Drunken Essays

A whisky identity crisis

Posted by: Nick

Warning: may seem like an actual blog article.

Good news, folks, the word of the Waffle is spreading. Our local paper The Advocate recently published an excellent article about the blog and the tasting nights we are running. My only issue? It seems Ted and I have inadvertently become Burnie’s most famous hipsters. Here’s the headline:

Advocate screen shot

So… am I really a hipster?

I mean, I have been known to grow a beard. I like brunch. And Ted’s glasses are a bit pretentious. But a hipster?

The label of course refers not to our occasionally-groomed facial hair but to our fanaticism to whisky. I mean, we kinda do run a successful whisky blog… This, coupled with the fact we’re under the age of thirty does kind of point towards hipsterdom.

The only problem is it’s not true – in my eyes at least. I am absolutely a whisky nerd, that title I cannot shake. I will even admit that I can veer wildly between drinking buddy and whisky snob (“My shout buddy! As long as you leave out the ice this time!”) But surely people referring to me as a hipster simply because I can recite all eight (and a half) distilleries on Islay is a step too far.

And then I realised. Just because people refer to me as a hipster, it doesn’t make me one. In fact, they probably just don’t have alternative terminology. So I shall boldly proclaim to the whisky loving public: I identify as a Waffler. I drink plenty of whisky and use plenty of words to talk about the stuff.

So let’s start a Waffly revolution! Let’s give those that call us hipsters an alternative title! Let’s Waffle on until our significant others roll their eyes and turn up MasterChef! Keep on Waffling, my friends. Keep on Waffling.

Confessions of a Geriatric Whisky Newbie Part 2

Posted by: Chris AKA the Geriatric Newbie

(Part 1 appeared here as ‘Queries from a first time Waffler’)

I’ve been a seasoned whisky drinker for over three months now, so it’s time to look back on the journey so far. If ‘seasoned’ is the right word to use, rather than just ‘pickled’.

To recap: I took up whisky drinking rather late, at the age of seventy, as part of a search for a relaxing and hopefully slightly disreputable hobby to help brighten up the declining years. Somewhat unexpectedly, what began as a plan to buy just two samples and test the waters rapidly expanded into a collection of over thirty bottles. Perhaps there was a need to make up for lost time in the search for the perfect drop. Or perhaps I was corrupted by reading Whisky Waffle? Yes, that must be it – it couldn’t possibly be all my own fault. But the two biggest factors have been that the research is fascinating and, it has to be said, it can be a lot of fun having a hobby that you can drink.

I can’t claim that money was no object – some whisky enthusiasts can apparently afford truly crazy money in pursuit of their passion – but I did have enough saved up to be able to build a small collection without being restricted to only the cheapest varieties. The whiskies I’ve accumulated include some single malts and (whisper it….) some blends. The least I paid was $35 for a Ballantine’s Finest and the most expensive bottle, so far, was $114 for an Aberlour A’bunadh.

For the record, I bought blends from Ballantine’s, Chivas, Dewars, and Johnnie Walker. And Irish Whiskey from Jameson, Bushmill and Teeling. The single malts range from the Lowlands of Scotland to the Highlands and some from Speyside, plus a couple from Islay. Finally, some from Penderyn – the only distillery in Wales.  I hasten to add that they’re not all open yet. Didn’t know that I was capable of such restraint. At least, I’m fairly sure there’s one still sealed somewhere… exploring other parts of the world, naturally including Tasmania, will come later.

But where should a newbie begin? One can only hope to scratch the surface of the hundreds, if not thousands, of whiskies now on the market. So many decisions to make. Do I want to become the sort of afficionado who will only sip the finest single malts, and actively enjoy getting snooty and sniffy about blends? Or will I aim to become a party animal who will try anything provided it’s sloshed into a glass with enough cola? Despite what I initially imagined, it appears that drinking blended whisky, and also adding some kind of mixer, is by far the most popular way of enjoying it worldwide. Apparently, historically it always has been. Despite the rise in popularity of  single malts over  the past few decades, over 90% of the output of the Scottish distilleries still goes into blended whisky.

