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The lustiest whiskies from Islay

Wine columnist Micheal Olivier uncovers some beguiling whiskies from Islay on the west coast of Scotland.

by: Michael Olivier | 27 Nov 2007

Iain Banks in his very amusing 2003 publication Raw Spirit says of Islay it does not rhyme with outlay. 'Ai-ler' is about as close as I can get phonetically.

Islay lies of the west coast of Scotland, the Queen of the Hebrides. Islay and I go back along way. A dear friend of mine, a successful architect in Glasgow, did some important work at the Bowmore Distillery.

Bowmore is situated on the west coast of the island a beautiful typically Scottish piece of architecture with white walls, black windows and doors and roof.

Bowmore produces some of the lustiest of whiskies with intense peaty smokiness, sea breezes and a nose like the backend of a florist's delivery van.

Distilleries to the north of the island produce whiskies that are more delicate of flavour.

Two that I have enjoyed recently are both recent arrivals on our shores. Black Bottle from the distillery of Gordon Graham has a pedigree going back to the idle of the 19th century.

A blend of seven different Islay malts, which in a glass with a dash of still mineral water and a gentle tinkle of ice appears rich and golden in colour, there is a pleasant full and slightly sweet fruitiness on the palate and that utterly beguiling smell and taste of peat.

The bottle is an unusual shape with a fat neck, following a design of a ceramic bottle dispensed with during the First World War due to a shortage of ceramics.

Bunnahabhain, or as Iain Banks will have it Boonahavin, is a different kettle of Scotch kippers. It is a whisky of the gentlest kind and one used in the blend of Black Bottle.

Banks refers to it as the least dramatic of the Islays and feeling he is damning it with faint praise says "it's still quite oily and salty while being moderately sherry sweet and has a hint of peat... Bunnahabhain is the strong silent type, and none the worse for that."

It's interesting that the Bunnahabhain is matured in sherry barrels from Spain that influences the flavour of the virgin spirit.

The squat bottle has a fisherman at the wheel of his boat reflecting with farming and whisky distilling the other major activity of Islay.

For me the Bunnahabhain has a fresh aromatic nose with gentle sea breezes. Fruit and toasty nuts follow ending is a full malty taste and it just lingers on and on with its rich after flavours.

Across the water and over to the east coast of Scotland in Speyside is a part South African owned distillery which is making waves in the whisky industry, Ben Riach.

Ben Riach was founded in 1898. The distillery had at best a varied and interesting history until it was bought by the three current partners in 2003, Billy Walker, veteran of the Scotch whisky industry and two South Africans, Geoff Bell and Wayne Kieswetter.

This year at the 2007 Malt Advocate Whisky Awards in Times Square New York BenRiach was honoured by being announced Distillery of the Year. The Malt Advocate is a major US magazine for whisky enthusiasts.

Quite something for a South African owned Scotch Distillery winging a major award in the USA!

Michael Olivier, a well known Cape wine and food fundi, trained at The London Cordon Bleu Cookery School. He grew up on a wine farm in Durbanville, worked at Boschendal Wine Estate and has run three restaurants, the last, Parks in Constantia was a national top ten restaurant. For more information visit his website

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