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The Character of Islay is a subsidiary of Atom Brands, the firm behind Master of Malt and That Boutique-y Whisky Company. Launched in late summer 2019, the range was apparently designed to “represent the unique characteristics of Islay spirits” and to explore the “stories, legends and experiences associated with the island and its people.” All of which, it must be said, sounds very much up my alley.
*Full disclosure: I was sent a lovely little sample pack by the fine folks at Atom Brands so that I might share my views with you, the reader. As always I will strive to give an honest and impartial opinion on the inherent quality of the spirit and the value for money it represents.
Aerolite Lyndsay 10 year old (46%)
I confess to being rather confused by this first dram. For a range supposedly designed to explore the myths and legends of Islay, there appears to be very little in the way of a story here and a visit to the official website left me none-the-wiser. As far as I could see, there isn’t even an explanation of the name, which by the way, is an anagram of “ten year old Islay”, something I found out by looking at press releases from last year.
I know a lot of people hate to see all this mythology stuff attached to whisky anyway but personally I’ve always enjoyed a good yarn, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of useful, practical information about the liquid. Where that was concerned, I had to hunt a bit, but the aforementioned press release told me the whisky was matured in 70% bourbon barrels, 25% ex-sherry casks and 5% “mystery casks”, which does at least shed some light on the potential character of the whisky.
Aerolite Lyndsay is a 10 year old Islay single malt that is bottled at 46% and retails for £45.
Smell: We’re certainly in Islay: bonfire smoke and charcoal. Smoky bacon. Charred oak. Brine. Pepper. Liquorice. Touch of menthol. Vanilla. Honey & lemon. Gets fruitier with the addition of water.
Taste: Honey and dry oak. Sea salt and pepper. Toffee apples. Salted caramel. That touch of liquorice again. Currants. All wrapped up in a thick blanket of smoke.
Thoughts: The appearance of Scotch mist when water is added suggests it hasn’t been filtered and there’s a lot of flavour here, though I must admit, the palate doesn’t quite live up to the complexities of the nose. For those that know the Islay regulars well, however, this seems worth a shot at £45.
Water improved the experience and brought some additional layers of flavour. Nothing too radical but different enough to be an interesting purchase.
Grace Île 25 year old (48%)
Given my earlier introduction to the Character of Islay Whisky Company, you would be forgiven for expecting the name of this dram to be inspired by some great fable from days of old but in fact, it is another play on words, and not a very good one. Apparently when said aloud, Grace Île sounds like Grey Seal, of which there are multitudes in the seas around Islay.
This gets a little confusing though, because in Scottish gàidhlig Islay is Ìle, pronounced like “eela”. So in the context of Islay whisky, it reads a bit more like grey seela.
Even more baffling is a passage describing the whisky that reads “much like the grey seals populating the dark waters of Islay, its elusiveness only enhances its power, mischievous charms and tendency to win a good day’s fishing.” I rarely suffer from writer’s block but on this occasion, I’ve got nothing.
A 25 year old single malt bottled at 48%, Grace Île retails for £300.
Smell: Perfumed, heather honey. Grilled pineapple and lemon juice. Malty biscuit. Vanilla. Oak. Green tea leaves. Brine and subtle peat.
Taste: Lovely oily texture. Butterscotch. Caramel. Vanilla. Apple and pear. Pepper. A lengthy finish full of oak, ash and old smoke.
Thoughts: Very much in the same ballpark as 25 year old bottlings from Bunnahabhain, Bowmore and Bruichladdich for example, but perhaps you’d expect a whisky of undisclosed origin to cost a little less? It is a lovely dram though, it just requires deep pockets and perhaps an abiding passion for the grey seal.
Islay malts can sometimes become rather tropical when their youthful fire dims and this is very much in that category. The trademark smoke and brine are still present but have dulled with age – the ghost of a peat fire as opposed to the acrid fumes of a roaring hearth. In place of the fire and brimstone we get a combination of old cask and fruity spirit. Lovely stuff, for those who can afford it.