Confession02Pic01

Attempting the correct style of snooty face

Soooo…. This whisky business might be more complicated than I thought. It seems that I will not only be chugging it down neat, delightful though that is. Maybe some long whisky drinks could be just the thing for summer. I could try some tentative experiments with some of that Ballantine’s or perhaps the Johnnie Walker Black Label. That’s not a hanging offence, is it?? I might experiment with a range of mixers – in particular, soda, dry ginger, cola and coconut water. Yes, apparently coconut is very big as a whisky mixer in some parts of the world. Green tea too. Who knew? Not me, until I started doing the reading. Of course, soda, dry ginger ale and other mixers have always been popular, even in relatively traditional circles. Adding soda or ‘dry’ to the whisky was certainly the mainstream fashion among adults when I was a boy. Admittedly that was back in the middle of last century, so things may have moved on a bit….

I bought a variety of whisky books, including a couple by the splendid Charles MacLean. Also The World Atlas of Whisky and Whisky: The Manual, both by respected whisky writer Dave Broom. All are good value, and they point out that whisky has a long and venerable history as a mixer. Indeed in the early days it was almost exclusively drunk mixed with a variety of herbs, spices and other ingredients. Maybe it was too rough to get down neat? So, mixing is neither recent nor sacreligious! Good to know that. Nick and Ted may disagree though. I may even get evicted from their Tasmanian Temple of Tippling for mischievous mixing. Holding my breath now…

Of course some drinkers have always liked their Scotch neat or with a splash of water, but the big marketing push to sell single malt Scotches to the world as a solo drink apparently began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. According to Charles Maclean and Dave Broom, two factors drastically reduced the demand from the whisky blenders who had previous bought the majority of the output from the distilleries.  Firstly, a slump in the global economy and secondly the rapid rise in popularity of competing spirits such as vodka, white rum, etc. and of course wine. So the makers needed to look for an additional way of marketing their products. Building new market images for their single malts was the answer. Lucky us. Even at this early stage I’ve sampled some very nice single malts that I probably won’t be trying with cola just yet.

But which styles will make the cut? Neat Johnnie Walker Green label? Auchentoshan Three Wood? Will Lagavulin and Coke make the grade? Ballantine’s and coconut juice? Place your bets now, and stay tuned. Many thanks to Nick and Ted for the chance to waffle on.

Cheers to all.  Chris.

Fortunately, as you can see, all this dedicated whisky testing has had no noticeable effect on me at all. Just lucky I guess.

Confession02Pic02

 

An ode to Islay

Posted by: Nick

port-ellen

Our week exploring the peated wonders of Islay has sadly come to a close. We’ve loved every drop and had some proper crackers. And lastly, we’ve reminisced about Islay itself – the beautiful Hebridean island which we would both return to in a heartbeat. To conclude our celebrations I wanted to share a poem I composed while on the island a few years ago. I was so taken with the place (and under the influence of several peated drams) that I thought I could only express myself in rhyme. Merry Christmas fellow wafflers!

Out in the Atlantic Ocean lies

an island of my hearts desire.

With salty air and peat smoke rife

the spiritual home of the water of life.

Its sunny skies and rugged coast

but friendly locals I’ll miss the most.

I’ll always long for that familiar burn

and hope one day I shall return.

A very waffly Christmas

#IslayWeek

#LetsGetPeaty

Rye Reflections: my visit to Belgrove

Posted by: Nick

nick-n-belgrove-whisky-waffle

While casually scanning through the many varied barrels in the bond store end of Pete Bignell’s converted stables, I asked him what he thought his signature expression was. It was a tricky question – I mean, it must be hard to settle on just one drop in a place of such experimentation, innovation and creation. And he looked at me with a grin and told me that his signature expression was exactly that. Not a barrel type, or even a grain; but creativity. I guess when you think about it, what else could possibly link a champion sand sculptor with a leading whisky maker – but creativity?

