Islay, the beautiful island of drams

By Jim Eagles

A huge number of New Zealanders have a bit of Scotland running through their veins.

For many that's because their ancestors came from there.

For others like me - as far as I know my ancestry is mainly English and Irish - the Scottish stuff in my veins is whisky.

I gather that whisky-making originated in Ireland - and I've been known to sip a bit of Irish whiskey too - but for me it's a drink I very much associate with Scotland.

There are a lot of drinks which create that sort of mental linkage.

Rum punch makes me think of Trinidad. The mix of sour wine and sweet fruit in sangria reminds me of Spain. The icy bite of limoncello tells of exciting Italy. An elegant red wine speaks of France.

The nutty taste of warm, flat ale is England while tiny glasses of ice-cold beer are typically Australian.

It's a creamy pint of Guinness, rather than a tot of Bushmills, Jamesons or Powers, which reminds me of Ireland.

The chilled bite of vodka is Russian. The earthy sweetness of rice wine talks about Japan. The relaxing muddy taste of kava speaks for the Pacific Islands.

New Zealand? I'm not sure. Maybe a kiwifruit smoothie, or possibly some of that kiwifruit-flavoured vodka. Perhaps a refreshing glass of TaaKawa beer made with kawakawa leaves.

Or should it just be good old Lion Red which I've aspired to since the day when I was about 10 and my father downed a chilled glassful, sighed ecstatically and said, "Aaaaaaaah, Lion Red, that's a man's drink."

Actually I think it's probably too early in our history to decide what our national beverage is.

In any case, none of those drinks is quite as evocative as a glass of Scotch whisky - especially one of those rich single malts from the Isle of Islay, which with a single sip conveys a magnificent picture of peat fires on chilly nights, the sea lashing rocky shores, windswept hillsides covered in heather and raw-boned men with red hair keeping out the cold with a wee dram or two.

I was introduced to Laphroaig, the richest of all the Islay malts, by Jim Lamb, a delightfully mad Scot who ended up in Paihia - he also introduced me to haggis and oatcakes, but that's another story - and since then I've been a devotee.

On cold, miserable winter nights I sit back and savour Laphroaig's heavy, peaty, seaweedy taste; enjoy its hot, tough, almost sexy bite; and dream of the storm-tossed island where it was made, lying at the entrance to the North Channel, where the Atlantic Ocean smashes its way between Ireland and Scotland.

There are a number of whisky trails in Scotland - the best known is probably the single malt trail round Speyside which embraces eight single malt distilleries including Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Cardhu.

But in my whisky-inspired dream my tour is of the seven distilleries still operating on Islay. I haven't got there yet but the next best thing was provided by reading, over the Christmas break, Peat Smoke and Spirit: a Portrait of Islay and its Whiskies, by Andrew Jefford (Headline, $27.99).

In case you're not a whisky fanatic, I should mention that Islay is about twice the size of Great Barrier and has a population of around 4000, but produces 25 million litres of whisky a year, including notable malts like Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Bowmore and, of course, Laphroaig.

In the past, as Jefford's marvellous book explains, the island had other claims to fame, including being the seat of the Lords of the Isles, whose power once rivalled that of the Kings of Scotland or England.

The remains of Dunyvaig Castle, their mighty fortress, can still be seen on a headland quite close to the Lagavulin distillery.

But today Islay's reputation, and its economy, is based on its extraordinary whisky industry.

Jefford explains in loving detail how whisky-making came there from nearby Ireland, the the techniques used to make this water of life, how the industry has evolved over the years, the different approaches taken by each of the island's distilleries and why the Islay malts are so special.

Of course man does not live by whisky alone and the book does take a detailed look at other aspects of Islay life, its weather, landscape, wildlife, shipwrecks, economy and people.

Jefford also takes readers on an evocative tour of Islay's little villages, rocky shores, windswept hills where the deer roam and bogs from which the peat is harvested.

His language is so rich that you could almost feel you were there.

But, to get back to the real story, the chapters on each of these topics is interspersed with others on the island's distilleries and the whisky they produce.

And, best of all, Jefford invites the reader to join him in a glass of the product while reading about it.

As luck would have it, the second distillery visited was the home of the second Islay malt I have in stock at present, Bowmore.

So I enjoyed a wee drop of Bowmore as I savoured the story of this remarkable island.

The last distillery visited was Laphroaig, providing the ideal way to round off both the book and a rainy summer's day.

If you're got either Scottish or Scotch in your veins then Peat Smoke and Spirit confirms that Islay is a place you really should visit.

If that isn't possible, then reading the book with a glass of island malt in your hand is almost like being there.

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