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Last Sunday, I sat down on the living-room sofa to watch the first episode of The Sopranos and poured myself a shot of one of the most glorious Scotch whiskies—Talisker, from the ruggedly sublime Isle of Skye. "Ewww, do you have to drink that right next to me?" said my wife, firmly planting herself at the far end of the couch. I eyeballed the glass—a bulb-shaped snifter ideal for focusing the whisky's aroma, or "nose." The liquid was a lustrous amber, but I had to concede that it smelled like a slab of smoked herring left overnight on the counter of a warm kitchen. And yet it's almost mild compared to a Laphroaig, from the Scottish island of Islay. The nose of Laphroaig has smoke and seaweed and something overpoweringly medicinal, like hospital bandages. It smells like someone being treated for burns beside a smoldering building. Next to a bog. Across from an open-air fish market. It smells like ... heaven.
Although blended Scotch (composed of whiskies from many different distilleries plus lightening cereal grains) accounts for about 90 percent of the world's consumption, the market for single malts (whisky from a single distillery) has exploded in the last two decades—and it's the island spirits that have attracted the most passionate cultists. The reasons for this trend are hard to pinpoint, but it's surely part of the same movement that brought millions to microbrewed beers and boutique wines: a quest for purity and intensity of flavor after nearly a century of homogenization.
My obsession with the stuff is a story of extremes. As a kid in the suburbs of Connecticut in the '60s and '70s, I was weaned on all things bland and homogenized: Wonder Bread, American cheese, iceberg lettuce, fish sticks, and, in high school, Budweiser. I never liked beer until I tasted the robust, hoppy ales of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Big California wines—bruiser zinfandels, with a touch of loaminess—followed. Sourdough from what was alleged to be a yeast culture born before the Civil War tantalized me with what I'll call its … offness. Off like certain cheeses. Off like Asian sauces ladled out of barrels of decomposing fish. I became a freak for all things "off." When you put something strongly flavored or "off" in your mouth, your most primitive instincts tell you to spit it out, yet the perception of danger heightens the senses and makes the pleasure more intense. A design for living, that.
I don't mean to suggest that island whiskies taste like rotted fish. It's just that the ones that I'm swilling these days owe much of their flavor to decay. To wit, they are permeated by peat, which someone in my favorite New York whisky bar—d.b.a. at 41 1st Avenue in Manhattan's East Village—once explained to me is "the halfway point between dung and coal." (The attribution for that line is strangely indecipherable in my notebook—one of those nights.) Peat, according to Charles MacLean in his definitive 1997 book Malt Whisky, is "the acidic, decayed vegetation made from bog plants such as sphagnum moss, heather, sedges and grasses—the composition varies according to the peat bog's location." The peat bogs close to the sea, he goes on, become "saturated with salt spray, and in some cases contain strands of seaweed, relics of time when they were under water."
Peat can contribute to whisky at a lot of different evolutionary stages. It can infuse the water itself as it flows through moss and grass on its way to the distillery. More commonly, it's collected, dried, and used to smoke the malted barley before that barley is mashed, fermented, and distilled. In his breathtaking coffee-table book Scotland and Its Whiskies (with vivid, panoramic photos by Harry Cory Wright), the ebullient beer and whisky scribe Michael Jackson describes an island smoking session in which the aroma of burning malt is like "anchovy paste being spread thickly on freshly-toasted, grainy, thick cut bread." Finally, in the course of barrel aging (anywhere from 10 to 18 years—or longer—for the good stuff), the whisky can pick up salty/peaty flavor from the island air. As Jackson poetically puts it: "The casks of whisky breathe the smoky, peaty, seaweedy, briny atmosphere as they sleep in those coastal warehouses."
Although it has been over a decade since I set foot in Scotland, maybe my favorite place on earth, I go back in my mind when I nose an island whisky—especially one with a ton of phenolics or peat-reek. Few things are as redolent of their place of origin—the black rocks of the Cullins on Skye, the maritime fogs, the sheep, the heather. Sometimes this whisky (from the Gaelic uisge beatha, "water of life") can evoke—in suggestible souls, at least—the mythical loch beasts and Scottish air of melancholy whimsy. "You can't eat scenery," a Russian sailor sadly reminds the Yank protagonist of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero , the definitive movie about the American romanticization of Scotland.
Actually, you can sort of drink scenery if the scenery is peat bogs, and the epicenter of the island style, Islay, looms in the imagination as a fairy-tale peat-bogland. Pronounced "Eye-luh," this is a 25-mile-long, 15-mile-wide island off Scotland's southwest coast—only 12 miles from Northern Ireland, where, MacLean reminds us, "the mysteries of distilling originated." (There is little resemblance, it should be said, between Islay malts and traditional Irish pot-still whiskey or blah blends like Bushmills.)
