No, really, I have made it one of my goals for this year.
While many whiskyphiles out there may have already made this journey, it is one that is still on my ‘to-do’ list.
And since starting the meaty but engaging Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and Its Whiskies my mind has only been further convinced that I need to hop on a plane (and then a ferry) to visit its lands.
Written by the highly regarded Andrew Jefford, the book chronicles both Islay’s history and the history of each of its distilleries (bar Kilchoman which was not yet established when the book was published in 2004). It is one for – not only whisky lovers – but history lovers too, as Jefford explores the island’s owners, conquerors, warriors and families throughout the generations.
With separate chapters on specific topics such as peat, nature and water, each is discussed deftly and with poetic prose that makes it highly readable. It also inspires envy in those (such as myself) who are yet to visit its shores (bar a brief tour of its airport on my way to Jura last year and a stop-off in Bowmore for a cuppa).
It is clear that Jefford is a story-teller. He interviews people who have lived on the island and worked with its natural resources for decade upon decade, while easily engaging the reader in their individual tales. He speaks of the whisky distilleries in dedicated chapters from all angles (from their location to history, water sources and the characters behind them) and the way he reviews the drams these distilleries produce is hypnotic. Take, for example his description of 12-year old Caol Ila: “Neat, it’s sinewy, leanly smoky and mouth-wateringly clean to finish; add a dash of water and you have a very pure, catwalk-elegant dram in which the long-legged ‘cratur’ strides out across the mouth with an alluring flourish of smoky lemon.” How sexy does that sound?
He also covers the natural landscape of Islay in a deeply connective way. In the “Nature” chapter, Jefford asks who does the island belong to? Is it the owners, the islanders or nature? He states in his continuation: “Only the most obsessive whisky lover could visit the island and fail to notice that the setting for its seven distinguished distilleries is a magnificent one. Nature frames Caol Ila; nature swaddles Ardbeg; nature invades Bunnahabhain.”
Before I read this book, I knew I needed to make the important pilgrimage to Islay. Since reading it, I am convinced there is no other route.
If you are a whisky lover or someone who just loves a damn interesting read, I recommend adding this title to your shelf. It’s inspiring, at the least.