As we continued to waltz through different age statements, grains, barrel types and peat levels (north-east peated malt: phwoar!) I realised that no two barrels were alike. Each one had its own history and its own story – and Pete knew ‘em all. It’s clear now that embracing the lack of uniformity and instead pursuing creativity is what Belgrove is all about.

Four must-visit Scottish whisky distilleries

Posted by: Nick

Nick in Scotland

So you’ve travelled to Scotland. You’ve climbed to the top of Edinburgh Castle, eaten a plate of Haggis and failed to find the Loch Ness Monster. Your Scottish experience is complete but for one final destination. The country is synonymous with several things – including men in skirts and losing at football – but most famously of all, it is known for its whisky. Therefore on your travels it is compulsory to stop in at one or two distilleries and see exactly how the stuff is made. Of course, that means narrowing it down to one or two from the hundreds of options – not an easy task.

It was not long ago that I made a trip to whisky’s spiritual home (pun entirely intended) and thought I would share a few of my recommendations to check out after a hard day’s not-spotting Nessie.

Auchentoshan:

Auchen

This distillery is as accessible to visit as the whisky is to drink. Located just outside of Glasgow, Auchentoshan is right on the way for tourists looking to explore Loch Lomond or venture into the highlands. The distillery itself is extremely pretty and the friendly staff run a slick tour. The tasting session at the end covers the core range, though if you’re lucky they may find you something special to try behind the bar. The drams themselves are easy drinking and perfect for those who are slightly hesitant about whisky!

Ardbeg:

PE Ardb

The ultimate fanboy distillery. If you’re keen on your peated whisky then a trip to Ardbeg should be the number one priority. Granted, it is on a little island off Scotland’s west coast, but is the most magical place when you get there. Every corner of the distillery emanates old world charm, and if you select a premium tasting session, some of the drams they bring you in their little back room are mind-blowing. Ardbeg are famous for producing rare one-off bottlings which, unless you happen to be mates with the distiller, you are unlikely to get to try too many of. Do the tour, however, and who knows what you may find – Ardbog, Alligator, Supernova, Dark Cove… one dram of any of these makes the price of admission worthwhile.

Supernovas

Glenfiddich:

To get an idea about the scale of the Scottish whisky industry, do the tour at Glenfiddich. They are the largest producer of single malt in the country and their distillery, therefore, is huge! Twenty-eight stills are in operation, each big enough to make Lark’s copper pot look like a key ring. There really is a sense of awe as you walk among the machinery and through the bondstores. It’s certainly a popular one, with thousands of tourists going through the establishment each day, however if you spend a couple of extra pounds they’ll put you in a smaller, more intimate group and give you the added bonus of checking out warehouse 8 – the Solera facility – where you can see them vatting vast amounts of whisky to create, among other bottles, their 15 year old. The tasting that follows walks you through the 12, 15, 18 and 21 Year Old expressions – yes, that’s right, 21 year old! Not all distilleries churn out a 21 year old regularly on a tour.

Glen Stills

Bruichladdich:

A trip to Bruichladdich is the perfect whisky experience. Firstly, the staff are some of the coolest and most entertaining people in the business. Secondly, their equipment, in particular their mash tun, is all beautifully ancient. It’s like an antique shop where the gear comes alive at night when the owners leave! Finally, and most importantly, there’s the tastings. Oh man. Bruichladdich are famous for innovation and experimentation, the result of which is a large number of fascinating whiskies to try. A rum matured whisky – can I try that? Sure! A new Octomore – do you mind if I… Go for it! How about that double matured… Get it down you! In short, a trip to Bruichladdich is compulsory if you ever find yourself in the area – and by the area, I mean in the Northern Hemisphere!

