Schooling the Palate: Learning to Love Islay Scotch Whisky
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay expands upon an earlier post that was focused on Ardbeg 10-year-old scotch; there is some redundant content here but also much additional insight based on further exposure.
At this advanced point in my life I can only hope to become an informed “hobbyist-connoisseur” of fine whiskies — scotch, bourbon and rye — within my means. In the realm of single-malt scotch, those means encompass a median price of $45–$50 USD with an occasional bargain around $35 and an even rarer “splurge” of up to $80; there are no $100+ bottles in my future at present, never mind those over $1,000. Excellent bourbon and rye can be had for well under $50. I’m an occasional imbiber who doesn’t entertain much, and 750 ml of whisky can last me several months.
Of the five scotch-producing regions — Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Islay and Campbelltown, the Islay distilleries currently have my full attention, followed by the Highlands where my ancestors hail from and then Speyside, where my introduction to single-malt scotch (Glenlivet) originated; I have no experience of Lowland and Campbelltown offerings (although Springbank and Kilkerran are on my radar). I have little interest in Japanese or Indian renderings, however wonderful they are reported to be. My bourbon all comes from Kentucky, my sour-mash from Tennessee and my 100% rye from Canada.
When I decided to acquaint myself with the heavily-peated Islay style of single-malt scotch whisky (by which I mean that peat is burned to dry the malt, imparting a deeply smoky aroma and flavor to the liquor), I realized that I was going to have to “school” my palate in order to fully appreciate its rather stern character. Based on “scotch snob” — excuse me, “respected expert” — reviews I’ve read, I knew there was more to it than figuratively ingesting a mouthful of wet ashes. One of them recently noted that “peat” and “smoke” are two distinctly different flavor profiles; the first one can be vegetal and earthy (a quality evident to varying degrees in many Highland scotches) while the second one is unabashed “campfire;” this duality gave me hope since knowingly consuming potash has never been on my “bucket list.” However, with a couple of exceptions, the “earthy” formulation does not seem to be prevalent in whiskies distilled on the Scottish isle of Islay (pronounced “EYE-la” according to the locals), where “smoke” is king.
I read a long time ago that the human tongue processes flavors in four different zones (although this has now been largely refuted). If I recall correctly, the tip of the tongue was thought to convey sweetness but I read somewhere else that it also detects sharply disagreeable flavors, enabling prehistoric peoples to recognize and promptly spit out poisonous intake; the top and sides of the middle region were said to pick up sour and salty essences; and the back of the tongue responds to bitter tastes like charred meat, black coffee and dark chocolate. Although in my own experience (which seems to fall within the range of current scientific thinking) the middle section is more attuned to sweet, spicy and sour tastes and the tip of the tongue to the biting tang of liquids like mouthwash, this seemed to be a serviceable model upon which to launch my Islay scotch campaign.
I began my Islay quest two years ago with a bottle of Bowmore 12-year-old, which is recognized as an entry-level peated scotch, very tasty but not particularly “peat-forward” or challenging; it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me except as a perfect choice to recommend to neophytes. I also had a bottle of budget-priced McClelland’s, a less-sophisticated label from the same Morrison Bowmore distillery (an affiliation I didn’t know about when I bought it). I drank neither of these neat; the former was slightly diluted with ice and the latter was mixed in cocktails. But I recognized that to fully savor the experience I would have to encounter more robust specimens “naked,” letting them rest for a spell after the pour.
The adventure typically starts with the nose, by which we decipher the various scents offered by the whisky; this exercise has its own unique terminology that has nothing in common with the pedestrian reality of bar-grade blended hooch. I duly performed this ritual with much protracted sniffing and learned something of what the cognoscenti carry on about (for example, Bunnahabhain 12 smells remarkably like those boozy chocolate-covered cherries after they’re bitten into; the McClelland, on the other hand, is redolent of light smoke, cigarette ash, tar, rubber and seaweed — not unusual for an undistinguished Islay scotch, and McClelland is considered a “bastard malt” of unknown composition). But the experience was somewhat incidental to the main event, which takes place in the mouth. There I learned four important lessons that dramatically increased my enjoyment of the whisky (or at least my aficionado’s vocabulary).
