Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Whisky Galore at The Islay Festival of Malt and Music

By Rachel Wilson

The small island of Islay is getting ready for the annual week long Festival of Malt and Music which starts the last weekend in May. The whiskies of Islay, from no less than eight working distilleries, are famous throughout the world and the malt whisky industry is one of Islay's largest employers and sources of revenue.

Each of the islands distilleries will be having its own open day during the festival and the whisky lover will be able to enjoy whisky tastings, master classes and distillery tours. In addition a busy programme also includes a variety of musical and cultural events, Highland dancing, the Islay Pipe Band, sporting events, guided walks and children's amusements. Many of the venues will feature food tastings and refreshments using local produce and ingredients.

An Evening of Gaelic Song and Traditional Music at the Gaelic College Bowmore on the evening of 27th May will be a treat for those interested in Gaelic music and culture. This is a great opportunity to see local Islay artists, including the Islay Gaelic Choir, perform. There will be refreshments and a raffle.

A highlight of the week for the real whisky aficionado will be a whisky tasting Ceilidh on the evening of the 25th May. If you think you can tell Ardbeg from Bowmore or Bruichladdich then all the distilleries will be there with their whiskies so go along and test your whisky tasting skills. Musical entertainment at the event will be by the Islay Fiddle and Accordion Band.

The distinguishing characteristics of Islay's whisky are due to its peaty soil, brown peaty water and exposed position. The winter gales bring salty sea spray inland to most parts of the island. This soaks into the peat which dries out again in the salty, seaweed scented breeze, imparting some of the strongest flavours of all the malt whiskies.

The distilleries in the south of the island include Ardbeg and Laphroaig. These produce some of the most powerful of Islay's whiskies. The brown, peaty water is used together with a heavily peated malt in the distilling process. The whisky has a flavour that has been described as peat smoke, brine and iodine. Sometimes even "medicinal".

The distilleries to the north of Islay include Bruichladdich. They produce a much milder whisky. They don't use the brown peaty water but draw water from the springs before it has a chance to come into contact with the peat. A lightly peated malt is also favoured. The whisky produced is still dry but much lighter with mossy overtones rather that peaty and the flavours of the sea are not so pronounced.

On the shores of Loch Indaal, in the middle of the Island, lies Bowmore distillery. In character it is somewhere in between the whiskies of the north and those of the south. While peaty flavours are very much in evidence it is not medicinal. The sea, salt, seaweed and iodine can be still be detected but the more delicate floral notes are able to come through and the whisky has a peppery finish.

Islay is known as The Queen of the Hebrides and a visit offers much more than the festival. Try a taste of island life with stunning scenery and amazing wildlife.

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