The secret of Scotland's Islay malt whiskys

Malt whiskys from the Scottish isle of Islay are renowned for their unique flavoring, thanks to ... peat.
CBS News

(CBS News) We all know Scotch whisky comes from Scotland. But to true Scotch drinkers, just WHERE in Scotland makes all the difference. Willem Marx takes us on a tasting tour:

At the outermost edge of Scotland's wild Atlantic coastline lies a small island with a big reputation.

The Isle of Islay is called the "Queen of the Hebrides" for its natural beauty, and can seem rather a peaceful little spot.

But the sleepy harbors, flowery meadows and ancient villages today play host to an increasingly global industry.

While Jamaica is liked for its rums, and Madeira known for its sherries, this island is loved and famous for its unique-tasting Scotch whiskys, known as Islay malts.

Islay has just over 3,000 year-round residents, but in their midst nine whisky distilleries are thriving.

"I don't think there's many countries now in the world that wouldn't know about some of the whiskys that we have on Islay," said Mike Heads, manager at one of the older distilleries, called Ardbeg.

The Ardbeg mill dates back to 1921.

While some of his equipment may have seen a few updates over the years, he says the distillation process for a decent Islay malt has hardly changed a drop.

"The only thing you're allowed to use here is water, malted barley, and yeast," Heads said. "That's the only things we're allowed to put in the whisky."

The yeast and water are mixed with the barley, then fermented for a couple of days in enormous casks, known as "mash tuns," before it's distilled in giant copper stills and finally aged in wooden barrels.

At the Ardbeg distillery on Islay, Scotland, yeast, malted barley and water are mixed, then fermented in enormous casks known as "mash tuns" - each batch containing about 23,500 liters. CBS News

But ultimately it's the malted barley they use here that really separates the wheat from the chaff.

Heads told Marx the peat smoke flavoring - measured at 55 parts per million in the malt is what gives it the flavor.

"It's the most heavily-peated malt of any whisky in Scotland if you look at that level," he said.

What's peat? A boggy kind of soil that is traditionally dried and burned as a fuel in Scotland's western isles.

Islay has peat in abundance, and peat smoke has long been used to malt (or flavor) the barley, creating its unique taste.