This article will no doubt serve as an introduction to some about the characteristics of Islay scotch vs traditional scotch. First, before going into some of the comparisons, we will look at some scotch whisky facts and how scotch is made across Scotland, and why it is so popular.
If you ever wondered what sets one type of scotch apart from another or which scotches will excite you if you like a particular dram, then read on!
Islay Scotch – The Basics
Islay (pronounced Eye-La) is a large island off mainland Scotland that currently has nine working distilleries and a few more in the pipeline, with the Bowmore distillery being one of the five oldest distilleries in Scotland having opened in the late 1700s.
Alongside the famous distilleries, most have an accompanying town of the same name where whole communities have been sustained by the whisky industry.
From a flavor perspective, there is one characteristic that frequently sets Islay whiskies apart from other scotch whiskies – peat smoking. While confusingly not all Islay scotch is peat-smoked, most of the whiskies are to some extent.
The extent to how much peat smoke goes into a bottle is known as phenol ppm. Sometimes you will come across whisky tasters and websites saying simply ‘ppm’ but given that this means parts per million, it makes no sense to say only ppm and is erroneous.
A typical Islay scotch will have between 40-50 phenol ppm, with the above mentioned Bowmore distillery preferring less at around 30-35 phenol ppm.
Also, some distilleries have an incredible skill of putting much more phenol ppm into a bottle and some Bruichladdich Octomore versions have over 200 phenol ppm. A typical quality with the phenol ppm is that the whisky smoke becomes more medicinal in smell the higher the phenol ppm level is.
The Six Scotch Whisky Districts
Despite being an island, Islay makes up an entire whisky district on the scotch whisky trail due to its history, unique whisky, and reputation. There are five other scotch districts in Scotland.
By landmass, the Highlands district is the largest whisky district in Scotland and is very diverse in its whisky offerings. Along the coast, distilleries produce the salty scotches, but as you head further inland the scotches get much lighter, floral, and fragrant.
Home to many blended whisky brands, the lowlands incorporates the big Scottish cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Distilleries here tend to favor smooth, sweet, and gentler whiskies that can be enjoyed with a meal or after dinner.
Cambeltown is an outcrop of land that hangs down from the Scottish mainland. It is famous for its rich and deep whiskies, as well as a few experimental whisky brands. Flavors vary considerably from Cambeltown distilleries, with smoky and salty whisky being produced as well as fruity and creamy malts too.
A relatively small whisky-producing district that is home to some of the most globally successful brands. The likes of Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glenfarclas, Macallan, and Glen Moray all operate out of Speyside alongside many other scotch favorites.
The scotches produced in Speyside are fruitier than most as distillers opt to use sherry casks more often than not. This produces a highly palatable scotch that is evidently extremely popular with the masses.
Last but not least are the Scottish islands which have some of the less well-known whisky brands but also have some of the finest whiskies you will ever try.
Jura neighbors Islay and produces smoky malts as well while each of the many other islands all have subtle differences and unique interpretations of scotch.
Why Does Islay Have A Whisky District to Itself?
You may be wondering why Islay has its own whisky district when it could have easily been bundled in with the other islands. The answer is quite simple, aside from Jura which Islay is often mentioned with together, Islay makes a very highly peated whisky that is quite uncommon elsewhere.
You certainly wouldn’t encounter another Laphroaig style whisky anywhere other than on Islay.
Is all scotch, whisky? And are all whiskies, scotch?
All scotch is whisky but to be classified as a scotch it must meet a legal requirement. First, it must be produced in Scotland, and whisky produced elsewhere is not eligible to be called scotch. To add to the confusion, most whisky produced elsewhere is spelled as whiskey.
Next, it needs to have been aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels before it can be labeled scotch. And the main grain used in scotch must be malted barley (although other grains can be added providing that the bulk of a malt is barley). It also needs to be bottled at 40% ABV or more.
Finally, as mentioned although all scotch is whisky, not all whisky is scotch. Even some whisky produced in Scotland isn’t scotch because it doesn’t meet the requirements.
Speyside vs Islay Scotch
Now onto one of the questions you have been dying to ask, what are the differences between Speyside vs Islay scotch, and which is better?
Speyside distilleries are hugely successful. In fact, they are so successful that the sales figures for a distillery like Glenfiddich may well dwarf the entire sales of all Islay distilleries combined. Glenfiddich sells on average 14 million bottles of scotch a year and they have an operating capacity of 13 million liters a year.
In comparison, the leading Islay distillery by capacity is Caol Ila with 6.5 million. Most of the other island distilleries have a capacity of around 2 million. Also, if we're being completely honest, most Islay distilleries have their bottlings floating around for a good many years after release which means that you can still pick up older Islay limited run bottlings from a long time ago.
Fantastic. Good for me. It's a niche product, but I love it.
As the saying goes, just because McDonald’s is the bestselling food in the world, doesn’t make it the best food in the world and that is certainly true of scotch too. Many whiskies have much better-tasting core offerings than Glenfiddich and some of those are made on Islay.
The final thing to mention with Islay is that a few of the distilleries produce scotches that are very much acquired tastes. Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg all produce fiery, fight-worthy smoky whiskies that simply aren’t going to appeal to the masses. But some of the whisky coming out of Islay is simply put – the best whisky you will ever taste.
Which Whisky Should I Try First from Islay?
Without a doubt, if you’re new to Islay whiskies you will want to avoid Laphroaig and Lagavulin. It is normally recommended that you start with a Bowmore 12 because it is inoffensively smoky and remarkably well balanced from nose to finish. Then, once you have an idea about how smoke sits on your palate you can work your way up.
I'm a huge fan of Caol Ila 12, so that would be my personal recommendation. It's light, citrusy, and gives you enough smoke to really feel like you're part of the club that like Islay scotches.
Why avoid Laphroaig? It just depends on your personality and adventurousness. However, if you're not sure you'll like the smoky character these drams are known for, chances are if you start there, you will end there and miss out on the other wonders of Islay.
Laphroaig is and should be considered the top of the Islay smoky mountain that you work up to.
Which Islay Single Malt Scotches are the Best?
Glad you asked, there is actually a partner article going into much more detail about this. You may also be wondering what a single malt is, as this is another term that is frequently banded in with the word scotch.
A single malt is a whisky that is the product of one distillery. That doesn’t mean the whisky has come from one barrel though and often a distillery will use a combination of different aged whiskies to get the desired taste. If an age is put on the bottle, the bulk of the whisky in the bottle has been aged for at least the time specified.
If no age is specified, then the only thing you know for definite is that is has been in the barrel for at least 3 years.
Incidentally, sometimes distilleries offer independent bottlings of their whisky that are from a single barrel. This isn’t the norm, as scotch can vary widely in quality, taste, and nose from one barrel to the next.
And, that’s it for our Islay scotch vs traditional scotch masterclass! If you'd like to taste and explore the different regions of scotch whisky without committing to whole bottles, I highly recommend checking out Flaviar, where you can order small tasters of a bunch of different whiskies.
That way, you can taste a wide range of options before buying a whole bottle. Each tasting box comes with a set of three whiskies (or whiskeys), and has a theme, like “smoky whiskies”, or maybe a tasting flight from a single distillery.