I've never been to Islay, alas, but Isabael MacTaggart, the communications manager for Morrison Bowmore (makers of the moderately, although marvelously peaty Bowmore whiskies) grew up on the island and made it come alive for me. The daughter of a sheep farmer and a Gaelic teacher (I swear I didn't make these details up), MacTaggart says that whisky on her home island is pretty inescapable, what with seven distilleries in a population of 3,500: "Your friends or your parents work at one of them, and that smell, that lovely smell when the kilns are lit ..." She continues, "There's a long state road, between the two big villages, Port Ellen and Bowmore, and there's nothing between them but a blanket of bog on either side, dead straight—nothing but bog, and it's full of peat banks." The island, she adds, has the sweetest reek. When she moved to London to work for the BBC, she had friends send her envelopes of peat so she could burn little bits of it at home.
Jack Oswald, the former Air Force officer who put together a multipart DVD documentary The Malt Project out of sheer love, reports that when he returned from his last shoot on Islay, he brought the aromas back with him. "Everything reeked," he recalls. "The clothes, the suitcases, the camera equipment. I can still smell it!"
But enough about peat: Let's have a drink. Or should I say, a "cracking wee dram." (One problem with tasting a lot of different whiskies is that fanatics refer to them as "expressions"—as in, "I had the 12-year expression, but the 18-year expression is just so much more expressive." I can't imagine myself ever walking into a saloon and saying, "Bartender: Whisky! And make it a sherried 15-year-old expression.")
Let me open an Ardbeg 10, from a much-beloved Islay distillery that was recently acquired by the owners of Glenmorangie—the gentle, flowery, woody, and immensely popular Highland whisky. Ardbeg, which began distilling in 1815, was inactive for a time but is back with a vengeance, making one of the world's reekiest drams (also, at less than $40 a bottle, on the lower end of the price spectrum for great whisky). It's a pale spirit, without any of the increasingly popular caramel coloring and its attendant "toffeed" sweetness. But the paleness is belied by its monstrous nose—overpoweringly peaty but with its iodine phenols more balanced by smoke and sea-salt than in, say, Laphroaig. There is some char on the finish; this is a 10-year-old, youngish for a great island whisky, and it's brash. But the elements are all so perfectly knit: The whisky leaves your mouth tingly and your lips with the faintest coat of salt, like a walk along a beach in a warm, humid haze among smoldering bonfires.
I'm not a professional taster, so it's worth quoting Jim Murray, the extravagant, bearlike author of Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2004, on the same dram. Murray scores whisky from 1 to 25 based on four criteria: nose (n), taste (t), finish (f), and overall balance (b). Ardbeg is among the whiskies he lives for, even in this juvenile incarnation, and he gives it a big 93:
n23 oily, slapped-on-all-over-with-a-trowel peat that leaves nothing uncoated. A lovely salty tang gives an extra tweak; t23 sweet, equally oily arrival with massive malt surge. When that has passed the serious work of picking out the intense seaweedy oaky complexity begins; f24 stupendous spices add an extra dimension to the already complex story unfolding on the palate; b23 close your eyes and enjoy.
It's worth lingering a moment on Murray, one of my favorite whisky/spirits writers for his nutty enthusiasm. Like many of the best food/whisky scribes, he is something of a drama critic. A whisky isn't some dead, one-dimensional thing: It has a plot. It comes on to you in one form, transforms on the palate, lingers or vanishes abruptly, and leaves you to ponder. Here is Murray's assessment of the Ardbeg 21: "We all have bad days, weeks, months in our life when we wonder why we were put on this earth, then you open a bottle like this and discover the reason." And here is Murray on Maker's Mark Black Seal, a Kentucky bourbon: "A whisky that demands solitude and the ability to listen. The story it tells is worth hearing again and again."
Under the guidance of Murray, Michael Jackson, Charles MacLean, Jack Oswald, and Ray Deter, co-owner of d.b.a., I have been listening to my whisky—learning to identify and characterize its various components and to make the experience last as long as possible before having another belt. Oswald reports that current thinking among corporate distillers is to downplay the mystique of Scottish whiskies (their selling point for generations) and play up the taste, but with island malts, surely, mystique and taste are tantalizingly interwoven. Sometimes I sit with a dram and Jackson's Scotland and Its Whiskies and flip through the book with a large magnifying glass, which makes the photos of the landscape seem envelopingly three-dimensional. The combination of those pictures and the whisky's peat-reek is genuinely transporting—fabulous. And hope springs eternal that my wife will inch a little closer.
This Sunday at 4 p.m. ET, a live, online island-whisky tasting at d.b.a., 41 1st Avenue in New York, with some good friends and colleagues, among them A.O. Scott of the New York Times, Brooke Gladstone of National Public Radio, culture editor Meghan O'Rourke of Slate, food and spirits writer Malachy Duffy, and d.b.a. publican Ray Deter. You will be able to see us, read us, send questions, and offer your own exclamations of wonder.
You might want to pick up a whisky or two in advance. We'll be sampling some of the most widely available island malts:
From Islay: Ardbeg 10, Bomwore 17 (my favorite of the Bowmore "expressions"), Laphroaig 10, and Laguvullin 16 (increasingly rare owing to distillery shortages—the whisky is hugely popular).
From Skye: Talisker 10.
From the Orkneys, on the way to Scandinavia: Highland Park 12, which Michael Jackson calls "the greatest all-arounder" in the whisky world for its mixture of island-peaty and Highland-heathery flavors.
We'll also be sampling an American peated whiskey, the 3-year-old McCarthy's from Portland, Ore.