Driving down Islay’s roads, you catch whiffs of sea spray, burning peat, cooking mash. The vintage seaside distilleries stand like monuments to Scotland’s history. And, of course, there’s the single malt and the coveted peaty left hook it delivers to the palate. But these are merely superficial details. The whisky industry on this wind-pummeled 239-square mile island is vast and deep, but Islay’s population, of about 3,000, is small, which means if someone doesn’t work at one of the local distilleries, a relative or neighbor does. It seems like every native of Islay, or Ileach (EE-lich), is a keeper of untold stories about whisky production, making each individual a custodian of the past; a torch-bearer of tradition. Talk to them and it becomes clear that in this remote, gorgeous safe haven from modernity—where nobody locks their doors and, like the whisky, nobody hurries to get old—the people are the whisky’s terroir.
Costco, Trader Joe’s, Total Wine, and Walmart have their own private-label scotch and bourbon. We investigated whether these whiskies are worth your money.