By Robin McKelvie

"TERROIR is not important for whisky, only wine,” a barman once dismissively informed me in the Marais in Paris. I wish he was here with me now as I sail into Port Ellen past Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin.

My three favourite whiskies in the world just happen to be sister distilleries, strung out deliciously in a peaty necklace that hugs the wild and wildly beautiful southern Atlantic fringes of Scotland’s whisky isle of Islay. They may be known around the world from Tollcross to Tokyo, but they are within merry whisky-fuelled strolling distance. Now that is terroir.

To the timid and uninitiated, Islay is the Marmite of Scottish whisky, the distinctive peat-burned medicinal twang of the local malts enough to clear congested nostrils and burn throats as much as it soars spirits. The island, though, boasts both complexity and variety within its range of peaty superstars, but also milder drams and sherry-tinged expressions. Don’t like Islay whisky but enjoy Johnnie Walker? Well, the main malt in much of the world’s biggest-selling blend comes from right here on Islay at Caol Ila.

My first of the eight distilleries – two more are in the pipeline as demand for single malt whisky soars – is Laphroaig, within walking distance of the Port Ellen ferry. Laphroaig is typical of these southern charmers, its vaulting 200-year-old whitewashed walls standing proud against the salty spray of the Atlantic, a saltiness that conjures its way into the maturing casks.

My tastebuds are tingled by the salty air then go into overdrive on a food matching tour that sees orange and blue cheese matched with their malts. A new pathway connects the southern distilleries so it’s an easy stroll to Lagavulin, where my firm belief that Lagavulin needs to be matured for 16 years is challenged by the spiky new eight-year-old expression.

Finally I reach the home of my favourite malt, Ardbeg. I take a tour that includes a yomp up the hillside, through an old leper village, to find Ardbeg’s hallowed source of Loch Uigeadail.

Back at their Kiln Cafe I think of my French barman again and would like to see his face as we enjoy local lamb and a pudding infused with whisky created from the loch we’ve just visited and imbued with the Atlantic that washes up against the walls of the distillery.

Day two of my Islay adventure brings me to the capital of Bowmore, a trim whitewashed old dame on the shores of Loch Indaal. The eponymous distillery is woven into the fabric of Bowmore life – the swimming pool is even heated by the distillery. Bowmore remains one of the few distilleries in Scotland to do some of its own malting, with at least 25 per cent of the barley that goes into the 11 weekly mashes malted on site.

I recline in the tasting room with a smooth sherry-nosed expression that breaks with Islay’s bourbon cask norm. I escape without being tempted to invest in the display bottle with a price tag of a cool £100,000. I sneak in a little sightseeing en route to my last distillery of the day at Bruichladdich, snaking away from the coast in search of Finlaggan, where the mighty Lords of the Isles once held sway over much of the Hebrides from their Islay stronghold. I bet they knew a thing or two about terroir.

They certainly chose their location well, a wee lochan with epic views out towards the hulking Paps of Jura, which lend Islay and its sweeping sandy beaches, fertile fields and rolling hills a dramatic mountain backdrop.

Bruichladdich knows how to spin a good yarn as well as a decent malt. My head swirls in tales of it once finding a waylaid Royal Navy minisub outside the distillery and of the CIA getting in touch as its more traditional Victorian distillation techniques are apparently similar to some of the processes used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. It has certainly distilled a perfect bomb of a whisky here in the form of Octomore, regarded as the world’s peatiest malt. I’m impressed that the name hails from the fields behind the distillery where it is now sourcing peat for its own malting. My attempt to explore Octomore’s hallowed fields ends not so much in terroir but torpor as I discover peat bogs are better suited to the curious cattle watching me as I splodge in and out of my wellies.

My last day in whisky country takes me to the island’s less explored east coast, a spectacular wilderness with more deer than people overlooking the tumultuous Sound of Islay, or Caol Ila in Gaelic.

Here lie a brace of big brutes, more renowned for stiffening up blended whiskies than the release of interesting expressions in their own right. At Caol Ila – with its distinctive glass wall overlooking the water and neighbouring Jura – I’m glad to find that not all of the massive 6.5 million litres of malt produced a year goes into blends, with 15 per cent now being siphoned off to create superb Caol Ila single malts.

Its 25-year-old is a surprise. For a malt with the same phenol content as peaty monster Laphroaig, it has little of the fire and more warming fruit and spice.

At neighbouring Bunnahabbain (home to the tallest stills on Islay) I stumble across terroir, discovering my favourite blend Black Bottle stars Islay single malt with 80 per cent of Bunnahabhain going into blends.

It’s all about sherry casks at Bunnahabhain, a whisky that instantly redefines what many people think about Islay whisky. Non-age-statement whiskies are currently a bit controversial in the industry, but its Toiteach is a star, a peatier gem that works brilliantly with the Dunsyre Blue cheese it’s paired with.

My last stop neatly completes my journey into Islay and the terroir of its whisky. It is at bijou Kilchoman, the newest (opened in 2005) and easily the smallest distillery on Islay with only a maximum of 200,000 litres produced each year. Rockside Farm harks back to the days of the illicit stills that used to once brighten up even the smallest of clachans across Islay before the exciseman’s unwelcome arrival.

None of Kilchoman is sold into blends and increasingly attempts are being made to keep things ultra-local at a distillery where handcrafted is the buzzword.

Not that they use buzzwords at the gloriously laidback oasis of Kilchoman. Its 100 per cent Islay expression has impressively low food miles, using only barley grown on site. After an Islay beef panini in their wee cafe I snare a bottle. I resolve to take it with me on my next visit to the Marais.