Bruich

These are, of course, just four of my picks based on one visit and I realise that as far as excellent distilleries go I am barely scratching the surface. So what places have you been to that you would recommend people make it along to? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see if I can hit them up on my next trip to the whisky motherland!

Warehouse 8

 

Whisky Waffle celebrate Tasmanian whisky

Posted by: Nick and Ted

Tasmanian whisky: One state. Three ingredients. Unlimited flavour.

Wafflers with waffles

Whisky Waffle are thrilled to help kick off the inaugural Tasmanian Whisky Week, an event we are sure will capture the hearts and minds of the whisky loving public. Throughout the week we will be showcasing a different Tasmanian drop each day and exploring the huge variety of flavours on offer in our small state.

From Hobart to Burnie, the week will be a celebration of the history, the people and of course, the amazing whisky itself. But what is it exactly that makes Tasmanian whisky worth celebrating? To answer that, we asked the people who know best, the folk working in and contributing to the whisky industry in our home state.

We turned first to the (designated) drivers and organisers of Tas Whisky Week, the beautiful Jane Overeem and the beautifully bearded Brett Steel:

Jane Overeem

Jane Overeem

Jane Overeem, Overeem brand ambassador and coordinator of Tas Whisky Week:
The authenticity, love and passion behind every brand – which results in amazing quality products!

Brett Steel, Drink Tas founder and coordinator of Tas Whisky Week:
The stories and the people! Whisky is being made all over the country now, but Tasmania is and always will be the homeland of Australian whisky. When Bill Lark got the laws changed in 1992 it ignited something in many of the island folk. Whisky production with the old-world techniques is a passionate affair and a patience game. I think Tasmanians value both of these elements; we are in no rush. Great whisky can’t be hurried, and where others may be focusing on scale and technology, I think the execution of Tasmanian whisky-craft is down to the pioneers in Tasmania who were hungry enough to make it happen in the first instance, and generous enough to teach others their technique. And because of that drive, that’s why Tasmania produces exceptional whisky, time and time again. I hope Tasmanian Whisky Week becomes a celebration of their story.

Next we spoke to the head distillers from two of Tasmania’s most influential distilleries, Lark and Hellyers Road, about their aspirations to be the next James Bond… and about whisky:

Chris from Lark

Chris Thomson

Chris Thomson, Lark head distiller:
Ask anyone who works in the industry and you will always come back to the people. Tasmanian whisky is built on an incredible brother and sisterhood where we are all just celebrating whisky, enjoying it with friends and family and trying to make each dram better.  As an industry we help each other out and share in each other’s success, usually with a whisky in hand! The thing I love about Tasmania’s distilleries is we are all just small enough that you might see this relationship in action. So what is it that makes Tasmanian whisky worth celebrating? It’s the same thing that makes whisky worth celebrating; the great people you meet over a dram.

Mark Littler

Mark Littler

Mark Littler, Hellyers Road head distiller:
Tasmanian whisky has come so far in such a short period of time and to be having our single malts recognised and distributed globally is certainly something to celebrate!

Tasmania’s down-to-earth whisky alchemist, champion sand sculptor and 2015 Bill Lark Award recipient provided some sage advice about our local industry’s lo-fi nature:

Pete Bignell

Peter Bignell

Peter Bignell, Belgrove head distiller and whisky alchemist:
It is all hand made in small batches. We don’t rely on computers to tell us when to make the ‘cuts’; it is all done by nose and taste. If it doesn’t smell or taste right then it does not go into a barrel – or come out of the barrel. We all use alembic pot stills that are inefficient at separating alcohol from the vapours in the still, but we exploit that inefficiency to bring exciting flavours along with the alcohol. It is all about flavour, not volume.

Two of Tassie’s newest members to the family got straight to the point about what goes into making a good Tasmanian whisky… literally:

Chris Condon, Launceston Distillery head distiller:
It’s a little bit of Tassie in a glass. Local grain and water, crafted into full flavoured whiskies by passionate people.

