The island of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland, has a category of malt whisky all on its own.
If you talk to a whisky buff about Islay whisky, his eyes will light up just at the thought of it. It's a big, statuesque, magnificent whisky; you couldn't believe so much complexity could be in a single liquid.
There are seven distilleries that produce this particular style - a very full mouthful, peaty, smoky and pungent - which is influenced by the water in the streams that run through peat beds before being collected. In fact, so much of the island is covered with peat bogs that when you turn on the tap, the water is brown; if you run a bath, it looks as if the village football team has been through before you.
The best known Islay whiskies are Lagavulin and Laphroaig. They are very peaty, full bodied, rich, wonderful mouthfuls. Ardbeg is the most pungent and smoky of the Islays, while Caol Ila and Bruichladdich are both quite mild, as are Bunnahabhain and Bowmore, which was Queen Victoria's favourite. After due consideration, for me, it comes down to Lagavulin.
I just find an extra succulence in Lagavulin, an extra fullness. It's a combination of the smokiness and the pungency, yet there's a silky element as well, plus a certain tangy, spicy characteristic. The bottle is opened, and the aroma comes rushing at you. You notice this seashore, seaweedy smell.
You resist a little bit, but of course you're curious, so you taste it. Very often when you smell a wine or spirit, it builds up certain expectations, and then when you taste, the smell isn't carried through on the palate. But here, the taste is an even greater development of the aroma.
There are lots of little epiphanies and sensations that crowd together when you taste, swallow and assess what you have in your mouth. The taste goes on well after you've swallowed it. This is the mark of a spirit of quality.
To be honest, when I tasted Lagavulin for the first time, I didn't know how to take it. After the first taste, I didn't take another sip for five or six minutes, because I was trying to decide whether I liked it or not, and even whether it was as it should be.
I tried it again, and thought about the tremendous flavour, concentration and delivery: I decided I liked it - I had never come across anything like it before.
And it has become a benchmark for me. It is something that I bring to mind when I am looking at other whiskies for the first time, they are either in the area of Lagavulin, or not the Lagavulin type, and the exercise then is to make comparisons.
The best way to drink whisky is subjective. But the way among the distillery men themselves is to simply pour out the quantity you want, and add some water. Whisky has a lot of volatile elements, and what happens then is that heat is given off by the water coming together with the whisky, and in the 30 seconds or so that the chemical reaction is taking place, that's the time to be sniffing it, and tasting it, and getting it at its best.
Because it's so strong, Lagavulin shouldn't really be associated with food, it's best taken as an aperitif before a meal, or right at the end, when the conversation starts to take over from eating.
I might be away for Christmas, to get a spot of sunshine, and if I do that, of course I'll take this big creature with me.
Gordon Brown is author of 'The Whisky Trails', a geographical guide to Scotch whisky (Prion, pounds 14.95).
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