The Isle of Islay, off the west coast of the United Kingdom, is synonymous with Scotch whisky of the fine single malt variety, and when I visited recently I was on a mission to visit all eight of the famous Islay distilleries (and the one on Jura) and taste the best of Islay whisky.
Why is Islay famous for such high quality whisky? It comes down to location and the natural environment. Islay is uniquely placed, with the Gulf Stream passing along the west coast of the British Isles and creating a warmer micro-climate where animals and vegetation flourish. Mountains to the north provide a barrier that catches the rainfall and the combination of sun and rain is perfect for peat bogs.
Peat is basically decomposed vegetation partially carbonised over thousands of years of compression in a bog. It doesn’t sound very appetising but slabs (logs) of peat have traditionally been used to fire the kilns in Islay distilleries, giving the barley and Islay whisky a distinctive peaty taste and aroma.
You will hear a lot of talk about PPM (parts per million) phenol as you tour the whisky distilleries on Islay and various distilleries and whiskies boast varying strengths of peated barley in the distilling process. Perfecting the level of PPM is the art and science of whisky distilling.
There’s a story about one of the particularly phenol rich Bruichladdich whiskies that says in 1695 a Hebridean traveller called Martin Martin spoke of an ancient powerful spirit, which translates from the Gaelic as “perilous whisky”. The local people told him: “one sip and you live forever; two sips and you go blind; three sips and you expire on the spot”.
As with Talisker on the Isle of Skye (another island of Scotland that we visited last year), the Islay distilleries were built on the coastline because supplies and whisky had to arrive and depart by sea. So apart from Kilchoman, which is only ten years old, all the Islay distilleries are in lovely coastal locations and have a dock, although these are often now disused.
With that bit of background, we set forth on our mission to tour the Islay whisky distilleries over the course of a week…
Bruichladdich whisky tasting
The sun was shining on Loch Innoch when we visited Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-laddie) and we had a most enjoyable tour. In fact it was Mary the ambassador who really sold Bruichladdich for me. Her enthusiasm and knowledge was deep, not surprising since she was one of the early shareholders when the distillery started off on its voyage of recovery after going bust in the 1980s. Highlights at Bruidhladdich include the barrel store where you can see some fabulous old wine barrels from the grand old wine making estates of France and Italy. Make sure to take a sniff of the “Angel’s Share”! They have invested a lot in their branding but their commitment to quality and history is clear and we enjoyed our time in their shop/tasting lounge.
I must also mention the gin. Yes, there is a gin distillery on Islay here at Bruichladdich. They have only been producing gin since 2012 but ‘The Botanist’ can already be found on the top shelves of specialist London drinking establishments, as well as my top shelf! The Ugly Betty still is used once a year and although the juniper berries are brought from the mainland, Botanist gin features 20 native botanicals hand foraged on Islay.
Laphroaig whisky distillery
The Ardbeg, Lagavullin and Laphroaig distilleries are all along a short stretch of Islay’s south coast. Known as the three “Kildalton Distilleries” because of the proximity of the historic Kidalton Chapel, nowadays there’s a well-built cycle path leading from the town of Port Ellen to the three distilleries in case you don’t have a designated driver. They were all established around the same time, or at least licensed in the same year, although no one seems exactly sure when the distilling started because it has been going on for several centuries on the island in an ‘unofficial’ way. They are usefully all visited in a day on your Islay whisky distillery tour.
The Laphroaig story begins in the late 1700s when a certain Alexander Johnston rented a farm on the Campbell estate. By 1815 his sons were both running the farm and making whisky. Now things are much more commercial of course, and Laphroaig is perhaps Islay’s most recognisable whisky ‘brand’. Visiting the distillery in its coastal setting is marvellous. There is a cosy tasting lounge and the friendly and knowledgeable barwoman even gave a bottled dram to our designated driver for the day. I loved these attempts to describe the taste of Laphroaig whisky…
Lagavullin Scotch whisky
Lagavullin was the busiest distillery I visited, with a coach tour swamping the shop but the lady on the till told us to retreat to the separate tasting room, which is a lovely pale-wood-panelled place that made me think of a historic American coastal home. Eventually a selection was brought for us to try and they were so good we couldn’t resist buying a bottle.
Ardbeg whisky tasting
This distillery is named for the tiny village here and like the others was officially established in 1815. The restored buildings are very fine looking, thanks to heavy investment by owners Glenmorangie/LVMH who rescued Ardbeg from mothballs in the 1990s.
We chose to have lunch at Ardbeg because reviews said the café food is good but to be honest we were a bit underwhelmed by our meals. However, it is a pleasant place to spend time. The shop offers free tastings but the better way to do it is getting a tasting board in the cafe (which can easily be shared between two people unless you’re feeling particularly alcoholic!)
Pronounced Kil-homan, this is Islay’s newest distillery and I wanted to do a tour here because I was interested to hear about the boutique approach of Antony and Cathy Wells and their desire to produce whisky the traditional way. This is a ‘farm distillery’ and the buildings are not fancy but there is a warm café with home-made food and a shop (try the local ‘Cuillin Skink’ seafood soup).
