The Bunnahabhain 21-year-old… one of the most delicious whiskies I have tasted. A sharp, peaty nose rewarded by a smooth, syrupy and vaguely woody finish. Warm to the tongue, with just enough of a burn in the throat – wonderful! But that wasn’t always how I liked my whiskey. Or is it whisky?
Before landing in Kentucky and being exposed to the great variety that is bourbon, my only prior experience with whiskey had been occasional shots of Jack Daniels as a freshman in college (I was of legal drinking age) prior to a music ear-training class. In my pea brain, having a little alcohol before dictation – the class took place right after lunch, so Jack also served as digestive aid to college cafeteria food – opened up my ears so that I was able to better hear what the teacher was performing. Not until many years later did I learn that Jack Daniels is not a bourbon but is actually a Tennessee whiskey… and so my snobbery began.
My first true sampling of bourbon was a shock: harsh and aggressive, but there was a flavor behind the assault which intrigued me. After a period of investigation, whiskeys such as the somewhat rare Corner Creek, the single barrel version of Evan Williams and the sublime 18-year-old Elijah Craig had caught my fancy (Woodford Reserve is still my go-to bourbon when no single malt opportunity presents itself, although Bulleitt also holds a special place in my memory) – and then I met Scotch whisky.
A brewpub with an extensive list of single malts attracted colleagues to meet irregularly as a “Scotch Club,” and I was welcomed to this fraternity of connoisseurs with open arms. But since I was still a relatively recent bourbon “convert,” my six-dram flights (a terrific way to compare flavor profiles) mixed both types of whiskey (whisky); I found the peatier varieties to be too foreign, dismissing them as being too medicinal and too reminiscent of iodine. So I gravitated towards smoother, more bourbon-like single malts… indeed, the first bottle of single malt Scotch which I bought reflected this appreciation: the Dalmore.
From this particular taste of single malt Scotch I was hooked… thank you bourbon, for having prepared me for this journey! The first peaty malt which I subsequently embraced was Bowmore; prophetic, since it will be in the village of Bowmore – just down the street from the distillery – where I will make my home base in a few weeks. Peat no longer deters me, and I relish the subtle distinctions of taste between the various Islay malts which I have had the pleasure of sampling. I do enjoy whiskies from other parts of Scotland (many given as gifts from dear friends), and I still have fond memories of my first trip to Glasgow during which I had the opportunity to tour the nearby Auchentoshan distillery. But what peat does to the malt – and the briny sea air does to the water –has become the source of my fascination.
I don’t know if I will be able to accomplish my goal of visiting all eight Islay distilleries in three days (by bike), but one thing is for sure: I expect it to be a fun adventure. And if I am unable to visit all of the distilleries in person, the bars of the three hotels in Bowmore will offer me the chance to fill in any of the gaps that weather, time or fatigue might create. Don’t forget to hydrate, and pack a few sandwiches for the trip!