Damien Mackey by Paul County

Damien Mackey (photo by Paul County)

Damien Mackey, Shene Estate head distiller:
Tasmanian Whisky is a perfect storm: world-class barley and water, an ideal climate, time-tested methodology, passionate people and the steady hand of an intrepid leader, Bill Lark.’

Fifth Beatle and third Waffler, Alex ‘Moorsey’ Moores gave us a Braveheart-esque speech on the merits of the Tassie drop:

Alex Moores, founder of Dramatic Drams and Whisky Waffle guest reviewer:

Tasmanian whisky is all about the craft. Nowhere else did any anyone have the bravery and foresight to do something so momentous on such a small scale. You don’t do that because you want to take people’s money. You do it because you think those people are missing out on something truly great. Every detail matters to Tasmanian whisky distillers. Other distilleries in the world are built to even out the crinkles in their product; make a lot and hide its imperfections. Tasmanian whisky finds beauty in the chaos of variation; it makes something delicious, then breaks the mould and does it all over again.

Finally, the co-presidents of the Tasmanian Whisky Appreciation Society gave us vastly different (but equally accurate) responses about why Tasmanian whisky is worth celebrating:

Richard

Richard Stewart

Richard Stewart, TWAS co-president and Whisky Waffle guest reviewer:
In my opinion – the people! I mean everyone knows Tassie is the best place on earth, and everyone knows we’re blessed with the perfect climate, soil, water, animals, peat, foliage, moss, sunlight, ecosystem, etc etc  for growing grain, distilling, and aging whisky.

But to do any of this you have to have the right people – smart people, friendly people and a welcoming and supportive community behind them. People not afraid to step outside the box, take big risks, do unimaginable, amazing and sometimes weird things with water, yeast, grain and wood. And these people have placed their trust and faith in us, the locals, and given their all, asked us what we think – what they can do to improve and change what works and what doesn’t.

I think Tasmanian whisky is worth celebrating because it’s a nexus of harmony – perfect ingredients, perfect location, perfect people and a perfect community supporting all of this. Everyone in Tassie should be proud of the distillers, distilleries and the whisky produced, but the fact that the Tassie community is helping as well means we’re all a part of one big whisky family…  now that’s worth celebrating!

Tim

Tim Duckett

Tim Duckett, Heartwood founder, TWAS co-president and whisky palaeontologist :
You answered your own question. The whisky is ‘Tasmanian’.

We would like to thank everyone in our extended Tasmanian whisky family for embracing us (and putting up with us) and sharing their passion and wisdom with us. We are privileged to be a part of this celebration and wish it all the success in the world. Tasmania, keep on waffling.

Lads

Nick and Ted. Wafflers at large.

Tasmanian whisky: One state. Three ingredients. Unlimited flavour.

#TasWhiskyWeek

The day my head exploded in a cloud of smoke: a whisky memory

Posted by: Ted

Ted in armchair

As I sit here in a comfy wingback Chesterfield armchair in the lounge at Lagavulin distillery on Islay, I reflect that this represents the culmination of a very significant journey for me. My being here now was (in part) sparked by a moment in time a number of years ago that changed how I experienced the world.

When we were young, poor and tasteless uni students, we drank whisky without any art or depth of thought. Our main drinking decision was how cheap we could get away with without completely destroying ourselves.

However, one particular night we happened to be out on the town for a friend’s bucks night. Feeling in a generous mood and relatively flush, we stopped in at a bar and decided to order a couple of drams a bit above our usual weight.

Our decision this time was based purely on how cool the name was. Our first dram was the fun sounding Monkey Shoulder, which taught us about finding better blends and which we still enjoy to this day.

The other was a rather mystical sounding dram named the Lagavulin 16yo. Not thinking too much about it I took a decent hit of the dark amber liquid. Suddenly, time stood still and my mind exploded. I had never tasted anything like it.

Billows of hot, medicinal, coastal smoke filled my mouth and roared down my throat, leaving my senses reeling. The others around me were being gripped by a similar reaction. It was love at first dram.

