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 Malt. And 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.
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
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.
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.