Written and photographed by Guy Reifenberg of Kokopeli Adventure.
When in Islay it is highly advisable to take a very deep breath of the very special air – preferably with a glass of whisky in your hand – in any corner of the island – on the seashore, in the fields or on the shores of one of the small lakes, and to feel how all the pressure and stress just drain away from your body, much like the whisky fumes out of an old wooden cask.
Immediately upon landing at Port Ellen, it envelopes you completely – the slightly sweet and sharp smoky smell. Anyone who has ever opened a bottle of Lagavulin knows the smell; a smell to which it is impossible to remain indifferent – you either fall in love at first smell or you look around to see if there is an available gas-mask. It is not by chance that whisky which comes from Islay is usually characterized by a heavy smell of peat smoking. The earth in the swamps which is compressed as it rots over hundreds of years creates this peat which has become the body and soul of the island. Most of the inland earth of Islay is peat, and this peat is also used to heat the houses up to the present day.
Islay (pronounced eye-la) is the southern-most of the Hebrides Islands, which are part of Scotland. It has an area of about 45 by 40 kilometers and a population of less than 4000 people. These are quite amazing data if you consider that there are no less than 7 (actually now days 9!) important active whisky distilleries on the island. Most of the tourists who come to Islay are either real whisky lovers or else bird watchers. It appears that Islay is a paradise for both categories, but since birds are not so relevant to our lives I see no point in concentrating on them any further. Due to the difficulty of reaching Islay, not as many tourists visit here, compared to the other islands such as Skye and Mull, and this is one of the great advantages of the place. The coast line which is breathtakingly beautiful and the possibility of sitting in a small bay and hardly seeing a soul is in itself sufficient justification for making the difficult way to Islay. It is hard to call this island a God-forsaken place, though it definitely knows how to create this special impression.
It is possible to reach Islay by direct flight from Glasgow, but most visitors come by ferry from the mainland town of Kennacraig, a trip of about two hours, to the town of Port Ellen, the largest town on Islay. Despite a number of hotels and restaurants the town still manages to retain its sleepy, small village character.
A road from Port Ellen goes westwards to the peninsula of Oa (pronounced O; why? Just so – You can ask one of the local Scots if you can understand what he says…). The main road of the island is not exactly a highway and is just wide enough for one car so that it becomes necessary to go on to the shoulder and wait until a car approaching from opposite passes – not too bad, it doesn’t happen very often. I have seen two Scottish drivers, each going onto the shoulder on his side, and each waiting and waiting for the other to pass – time flows differently on Islay.
We pass the remnants of the distillery of Port Ellen on the road to Oa. Today this is the malt house which supplies most of the malt for the island distilleries. The visit to Oa is highly recommended, most particularly in order to view that beautiful shore line of the peninsula. The road northwards passes through the no less sleepy village of Bowmore, (pronounced boomorr), where there are three interesting sites: a completely circular Church where no corners makes it impossible for devils to hide. Another theory says that the lack of corners leaves nowhere for drunks to bump into; next is the magnificent distillery named after the village and lastly the bar at the Lochside Hotel which keeps a dizzying number of malts – mainly local. By the way, anyone thinking that local means cheaper should remember that Scottish logic apparently works otherwise; at any rate, if you are looking for cheap whisky you should probably go to somewhere else.
From the village there is a road leading northwards to Port Askaig, the second largest port on the island and the only way to get to the neighboring island of Jura. Slightly north of Bowmore, the road forks westwards to Fort Charlotte and the Bruichladdich distillery. Between Port Ellen and Port Askaig the road passes along fields of peat with piles of the brown stuff drying in the sun. Sun? That is stretching the term somewhat. One of the great mysteries of the world of whisky is how the peat dries – it is supposed to dry in the sun, but a sunny day in Scotland is almost an historical event. Port Askaig itself is a very pleasant but tiny village. A visit to the local pub is worthwhile on evenings when Ceilidh (pronounced something like Keyli) takes place. This is a Scottish custom that involves live music, leg kicking, beer, whisky and many happy /drunken scots. The result is something between joy and fear, depending on the dosage of the various elements. Other than on such nights, the inhabitants are likely to give the impression of being rather cool and remote, particularly when compared to the Scots of the central regions of Scotland who are exceptionally friendly. This is a false impression – the island inhabitants tend to be somewhat taciturn but are no less charming than their brethren of the mainland, particularly after a beer or two – then they are almost jovial. The Caol Ila distillery is near Port Askaig, and slightly to the north is the Bunnahabhainn distillery. A third road, leading eastwards from Port Ellen is probably the most interesting one for whisky lovers since it passes by the three most famous distilleries: Ardberg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig with only a few hundred meters separating each from the other. The road carries on northwards towards the Kildalton Cross, a large Celtic cross, among the oldest on the continent of Europe, and ends at the foot of the Beinn Bheigier, the tallest mountain on the island. It is well worth the effort of reaching the cross and, if possible, taking the time to climb to the summit from which to enjoy the view.