Ted with fireplace

That one moment catalysed within me a yearning for good quality whisky, to try exciting and interesting drams. That feeling simmered away until the finish of uni and the gaining of a job and more importantly, money. Suddenly a whole world of exciting whisky was within grasp.

Eventually the path we had been set upon led to the founding of the number one whisky blog in Tasmania, something m’colleague and I are immensely proud of, and the discovery of a whole community of people just as excited about whisky as we are.

And so here I am on Islay, sitting at the very distillery that kickstarted the whole adventure. It feels slightly surreal to be honest (although if it was truly surreal there would probably be a couple of highland cows sitting on the other chairs smoking pipes and discussing the football results), but at the same time like wearing a favourite old tweed suit.

Ted at Lagavulin

It’s a significant time for both of us actually, as Lagavulin celebrates their 200th birthday this year, a feat to be congratulated. I will no doubt return here again, as will m’colleague and many others besides, hopefully for another 200 years and more, and revel in this glorious, extraordinary whisky.

Sláinte mhath, and keep on waffling.

NAS Week: A bad wrap

Non-age statement whisky rightly or wrongly gets a bad rap in the whisky community. So, naturally, we thought we would conclude our week of NAS whisky reviews in the form of a bad rap. Best read with some kind of beat in the background: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9-doKcLwl8&nohtml5=False

Waffle Boys

Wafflers with swag

The lights go crazy as a “sick beat” echoes out across the arena. An announcer with a Glencairn shaped microphone cries out across the crowd:

“You said it couldn’t be done. An entire week of non-age statement whisky! And yet here they are: two rappers who will never use coke. Please give it up for the Wafflerz!!!!”

 

Yo whisky drinkers they got this infatuation

About sticking stuff in barrels for its maturation

But how long for? There’s a bit of debatement

So we thought we might try us some non-age statement

 

Glenlivet’s older spirit, they’ll try to preserve

So they’ve brought out a new drop called the Founders Reserve

I’m sure many bottles will keep getting sold

But it’ll never compare to the 12 year old

 

So I look for something else to fill my cup

Will the real Auchentoshan please stand up

Although the producers claim that its Classic

The 12 and the 3-wood are far more fantastic

 

When you pour some Old Pulteney down your throat

Try not to forget it’s been on a boat

The younger spirit gives it plenty of spice

This is a dram both nautical and nice

 

The Talisker NAS with the tastiest form

Is the one with the Dark before the Storm

But you know the saddest thing about this tale

You can only buy it in travel retail

 

Leaving behind the Isle of Skye

We found a dram of Oban well worth a try

Coming from a Little Bay on the west coast

Was this curious drop we found we liked the most

 

The moral of the story is while some taste rotten

Unworthy replacements that will soon be forgotten

Other NASes are without a doubt far less bleak

And thus concludes non-age statement week

 

#NASweek

 

Single available on itunes soon… =P

No Age No Good? Whisky Waffle launch NAS Week

Posted by: Nick

Wafflers in smoking jackets

Some may argue that our attire is the greater controversy here…

A controversial topic? Surely we don’t do that here at Whisky Waffle! Well, just this once, we thought we’d take things seriously and leave our flippancy behind.

Sort of…

Today’s discussion is about non-age statement, or NAS, whisky. For non-whisky geeks, NAS whisky is a bottling that cannot be described as a 12 Year Old, or a 10 Year Old, or an anything-year old, because there is younger spirit mixed through like a very whisky-flavoured cocktail.

These NASes are borne out of necessity: since us Wafflers discovered the stuff, there just hasn’t been enough of it around! So rather than waiting the usual 12 years, distillers have been getting impatient and slapping 9 year old, 8 year old (3 year old?) spirit into the mix and coming up with impressive sounding Gaelic names to go on the label.

