The southernmost of its island chain, Islay is known as ‘The Queen of the Hebrides’ – and is certainly the reigning monarch of a typically smoky, peaty style of single malt whisky. But there’s much more to this beating heart of distillation, which has eight active producers – and more to come.
Islay is best known for its disproportionately high number of distilleries – eight, with more planned – and for a distinctively peaty style of single malt. Beyond the obvious lurks a surprising diversity of spirit, making the identity of Islay whisky a more elusive prospect than might first appear.
Amid all the talk of Islay’s famous active distilleries, the island also boasts one of the most legendary of ‘lost’ producers: Port Ellen, which closed its doors in 1983. Its strongly smoky, turfy flavours were an artist’s study of the most typical Islay style and its whiskies remain among the most sought-after.
Port Ellen’s fate could easily have befallen some of its surviving neighbours, with Ardbeg famously mothballed in 1982 and restored to full production only in the late 1990s.
Given Ardbeg’s cult status, that’s hard to believe; the distillery is now a firmly established part of the Kildalton trio of Islay’s southern coast and, with neighbours Lagavulin and Laphroaig, these producers have come to epitomise the popular image of Islay single malt: maritime peat smoke in different styles.
But Islay isn’t just about peat. Travel north and, in time, you’ll come to Bunnahabhain on the shore facing Jura, whose spirit has both used and eschewed peat during its history; in the west, Bruichladdich is typically unpeated – but has been unable to resist making a couple of super-smoky whiskies in recent years.
Completing Islay’s current roster of distilleries we have Caol Ila’s fragrant smoke (although the distillery makes unpeated spirit for part of the year), Bowmore’s richly fruited smokiness and – the most recent addition to the ranks – self-styled ‘farm distillery’ Kilchoman, maker of a charming young malt (it only opened in 2005) from its own barley.
Islay’s smoky style comes from drying malted barley with the smoke from burning peat, giving flavours from phenols. These are measured in PPM (parts per million) with Ardbeg’s 10-Year-Old measuring 24ppm, while Caol Ila’s entry bottling is 35ppm.
Some historians believe distillation reached Scotland, from Ireland via Islay, in the 13th century, when the Lord of the Isles married the daughter of an Ulster Baron.
Prince Charlies famously loves Laphroaig but it has come at a cost. After awarding the distillery his Royal Warrant in 1994, he crash-landed his plane on Islay’s tiny airstrip. No one was injured, but the damage caused was estimated at £1 million.