Single-malt whisky in general has a range of astringency according to style and distillery that the tongue translates into “alcohol burn,” and Islay scotch is no exception. I currently have three examples to analyze: an Ardbeg 10-year-old heavily-peated bottling; a Bunnahabhain 12-year-old unpeated version that the distiller blithely describes as displaying “light peat; ” and the last dram of the “NAS” (No Age Specified) McClelland that I’ve had since the beginning of this odyssey. I found that the Ardbeg is smooth and creates very little burning sensation when contacting the tip of my tongue, while the Bunnahabhain is noticeably more fiery on first taste; the McClelland also burns very little and faintly suggests olive brine (brine is a signature taste of several Islay scotches). Thus, I’ve learned to be sensitive to these distinctions when sampling new scotches since not all are created equal.
I discovered that, by pushing the rim of the glass slightly farther into my mouth and letting my carefully-modulated initial draft bypass the very tip and settle on the middle of the tongue, I could avoid any burning sensation and thus immediately encounter the sweet, spicy and malty notes in the liquid. This delightful combination is what I pursue expensive whisky for, so I was encouraged. Many modern scotches are aged in oak barrels that formerly held sherry (a crowd favorite), port, red wine, bourbon and rum among others, and this area of the tongue is where, at least for me, they make themselves known. I finished a dram of Bunnahabhain in this manner and enjoyed it immensely for its mellowness and pleasing marriage of sherry, cherry, oak, vanilla and honey despite it being somewhat “toothless” in the peat department. The McLelland has nothing to recommend it in this category, mainly delivering an oak-tinged “phenolic” or “medicinal” impression along with the brine and a trace of licorice sweetness. (The Ardbeg I evaluated in my earlier post.)
“Mouth-feel” is definitely a thing. All of my prior experience had convinced me that whisky has much the same viscosity as water, but discerning (and, it must be said, highly imaginative) tasters have reported their tipples to be “oily” and “creamy.” What I take away from this is that some scotches feel thicker than others on the palate. In my own samples, the Ardbeg impressed me as being very “full” in the mouth and the McClelland was also quite “velvety,” while the Bunnahabhain was noticeably thinner than both. More diligent research is needed (OK, twist my arm).
In my own limited experience with intense peat, the back of the tongue is where the “finish” — the lingering aftertaste — takes up residence. It is here that the “peat-bomb” scotches like Ardbeg and Laphroiag really shine for their arresting smoky presence that “just keeps on giving.” I mulled over numerous consecutive sips of the Ardbeg and found a wide range of penultimate flavors, some easily identifiable and others more fugitive (and fanciful). I identified tobacco — as a former cigar and pipe smoker I couldn’t miss it — unsweetened baking chocolate, strong black espresso coffee, barbecue char and a kind of leathery, overripe-fruit funkiness that one might get from a Belgian lambic (“wild-yeast”) beer. Ten minutes after downing the last drop, a patina of molasses or very dark brown sugar emerged at the back of my mouth and remained for some time in what is known as a “long finish.” The similarly-peated McLelland left an indefinite fusion of smokiness, stale coffee, a rather dank herbaceous funk(ever get bong-water in your mouth?) and a trace of iodine in the finish, which was of medium duration but ultimately unmemorable; at its low price point this one is still a shoo-in for the Rusty Compass, Penicillin or Drunk Uncle cocktail (but nothing more dignified) so I will keep it around for that.
I find that the singular complexity (isn’t that an oxymoron?) and depth of an Ardbeg, Laphroiag or Isle-of-Skye-distilled Talisker are the chief selling points for the peated style, and they will keep me coming back for more. Conversely, the Bunnahabhain (also a product of Islay but not intentionally peated) exhibited only a faint earthiness on the finish, highly enjoyable in its own right but not a scotch that hijacks your taste buds in quite the same way. (To update, my second dram with a small bit of ice released an unmistakable aftertaste of 70% dark chocolate.) I would call it a casual but elegant everyday “sipper” while the Ardbeg and its ilk demand more focused attention and commitment (which of course begs the question of why we drink high-end whisky in the first place — are we merely pleasure-seeking dilettantes or dedicated pilgrims looking for the Holy Grail?)
The Ardbeg 10 has put me on the path and there is no turning back. Several versions of Laphroiag and Talisker — both of which I’ve tasted before as 10-year-old expressions — the very affordable Ardbeg Wee Beastie and especially the Lagavulin 16 and the pricier Ardbeg Uigeadail and Corryvreckan all loom on the horizon. The generously-peated Port Charlotte 10 and unpeated Bruichladdich Classic Laddie also beckon. With the current price of imported whisky, however, this could be a multi-year proposition.