as much as they like. I guess I'm not alone in that.

I'm not sure if that makes sense to you, it does to me. Knowing where a whisky was made does make a difference to me, and that does include where it was aged. Knowing that the cask was releasing its Angels' Share into the fresh air of Islay and not some anonymus warehouse in a trading estate means something to me.

Now I can accept that not all barley can come from Islay, I understand currently 50% of Bruichladdich's barley comes from Islay, I believe Kilchoman also gets most (or even all?) of their barley from Rockside farm. I wouldn't be surprised if that pretty much exhausts the barley production capacity of Islay (please correct me if I'm wrong here!), so buying in barley I can in a way understand. Where that barley should come from is yet another question. I haven't got an answer for that yet.

Nevertheless, if you ask me to try to summarise my views, I'd say I'd like as much as possible to come from Islay and be done on Islay. I understand some things might not be as cost effective as the accountants would like it to be, but should that really rule everything and take away some of the ideals and romantic of a good Islay single malt?

So what do you think? Do you agree? Do you disagree? What makes an Islay whisky an Islay whisky for you?

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