Travel

Let's take a walk on the fragrant side

The smells of Islay reflect on some of its wonderful whiskies. Martine Nouet takes you on a sensory journey across the island and introduces its flora and fauna
By Martine Nouet
Westering home and a song in the air”, says the song about Islay. It could as well be: “Westering home and whisky in the air”.Not only because the ‘island of whisky’ shelters seven distilleries (and maybe eight in the near future). But also because all the fragrances carried by summer breeze or winter gales are the same descriptors used in tasting notes by so many whisky writers or aficionados.The invitation could be: ‘breathe in Islay and you’ll nose it’s whiskies’. Or: ‘let the single malt you are nosing take you for an Islay walk’.If you allow me to lead you by the nose, I’ll share with you my best nosing spots on the island. Then imagine we taste Islay malts on our way back, trying to pick up the aromas we nosed all the way through.That’s the way I best enjoy sensory evaluation. Just follow me and let our noses serve as our compass...Travelling to Islay by air may be quicker but reaching the coast by boat has a magical touch, especially if you land at Port Ellen by the evening ferry on a warm summer day.Peat smoke is the first smell the visitor experiences as CalMac Ferries’ captain manoeuvres to berth the ship.You can see the grey outlines of Port Ellen Maltings puffing out white smoke. Peat is burning for hours in the huge kilns of the plant, when Ardbeg, Laphroaig or Lagavulin’s supply is being malted.Quite an unusual olfactory shock for first timers as they experience a scent of pungent smoke with some earthy notes of wet root. This is a significant marker of the south coast single malts mentioned above, and to a lesser extent of the ‘middle ones’, Caol Ila and Bowmore.The full range of aromas displayed by a highly peated malt is stunning : you start with a bonfire of dried herbs and seaweeds on the smoky side, then you reach the phenolic side with burnt tyre and tarred boat keel, with sometimes a reminder of asphalt washed by a thundery shower of rain on a warm day – that’s the aroma I get in Port Ellen single malt.For many Ileachs based on the mainland, that particular smell means reaching home. But you will be disappointed if you expect to get the same fragrances when walking in the peatbogs which spread endlessly on either side of the straight ribbon-like road on your way from Port
Ellen to Bowmore, the capital. Peat smells only when it burns. But you’ll pick some interesting scents there.For instance, there’s bogmyrtle, a small bush which exhales a balsamic smell when you rub the leaves on your skin, similar to eucalyptus mingled with incense. On top of that, the essential oil it releases keeps the midges away, according to Norrie Campbell, one of the last full-time peat cutters on Islay. Bog myrtle is an aroma I often catch in Ardbeg.From late August, a thick pink and purple carpet covers the ground. At the peak of heather blossoming, a sweet honeyed perfume floats on the peat bogs.That’s an aroma I find in Bunnahabhain.In summer, distillery-manager John MacLellan says, “we get that sweet floral aroma from Jura’s heather which is blown over the sound of Islay by winds”.Spring and summer are great seasons for floral nosing walks. Everywhere on the island, huge bushes of bright yellow broom or gorse attract the eye.I particularly recommend the ones edging the small road along Bowmore distillery warehouses, when entering the village. That heady and enthralling sweet smell of coconut is incredible. The same note strikes me in a Bowmore 17 year old. In spring, hawthorn bushes give off a honeyed mellow sweetness. Walk up the stream along Bruichladdich distillery and follow the path after the last row of houses.You’ll get it.Surprisingly enough, I noted hawthorn blossom in tasting Bruichladdich new spirit when it was first distilled.It is easy to understand why we find so many marine notes in Islay whiskies. The omnipresence of the sea around the distilleries cannot but have an influence on the character of the whisky. But if you let your nose guide you, you will notice quite a difference in the nature of sea scents. Expect a full wheel of aromas.Enjoy a dram on Ardbeg pier or by Laphroaig shore and you will soon notice a strong iodinic smell, coming from the dark brown seaweeds of the fucus type.Even the rocks have captured that powerful fishy smell. I remember having sniffed the lobster pots many a time – the locals must take me for a loony – or sun warmed pebbles to compare with my tasting notes.Bowmore 12 year old for the first smell and some Caol Ila immediately came to my olfactory memory.Now, let me take you to the west, along Gruinart estuary, where the road ends into Ardnave sand dunes.You can hear the ocean roaring furiously in the distance whereas the Ardnave tranquillity and soft watercolours have a taste of paradise.Walk along the beach and pick seaweeds.The fucus ones are full of iodine. The green ones are totally different. They look like thin hair . I am not a keen botanist but I think they belong to the sea-lettuce type.They smell completely different from the fucus ones. A mix of warm sand, seashells and a very delicate sea breeze scent with sweet notes of scallop flesh.That perfume immediately brought me back the memory of a Lagavulin 1984 bottled by Murray McDavid some years ago. I also found it in the finish of older Bruichladdich recently bottled (especially the 20 year old and the 1970).When you have picked up the whisky which retains the particular smell you came across during your walk, you feel as thrilled as if you had dug up a treasure. I believe it is a genuine one.Find the time to take an early morning walk along the 12 mile long sandy beach of the Big Strand, between the airport and Bowmore. Take a flask of a medicinal malt with you, say Laphroaig.Enjoy the solitude and the openness of the horizon. I have fond memories of having strolled the Strand with dear friends. There is no better tasting hall than that place!With maturing warehouses exposed to the attacks of tide, how could the whisky in cask escape some sea-print?Hearing experts from the industry say that the location has no influence on the taste drives me crazy. Due to mass production, some distilleries have to mature a lot of their casks on the mainland. Does this affect their view?Warehouse N°1 in Ardbeg or the Vaults in Bowmore will take you on a great olfactory trip, and you will experience the same sensations in very old whiskies. There is a mixture of humus, damp chalk, wet oak, mushroom, and some sacred scent hard to define, such as what you breathe in crypts and ancient Egyptian tombs. Where spirituality meets spirit. An ideal place to be locked in.Life goes on outside. I like walking down main street in Bowmore. At seven in the morning, the village is still asleep but the earlybird catches the air...Clean and crisp sea breeze mixed with whiffs of smoke escaping from Bowmore pagodas, silence broken by the crows raucous cry and the angry seagulls call... Just stay a few minutes in the graveyard to capture the quietness of the place. Then walk down the street.Your nose will soon detect the smell of life. It comes from the bakery, a few yards from the pier. It is not open yet but that enticing smell of freshly baked bread makes you hurry. You immediately recall your last tasting when you rubbed whisky on your hand and smelt the cereal: malt flour or raw dough, toasted buns or baked loaf... Here you are, the essence of single malt: men at work.