Malt of the Moment
Islay has a magnetism for all Scotch whisky fans the world over. For many when they are planning a trip to Scotland it mainly revolves around visiting this island off...
Find out more...
Islay has a magnetism for all Scotch whisky fans the world over. For many when they are planning a trip to Scotland it mainly revolves around visiting this island off the west coast of Scotland and its series of iconic distilleries.
Currently it boasts 8 working distilleries that consists of famous names such as Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. Then there are the lost or silent distilleries with none other than Port Ellen welcoming you to the island if you travel by ferry. Memories of Malt Mill exist around Lagavulin and tales of illicit distilling on the island are rife prior to the arrival of the whisky industry we know today. Yet that’s not all, as Islay is set to welcome a couple of new distilleries in the coming years with Gartbreck on the shores of Loch Indaal and Ardnahoe distillery. This has the backing of independent bottler Hunter Laing and promises to create a classic Islay whisky with Scottish made stills and utilising worm tubs.
Given the current popularity of peated whiskies, it is a surprise that the last distillery to be built on Islay was Kilchoman in 2005 although over the past decade rumours concerning Port Charlotte and Farkin distilleries were in the public domain. Whatever the distillery, any visitor to Islay will attest to its community spirit. There’s a friendly rivalry between distilleries but nothing more and the locals have a laid back approach to life that is in stark contrast to the mainland experience.
Islay’s distilling roots go back several hundred years with many claiming it is the cradle of Scottish distilling, although some Campbeltown locals may suggest otherwise. Both have proximity to Ireland, which was the true birthplace of what we know as distilling today. Just 11 miles from Islay, it’s likely the Irish or a traveller brought the technique to the island where it proved popular given its abundance of a local fuel source (peat), water and grain. Historical records show that as early as 1494 whisky or aqua vitae (water of life), was being made on Islay and proving very popular with the locals, as remains the case today. The rule of law had very little influence on the island and it wasn’t until the 1800’s that attempts were made to enforce it with mixed success. By then the illicit practices on the mainland had been brought under control and legal distilleries encouraged with the Excise Act of 1823.
The island is mountainous to the north, with the southern half proving flatter terrain covered in peat bogs and Highland heather. It’s an ideal environment in which to create a rugged and distinctive whisky and many of today’s distilleries can trace their roots back to illegal or lost distilleries that once produced whisky. Yet for such a small geographical region, the whiskies of the 8 distilleries today have their own unique identities.
Bowmore is smoky and coastal, whereas Laphroaig has more menthol characteristics compared to Lagavulin that has a rich earthy nature. Bunnahabhain is light compared to its island counterparts, lacking the peat essence in favour of a gentle sea breeze. Kilchoman the young upstart improves year on year and is doing things the old fashioned way. Whereas Bruichladdich is lightly peated and more floral with fruits, yet finds time to produce a peated spirit known as Port Charlotte inspired by a former nearby distillery. It also ups the peat to create the dense and provocative Octomore after a distillery that only existed during the first half of the 1800’s.
Then there is Cao Ila, the largest producer on Islay and one that appears in a variety of blended Scotches and enjoys widespread support from independent bottlers and whisky enthusiasts generally. Each of these distilleries has its own unique and identifiable DNA, displayed through its whisky thanks to a variety of different approaches. Different shaped stills, fermentation, peat and water sources, some still operate traditional floor maltings providing a sizeable amount of their annual requirements such as Bowmore, Laphroaig and Kilchoman. Others such as Ardbeg would love to return to this method but its cost is prohibitive. For many distilleries on Islay they rely on the presence of the former Port Ellen distillery that made the switch from distilling to an industrial maltings to provide their malt. This distillery although now sadly silent, remains an iconic presence to whisky drinkers and an annual inclusion as part of Diageo’s Special Releases programme. Stocks of it may be dwindling but appreciation and the asking price grows as demand continues to rise and the island celebrates its whisky heritage annually with the Feis Ile festival.
For more information on the distilleries around Islay please see their own individual pages.