Everything is done manually here – there are no computers controlling the process. This is one of the few places that still practise traditional floor malting where the soaked barley is spread out to germinate naturally over a period of four to five days before kilning. There are no lamps to speed things up. The kilning process is also very traditional, using local peat logs for the fire of course. Since the late 1800s most distilleries have utilised the commercial maltings at Port Ellen. Kilchoman is also unusual in growing some of its own barley – around 20 per cent – here in the sea air rather than shipping it in from outside. They use fresh distiller’s yeast rather than powdered yeast like bigger distilleries. Wash waste is used as fertiliser on the fields rather than being flushed out to sea.
It was very interesting learning about the methods used and the tour guide was lovely and enthusiastic, although not as knowledgeable as some of the others I met. Their Islay whisky is still relatively young, with the oldest offering only 7 years old. But prospects are all for a bright future at Kilchoman. There is a generous tasting at the end of the tour and we even got a free dram glass.
The Caol Ila distillery
This is the one Islay whisky distillery that could be missed out if necessary on your Islay whisky distillery tour, although it is easy to drop in on the way up the coast to Bunnahabhain. Caol Ila has a shop room with a disinterested staff member offering drams but no history or welcome to speak of. This is one of the Islay distilleries that makes large volumes of product that is shipped to the mainland to be used in whisky blends.
This whisky distillery boasts the most remote location on Islay, up the coast from Port Askaig. The Bunnahabhain (pronounced Boona-haaven) is a big industrial-looking place. There’s nothing pretty about the buildings apart from the coastal location. They use water direct from a local spring. However, my experience in the tasting room upstairs was memorable and the whisky was good. It’s a small room but the fellow dishing out drams and information was very personable and welcoming.
Welcoming Bowmore whisky
Bowmore is one of the biggest towns on Islay, and where we did our food shopping. The distillery is at the heart of the town, on the waterfront of course. Bowmore was established as a new capital by the Campbell laird of Islay back in 1766 as a sort of model village with a distinctive round church at the top of the hill and high street. Soon after a fellow called David Simson moved to the growing town and established a whisky distillery. Bowmore are proud of their origins as pioneers – Simson introduced the now famous Islay whisky to the world. The first written mention of the Bowmore distillery was in 1779, making it the first on Islay.
There is a shop downstairs and an airy, modern bar/tasting room upstairs with picture windows overlooking the water. I only had time to try a couple of their whiskies but I think this would be a very pleasant place to while away a few hours in the late afternoon before going on to dinner at the Bowmore Hotel (which does a nice line in food utilising local seafood and other produce).
Jura whisky distillery
The island of Jura is an even more unpopulated Scottish island than the Isle of Islay. It’s only a 15 minute ferry crossing from Port Askaig on Islay but it made the bigger island seem very busy! In fact the population is only about 200, vastly outnumbered by the 5,000 red deer who are easy to spot as you drive along. Human inhabitants of Jura are known by their Gaelic name, they are ‘Diurachs’.
Check the crossing timetables and there is a cosy pub at the port if you have to wait (try the seafood platter). Once you’re on Jura it’s about a 45-minute drive to Craighouse village where the Isle of Jura Distillery Co is located. George Orwell chose a more remote part of Jura to live between 1946 until his death in 1950, where he completed his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. He described the island as “extremely un-get-at-able”. At the time of year we visited (late October) the distillery offered the only warm welcome. There really is just one road, one distillery, one pub, one shop and one community.
It is worth the trip because the single malt whisky here is outstanding. Everything I tasted was smooth, sweet and superb. A bit like Bruichladdich on Islay, the Jura distillery fell on hard times in the 20th century and was refounded in 1963 at the derelict distillery by two local estate owners, producing its Origins bottle with a Celtic symbol of birth, beginnings and forces of nature in 1964. They introduced special tall stills, allowing a mix of malts and creating a distinctive style that was to become legendary (and award winning).
Now the range is extensive, although the distillery is now owned by the big commercial outfit Whyte & Mackay. I love the story behind their ‘Prophecy’ whisky. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Campbell family of Jura evicted a man from their land. He uttered a prophecy that the last Campbell to leave the island would be one-eyed with his belongings carried in a cart drawn by a lone white horse. Unfortunately the curse came true, although it took until 1938. Charles Campbell, blind in one eye from a war injury, fell on hard times and left the island, walking to Jura’s pier leading his white horse.
Visiting all the Islay Distilleries
We did it – visiting all of Islay’s whisky distilleries plus the one on Jura! Was it worthwhile? Each distillery really has its own personality and I found visiting all of them gave a fascinating insight into Islay life and history.
I would say you don’t need to do a tour at every distillery because, while there are variations in distilling practice, I think you’d be bored at hearing about the process eight times.
All of the distilleries offer a tasting experience that is usually free, even if it is just a couple of drams and a chat to the staff member on the bar. This gives you a chance to learn about the whisky and find out a bit about the history and culture of the distillery.
Go on – put it on your travel bucket list!
By Natasha von Geldern