Despite the similarities between the Islay whiskies it is not as easy as it seems at first to try and characterize them. They are smoky to different extents, their water sources are different and even distilleries lying close together receive their barley from different suppliers. Most distilleries import the barley from outside the island and some even from outside Scotland. Should we, however, try to find the common denominator, that element characteristic of each and every distillery, it would probably be the distinctive air of the island and in order to understand what I mean it is necessary to either come to Islay or else to visit a completely different world – the world of music for instance. When did you last chance to listen to the great Pink Floyd albums? Try listening to “Wish you were here”, to “The dark side of the moon”, “Final cut” or, if you like, you could add “Animals”. They are all great albums and it is impossible to say which is better, it is mainly a matter of mood. They are completely different, yet, with the first chord you recognize it is “Pink Floyd” and as they saying goes – “same, same, but different!” It is the same with the various Islay whiskies – they are completely different from each other, and it is impossible to say that one is better than the other, it is a matter of mood and taste and each one has its own singularity yet, with the first taste, the first drop that runs down the gullet you know immediately – this comes from Islay.
The Distilleries of Islay
This magnificent distillery is no longer active. It was finally closed down in 1983, but in the whitewashed warehouses there are still some casks aging and bottles are occasionally put on the market for prices that the average whisky lover cannot afford. Should you, however, visit a bar that happens to have a bottle from this distillery, it is well worth paying the exorbitant price for a glass. As time goes on, these bottles become rarer and rarer and the prices will rise accordingly. A particularly rare bottle, the Port Ellen 21 years, is considered a collector’s item, but there are other versions of the bottles by this distillery which are marketed, partly by independent companies. The barley maltings are still active and supply malted barley to most of the island`s distilleries, most particularly to Lagavulin and Caol Ila.
The name is pronounced La-froyg and means, in Gaelic, according to some of the versions something like “The beautiful hollow by the wide bay” –how does all this come in one word? Only the whisky gods know. The distillery was founded in 1815 and today has seven distilling vats. It owns peat fields and malts some of barley itself on a traditional malting floor. Laphroaig use a rather high level of smoking and about 40 PPM. Much like their great rival, Lagavulin, Laphroaig was the first Islay distillery to catch world awareness. Before that the island malts were barely known and were mainly used in blends. The most common 10 year bottle is still considered the classic representative of Islay whisky although the filtering and cooling process it undergoes causes it to lose some of its intensity. The relatively new bottle, also 10 year, has the same intensity as in the vat and is undoubtedly much superior. It comes at 57% strength and the peat smoke, the phenol and a slight saltiness from the sea are very noticeable.
The name means “Small mill in the valley” – again, let’s not go into the mysteries of the Gaelic language but rather just believe them. The distillery is situated on the east coast of Islay, a few hundred meters north of Laphroaig. In recent years, due to a UDV marketing campaign called “Six Classic Malts” the 16 year version of Lagavulin has become the island’s bestselling malt and is considered by many to be the best. But with all due respect, the six classic malts were chosen by the distillers who make them. My mother thinks I am the best which is not necessarily true. On the other hand this does not mean that the king is naked – Lagavulin is an excellent whisky by any standard and it represents the island from which it comes with honor. As to which is best? That really is a matter of taste. Despite the fact that it receives about the same amount of smoke and about 45 PPM in the malting process – much like Lafroaig, it feels a little smokier which might be due to a longer time in the cask; this refers to the most common bottles of both distilleries. Lagavulin has other versions among them the excellent 12 year that is unfortunately no longer marketed worldwide and of course the fabulous Distillers Edition which undergoes a finish in Pedro Jimenez Sherry barrels.
The name means “Small hill” in Gaelic – I swear I am not making this up, and the distillery is another few hundred meters further on from Lagavulin. This distillery is a real pearl. It began as an illegal distillery and functioned as such up to 1794. In the seventies of the last century production slowed down until it gradually reached a “keeping” state, meaning that there was almost no production and it was sort of kept in moth balls. Salvation came from an unexpected direction when in 1997 when the Glenmorangie Company decided to buy and refurbish the distillery at a cost of almost 10 million pounds! Take this sum into account when you consider building your own private distillery… The initial production was problematic at first because such good whisky on the one hand takes time to produce and it was impossible to meet the demand. As a result in the first years of the new production the results were not uniform. However, due to the long and hard work of the relatively young manager, plus a great deal of love for the product as well as, of course, a great deal of financing (but why be petty?) Ardbeg now stands at the front where whisky from Islay is concerned and the demand for it worldwide is ever increasing. Despite the rather large scope of the production today, the distillery continues to maintain a family atmosphere and the feeling of a small distillery. Ardbeg is considered one of the most intense of the Islay whiskies and some even describe its taste as violent, but at the same time it is complex and rich. There is no doubt that the world of whisky gained from the Glenmorangie investment. Two things set the production of this marvelous whisky aside from the others, one being the barley which is malted at a very high rate of smoking (over 50 PPM) and the other is the small distilling arm placed on the pot stills. Part of the fumes rise and pass through this special device and return to the pot still to be distilled again. This is a special device which is present in only a few distilleries. It enriches the taste of the alcohol coming out of the stills. Ardbeg comes in various versions the most prevalent being the 10 and 17 year.
