As the little plane descends, we spot a tiny airport with a single runway that seems to disappear into the sea. The plane touches down just past the sea spray, and as we roll toward the terminal, we see a woman across the road standing in front of a neat, white house waving a white towel. That’s Rachel Whyte, and she’s to be our host and whisky guide for the next few days.
Some people come to Islay (pronounced EYE-la) to play golf or go bird watching. Others come to get away from hectic city life. We’re here for the Scotch. The Isle of Islay, with just 3,500 people (and lots of sheep, cows and chickens), produces some of the world’s finest Scotch whisky. The chance to taste the whisky where it’s made, and to understand how important whisky is to the island makes it worth the journey from the mainland.
There are nine distilleries on the island: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Port Charlotte (owned by Bruichladdich), and Port Ellen (malting only). Within an hour of landing on Islay, Rachel has checked us into our room at her bed and breakfast, Glenegedale House, and then sent us off to tour the Lagavulin distillery. The next day, we’re scheduled to see Bruichladdich and Bowmore.
Rachel and her husband, Alistair, both Islay natives who grew up speaking Scottish Gaelic, seem to know the history of every square foot on Islay. They’ll happily offer you a dram of the good stuff before diving into the details of medieval battles fought just over the hill, the migratory patterns of birds, or how to make the perfect Gin and Tonic with Bruichladdich’s Botanist Gin.
As the second largest employer on the island, the whisky distilleries are a huge part of life on Islay, and Rachel confirms what we heard from one of the distillers we visited: that everyone on Islay knows how to make whisky. “It’s part of Islay’s make-up,” Rachel tells us. “It’s like a family story. You don’t remember exactly when you’re told… it’s always been there.”
In fact, whisky is so entrenched in the culture of Islay, that Rachel puts it on par with the community’s devout Christian beliefs: “We have two spirits. We have the spirit within us and the spirit we put within us.” She tells us not to miss the “sacred stones,” crosses, and chapels scattered across the island — some of which date back to the 8th century. “It’s like the spirit we make,” she continues. “It makes you feel something else…you can’t have one without the other.”
Rachel Whyte’s Guide to Islay Whisky
As a native of Islay, Rachel knows more about the island’s whisky distillers than most people. She teaches a cookery class that’s all about pairing food with whisky, and she’s on a first-name basis with the folks at most of the distilleries. Rachel’s favorite whisky is a Lagavulin 16 Year Old. (“There’s not a more complex whisky than Lagavulin,” she says.) But whisky is a very personal thing, so here are some of her other suggestions, when to drink them and what to drink with them.
Islay is known for its big whiskies, full of peat and smoke. But as Rachel says, “there’s a place for everything…not everyone likes peat.” For those people or for a pre-dinner dram, she recommends the lighter whiskies from the Northern part of the island: “Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, maybe a Kilchoman or a Bruichladdich.”
On Islay, Bunnahabhain is known as “lady’s whisky” because it’s light and doesn’t have a heavy peat flavor. Pair a Caol Ila with an appetizer like smoked salmon (Scottish salmon, of course).
Now we move on to what Islay is known for: big peaty whisky full of vegetal smoke and medicinal brine. First-time Scotch drinkers might not like that description, but believe me, the stuff grows on you. After dinner, Rachel recommends what she calls the “connoisseur trio” — Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg.
Ardbeg is great with cheese and “fantastic with a mature cheddar.” Laphroaig goes pairs nicely with dark chocolate (Rachel likes to serve it with dark Toblerone), and with a young Laphroaig, try some Stilton cheese.
According to Rachel, Bowmore is the Scotch you can drink any time of the day or night. Try it with a piece of rich fruit cake. The fruit, almonds in the marzipan, and the sugar in the icing bring out the flavors of the whisky.