Islay Whisky is the number one reason for tourists to visit the Isle of Islay. Folk from all over the world got to know Islay whisky in some way or another and decided to visit the “holy ground of peaty drams”, the whisky island.
The magical, heroical and romantic picture that’s being portrayed by the Islay distilleries makes it hard to resist a visit to Islay. Combine that with the excellent whisky, the stunning locations of the whisky distilleries and the friendly and welcoming locals and you have the perfect recipe for a 5 star tourist destination. Where else do you find so many quality whisky distilleries so close together. You won’t even find that in the Speyside, the heart of the Scottish whisky industry.
How did whisky come to Islay?
Apparently the conditions for whisky distilling on Islay are perfect. When monks from Ireland visited the island and introduced distillation to the locals, they realised that ingredients were plentiful. They found unlimited supplies of peat, many rivers and lochs with good quality water and sheltered bays and sea lochs. And the crofters grew bere, an early kind of barley which was suitable for the production of whisky.
And why are there so many distilleries on the Islay? In the olden days distilling was done in sheds, in the open, until the mid 1600s when the Excise Act came into effect and tax was raised on Islay whisky. However, this didn’t happen on Islay directly as the Tax men weren’t keen on visiting the island. The locals were regarded as “barbarous wild folk” and “Whisky Smugglers”. Without a Tax men on the island whisky distilling was happening all around, although it become more illicit and took place in remote locations such as the Oa Peninsula, remote glens and in caves.
This situation changed and it was in the late 1700s and early 1800s that distilling became a legal activity and purpose whisky distilleries were built. These distilleries were all built near the coast as they needed supplies and a way to export their whisky by boat.
Islay’s Lost Distilleries
What about the Lost Distilleries on Islay? Before we talk about the modern Islay Distilleries and Islay Whisky it’s important to realise that Islay always had many whisky distilleries. In the 1800s Islay had much more distilleries than nowadays. Many of them were smaller, so called farm distilleries, and they could be found all over the island. Well known names of the lost distilleries are for instance the Lochindaal Distillery in Port Charlotte.
And there was the Malt Mill Distillery, which eventually merged with Lagavulin Distillery in 1962. There was a farm distillery at Newton, between Bridgend and Ballygrant and there was a farm distillery at Octomore, behind Port Charlotte. The best known lost distillery is of course Port Ellen Distillery which was established in 1825 and closed in 1983. And this distillery is about to reopen again in 2022 or 2023 under the Diageo flag. There is a good article on the lost distilleries on Wikipedia
Islay Whisky Making Process
The main ingredients for Islay whisky making are Barley, Water and Yeast. Some distilleries on Islay grow their own Barley such as Bruichladdich and Kilchoman, others have it delivered from other parts of Scotland.
Malting the Barley
The first step in the whisky making process is to malt the barley by soaking it into water for around three days. Then it’s spread out on the malting floor as you can see for instance at Laphroaig or Bowmore. During the germination the barley needs to be turned. When it’s fully germinated the barley is moved to the Malt Kiln.
The Malt Kiln and Milling
In the Malt kiln the barley is dried over a peat fire which is responsible for the peaty taste of the malt whisky. The longer the barley is dried the more prominent the peaty taste will be. The amount of peat smoke in the barley is expressed in parts per million phenol (PPM). The higher the PPM levels the peatier the whisky will be. The traditional pagoda roof on the distillery causes a draught and draws the smoke from peat fire through the barley. When they barley is sufficiently smoked and dried it is moved to the mill for grounding. The result is malt grist. Several distilleries on Islay have their barley malted at Port Ellen Maltings according to their own specs.
Next up is the mashing where the malt grist from the mill is moved to the mash tun where hot water is added. In this step the conversion takes place from dextrin into maltose. The result of this step is wort and it is held in a receiver to be cooled.
