Scotland’s coastal distilleries tend to produce very distinctive single malts with a “maritime” flavor profile which seem to taste of the sea itself. From the windswept Orkney Islands to Islay and the Isle of Skye, the nation is dotted with remote distilleries battered by wild winter storms and caressed by cool salty breezes during the warmer months. So, why is it that some single malts have that striking sea spray or iodine tang not usually found in those from inland areas like the Central Highlands or Scotland’s Lowlands?
Salty Sea Air
For distilleries like Bruichladdich, set on the western arm of Islay which is known as the Rhinns, who distill and mature their whiskies on the island the maritime climate plays a key role in the distinctive taste of their single malts. No one fully understands how it works, but the generally-accepted understanding is that storing these whiskies in casks a short hop from the coast for years on end helps create that curious saline profile.
In the words of Bowmore Distillery Manager’s Eddie MacAffer, “saltiness in the air… adds to the characteristic in the whisky”. Similarly Laphroaig claim that their “whisky maturation warehouses directly face the sea, which contributes to the very characterful whisky it produces”.
Influence of Peat
The influence of the salty sea air isn’t the only factor at work here, though, since even whiskies from coastal distilleries which mature in warehouses far inland miles away from the sea can have that striking maritime character. One example is Caol Ila which matures its casks in inland Fife, yet produces single malts with a typical Islay smokiness and maritime notes.
This is where the nature of maritime single malts becomes controversial. Another theory is that the saline character comes from the peat which is a key factor in crafting classic smoky Islay single malts and other coastal whiskies. According to Jonny McCormick who writes for Whisky Advocate, peat composition varies from region to region depending on what grew there in the past. For inland areas, this tends to be trees and other mainland vegetation, while coastal areas and isles like Islay may well contain more seaweed like kelp or dulse.
To muddy the waters even further, the existence of delicious unpeated maritime whiskies is enough to tell us that peat alone isn’t the answer. A great example is the unpeated Old Pulteney single malts; the distillery claims their “whisky breathes in the sea air, taking on its coastal qualities” to create what they dub “The Maritime Malt”. Old Pulteney credits this maritime character to “traditional warehouses exposed to the invigorating sea air blowing in off the North Sea.” Bearing this in mind, it is only logical to conclude both coastal peat and salty sea air play their own roles in creating Scotland’s distinctive maritime single malts.