Guide to Scotch Regions: Islay
Small Island, Big whisky Business
As the great Mark Twain once said, “too much of anything is bad, but too much good whisky is barely enough.”
The father of American literature was right (does that come to any surprise?). Too much good whisky is definitely never enough. In fact, the word whisky derives from the Gaelic uisge, a shortened version of uisge beatha meaning "water of life," in Latin.
The earliest records of alcohol distillation were found in Italy during the 13th century, where alcohol was distilled from wine. Monks brought distilling techniques to Ireland and Scotland around the 15th century. Since wine was not easily obtained in those regions, barley beer was distilled into liquor, which became whisky.
Fast-forward to today, and Scottish whisky or ‘Scotch’ is renowned around the world, highly regarded by whisky connoisseurs. In Scotland alone, there are six different regions where scotch is distilled and produced: Highlands, Spyside, Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and Islands. While each region is unique in its own way, Islay is the smallest of the islands but in our humble opinion, the most profound.
Islay is located to the west of the mainland, just 20 miles from Ireland. Although it’s a relatively smaller island, there are 9 distilleries, the latest that opened in April 2019. Among those nine, three distilleries serve as homes to world famous malt whiskies: Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin.
Malt Whisky: The Islay Way
Islay’s malt whiskies are distilled along the southeastern coast of the island and have a smoky character derived from peat, also known as turf. Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter, a spongy moss. It’s unique to areas called peatlands, bogs, mires, moors, and muskegs. Being a central characteristic of the Islay malts, the peating levels of the barley mixed with the water from which the whisky was made gives the finished whisky it’s rich flavor. The water on Islay is brown and is very salty. The salt from the water saturates the peat, which becomes dried by the sea breeze.
Scotch whisky regulations require malt whiskey to be made in pot stills using the brown water and malted barley and the whisky must be aged for at least three years in oak casks. This creates some of the strongest of malt whiskeys. The whisky is drier and peatier, with a smoky smell and some spice. Each distillery develops their own unique tastes.
Islay whisky is also considered to be “spirited”. Spirit whiskey is a combination of neutral grain spirit and whisky of at least 5% whiskey and no more than 20% straight whisky. Straight whisky being a category of American whiskey with at least two years aged among other requirements.
Opened in 1815, Ardbeg is the second smallest distillery on the island, although it’s following has become larger than ever. According to islay.com, Ardbeg whisky is, “...one of the most heavily peated spirits on Islay, Ardbeg is often seen as one of the beasts of Islay. However, thanks to a purifier on the spirit still, the new-make spirit is elegant and sweet, with a citrus fruit character that sets the matured whiskey apart from the other distilleries on the island.” (Islay Distilleries, 2019)
Bowmore is the oldest distillery on Islay, founded in 1779, Bowmore is the island’s capital. This distillery malts its own barley and fermentations of both long and short, 48 and 100 hours. Between 1950 and 1970, Bowmore developed more of a tropical-fruit whisky which was sought after by fans and collectors. Over the next twenty years they developed a more floral whisky, but since the 90’s they have returned to their fruitier characteristic and success.
With frequent closures over the past 130 years and most recently 1995 for five years, Bruicheladdich was revived in 2000 and is thriving. Founded in 1881, the use of local barley and slow distillation created a flavorsome spirit. Not only does the distillery create sought after whisky but have strong local support due to their large employment opportunities.
Same as Bruichladdich, Bunnahanhain was founded in 1881 on the north-east coast, surrounded with rocky beaches and shipwrecks. Due to this distillery’s isolation, their focus is almost wholly on whisky. Their whisky is best known for an unpeated and smoky spirit. The smoky make is called Margadale, a once busy trading post on Islay, that now lays in ruin. Since 1881 Bunnahanhain is still running strong and producing some of the finest whisky in the world.
Being completely rebuilt once, this famous distillery was established in 1846 and is continuing to expand. Caol Ila is now the largest distillery on the island and has produced a single malt whisky that has been growing in stature. Producing both peated and unpeated single malts, Caol Ila manufactures a variety of whisky’s that are bound to satisfy any whisky fan around the world.
Born in 2005 at Rockside Farm, it grows its own grain, malts it, and uses those resources to make whisky, all on site. While the grain doesn’t support all the needs of Kilchoman, they use another grain from Port Ellen that delivers a smokier malt. One thing that makes this distillery unique is that is produces a small amount of 100% Islay whisky, every step of the process being done in Islay. This whisky created from Kilchoman is maximized in flavor with long fermentation and slow distillation.
Islay.com says, “The whiskey produced at Lagavulin has a range of personalities. The stills run very full, which reduces the amount of copper contact the spirit has, and the distillation is slow. Both of these are factors in creating the distillery’s versatile and weighty spirit. Maturation is mostly in bourbon casks, with a few ex sherry casks used to create the signature character of Lagavulin’s older whiskies.” (Islay Distilleries, 2019)
Laphroaig was founded in 1815 and is famously known for a medicinal character but described by the distillery in similar terms to “Marmite”, you either love it or hate it. The malt produced by Laphroaig is smokier and is kept apart from the other malt not only during mashing, fermentation and distillation, but the spirit it produces is matured separately.
The newest addition to the island’s distilleries, opened in April of 2019. Ardnahoe distillery has two big copper pot stills and four wooden wash backs. They are set to produce a fruity, creamy and heavily peated spirit. The spirit will be matured in a combination of first-fill ex- Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks. Ardnahoe whiskey will need to mature for at least three years before it can be bottled.