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Scarabus Islay Single Malt

Islay, Islay, Islay. What does an Islay whisky really mean? I realise we may disappear up another one of our wormholes, but what I mean by this is to vaguely glimpse under the skin of what is an Islay whisky.

And to risk even more confusion, this particular wormhole takes a detour via Jura. Jura Whisky’s latest ‘creative’ campaign, in fact, which I spotted recently. (And by a creative campaign, I mean making a digital advertisement that no one wants to watch, and ramming it down our throats until we click Skip or close the browser tab.) Just look at this:

It’s basically riffing on the same theme of Bruichladdich’s “We Are Islay” thing – and from raw materials to maturation, given Jura has about 5% of the provenance that Bruichladdich could claim – this highlights the dangers of using a place as being central your messaging. Bruichladdich genuinely goes to great lengths – and huge expense, no doubt – to produce whisky with provenance, but it’s whipped away in an instant from under their feet when Jura just sticks out an advert after rounding up some locals.

Any island distillery can do it when the raw materials are from somewhere else, and people are none the wiser in whisky. Why is that?

Islay has become a bit of a Disneyland of whisky, despite the consequences for the island itself; so much so that I think Islay whisky has become more than about actual whisky from Islay: stay with me. As the Jura campaign highlights so neatly, the perception from brand wonks is that a huge number of whisky drinkers don’t necessarily care about ingredients or even where things matured, but rather they care more about – for want of a better phrase – whisky factories and people. I mean nothing poor by that comment – factories are ace, lots of good people work in factories, and there are lots of good factories, large and small, making lots of good things. Distilleries are industrial set-ups, of varying degrees, and the people skilled engineers.

This Islay notion – the word heavily loaded with images and film of people and distilleries – somehow reinforces the very things that provenance is not. I suppose it’s the same with Jura and Orkney: these Scottish islands underscore place and people rather than the provenance of ingredients; they become tourist destinations, postcards, rather than places obsessed with raw materials. They encourage the wrong use of the term, causing confusion as to what it really means. And it’s something unique to the islands – the Speyside or Highlands brands aren’t as strong, despite efforts to replicate it.

But actually, that’s really the word, isn’t it? Brand.

So what I’m saying, if you’ve not fallen asleep yet, is that Islay’s provenance can no longer be real provenance, despite Bruichladdich’s efforts to highlight what it should be. No, Islay is not provenance, but instead, it is a place that has become a brand; which is to say, not a logo, not a jingle, but a shared personality and mood that any bottler can tap into to shift some bottles. Brand Islay.

A vocal minority, of which I count myself – with Adam – among the shoutiest, screaming into our bubble, might suggest that provenance is more than people and a building and a road sign. And there are many apologists for the industry, who should be expressing more journalistic integrity, who simply repeat this strange myth about whisky that it has nothing to do with the ingredients nor where the whisky is matured or bottled. Just one bit in the middle, that slice of production called distillation. So it doesn’t really matter how little of that production actually comes from Islay – sure, throw your casks somewhere else on the mainland to mature; sure, get your barley from that horrible Eng-er-land. Still Islay, mate!

Generally, if you tried such claims in the wine industry you’d be escorted into the nearest burning Wicker Man. Indeed, even in the whisky industry, I am perhaps most likely to be the Christopher Lee to your Edward Woodward if you keep trying that nonsense with me.

But we’ve got peat, they say! I suppose just going back to the Islay idea of provenance, a splash of peat hither and thither is all fine to put an Islay stamp on things, as is the case with this bottling. It’s a peated whisky. It was distilled in one of the buildings on that island, by people on that island. But is peat Islay? Go on any distillery tour in Ireland (especially Midleton) and they will tell you all (yes ALL, seriously) Scotch whisky is peated.

So Hunter Laing – perhaps my favourite of the independent bottlers – can quite easily produce a peated Islay single malt whisky in time for the Islay festival, and have no need to provide information about where it was made, let alone how it was made, because it still feels 100% like an Islay whisky. It taps into the Islay brand. People will still buy it for being an Islay whisky, even if it was matured near Glasgow or uses barley from England, not that I’d know, because all we have is the word Islay on the bottle. And everybody is fine with that. It is 100% Islay, by the terms in which the majority would likely accept these days. But you know what? I’m fine with that. I only have a problem when, as with Jura, someone tries to create the illusion of provenance in whisky, when really their provenance is one slice of the whole story, a bit in the middle. It’s the illusion I dislike.

