Peat Smoke and Spirit: The Story of Islay and Its Whiskies

“The ocean bears down on Laphroaig with unrivalled glee; its warehouse walls are regularly flayed with kelp, and the distillery manager’s sitting-room windows have been on every occasion I have visited, sticky with brine,” says Andrew Jefford, from Norfolk, England. A poet and journalist, Jefford is also a man who understands spirits. While he began his career as an editor for Octopus Publishing Group, he soon started writing the spirit column of The Evening Standard, and a bi-monthly column for Decanter. His passion for spirits compelled him to write a number of books on wine, and just one so far on the whiskies from Islay. While some think that Peat Smoke and Spirit: The Story of Islay and Its Whiskies is partly a travelogue and partly a historical account, well-knit with myths, and stories of great adventure, there is no denying that the book primarily documents smoked and peated whiskies from Islay in details, as the title suggests.

Jefford’s narrative is uniquely structured. While it follows a linear progression, starting from the illegal stills from the distant past to crafting and bottling, and the flourishing trade of the Islay whiskies, the narrative is disrupted by chapters on the seven distilleries that were operating at the time. One of the smallest distilleries in Scotland, Kilchoman distillery, for example, features in Jefford’s book. Kilchoman distillery was the first to be built on the rugged west coast of Islay after 125 years, in 2005. This is also interwoven with long descriptions of beautiful landscape, wildlife, and a topography of the island, because in the end Jefford wants to make people see how much whiskies are shaped by the environment where they are being distilled and matured. Hence, the malts made in Islay are naturally wild and characterful among malts produced across geographies.

While tracing Islay’s fascinating history, Jefford invariably captures the strong sense of community. He talks about men and women, well recognized by thousands over the world, who had a huge role to play in creating the thriving spirit industry of Islay. The stories of shipwrecks, betrayals, and acts of tremendous heroism makes the book seem almost fictional at places, but knowing that it is not, makes the book even more compelling for readers.

That aside, it is a treasure trove of information, for all whisky enthusiasts. Jefford had examined over 65 different parameters, including weight of mash, capacities of the stills, and the percentage of malt that is aged only on Islay. Jefford was also one of the first journalists to raise questions about the traditional whisky crafting methods, about the absolute wisdom of the master distillers, or the skill of stillmen. He raised questions about the nature of equipment used by the distillers, the quality of the wood in maturation, and the variety of barley used.

With these questions, he has significantly contributed to the whisky debate. Just like wine, from every corner of the world, is inextricably connected to its birth place, in the sense that several factors like soil, exposure, and climate influence it, whisky experts believe that the “terroir” concept applies to whiskies too. Jefford believes that the natural surroundings of Islay affect the barley, and ultimately the character of the spirit.

Jefford’s skill in carefully picking words to stitch his story together, incites in readers a strong urge to travel all the way to Islay for a dram of some of their best smoky, peaty malts. So on a bleak cold night, when the moon is bright and eerie, if you want to sit on your dimly lit porch with a dram of Finlaggan, pick up your copy of Peat Smoke and Spirit: The Story of Islay and Its Whiskies too and be transported to the enchanting Islay.