Green Isle Blended Scotch Whisky (40%)
As we shift our attention towards a more affordable blended scotch we seem finally to be getting on brief. Green Isle takes its name from Neil Gunn’s 1944 book “The Green Isle of the Great Deep” in which two fishermen plunge into a whirlpool and awake in the Celtic Otherworld. The Green Isle is a beautiful and fertile place, Eden-like, with trees ripe with forbidden fruit and the story centres around Art, who’s arrival in this weird new land has great consequences for the society that lives there.
The Green Isle blend features a core of Islay malts alongside the spirit of Speyside and the grain whisky of the Lowlands. Bottled at 40% it retails at £30.
Smell: Sea breeze and distant bonfire smoke. Honey. Caramel. Apple tart. Sweet pastry and cinnamon. Hay bales. Touch of oak.
Taste: Good arrival with lots of honey and vanilla. Caramel too. There’s a pleasant dryness from the oak and some nice peppery spice wrapped up in wispy smoke.
Thoughts: I’m rather impressed with the quality on show here. There’s a lot of competition at the price point admittedly, but I suspect this dram could give much of the opposition a run for their money. There’s impressive depth of flavour given it is a blend at 40%. Love the way the drying smoke lingers on the palate. I’m actually surprised, even a little disappointed, that I haven’t come across this before because it’s really rather good.
Fiona MacLeod 33 year old (46.3%)
Another dram inspired by literature. Fiona Macleod was a pseudonym adopted by William Sharp, a Scottish poet and novelist. Sharp wrote a series of romances set in the western isles that captured the folk memory of Celtic myth and legend. So dedicated was he to his creation that he employed his sister to respond to letters as Fiona, in order that the handwriting would appear more feminine and separate from his own.
This is more the sort of thing I was hoping for from this range because it is an interesting story, of which I had previously known nothing. Again however, the official website was a bit of a letdown, declaring only that the whisky was named “after the preserver of Hebridean myths and legends, she herself a mythical heroine”, the rest of the tale I had to uncover for myself.
Bottled at 46.3% the Fiona Macleod is 33 years in age and retails at a whopping £400.
Smell: The Islay smoke has dulled over the years and lost some of its pungency though it hasn’t faded completely. In fact it’s impressive just how prominent it remains. As you’d expect, there’s a lot of oak but also plenty of tropical fruits. Pineapple, mango and orange. Caramel and butterscotch too. Peppery spice with that oak. Dunnage warehouses.
Taste: Lots of salt and pepper. Caramel and vanilla. Oak tannin and tobacco smoke. Peach and orange. Currants. Liquorice. Long smoky finish.
Thoughts: We’re way outside the realms of the affordable here and instead find ourselves dipping a toe in the murky waters of “luxury” whisky. Still, whilst beyond the reach of us mere mortals, the whisky is an impressive age and it actually compares quite favourably with other similarly aged drams (a quick search brought up bottles ranging in price from £399 to £4500!!).
Not for everyone at this kind of price but it’s reassuring to know that if I ever spent £400 on a bottle, I’d get something rather delicious for my money. Nothing particularly surprising maybe but you don’t need anything flashy when you get old Islay whisky executed this well.
The Character of Islay range comprises of some genuinely delicious drams and flavour will always be the most important factor when buying a bottle of whisky but the overall marketing concept seems a little half-baked. The range is supposed to celebrate the “stories, legends and experiences associated with the island” yet the best they could come up with is a few books and a bit of wordplay? It wouldn’t be so bad if they actually went into a bit of detail on their website but they haven’t even managed that to any great degree. Still, the whisky is undeniably good and in the case of Aerolite Lyndsay and Green Isle, also affordable.
*If any of the whiskies reviewed in this article have caught your eye, you can buy them from Master of Malt.
Buy Aerolite Lyndsay here
Buy Grace Ìle here
Buy Green Isle here
Buy Fiona Macleod here
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