Now, I’m out from up my bottom, without making any new point in particular, so let’s taste this ‘Islay’ whisky. This is meant to be going at about £38 a bottle – remarkably cheap in this age, or £31.95 from Master of MaltAnd we have multiple tasting notes, you lucky things!

Scarabus Islay Single Malt Whisky – Review

Mark’s Tasting Notes

Colour: old gold.

On the nose: really very pleasant, a gentle, very sweet peat and citrus notes. Heather honey. Dried apricots, more floral flourishes in the distance. It’s a very classic peated Islay. Some slightly husky cereal notes, a touch hoppy. Linseed oil. A little pot ale, perhaps, once the sweeter notes – a hint of sultanas – fades.

In the mouth: oily, very pleasant indeed, yet not overly complex; but what’s here is very charming indeed. Again a gentle sweet smoke, with honey and Assam tea. Briney. Meaty green olives with some lemon juice. A little dried fruit – lighter sorts, apricots and sultanas. Cloves on a reasonably short, pleasant finish.

Mark’s Conclusions

I’d place a shilling on this being Caol Ila, but anyway, for £38 it’s really brilliant value. Better than a lot of whiskies twice the price. You should most definitely have a bottle of this on your shelf, even if you don’t really care about where the ingredients came from.

Mark’s Score: 7/10

Jason’s Review

Colour: honey

On the nose: plenty of hot dog brine with fatty bacon chips oozing oil. A sprinkling of salt, smoked toffee and grilled haddock. Plenty of seaside aromas, peat and driftwood. Memories of ham hock are revived plus the old brass paraffin lamp from my grandfather’s coal mining days. A dirty vanilla is present and accounted for alongside chilli flakes and orange zest. Adding a splash of water reveals lemon oil and mint imperials.

In the mouth: rather pleasant and oily with a voluptuous mouthfeel. Scorched fallen oak trees, sea salt and a stewed black tea. There’s honey, kindling, black pudding spices, squashed apple flesh and cracked peppercorns. Salted peanuts follow, as does vanilla and of course the peat but a lovely balance is evident throughout. Water isn’t a favourable addition revealing a muggy and bog-like nature with crackers and plenty of oak; meaning I preferred it neat.

Jason’s Conclusions

Mystery producer aside, the fact that this will be retailing at £31.95 or thereabouts, is great news. It’s showcasing a real skill for blending and if Compass Box were to release this – noting the branding and visual apparel is very much of their ilk – it’d be wrapped up in more nonsense than a Boris Johnson leadership campaign; with a price pushing north of £70. Thankfully, we have a common sense approach, delivering a worthwhile whisky and an affordable one.

It shows what can be achieved with a little skill. Setting a fair price for the experience and not trying to fleece whisky drinkers. A welcome surprise and something to quell the overhyped passion many have for the Lagavulin 8-year-old which retails for circa £52.

Jason’s Score: 7/10

Note: we were each sent a bottle of Scarabus, so clearly our bribery threshold for favourible reviews is about £38. The photograph came free of charge from Hunter Laing. The links are commission based but do shop locally as well – this bottle is worth checking out.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Alex says:

    ”Generally, if you tried such claims in the wine industry …”
    Because wine is mostly not an industry. Because wine producers are first and foremost farmers and craftsmen.
    And last point, whisky is more global, the same Jura (or Bruichladdich, there is no difference…) bottle can easily be found on a table in Dallas, a bar in Shanghai and a home in Helsinki. You won’t find my wine producers so easily, because there are indeed no industrial products…and no brand!
    Wine brands regions and not so much producers (in Europe) but there are much more wine producers in a tiny French or Italian wine region than whisky factories in the whole of Scotland.
    It’ s a lost battle to try to make whisky something comparable to wine, industries cannot je humanised (despite all the efforts they make…).

  2. Avatar
    Mark says:

    You are not wrong to make those differences. But you are not right to say basically “well that’s all right then”.

    The production differences are true; though whisky is increasingly diverse and small scale, especially in the US. We live in a different era where we can now understand these differences; where Big Branding has less and less impact; and where real provenance will play a more important role.

