Posted: Dec 30, 2012 1:27 PM by CBS News
Updated: Dec 30, 2012 1:27 PM
At the outermost edge of Scotland's wild Atlantic coastline lies a small island with a big reputation.
The Isle of Islay is called the "Queen of the Hebrides" for its natural beauty, and can seem rather a peaceful little spot.
But the sleepy harbors, flowery meadows and ancient villages today play host to an increasingly global industry.
While Jamaica is liked for its rums, and Madeira known for its sherries, this island is loved and famous for its unique-tasting Scotch whiskys, known as Islay malts.
Islay has just over 3,000 year-round residents, but in their midst nine whisky distilleries are thriving.
"I don't think there's many countries now in the world that wouldn't know about some of the whiskys that we have on Islay," said Mike Heads, manager at one of the older distilleries, called Ardbeg.
The Ardbeg mill dates back to 1921.
While some of his equipment may have seen a few updates over the years, he says the distillation process for a decent Islay malt has hardly changed a drop.
"The only thing you're allowed to use here is water, malted barley, and yeast," Heads said. "That's the only things we're allowed to put in the whisky."
The yeast and water are mixed with the barley, then fermented for a couple of days in enormous casks, known as "mash tuns," before it's distilled in giant copper stills and finally aged in wooden barrels.
But ultimately it's the malted barley they use here that really separates the wheat from the chaff.
Heads told Marx the peat smoke flavoring - measured at 55 parts per million in the malt is what gives it the flavor.
"It's the most heavily-peated malt of any whisky in Scotland if you look at that level," he said.
What's peat? A boggy kind of soil that is traditionally dried and burned as a fuel in Scotland's western isles.
Islay has peat in abundance, and peat smoke has long been used to malt (or flavor) the barley, creating its unique taste.
They've been making whisky like this for centuries on Islay, which seems quite fitting, since it's a truly ancient place, where for much of the year the sheep outnumber the people.
But every summer the Islay Festival attracts whisky devotees from around the world.
John Sauke is a scotch lover from the American Midwest, and has been drinking his favorite drams of Islay malt for years. "My wife calls the Islay Festival 'summer camp for adults,'" he told Marx. "This is my 12th festival in a row, and I absolutely love meeting the people.
"And it's wonderful to talk about new whiskys that are out on the market, what the distillery is offering and getting people's impressions," he added. "The connection is what I really like."
And that "connection" is a marketer's dream, with thousands of fans attending tastings and classes at the various distilleries.
"It's just an unbelievable experience that I'll take back with me," said American Matthew Lurin.
John Campbell knows all about creating these kinds of branding experiences. He's the master distiller at Laphroaig, perhaps Islay's most famous export.
After he'd given a handful of guided tours to connoisseurs, he offered Marx a few wee drams of his own during a tasting.
"Why do you think whiskys from here on Islay are becoming so popular around the world?" Marx asked.
"Depth of flavor," Campbell replied. "The real thing about Islay whiskys, it's every time you go to one you find a new flavor."
Even more robust than the flavors of this whisky are the sales figures. Last year the United States imported more than a billion dollars of the stuff.
But fans of the festival might argue that once they're back home, it's never quite as much fun to drink it.