Elements of Islay is an independent bottler owned by Specialty Drinks, the company also behind The Whisky Exchange. The "mystery whisky" independent bottler Port Askaig also comes under the same umbrella, although the Elements of Islay range is a little less mysterious. The majority of the company's bottlings are small batch limited releases from various Islay distilleries (as the name implies), and while there is no distillery name on the label, you will find a relatively simple code instead, inspired by the periodic table. So 'Ar' refers to Ardbeg Distillery, 'Oc' to the Octomore brand, 'Br' to Bruichladdich etc., and the corresponding number refers to the batch number. So 'Lp7' for example would be the 7th batch of Laphroaig released under the Elements of Islay brand, 'Oc2' would be the second Octomore, etc. All are bottled at cask strength, in 500ml bottles, and are often very small releases drawn from just a few select casks. Some of these distilleries' whiskies are very rarely seen in independent bottlings, particularly where the distillery name is not-so-subtly implied rather than being a mystery, so some of these releases are very sought after and rather tough to find.
The company recently released their first blended whisky, simply named 'Peat', which is arguably the most crucial element of many Islay whiskies. This blended malt / vatted malt, meaning that it is a blend of various distilleries' single malts, with no grain whisky involved, is also the first permanent addition to the line-up, rather than a limited or one-off release. The distilleries involved are obviously located on the isle of Islay, with "a handful" of different distillery's whiskies blended together, and each batch is constructed from an average of around 60 casks. It's a bit of a risky name for a whisky I think, since your average punter might look at the name and assume there was nothing else going on, and that it was a one-trick pony. But they'd be wrong of course, as any Islay drinker will happily testify, peat is of course a crucial element of the peaty favourites, but it's only an element, it's not the whole package. One the other hand, peat lovers will take one look at the label and know that they're probably going to fall in love!
There are two different versions of this blended malt from Elements of Islay, a newer version named 'Pure Islay' and reduced to a bottling strength of 45%, and one named 'Full Proof' which as you can guess is bottled at cask / vatting strength of 59.3% with no extra water added. Both are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and will be available soon with an RRP of $98 and $128 AUD respectively. And thanks to a sample of each generously sent by Ian from Alba Whisky, the Australian importer for Benromach, Gordon & MacPhail and Port Askaig (among others), I'm able to review both for your reading pleasure. So we'll start with the 45% version first, and then we'll move on to the big daddy!
Elements of Islay Peat 'Pure Islay', 45.0%, NAS. Islay, Scotland.
Blended / vatted malt (blend of different single malts, no grain whisky) from various Islay distilleries, around 60 casks in each batch, produced by Specialty Drinks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Colour: Extremely pale, white wine.
Nose: Warm & soft. Comforting earthy & slightly vegetal peat, some sweet ham hock. Very coastal as well, with sea spray, a wet volcanic rock minerality, and some cool sand. A little orange as well, and a light spicy ash. Slightly grassy too, and more time brings out a sugary vanilla icing.
Texture: Light-medium weight, plenty of flavour, and no heat at all.
Taste: Very nice. Initially quite soft, then a wave of mild fruit syrup sweetness and an earthy, lightly spicy peat. Lovely spicy ash and a little creamy vanilla.
Finish: Medium length. Softens again with a combination of that honey ham sweetness and soft, earthy peat. A slight bitterness here too which passes quickly and leaves that sweet fruit syrup, a lick of salt and that mild earthy, coastal peat.
Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Notes: Very easy drinking, dangerously drinkable actually! The peat is definitely not the only point of interest here, there's plenty going on. No overt cask influence or fancy flair, just clean spirit, and like it says on the tin: "Pure Islay". I couldn't guess the entire contents in the blend, but I'd say there's definitely some Caol Ila in there thanks to that sweet ham note, and possibly some Ardbeg or even Kilchoman as well. Among others of course. Very enjoyable, and a great 'session-able' dram. What a wine drinker might call a "quaffer"!
Elements of Islay Peat 'Full Proof', 59.3%, NAS. Islay, Scotland.
Blended / vatted malt (blend of different single malts, no grain whisky) from various Islay distilleries, around 60 casks in each batch, produced by Specialty Drinks. Bottled at cask / vatting strength, non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Colour: Very pale gold, but with a little more colour to it as you'd expect.
Nose: Interesting, it's a little more spirit-y as you'd expect, but it's quite different as well. Needs quite a bit of time and warmth to relax and open up, it was uptight for quite a while. It's more grassy and more herbal than the 45% version, and surprisingly it's also considerably less peaty! It's also sweeter, with a little sour citrus, and quite a meaty raw spirit with some light acetone notes. Sweet vanilla, some smoked fish, and warm buttery pastry.
Texture: Medium weight, big & spicy. Not too much alcohol heat for the ABV, although it's there, but more of a big pinch of warm spices.
Taste: Spicy & punchy, and a little aggressive. Meaty and grassy as well with that smoked fish, and a dry, ashy, cold wood smoke. A little mild honey and some lemon zest behind those spices, namely white pepper and also some cumin & hot cinnamon.
Finish: Medium-long length. A little raw spirit (but not a bad one) initially, then a nice warming, spicy smoke. Some creamy vanilla fudge, tobacco / cigar leaves, and a dry, earthy, peat that hangs on for quite a while!
Score: 3 out of 5.
Notes: It's a big Islay beast, no question, and it's quite young and feisty in character, and once again peat is certainly not the only player. In fact I think it takes more of a back seat in this version, at least until you get to the finish. I know both whiskies are the same blend at different strengths, and yet I think different componen malts dominate in the different versions. In this one I'd guess young Lagavulin to be the main player, thanks to that grassy note. It's definitely very different in spirit (pun intended) to the Pure Islay, which of course is exactly the idea!
Overall, well, I didn't expect it to go that way! Just goes to show that ABV isn't necessarily everything when we're well above the minimum. Both are good whiskies, but the Pure Islay is so approachable and relaxed, while the Full Proof is big, punchy & spicy but also less expressive, if that makes sense. The Pure Islay actually reminds me of Port Askaig's 100 Proof, albeit with a little less intensity and punch, while the Full Proof is quite a different beast entirely. Different occasions and moods would call for one over the other I think, but personally I can certainly see myself reaching for the 45% version more often, and I have to admit that I didn't expect that result coming into this review.
Both versions of Peat should be available soon from the good online retailers, Nicks and The Whisky Company will be among the first, and both certainly offer good value for money. I highly recommend checking them out!
Thanks to Ian & Ross from Alba Whisky for the samples, and thanks for the hard work, continuing to bring these and the other great drams to us thirsty Australians!