Posted by: waterworks | January 11, 2008

15. Water of life (2)

[The word “whisky” derives from uisge beatha – Gaelic for “the water of life”] 

Why does whisky produced on the Scottish island of Islay have a maritime taste? Often described by connoisseurs as being somewhat akin to iodine, could the pungent aroma of the Lagavulin and Laphroaig brands owe a little something to sea breezes caressing the whisky casks, as some aficionados suggest?  Is this sufficient explanation?  During his tenure at the Laphroaig distillery, ex-manager Iain Henderson gave marvellous talks to visitors that further addressed this very issue.  And according to Mr Henderson, additional forces are at play.  Islay peat is cut from land that was, until relatively recently, submerged beneath the sea (at Laphroaig and other Islay distilleries, local peat is burned to dry the malted barley used to make whisky).  A significant part of the island, in common with the rest of coastal Ayrshire and the Hebrides, was underwater for much of the last 10,000 years – emerging only comparatively recently due to a process geologists term “isostatic rebound”.   

Peat cutting on Islay

In northern Europe, large areas of the earth’s crust were depressed by the weight of overlying ice during the Pleistocene Glaciation.  Little by little, the land has been rising ever since the ice melted – much like a cushion re-inflating after a person’s weight has been removed (even as you read this, Islay is expanding upwards at 4mm a year).  As a result, traces of seaweed, salt grass and crystals of sea-salt will most likely be present in lower strata of island peat – because sea-water once covered the land from which the cuttings are taken.  Unmistakable aromas of the sea are infused into the malted barley when this peat is burned.  A likely tale?  Perhaps – but one other thing is certain.  Sea-level rises due to climate change may be non-apparent on Islay, even if the worst predictions are proved true. Continued isostatic up-lift of the land will most likely keep pace with rising water levels, thereby bringing the net change in sea-level for this region to zero (from an islander’s perspective).  With dry land in abundance and a guaranteed supply of world-beating whisky, Islay must surely become a future stand-out destination for climate change refugees.



  1. Nice piece on Islay – I really like your image of the peat cutting, Where did you get it from?

  2. Michael, I have to admit this one was just googled – probably “Islay peat cutting” or similar – it’s definitely out there somewhere in its original (or another borrowed) context.

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