Now the yeast will be added to the wort and moved to the wash-backs where the fermentation process takes place, the sugars present are turned into alcohol. This process lasts between 36 and 48 hours but can vary. The remaining liquid is a beer like mixture and is often offered for tasting during a distillery tour. This liquid is called the wash and is the final product before distillation. The remaining solid residue which remains after washing is called draff and sold off as cattle food.
The final step of the whisky making process consists of several individual stages. First the wash is distilled in a so-called wash still where an impure intermediate product is produced called low wines. The low wines are now fed via the spirit safe, for inspection, into the low wines charger. From there the low wines are discharged into the still. This process is repeated until the final product, raw whisky, passes the spirit safe and is, after inspection and approval, transported to the spirit store. The raw whisky, around 70% ABV, can now be filled in barrels and the whisky is ready for maturing.
The shape of the stills, the length and angle of the still arms and the condensors each play a part in the end result of the raw whisky. From here on the length of the maturation and choice of barrels will determine the final flavour of your Islay Malt Whisky. The casks used are mostly American Oak Bourbon and Sherry casks.
Angels Share and Maturation
During maturation in a warehouse the raw whisky will interact with the wood of the barrel and every year a few percent of the contents of the cask will evaporate. This is called the Angels Share.
Islay Whisky Distilleries
Islay was a different place some 30 to 40 years ago. Back then the demand for whisky was low, also due to over production, and some distilleries on Islay were mothballed, such as Bruichladdich and Ardbeg. The situation on the island was grim. There were only a few open distilleries and they were hardly accessible for visitors. There were no tours, no visitor centres, nothing. If you’d asked kindly they might have showed you around the distillery, but that was all.
What a difference with the situation these days. Whisky distilleries on Islay are booming, drinking whisky is more popular than ever and new distilleries are opening up all over the world, also in Scotland and in Islay too. Soon Islay will have 11 distilleries and it will draw even more visitors to the island. Islay will more and more live up to its name of whisky island.
Islay Distilleries by Location
It’s difficult to categorise the Islay Distilleries. Would you do it by taste? Or by location? The latter might perhaps be the most logical way:
The Kildalton Distilleries and Port Ellen
The distilleries of Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig are also referred to as the three Kildalton Distilleries, located in the south-east of Islay. The name Kildalton comes from the Parish of Kildalton in which they are located. All three distilleries can be found along the three distilleries path east from Port Ellen. These three Islay distilleries are some of the best known whisky distilleries in the world. Links to www.ardbeg.com – Lagavulin – www.laphroaig.com
And they will soon get a wee brother, a neighbouring distillery between Port Ellen and Laphroaig will be built. The name is Portintruan Distillery, pronounce Port-nah-truan, and the owner is Sukhinder Singh from the Whisky Exchange. It doesn’t stop here. Port Ellen will see another distillery opening up soon, the iconic and much anticipated Port Ellen Distillery will start producing whisky again after being closed for 40 years.
North Islay Distilleries
The North of Islay has three distilleries. Originally there were the Distilleries of Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain. Later, in 2019, Ardnahoe Distillery opened its doors for visitors, and fired their kilns for the first time in 2018. They are the latest Islay Distillery, for now that is. Links to Caol Ila – www.bunnahabhain.com – www.ardnahoedistillery.com
Rhinns of Islay
The Rhinns of Islay is home to two distilleries, the Bruichladdich Distillery and Kilchoman Distillery, near Kilchoman Beach. Also here are plans for yet another distillery, at The Gearach, west from Port Charlotte. The name for this distillery is Ile, Gaelic for Islay. In 2007 Bruichladdich Distillery announced that they had purchased the remains of the old Loch Indaal Distillery buildings in Port Charlotte. They had plans to build a distillery in the village of Port Charlotte but due to the economic crisis in 2008 these plans were postponed. If Port Charlotte Distillery will ever be built, nobody knows. www.bruichladdich.com – www.kilchomandistillery.com
The oldest distillery on the island, Bowmore Distillery, was started first in 1779. Bowmore Distillery produces a smoky, salty dram and is one of the most famous Islay Distilleries worldwide. Link to www.bowmore.com
New Islay Distilleries
As of July 2022 Islay has 9 Distilleries: Bowmore, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain and Ardnahoe.