    But I could so easily have said the cheese industry. Or most other foodstuffs. And unless we point out the lack of truth in whisky nothing will ever change, even if we have apologists lurking in comments sections.

  3. Avatar
    Gary says:

    The campaign will have been developed in a marketing workshop and when I read the PR justification I can hear the pitch to the board. It’s fine so far as it goes but it’s all about the surface gloss rather than the authenticity of genuine provenance. However, do the majority of purchasers get worked up about this? Probably not.

    “Kirsteen Beeston, head of international malt brands at Whyte & Mackay, said: “We know our audience are looking for brands with a real sense of purpose and that when they hear our brand story they are captivated by the role Jura Distillery plays within its surroundings.”

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      Hi Gary – that’s an actual quote, I guess… Ugh. I often find these lines are trotted out by people who listen too hard to focus groups.

  4. Avatar
    Timp says:

    If you care and lots dont, its just sad for the consumer. Its similar to listening to food ingredient listing arguments from a few years ago. That seemed to me to be all about brand protectionism, in case us little folk really found out what they put in our favourite breakfast cereal and changed allegiance, god forbid!

    Whats sad for me, is the ploy that because legislation or rules dont force manufacturers to be transparent my ignorance can be used or indeed deliberately created to line their own coffers. The very fact this occurs to me and I have no knowledge of this world, means they have done and its done deliberately.

    As with all purchasing decisions, you choose. There are enough companies out there who do care about giving their customers the choice of understanding their product properly.

    May they rise sbove the tide of mediocrity! Got my cash anyway..

    Well done for keep on banging the drum MALT..

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      Thanks Timp. You’re right – protectionism, and branding, are the order of the day. I can’t imagine for a moment these brand wonks thing: how can we make a really exceptional whisky of high provenance. More’s the pity.

      1. Avatar
        Dominic says:

        Forgive me but I find the Jura-bashing a bit unfair and unfounded. I visited the distillery last Tuesday. Our guide was a Diurach whose grandmother is pictured cutting the tape at the 1963 re-opening. Back then the vision of local landowners Robin Fletcher and Tony Riley-Smith was to revive the distillery and help stem the tide of declining population on the island. Then, as now, Jura needs jobs. Anybody visiting Jura can see that the distillery is at the heart of the Craighouse community. That’s not marketing, it’s fact. And throughout the tour there was absolute transparency about process: where the barley is grown and malted; where the water springs from, the yeast and the casks and where the whisky matures (on the island incidentally; not something which can be said of some more fashionable Islay malts). There was even discussion about colouring, filtration and bottling strength with no attempt to hide what they do with the various expressions. Personally I don’t much care for the new ones; I preferred Prophecy. I also applaud everything Bruichladdich do but to cast them as the good guys against Jura seems unnecessary and unfair when both mean so much to their immediate communities .

        1. Avatar
          Mark says:

          Criticising a brand for the way it communicates the illusion of provenance isn’t criticising the people who work at the site specifically; and we could – and have – said far worse about the terrible spirit that the distillery produces on a regular basis.

    2. Avatar
      Jay says:

      Agree with the whole provenance thing being a mad PR circle jerk, but that latest Bruichladdich campaign had good human feels about it. It felt real as opposed to the bag of dicks flying out of the mouths of Ardbeg (LVMH) when Ardbeg Day swaggers around. On the flipside I have no issues with Caol Ila stocks being aged on the mainland… maybe because they don’t wank it up with PR faff. But us whisky wankers aren’t generally the target audience for this stuff anyway…

      1. Avatar
        Mark says:

        Excellent use of swearing, Jay! Very much approve. And ‘bag of dicks’ each Ardbeg day – quite agree.

        I wonder who the target audience even is and if they think it’s all nonsense too?

  5. Avatar
    Travis says:

    I totally agree with you and Timp. The use of buzzwords and appealing to a romantic notion of place (or cask eg sherry) to make a buck is untruthful and frankly unpalatable. On the subject of unpalatable, who is drinking Jura anyway?

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      You’re right about that borrowed sense of place from sherry there too. The theme of a few producers. Something worthy of a future rant…

  6. Jojo
    Jojo says:

    Scarabus, Scarabus, when you do the fandango…sorry, couldn’t help it. Seriously though, I hope I can find a bottle and try this. Good read chaps.

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