So how do we feel about this situation? Is the stuff as NASty as it sounds? Well, to be honest, I have no problem with the concept of NAS whisky. I mean, you just can’t deride the Talisker Storm as liquid Nickleback while simultaneously proclaiming the Ardbeg Uigeadail as the solution for world peace. So just like any supposedly ‘superior’ whisky with a number on the bottle, there are good ones and there are bad.

Founders Reserve n waffle

But seriously, the box IS rather pretty…

Which brings me neatly to Glenlivet – a prominent convert to the NAS fad. I wrote a glowing review about their ever-dependable 12 Year Old and described how its accessibility was its strength. That was, until it was no longer accessible. In its place, in a blue box (which is sadly not bigger on the inside) came the sophisticated-sounding ‘Founders Reserve’. I was slightly concerned – though this disquiet came from my affection towards the 12 rather than my automatic dismissal of anything ageless. I was perfectly fine so long as it tasted good. Which, I’ve recently discovered, it doesn’t.

It’s not that the dram is comparable to the toxic output of a nuclear reactor. It’s quite drinkable in a ‘at-least-it’s-not-red-label’ sorta way. But it doesn’t stand up to the depth and character of the previous entry-level incumbent. And this made me both sad and rush out to get a bottle of the 12 while I still could.

Non age statement whisky is not the scourge of the earth that many flat cap-wearing whisky reviewers may have you believe. There are some tasty drops out there that would please the most snobbiest of whisky snobs (if you told them it was an old bottle of Macallan). However, in the case of Glenlivet, where you can directly compare the old and the NASish new – it’s one nil to the age statements.

Of course, another way of looking at it is that after eight drams, it doesn’t really matter how long it’s been in a wooden barrel for…

The writing of this article prompted a lively debate among the Whisky Waffle boys – so much so, that they decided to spend a week looking at some prominent NAS releases to see if they are as derisory as their reputation suggests. So with great excitement – we present to you NAS-Week! Make sure you pay a few visits throughout the week and find out our thoughts – or post some juicy trolling comments! Tomorrow will kick off proceedings with a detailed review of this article’s nemesis: the Founders Reserve! But why start there? Leave us a comment telling us EXACTLY how you feel about non age statement whisky in the replies!

#NASweek

The Top 5 Islay Distilleries

Posted by: Nick

Streets of Bowmore whisky waffle

If I were to take four flights, one lengthy bus ride and a ferry crossing, as well as being broke and jetlagged, I would also be in my favourite place in the world, the mythical Isle of Islay. While my own home state of Tasmania contains many fantastic distilleries, I know that this Hebridean island will forever be: The Whisky Isle.

Islay is currently home to eight distilleries, which is not bad for a tiny island with a population that would fit into the MCG thirty times over. I do of course only speak hypothetically, because in real life the people of Islay would not deign to leave this most wonderful island – not even to attend the Boxing Day Test Match.

All eight Ileach distilleries make fascinating, varied and outstanding whiskies. But today I count down my top five favourites, those establishments that have helped shape the Whisky Waffler I am today.

5 Kilchoman

Kilchoman is the relative new kid on the block, only in operation since 2005, however the standard of whisky they are creating is astonishing. They take an old familiar flavour and reinvent it, producing something refreshingly new, and yet at the same time distinctly Islay.

One sip reflects the traditional Islay flavours that so perfectly accompany winter storms as they roll in off the Atlantic, testing the water proofing of the local cottages, and yet their whiskies are also bright, young, and energetic. They are surprisingly complex, and, most importantly of all, they are improving all the time. Kilchoman is that annoying combination of athleticism and brains: it is the top football star with the chiselled good looks that goes on to become a neurosurgeon. So with this in mind there is no doubt that Kilchoman is a distillery to watch out for in the future.

