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The Vikings in Islay
The Islay Boys are Donald MacKenzie and Mackay Smith, two men born and raised on the Rhinns peninsula of the isle of Islay. As independent bottlers they are the creative force behind the Flatnöse and Bårelegs scotch whisky brands, as well as proud owners of the Islay Ales Brewery in Bridgend.
In 2019 the two men submitted a planning application for a bold new development at Glenegedale in Laggan Bay. As well as housing the business’s headquarters, the new site will incorporate a brewery and distillery that will produce both whisky and rum. Helping to advise on the project is industry veteran of more than 50 years experience, Jim McEwan.
The company’s releases thus far have been spearheaded by two blends bottled as “Flatnöse” and an Islay single malt dubbed “Bårelegs”, both of which draw on Scotland’s long connection with Norse culture and mythology for their branding.
Norse invaders first came to Scotland as early as the 8th century AD, targeting island monasteries for their vast hordes of riches that were kept remarkably undefended. One particularly grim account tells of an incident in 806 where the entire population of Iona were murdered and plundered whilst a similar attack befell the monks of St Ninian’s Island, Shetland.
By the end of the 9th century however, the Vikings were coming not just to raid but to settle. Despite suffering resistance every bit as fierce in Scotland and Ireland as they did in England, the Norsemen established themselves more quickly among the Gaelic communities and within a short time, intermarriages were frequent amongst both nobles and commoners. Indeed, many Scottish Clans were born out of such unions.
Islay meanwhile was an important trading post on the sea route between Viking settlements in Ireland and their homelands in Scandinavia and it wasn’t long before a healthy population had settled on the island. In the mid 12th century AD, a great warrior of mixed Gaelic and Norse ancestry named Somerled rose to prominence. His son was Donald, founder of Clan Donald whilst a later descendant was Angus Og, who’s loyalty to Robert the Bruce in the Scottish Wars of Independence was rewarded with the lands and power that later led his son and heir John to name himself the first Lord of the Isles.
The Norse influence on modern Scotland was huge, with countless streets, villages and towns – not to mention Surnames – still displaying the evidence today. With their Flatnöse brand, The Islay Boys celebrate this history by referring to the Saga of Ketill Flatnöse, a great warrior and seafarer said to have rebelled against Harald Fairhair, first King of Norway, by keeping lands in Scotland for himself after he was sent to take them in the name of the King.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with whisky but it is a nice story and I personally don’t mind a bit of marketing waffle so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of the spirit. Indeed, it is rather impressive that the boys managed to find a couple of Viking names that haven’t already adorned a bottle of Highland Park as it seems that well must surely be close to running dry. With this blended malt bottled at 46% and the spirit left un-chill-filtered however, the buyer can rest safe in the knowledge that the whisky has been presented in a fairly natural way that should allow it to shine…
Smell: Smoke and brine and salty sea air. One imagines life as a Viking would not smell dissimilar. Oil, tar and old rope. Liquorice. Black pepper. Lemon and vanilla. Apple.
Taste: Great full-bodied texture. Apple and pear. Pepper. Liquorice. Barbecued meats and a touch of burnt oak. Light smoky finish.
Thoughts: Maybe not particularly radical in its approach but what it does, it does extremely well and at a price of £40, it is something of a bargain for fans of the coastal flavour profile.
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Visit the Islay Boys here.