A deep dive on Islay and its peaty Scotch

The sunrise splintered the drapes of our room at the Bowmore House B&B just after 6am. The blue that you only find on rural drives and remote islands stretched taut across the horizon. The breeze came in bursts off the Atlantic, still laced with hints of ice on this early May day. My wife and I had finally made it to the crowning jewel of our much-delayed honeymoon: a three-day journey into the heart of Islay and its bounty of whisky bliss. Some biased observers might call it the best honeymoon ever. I fall firmly into this camp.

ASW Distillery - Atlanta craft whiskey & brandy distillery - Islay Scotland sunset from the Bowmore House Bed & Breakfast

As Israel was the fulcrum of the Fertile Crescent for agriculture 4,000 years ago, modern-day Islay is the Phenol Crescent for modern-day whisky. The vast majority of its distilleries produce some of the world’s peatiest Scotches, clocking in at 15–300 parts per million in phenols. (In contrast, The Macallan — what some would consider a moderately smoky Scotch — has 1.5 phenol parts per million.)

To venture into the depths of one of these distilleries is to walk through history — living, breathing halls that have produced some of the world’s best whisky for centuries. Even before I stepped off the ferry at Islay’s Port Ellen — itself a now-shuttered distillery of legend, bottles fetching thousands of dollars — I rated a number of Islay’s whiskies as many of my favorite drams of all time.

The more modern of the two ferries to Islay. Apparently, the other one has an impeccable track-record at inducing seasickness.

The more modern of the two ferries to Islay. Apparently, the other one has an impeccable track-record at inducing seasickness.

In homage to the annual Islay Festival of Music and Malt, which throws down in late May and early June every year (and runs through Saturday this year), we’ve put together a primer on each of Islay’s eight operating distilleries as of May 2016. 

Although I’m not a distiller, I consider myself a whiskey-man, especially under the tutelage  of our resident distillation encyclopedia and head distiller, Justin Manglitz. So many of my thoughts below relate to the art of distilling, in addition to the whisky and tasting room experiences you’ll find there and more general musings on Islay and its ineffable scenery. (Scenery that my uber-talented spouse, Jess Hunt-Ralston, photographed to perfection throughout this piece. Check her other work out at roseandfig.com.)

ASW Distillery - Atlanta craft whiskey & brandy distillery - Islay Scotland view from Lagavulin

(And many thanks to our knowledgeable guide Stephen from Scottish Routes, who shared stories ranging from the Goliath-sized William Wallace to the escape artist wombats of Loch Lomond.)

Lagavulin ("log-uh-voo-lin")

ASW Distillery - Atlanta craft whiskey & brandy distillery - Lagavulin Scotch distillery Islay Scotland pagodas

One of the “Big 3” of Islay, Lagavulin’s pagoda-capped, white-washed warehouse announces itself from the shore as you ferry into Port Ellen. Affiliated with beverage multinational company Diageo, the distillery consistently produces drams that win gold medals the world over. 

We arrived for the Lagavulin Warehouse Experience around 10am and followed the self-described “mound-shaped” tour guide Iain past the tastefully festooned, Lagavulin-green gift shop into the distillery’s cool, damp rickhouse. As we nestled in amongst thousands of repurposed bourbon barrels and rhinoceros-sized sherry butts, Iain got to work appointing volunteers to draw whisky directly from Lagavulin’s casks into a large beaker.

As we enjoyed the cask-strength (55%+ alcohol by volume) Jazzfest, 12-year sherry cask, 14 year, 18 year, 23 year, and 34 year, Iain poked fun at the lot of the 50 or so people attentively awaiting his next move. He reserved the comment “what, are ye writing a magazine article?” for me, pointing to the notebook I carry with me to jot down tasting notes. He selected numerous eager tipplers from the crowd to wield the copper valinch the size of a sword and withdraw a large beaker’s worth of whisky from each cask. (A valinch is known as a whiskey thief in the US.)

In between bouts of shaking the whisky — for aeration, one supposes, although some was leaking onto the floor — he asked us why we thought each cask loses approximately 3% of its whisky each year. One bold Dane suggested, “because you’re shaking it so much.” Iain grinned puckishly and told us that the 3% per year cut is the angel’s share, the environment’s price of admission through evaporation.

As we sniffed, sampled, and salivated our way through the briny, bittersweet whisky, I settled on the 12 year sherry cask finish and 18 year expressions as my favorites. In particular, the 18 year was white-gold, suggesting perhaps a third-use cask (the last use before being retired to some green thumb’s rose garden). The nose was somehow robust and delicate at once, a duality of dram evincing rose water, lilac, charred butter, green banana. The palate was even bolder, with pecan pie, dark chocolate, coffee, blackberry, bitter orange, saffron, sage, roast chicken with thyme, and something akin to honeyed porridge. (Not to be confused with honey-eyed porridge, which is the mythical dog of the Quaker Oats farmer.)

