For over 200 years the small island of Islay on Scotland’s west coast has been synonymous with whisky production – but its link to the spirit can be traced back even further – almost 300 years to the near birth of aqua vitae. Nowadays its reputation has reached near legendary status the world over – whisky pilgrims travel for hours to step foot on its hallowed ground and wander around its revered distilleries. But what is it about the island that so captures the imagination of enthusiasts?
Part of Islay’s status derives from myth and legend – romantic stories of illicit distilling, inaccurate (and still to this day propagated) tales of coastal maturation being what gives Islay whisky its distinctive character - remember much of the airborne activity of a cask is from the inside out, and much of the output of the island is nowadays matured (at least in part) over on the mainland, far away from the influences of the sea. So yeah, whilst this sounds suitably evocative, it’s not a totally accurate representation. Much of the true character derives from the ingredients and the distillation processes themselves. Important, but a lot less sexy for marketeers.
Islay possesses a very particular topography – a topography that has resulted in what has established its whiskies the world over – peat. There are few trees on the island and much of the ground is bog land – never really totally drying out. There’s an abundance of mosses and shrubs that thrive in the wet conditions. Both are affected by the Atlantic – delivering stiff winds and salty water regularly onto the relatively flat land of the island. The vegetation lives and dies in this moist bog land and when it decays, it produce the characterful and world renowned Islay peat which has become the signature of many of the whiskies produced by the now nine active distilleries.
Part of the mysticism of Islay likely comes from its remote location – it’s no easy task to visit the island. Whilst a small airport near the capital of Bowmore receives infrequent planes from the mainland, cancellations are a regular occurrence. Most whisky visitors are likely to arrive by the CalMac ferry from Kennacraig. It’s all part of the pilgrimage – a slow, steady, and if the weather is pleasant enough, highly picturesque cruise, helps build the anticipation – as does the very reasonably priced drams on the ferry itself. But, Islay in essence is a small, largely rural island that is regularly being pushed beyond its existing infrastructure by an increasing number of distillery tourists, new openings and capacity upgrades. Whilst it is both rugged and attractive in equal measure, the whisky industry has somewhat outgrown the island’s physical constraints – sure there’s a ton of actual space, but the road network and limited number of ferries means that Islay regularly struggles to keep up with the level of production that is taking place on its shores. I've yet to visit Feis - honestly the scenes of blocked roads and middle of the night queues for bottle scrambles are about as appealing as chewing off my left arm.
The whisky industry has become a vital employee for the island – retaining more people and delivering more economic benefit than farming. But, with growth, comes the risk of undermining the ‘Islay brand’ – authenticity and provenance are becoming increasingly important, and with an growing number of new distilleries (re)opening, Islay needs to somehow retain its mysticism and stature, without at the same time being seen to be overplaying the stories of legend and resting on the laurels of history and traditionalism. It’s certainly possible, look to Bruichladdich and Kilchoman – both of whom put innovation and local provenance front and centre. But for bigger, globally-known brands it’s a tougher proposition to communicate what is inherently unique about Islay’s whisky to an increasingly switched on and savvy global audience.
And then in steps Aerolite Lyndsay – a intentionally unassuming single malt which takes its name from an anagram of ‘a ten year old islay’. Bottled by a new imprint from Atom Brands (who own Boutique-y Whisky and Master of Malt), the expression is the first release from The Character of Islay Whisky Company, which is looking to ‘explore a unique personality based on stories, legends and experiences associated with the island and its people’. The packaging for this first release does nothing of the sort – it’s basic and unadorned, highlighting, somewhat cheekily, the preponderance of myths and pilgrimages made to the Isle, with the suggestion to ‘believe what you will’. I.E. the focus here is certainly on the liquid, rather than the dressing or backstory. I can dig that.
The composition of Aerolite Lyndsay is 70% Ex-bourbon barrels, 25% ex-Sherry Spanish oak quarter casks and 5% of undisclosed casks, and the bottling is delivered at 46% ABV. It’s available from Master of Malt for £44.95.
Nose: Coastalness is immediate – hewn rocks, shingles and pebbles alongside plenty of salinity (which grows the longer this rests in the glass). It’s followed by impactful peat smoke – part smoked fresh green apple, part iodine, brine and seaweed, part burning vegetation. Throughout, chip pan fats and pickled onion monster munch, whilst liquorice and white chocolate cream provides some sweet richness. The addition of water adds pear juices, barley water, marshmallow tea cakes and a glass of whole milk. It also perks up the smoke influence with antiseptic cream and smoked dried chilli peppers.
Taste: The arrival reaffirms the Islay character with an immediate upfront detonation of coastal smokiness – dry burning wood, bandages and hospital gauze alongside salted water, and bitumen-like tarriness. The mid-palate re-establishes sweetness with preserved lemons and golden syrup, whilst maritime minerality is never too far away – granite beach groynes and chiselled slate. Reduction softens the edges, taking things into very easy-going territory – crème brulee and burnt cream alongside grapefruit tartness and soft tannic oak.
Finish: Medium with fruit-driven smokiness, liquorice, menthol and drying wood.
Aerolite Lyndsay successful embodies several common aspects of Islay’s peated whisky output – it ably straddles maritime smoke, coastal minerality and natural sweetness. The end result is not deep, nor complex, but it’s well-composed, well-balanced and above all super tasty. Whilst it might be as (deliberately) as vague as they come, this is fairly-priced, evocative and dangerously drinkable.
I’ll be looking forward to future releases from The Character of Islay Whisky Company – In particular, you can mark me down for ‘Ol’ Everglade Betrayed’ (answers on a postcard please)
Review sample provided by Atom Brands