Step off the ferry in Port Ellen harbour and you are immediately met with a beautiful sight for malt drinkers: the sign on the road ahead points in one direction to ‘Bowmore’; in the other, to ‘Laphroaig’, ‘Lagavulin’, ‘Ardbeg’. For anyone who enjoys a smoky dram, these names cannot fail to sound familiar.
The island of Islay (pronounced AYE-lah) is undoubtedly the most polarising of Scotland’s whisky-producing regions. Situated in the far south-west of Scotland, it embodies an extremity of location that matches the extremity of its most famous export: from the south coast, on a clear day, you can see the shore of Northern Ireland across the water; or, looking west from The Rhinns, you gaze across crashing waves unimpeded until they break on the beaches of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Drive a spade into the ground anywhere in Islay, and you hit peat. The earthen fuelstuff, half-soil and half-coal, is so widespread across the island that water runs from the tap yellow-brown, having filtered through layers of it. Its aroma flavours every fireplace on Islay; not least, those that fire the kilns in each of the island’s eight distilleries. Hence the signature taste that is known around the world as “Islay-style”: heavy, intense peat smoke that coats the palate; medicinal and harsh, yet fascinating and sometimes awe-inspiring. Flavours that conjure up the brine that hangs in the air, the seaweed that coats the beaches, the earthy intimacy with the soil, and the isolation of generations of island life. It is the wild, untamed spirit of the crashing waves of the Hebrides, and it excites delight and revulsion in equal measure.