As we concluded the tasting, Iain suggested that a small group of us take photos on Lagavulin’s pier. With the sun bursting against the whitewashed wall of their warehouse and a band of enlivened Norwegians to each side, Iain grinned toothily and said, “Smile. Laphroaig!” 

Those two words summed up the lively, instructive experience at Lagavulin. All in all, Lagavulin proved to be Jess’s favorite distillery experience on the island. 

Soon, our tour bus whisked us off to the Kildalton Church for some much-needed sanctity and sobriety. An unattended Igloo ice chest with cakes, coffee, tea, and a donation basket greeted us like manna from the flawless heavens that are Islay's skies.

A few photos and some grave perusings later, we jostled down the road to Ardbeg for lunch and an early afternoon tasting.

Ardbeg ("ard-beg")

Ardbeg is, along with Laphroaig, Islay’s second-oldest distillery. But unlike its old kin Bowmore and Laphroaig, Ardbeg has not continuously operated since its 1815 founding (save for Bowmore's voluntary abeyance during the World Wars). At its peak, 200 people lived at Ardbeg, with the distillery at the town center. But the late 1970s & early 80s brought with them lean years in the whisky world, causing Ardbeg to shut its doors in 1981. 

Fortunately, it later revived became associated with its next-dram-down neighbor Laphroaig before pairing with Glenmorangie. The group who owned Glenmorangie and Ardbeg later sold the distilleries as a package deal to Moet-Hennessy in 2005.

Ardbeg hasn’t changed much since its early days. They continue to produce some of the peatiest Scotches on the market, with their standard grain clocking in at 55 parts per million phenols. After pitching their dry distiller’s yeast (vs. the liquid yeast that Lagavulin uses), the mash spends 55 hours fermenting in washbacks of Douglas fir and Oregon pine. After this relatively short fermentation period, they pipe the 9% alcohol “distiller’s beer” to their wash stills - the only ones in Islay fitted with purifiers, which are metal tubes resembling old catalytic converters. The purifiers recirculate the heavier elements of the wash run back through the still before moving to the low wines tank. This allows them to inject cold water into tubes before the vapor reaches the wash still’s condenser, helping refine the spirit.(1)

Finally, the low wines travel through Ardbeg's spirits stills. Perhaps because of the purifying process during their wash run, they make a very quick foreshots cut (lasting only about 10 minutes) before sending the 72% alcohol by volume spirit into spirit tanks, ready for casks. 

The resulting distillate reminds me a bit of peat-infused bourbon, with lots of cherry. Although pricey, the Corryvreckan is really well done. For those looking for something not quite as expensive, their Uigedail expression refers to one of their two water sources, and translates from Scottish Gaelic as “a dark, mysterious place”.

Laphroaig ("la-froig")

Bias alert: Laphroaig 10 has been one of my house whiskies for quite some time now. Not to mention, their 18 and 24 year expressions — quite difficult to find these days — rank among some of the most storied releases of all time. (Okay, maybe the 18 year isn’t that difficult to find.) So ending our first day here was like a child being permitted to visit Santa’s factory in rural China, er, the North Pole. We pulled into the parking lot of the last of the Port Ellen-side distilleries and stumbled with much coordination off the bus into that glimmering enemy of the besotted eyes, the unbridled Atlantic sun.

Knowing full well that we’d already been on in-depth tours of Ardbeg and Deanston in the Highlands, our guide at Laphroaig concentrated on showing us what differentiates their process. So off we went to the floor malting warehouse, where members of Laphroaig’s team rake damp barley back and forth across a floor until the barley germinates, releasing a number of enzymes vital to yeast during the fermentation process. Unlike Dante’s Inferno and Waiting for Godot, the back-and-forth motions yield not more misery and bewailed musings, but rather delicious malt, ready for moderate smoking from some of the peat Laphroaig harvests just around the bay from Port Ellen, near the Islay international airport’s lone runway. (They make approximately 20% of their malt in-house.)

A nugget of Laphroaig's peat.

A nugget of Laphroaig's peat.

After the entertaining tour, they led us to the warehouse for a quick peek at their casks before guiding us to the promised land, the tasting room. As Islay mandates that distilleries stop serving at 5pm, presumably so inebriated patrons can drive back to their hotels by the guiding light of dusk, my wife hustled to the Friends of Laphroaig kiosk. She returned with title — no doubt, in fee simple — to two 4-square-inch plots of land in a once-disputed field across the road from the distillery. Laphroaig may or may not have instituted the Friends of Laphroaig program as a response to the dispute. 

We then sampled Laphroaig’s Three Wood and 15 Year expressions. Delicious, to say the least, my wife bought a bottle of the Three Wood to savor its coconut, orange marmalade, graham cracker, and chocolate notes upon returning stateside. I sprang for the 15 Year expression, as it doesn't grace the shelves of Atlanta's bottle shops. And, of course, we packed our 50ml bottles of Laphroaig 10 that we received in addition to our eminently buildable 4 square inch plots. 

