More than any other Scotch whisky-producing region, Islay (pronounced "EYE-luh") has a magical attraction for single-malt drinkers. Isolated from the mainland on their windswept isle off the western coast, the residents of Islay turned for solace to a strong, kilt-lifting spirit that they started producing back in the 15th century. This uisge beatha, Scots Gaelic for "water of life," gives us our word whisky.
One of the basic raw materials for whisky production is easy to come by here: Islay is a veritable peat bog, so rich in the substance that even the water is permeated with its color and flavor. Peat reek has become the signature of all Islay single malts to a greater or lesser degree.
Another component that can readily be detected in most Islay whiskies
is their salinity. With the distilleries built near the coast to facilitate access to and from the mainland, the sea air adds a distinctive taste of salt, seaweed, and brine. Whether the saltiness comes mainly from the malting water, from the salt-sprayed peat used in the drying kilns, or from sea breezes that play around the barrel warehouses during maturation is one of the mysteries of Islay.
These whiskies are an acquired taste, but they also make great gifts for the well-traveled road warrior or are a great way to impress a cultured boss.
BOWMORE 21-YEAR-OLD ($150)
Bowmore takes its name from Islay's principal town, where the distillery is the major feature in the landscape. Given Bowmore's prominent position overlooking Loch Indaal, some have compared it to a fortress, and during World War II it was in fact used as a base for flying boat squadrons. These days, fortunately, whisky is again the main order of business at Bowmore. Ownership passed to Stanley P. Morrison Company in 1951, and the firm, now known as Morrison Bowmore Distillers, was bought by Suntory, the Japanese megaconglomerate, in 1994. Bowmore is, understandably, a big hit in Japan.