Islay is the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean islands, which sit in the North Atlantic Ocean just off the west coast of Scotland. Islay is arguably Scotland's most famous whisky-producing region and is definitely its most polarizing: Islay malts are famous for being the most full-flavored of Scottish whiskies, identified by their earthy, smoky, peaty flavors, often with distinguishing hints of iodine and tar.
Islay holds the nickname 'Queen of the Hebrides', and is a rocky, heather-covered island of around 250 square miles (600 sq km). Like its northern neighbor Jura, Islay is home to ancient peat moss bogs which give the island's whiskies their distinctive flavor. Peat, a fossil fuel formed from decayed organic matter, is burned to stimulate the malting process so vital to whisky production. It is used widely throughout Scotland in the production of whisky, but Islay's coastal location means that the peat here has more seaweed and moss than the more woody peats of the mainland. Its distinctive salty, smoky aroma is absorbed by the malt and carries through into the final product.
The water used for distillation on Islay comes from the island's many streams and other watercourses and is characteristically soft, mineral rich and brown in color. Peat in the ground lends a peaty note to the water, which also affects the flavor of the whisky. Some Islay producers will also take water from the springs, where there is less peat influence.
Another important consideration for whisky-making is climate, and Islay's exposed location on the edge of the Atlantic (where temperatures are moderated by the warm oceanic Gulf Stream) makes an excellent environment for distillation and maturation. Strong ocean winds bring briny sea-salt characters to the whisky, and the cool, damp air and lack of seasonal variation make for a long, slow maturation process.
Islay had a thriving illegal whisky trade in the 18th Century, and it has been suggested that no excise men visited the island during this time because of their fear of the barbaric locals. Historically, Islay has had as many as 23 distilleries, but today there are fewer than 10. The best-known Islay malt whiskies are Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.