4 Bruichladdich

4 bruichladdich

Jim McEwan took over the then derelict Bruichladdich Distillery in 2001 and, after initially being called crazy, has seen it go from strength to strength. Known for its innovation, the distillery creates not one, not two, but three different series of bottlings, all with their unique style. Firstly and foremost are the lightly peated drams produced under their own name, Bruichladdich. Secondly, the more traditional and heavier-peated Port Charlotte, named after the long-since shut distillery that was once based a few miles away. Finally the famous (or infamous) Octomore range, marketed, correctly, as the most heavily peated whiskies in the world.

If I were to work at a distillery on Islay, this would have to be it. It combines traditional methods (the may-as-well-be-antique mashtuns) with experimentation (I heard rumour of a tequila cask hidden away in the bond store somewhere). Most of all, Bruichladdich are a community-focused distillery. Jim McEwan has achieved many great things across his career, but he claims the number of Ileach people he employs is the one that fills him with the most pride.

3 Laphroaig

3 Laphroaig whisky waffle

When you think Islay whiskies, you think peat – and no distillery on earth does peat like Laphroaig. The whisky produced here may not be to everyone’s taste, but it sure is to mine. One sniff transports me to bonfires, seaside camping trips and, as I discovered later, the sensation of getting out of the car on Islay and inhaling the peat-thick fresh air. The whisky made by Laphroaig is iconic and rightfully among the most famous made on the island.

Whiskies made at Laphroaig are unapologetic. If you don’t like your drams peated, run for the hills (if you can actually find any on Islay) as the manufacturers don’t care. I find this attitude appealing however. I know what I’m going to get from Laphroaig and I know that it will comfort me after a tough day at work or celebrate with me as I raise a toast with my friends.

While they have the second biggest output of any distillery on Islay, they still conduct traditional floor maltings and fire up their own peat kilns for a percentage of their product. I’ve been lucky enough to stand in the large kilns, and even luckier that this occurred while they were not operating! Laphroaig is Islay to a tee and an unmissable stop if you visit the island.

2 Lagavulin

2 Laga whisky waffle

First trying the Lagavulin 16 Year Old was a revelation in my whisky-drinking life. What was this spirit that burned like a roaring bonfire in my mouth? What were these charred-fruit flavours that followed? I’d certainly never tasted anything like it and I’ve certainly never looked back.

Several years later I have tried a range of peated whiskies and loved most of them. But the Lagavulin 16 is still up there amongst the best.

What separates Lagavulin from the rest is a sense of class. While other distilleries, rightfully, let the wild peat-monster roam free, Lagavulin has it well trained, even walking to heel. With some of the Distillers’ Editions it will even sit and roll over! This allows a magnificent balance between peat and sherry flavours which really sets it up as the classiest of Islay’s whiskies.

1 Ardbeg

1 Ardbeg whisky waffle

While all distilleries on Islay offer many brilliant and varied drams, it is Ardbeg that I believe captures the ‘spirit’ of the island the best. With a slab of peat, a splash of history and a smattering of actual magic, you cannot help but fall in love with the drams, the atmosphere and the portrait on the wall of Shortie the Dog, the Ardbeg mascot.

Ardbeg are famous for once a year releasing a frustratingly small amount of limited edition bottles which seem destined to sit unopened on wealthy collectors’ shelves. But on the rare occasion you get to try one, you will see what the hype is about: Alligator, Galileo and of course Supernova are all enticingly titled as well as deliciously flavoured.

Their regular bottles cannot be forgotten, either. In Uigeadail they have produced a strong candidate for worlds best peated whisky, the Coryvrekkan has one of the longest finishes going around (and around and around!) and as for their ‘entry level’ – is there a finer 10 year old bottle in world whisky? Possibly not.

Ardbeg is many people’s favourite distillery. And it is not hard to figure out why. Put simply, it is because it is among the best.

Nick at Port Ellen lighthouse whisky waffle

This list, of course, is only my (somewhat subjective) opinion. It is by no means definitive. What are your top five favourite Islay distilleries? Let us know in the comments and we will slam you for being wrong! Er… I mean, we will respect your opinion greatly! That’s the one!