This distillery lies in the village of Bowmore. The name means “sea rock” or “sea reef”. The whisky of this distillery is unique and its placement in the center of the village is expressed in the taste. The whisky is smoky, but nor as smoky as that of the three distilleries in the south of the island. It has something gentler about it, a slight sweetness that is reminiscent of the distilleries in the north of the island or even of something from Speyside. This malt comes in too many versions to enumerate here, but almost everything that comes from this distillery, starting with “Legend” (no age declared, but probably 8 years) and up to Darkest or the 17year is characterized by complexity and stratification of tastes. Bowmore characteristically has a richness of flavors and sometimes even too rich a variety. This is the only distillery that malts its own barley. In addition, at Bowmore they caught on to the trend of aging in special barrels and they try many varieties of barrel, from sherry and port to even claret which is of course Bordeaux wine. To their credit, most of the experiments were highly successful. Bowmore also offers an unusual deal – anyone who buys their 40 year whisky for the modest price of 4000 pounds will receive the key to a cottage on the island, belonging to the distillery, where he can spend a weekend. A real bargain – book ahead and arrive at your own expense. There are claims that the distillery “cooks” the whisky under pressure so that it absorbs more flavors. There are those who consider the intensity of the wine flavors in some of the bottles as proof that there might be more than an element of truth in the allegation, all I can say is that whatever is the way they make their whisky, the end result is usually very good.
The name is pronounced Kal-Eela and it means the Sound of Islay. This is the distillery with the most beautiful views – the distilling hall has large windows looking out on the island of Jura and the straits separating the two islands. It used to be difficult, up to some years ago, to obtain bottles from this distillery as most of the produce went to blends the best known of which is of course Johnny Walker. In recent years they have started marketing the whisky on its own account. This distillery uses very large distilling vats and the smoking is lighter as compared to that of the three southern distilleries. The result is a lighter and less complex, yet distinctly Islay malt; sort of a beginner’s Islay. However, this is not to say that more experienced drinkers will not also find it interesting and enjoyable.
Pronounced Boo-na-haben , the name means river estuary. This is the northernmost distillery on the island and possibly also the least typical of the style. This malt is relatively light, slightly fruity and mild, still with a hint of smoke (the malt comes from Port Ellen) and with the saltiness typical of the island. The difference probably lies in the fact that the malt destined for this distillery receives only a slight touch of peat. In addition, the water is hard, drawn from ground water which does not come in contact with peat. Furthermore, a large portion of the whisky is aged in sherry casks. The best known bottle from this distillery is the 12 year, but there are other bottles as well, and this malt is also used in blends.
The name is pronounced Brook-Laddie and means a slope or shore. This is the most active western distillery in Scotland and it produces unique malt that is much lighter than its brethren from the south-east of the island, but at the same time it has a complex and interesting flavor. It is only in recent years that the distillery resumed regular production, and this to the great joy of the inhabitants of the island who love the whisky that comes from this small distillery. The greatness of the well-known whiskies of Islay such as Ardbeg or Bowmore is also their drawback. They are so intense and complex that it is sometimes too much. We don’t always want to be overwhelmed, we sometimes want something more subtle and gentle and this is where Bruichladdich enters the scene – it is gentler, lighter while keeping its character as a whisky coming from Islay. The malt comes from Port Ellen but is exposed to less smoke (10 PPM), the water on this side of the island is less peat saturated than that of the central areas of the island. Another factor contributing to the relative lightness of the whisky is the long necks of the distilling vats. This is the only distillery on the island which is not supported by a large commercial body and is privately owned. Bruichladdich is not cool filtered and the owner stresses that no caramel is added in the production process and that the aging is carried out on the island – something that cannot be claimed by the other distilleries. They also produce a whisky such as has never been known in the world, a whisky called Octomore which is smoked to the unheard of level of 80 PPM. The combination of the intense smoking and the high-necked vats is very interesting.
Written and photographed by Guy Reifenberg of Kokopeli Adventure.