Smoke Forward: 12 Best Islay Scotch Whiskies

Hailing from one of the five whisky distilling locations protected by law in Scotland, Islay whisky certainly lends itself to a more mysterious and seemingly unknown variety. Maybe it’s because of the whisky’s unmistakable peat, and smoke-forward characteristics, or the fact that after many years on the windswept and storm-ridden islands off the western coast of Scotland, only eight active distilleries remain of the 23 that once functioned in this region.

Islay whisky, simply enough, hails from one of the southernmost Hebridean islands off the Scottish coastline. And as stated above, the profile of Islay scotch lends itself to what many describe as medicinal- alluding to notes of iodine, seaweed, and salt. Don’t forget the smokiness either. Islay scotch is known for its “harsher” profile. She’s definitely a love her or hate her type spirit, and while different Islay distilleries offer multiple variations of the whisky, the water and peating levels of the barley is strictly location based. Islay is a seafaring spirit no doubt, so hopefully with a little guidance and suggestions from us, you’ll find a bottle of your own -magically capturing the majesty of the sea coupled with the timeless tradition of enjoying a glass of quality scotch whisky on brisk winter’s evening. Cheers.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Laphroaig Quarter Cask

It would be foolish indeed to not include one of our favorite single malts from one of our favorite Islay distilleries. Upon its release, the whisky was then aged in a quarter cask for five years. And because of the small size of the cask, this whisky didn’t require a long maturation in order to attain that well-known flavor profile Laphroaig is known for. Surprisingly enough, there’s a notable sweetness to this pour followed by a chili heat, finishing up with more sweetness. Not as much peat as their other offerings which, for individuals new to the region, serves as a gentle introduction.

Purchase: $40

Kilchoman Machir Bay

Kilchoman Machir Bay

Matured in ex-bourbon barrels and sherry casks, this Islay scotch boasts aromas of vanilla, citrus, and light peat smoke. Followed on the palate are notes of tropical fruit, a bit of dark fruit and a warming smokiness that plays quite well with the other flavors. On the finish, the Oloroso sherry cask comes in nicely, alongside hints of black pepper and additional fruit.

Purchase: $45

Lagavulin 16 Year

Lagavulin 16 Year

Known for their massive peat-smoke, Lagavulin is located in southern Islay. Whiskies from this area are known for their intense peat profile thanks to the soil in which the barley is grown. It’s a quite rich and heavy dram, boasting a significant mouthful of malt, sherry and fruity sweetness. Of course, powerful peat notes along with oak follow and finish things off alongside a touch of fig notes and vanilla. Truly a delicious pour for fans of Islay whisky.

Purchase: $50

Caol Ila 12 Year

Caol Ila 12 Year

Upon an introduction with this 12-year, you’d assume its potency thanks to an intense aroma filled with smoke and malted barley. However, give her a chance and she’s sure to please with a light and fresh flavor profile filled with notes of toffee, vanilla, light fruit and smoke. Everything finishes up nicely as well with the initial sweetness fading softly into a smokey end. All around a fantastically diverse option.

Purchase: $53

Ardbeg Uigeadial

Ardbeg Uigeadial

Deriving from the Gaelic term for “dark and mysterious place” Uigeadial from Ardbeg is one of those pours that never get old. On the nose is ample peat, dark sugar and espresso. This is soon followed on the palate by a powerful peat and smoke profile in conjunction with ripe fruit, honey and lots of malt. It’s an intense pour to say the least, and outstanding for lovers of the region thanks to notes of caramel and malt that work their way through more peat for the finish.

Purchase: $54

Port Charlotte 2008

Port Charlotte 2008

After harvesting their Barley back in 2008, Bruichladdich distilled this fine scotch in December of the same year. It was then released just six years later in 2014 and boasts a bold, heavily peated, and flavorful profile with soft fruit, sea salt, oaky vanilla notes along with lemon and pepper. A must have for scotch fans, and many have claimed it compares to Ardbeg in its aroma and peat profiles.

Purchase: $57

Isle Of Jura 16 Year

Isle Of Jura 16 Year

Technically from the island of Jura and not Islay itself, some diehards would suggest Jura isn’t a true Islay scotch. However, with a notable smoky and peaty profile that compares quite well to the distilleries of Islay, we felt it a necessary addition. It hosts a nose full of citrus and toffee, a spicy palate filled with smoke, dark chocolate and finishes up nicely with sweet honey. Can’t go wrong here.

Purchase: $77

Tobermory 15 Year

Tobermory 15 Year

While not technically from the island of Islay, this smooth offering still boasts many of the same qualities you’d expect to find from a whisky distilled in this windswept and salty region. Aged in Oloroso sherry casks, this full-bodied scotch works to bring balance into the foray. The nose is full of lemon and orange peels, sherry, earthy notes and of course smoke. Palate wise, Tobermory 15 offers a dram full of winter spices, pepper, oak and more sherry thanks to the cask. This then transitions into a finish featuring spicy and nutty notes and a bit more smoke as well. Perfect for a cool winter’s night paired with a choice cigar.

Purchase: $78

Bunnahabhain 18 Year

Bunnahabhain 18 Year

Translated to “mouth of the river,” Bunnahabhain is located near Port Askaig on the east coast of the island of Islay. Needless to say, their whisky is something special and a bit more complex than many of the island’s other offerings. The aroma lends itself to the sea, with a bit of saltiness along with honeyed nuts. On the palate, drinkers will enjoy sherried nuts and spices, alongside the notable medicinal qualities of Islay scotch. It all wraps up nicely in the end however with a light salt and sherry finish.

Purchase: $112

Octomore 6.3

Octomore 6.3

Grown onsite at the Octomore farm, the barley used to make this fine Islay scotch leads to a heavy peat profile. In fact, it’s recommended by some that this whisky is allowed some time (a few months) to oxidize in a decanter due to its intense palate. There’s a real depth to this offering as well, and with an ABV of 64%, it’s not nicknamed “the beast” for nothing. It features lots of peat, lots of smoke, vanilla and floral notes. Good luck.

Purchase: $150

Ben Bracken 22 Year

Ben Bracken 22 Year

As the winner of last year’s World Whiskies Awards for Best Islay Single Malt, the Ben Bracken 22-year is a fine whisky we felt deserved the praise it received in 2016. This particular offering is an all-around well-balanced dram with a nutty, citrusy and smoky nose that’s backed up by a slightly bitter palate with notes of dark chocolate, ripe red fruit, and more smokiness. Salt and dark chocolate round up the finish here as well, making Ben Bracken a notable companion any time of the year.

Purchase: $185

Bowmore 25 Year

Bowmore 25 Year

Leave it to Bowmore to provide evidence to the claim that patience is indeed a virtue. This 25-year vintage is aged in American bourbon and Spanish sherry casks, both adding their own unique flavors to the whisky. The nose hosts a slew of dark fruit, herbs, and smokiness. Followed up on the palate is more peat smoke that’s complemented by notes of nuttiness and cocoa. Finishing everything up is softer smoke with a bit of dark fruit from the sherry cask, oak, and mocha. Worth every penny.

Purchase: $296

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