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(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

THIS immersion in "peatreek" (there's a word for it, as for nearly every aspect of making whisky) took place at the celebrated Laphroaig, one of three improbably beautiful distilleries in hidden coves near Port Ellen, on the southern coast of Islay -- perfect for unseen shipments, which explains why illicit distilling occurred there long before 1823. Laphroaig and its two close neighbors, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, all derive their water from sources that pass through peat, and the distilleries also heavily peat their barley. Although technically not the Islay whisky highest in phenols, Laphroaig has the strongest peatreek in the glass, possibly from the three phenols it says its seaweedy peat emits when burned -- different, it claims, from those of any other distillery. Whatever the reason, the blast of pure peat is strong, and is best appreciated in Laphroaig's youngest and least expensive whisky, its ten-year-old.

Every eight hours, barley is raked by hand with wooden "shiels" to
keep the temperature low

I fell hard for Lagavulin whisky, which seems to have a unique combination of potent peat and equilibrated smoothness. But I might have been swayed by the beauty of the distillery's low white stucco buildings set against dramatic rocks and the sea, or the simple painted-slat vernacular architecture of its offices, recently fitted into a former malting floor and reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century ship. Ardbeg, just down the road, has recently returned to active production after being periodically closed, and has won praise in the malt-whisky world, especially for its seventeen-year-old. The distillery's ambitious young managers are restoring its buildings with the help of the new parent company, which also owns the mainland single-malt distiller Glenmorangie, and have outfitted a particularly attractive visitors' center and café in the former malting barn. The pagoda is now a decorative roof, as it is at most of the island's distilleries -- only two actually use their kilns, and the rest buy barley peated to their specifications from the local Port Ellen malting company.

Related link:

Bunnahabhain distillery
Photographs of the distillery and surrounding coastline posted at a privately maintained site.

Ardbeg is lucky to have survived and to be making a name in the malt world: traditionally, more than 95 percent of its whisky was used in blends. Bunnahabhain, on the northeast coast, produces the lightest Islay whisky, and has very likely survived because of its utility in blends -- it is a defining component of The Famous Grouse, for years one of the most popular blended whiskies in Scotland. (A blended whisky may include as many as forty whiskies; more than half is usually neutral grain alcohol.) Bruichladdich, another lighter-style Islay distillery, has been "mothballed" since 1994, when it came under the control of the company that owns Jim Beam. The Port Ellen distillery, in the center of the busy port, where ferries come and go, many of them bearing barley for the malting company, closed for good in 1983.

This inactivity infuriates my host on Islay, Jim McEwan, a kind of globetrotting teacher and showman for the Bowmore distillery, in the center of Bowmore, the island's largest village. McEwan began as a cooper at the age of fifteen and has performed virtually every job at the distillery, including running it. He generously arranged for me to tour the plants of his rivals; as whisky men on Islay say, the competition is among the off-island owners, not themselves, and they frequently help one another in small and large ways. He also inculcated in me a taste for Bowmore seventeen-year-old, more delicately balanced in citrus, toffee, and floral notes than most Islay whiskies yet with authoritative peatreek, especially at the finish, and lots of salt. McEwan says that a love of salt is inborn on Islay, and that his mother would accentuate each word of "How was school today?" by shaking salt into the soup.

During my visit McEwan was the master of ceremonies at a tasting held annually to benefit a local group that encourages the handicapped to join in island businesses and activities. The managers of all six operational island distilleries spoke briefly, describing different steps of distillation and aging and always emphasizing the people who performed them. "Remember that when you open a bottle, lots of men come out," McEwan told the crowd. "The human being is the most important ingredient."

I won't open a bottle of Bowmore without thinking of McEwan's passion for the product he grew up learning to make, or of the sunny, maternal Christine Logan, who runs the Bowmore visitors' center and knows seemingly every Islay inhabitant. I won't sample a shot of Caol Ila without remembering Donald Macphee's description of how he and his friends would sneak into the distillery at night when they were ten, seeking the warmth of the kilns, the lights of the parking lot (the village streets were unlit), and also empty lemonade bottles, which they would exchange for penny candy -- or his melancholy acceptance of the fact that he is one of the few of his generation to remain on the island.

Most distilleries have Web sites that offer further information; "The Edinburgh Malt Whisky Tour", not company-sponsored, is an especially complete site. In addition to Wilson's Scotch & Water, Michael Jackson has written several fine guides to single-malts. The best gift for a single-malt lover is membership in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, whose American branch can be reached in Sunrise, Florida, at 800-990-1991. The society, headquartered in Edinburgh (www. smws.com), publishes marvelous newsletters that offer its exclusive bottlings of whiskies taken from single casks, left at their original proof of about 60 percent rather than being watered down to the standard 40 percent, and not filtered; this means that they cloud when water is added but, many people say, have more flavor. A $149 first-time membership fee includes a bottle, which usually sells for $85 and up. At its well-conducted tastings, held regularly in Edinburgh and occasionally in various locales in this country, you can quickly and clearly learn the differences between the four major whisky-producing regions of Scotland -- and also get the invaluable advice to dilute whisky with room-temperature mineral water to make flavors bloom, in the ratio of one third its volume for normal bottled whisky and one half its volume for cask-strength. The personnel at headquarters share my love of peat, and directed me to superb non-Islay smoky whiskies: Talisker, from the Isle of Skye; Brora, from the usually lightly peated Highlands; and Longrow, a special and marvelous whisky from the area around Campbeltown, rich in coal and traditionally a producer of lightly peated whisky.

But I don't have to open one of the bottles I brought home, or browse through the latest witty newsletter from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, to be reminded of Islay. I can just open the big cookie tin I keep in my office -- something I do regularly during the afternoon. On my return I put in it a small bag of barley roasted at Laphroaig, together with the oatcakes and digestive biscuits and "tablet" (something like chalky fudge, and wholly delicious) I had brought back. After two days the tin and everything in it smelled strongly of peat. I removed the bag. Weeks later the tin still reeks. I open it fondly.

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic, and the author of The Joy of Coffee.

Photographs courtesy of Bowmore Distilleries.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; Smoky Scotch - 99.12 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 6; page 115-119.