Planned New Islay Distilleries are:
Port Ellen Distillery at the site of Port Ellen Malting, planned opening 2024. Portintruan Distillery will be built between Port Ellen and Laphroaig and will open in 2023 or 2024. The Islay Boys, owners of Islay Ales, will relocate their brewery to Glenegedale and build a whisky and rum distillery on the site as well under the name Laggan Bay Distillery. Behind Port Charlotte towards the west a new distillery is planned called “The Gearach”. No planning permission has been given for this distillery yet. That brings the total whisky distilleries to 13 in a couple of years.
Future of Islay Whisky
History has seen periods of high demand as well as more difficult times when distilleries had to shut down such as in the 80s. Back then Ardbeg, Bunnahabhain, Port Ellen and Bruichladdich Distilleries were closed for a shorter or longer period. And that brought unemployment to the island and difficult times for the locals. One can only hope that this will never happen again on Islay. Diversifying is a way to become more flexible and reach more customers. This is what Bruichladdich did with the Botanist Gin and there are more initiatives such as a Rum Distillery on the island.
The future of Islay Whisky looks bright if you ask me. We can only hope that the unique character of the island itself will remain as it is today, and that Islay will not become a “Whisky Theme Park” of some sorts.
Islay Whisky: A Personal Experience
What makes Islay Whisky so unique? For me it is unmistakably the taste, and smell, of peat in the Islay Whisky. My first acquaintance with Islay whisky was a dram of Lagavulin during a tasting of the Classic Malts by Diageo. This took place some 30 or so years ago. It was pure power and I was instantly blown away by the intense taste and smell of the peat, smoke and iodine. I think whiskies like that make such an impression that you’ll never forget them. That’s, in my case, how I got interested in the Lagavulin distillery. I wanted to find out where this dram was distilled. What other distilleries were there on Islay? How come this was such a special dram.
Soon after that I tasted a Bowmore whisky and a dram of Laphroaig. The latter one changed my life as I became a friend of Laphroaig, bought a wee booklet about Islay and as they say… The rest is history. I fell in love with the island, started a website called Islay Info, quit my job and moved to Islay with my family.
If Islay Whisky can do this to me I can totally understand what it can do to others. And I understand why thousands of whisky aficionados travel from far and wide to visit their favourite distillery on Islay. Why they come in their thousands to the annual Islay Festival – Feis Ile and celebrate the wonderful drams, the culture of Islay and the friendship.
Not all Islay whiskies are peaty of course, and there is a world of difference between a Bunnahabhain whisky and an Octomore by Bruichladdich. But you’ll find something special in each and every Islay whisky, something that’s part of the island, something that connects with the folk who make it and the place where it is distilled. They all have loads of character and are highly rewarded and celebrated around the world.
Whisky Island: A portrait of Islay and its whiskies
If you made it all the way down here you’re probably a fan of Islay Whiskies. And although this is a lengthy article I’m nearly scratching the surface. There is world of information available on Islay Whisky and the Distilleries. The best way to get a better understanding of Islay and its Whiskies is to read the book by Andrew Jefford titled: Whisky Island: A portrait of Islay and its whiskies. This is THE guide to read and not only about Islay Whisky. It also covers a lot more than just that. A quote from the book description on Amazon:
In Whisky Island, Islay’s fascinating story is uncovered: from its history and stories of the many shipwrecks which litter its shores, to the beautiful wildlife, landscape and topography of the island revealed through intimate descriptions of the austerely beautiful and remote countryside. Interleaved through these different narrative strands comes the story of the whiskies themselves, traced from a distant past of bothies and illegal stills to present-day legality and prosperity. The flavour of each spirit is analysed and the differences between them teased out, as are the stories of the notable men and women who have played such a integral part in their creation.
Islay Distilleries Prints
Islay in the 1960s
Below an interesting view on Islay in the 1960s. A completely different island from what we know today. Enjoy!