Bowmore ("buh-mohr")

Bowmore is Islay’s oldest distillery, dating to 1779 when a local by the name of John Simson opened its doors, before conveying it to the Mutters a few years later. (James Mutter was Vice Consul of the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, and Brazil through their Glasgow consulates.) In 1925, the German-descended Mutter family sold the distillery to J.B. Sheriff & Co. During World War II, Bowmore stopped production to accommodate the RAF Coast Command’s anti-submarine campaign headquarters.

Currently, Bowmore sources barley from both Islay and the mainland, and still conducts a portion of its own floor maltings. A former Bowmore warehouse encloses a public swimming pool heated by waste heat from the distillation process.

Alas, time did not prove accommodative during our visit — The Bowmore B&B where we stayed refers to the village rather than the distillery. I’ve always enjoyed Bowmore’s expressions (if you haven’t tasted their 18 Year, make haste to your nearest whisky bar) and regret not carving out the time the second morning we were there for a quick visit. But that would have required risking mental acuity for my favorite distillery, Bruichladdich. So I guess it means a return visit is in order.

Bruichladdich ("brook-laddy")

Long before I ever knew about Bruichladdich, when I was still studying for various degrees that I have since abandoned in favor of gainful employ in the world of whiskey, I dedicated my glass to gin. Of all the gins, Botanist had staked a claim to my palate more perpetual, more total than any little Laphroaig plot of land in fee simple for all posterity. These were the days when the bottle was the shape and size of a Bible, the gin’s 22 Islay botanicals residing demurely at the bottom of the label. 

Occasionally, when I drink, I like to revisit the literature on the bottle whose contents I’m consuming. (I can assure you this is not a thing that happens when I drink alone.) One humid Saturday last June, both gin and tonic mysteriously appeared in my glass, and my old square bottle of Botanist in my hand. Naturally, I read the label and discovered, to my amazement, the same distillery that made my favorite price-accessible Scotch, Islay Barley, also made Botanist. So began an appreciation with the Bruichladdich Distillery that many unbiased observers might mislabel an “infatuation”.

Built in 1881 on the shores of western Islay’s Loch Lindall by the brothers Harvey, heirs to an Islay whisky dynasty, Bruichladdich met the same fate as Ardbeg in 1994, at the height of the El Dorado days of vodka. (If we were into puns, we might even jest the Road to El Dovodo. Fortunately, we’re not into puns.) In the late 90s, an avid cyclist and whisky enthusiast found the mothballed distillery during a rainy ride and put together a bid for the facility. For a number of years, White McKay rebuffed his advances until finally, at the turn of the new Millennium, they let go of their inactive asset for around 6.5 million pounds. 

The cyclist, Mark Reynier, and master distiller, Jim McEwan, who’d worked his way up at Bowmore around the bay since the age of 15, pushed Scotch in all kinds of new and exciting directions. From focusing on the terroir of Islay through such releases as Botanist using 22 island botanicals, such as gorse, a thorny bush of yellow, coconut-scented flowers, to experimenting with finishes like red wine casks and the most aggressively peated Scotches in the world, Bruichladdich lived up to its motto: Progressive Hebridean Distillers. (In Scottish Gaelic, "Bruichladdich" means "rocky beach" or "purply beach".)

Twelve years later, Mr. Reynier and company sold Bruichladdich to Remy-Cointreau for a tidy 58 million pounds. For you math-literate and finance-geek types, that’s a return of over 66% per year in simple interest. The distillery now employs 72 people, a remarkable feat for a distillery that wasn’t even operational 16 years ago. Some time in the near future, they also plan to reintroduce the floor maltings that went by the wayside in the 60s. From my completely doe-eyed and myopic vantage, the quality has not suffered post-merger - the influx of funds has just meant a bigger budget to tell the world about their delicious whisky. 

With a bigger budget comes the ability to afford bolder Pantone colors.

With a bigger budget comes the ability to afford bolder Pantone colors.

And the tour matches the quality. We enjoyed the morning stroll past vintage photos of their team, sampled the hefeweizen-esque distiller’s beer from their Oregon pine washbacks, and marveled at their legitimately ancient stills. In addition to their fairly standard-looking wash and spirit stills, they also showed us “Ugly Betty”, one of the last remaining Lomond stills, where all the world’s Botanist supplies are made in the span of only a couple of months every year.

ASW Distillery - Atlanta craft whiskey & brandy distillery - Bruichladdich Scotch spirit safe & stills on Islay Scotland

The tour concludes in, where else, the tasting room, where you can buy rare extra-aged expressions, sample many more common expressions, and fill your own 500ml bottle from one of their two cask-strength Valinch series whiskies. These are one-off experiments only available at Bruichladdich that one drinker might describe as “utterly delicious”, while another, more hyperbolic sot might describe as “life-changing”. This go-round, my wife brought home the 10 year, heavily peated rioja finish Port Charlotte (yes, that Port Charlotte of lore).

Meanwhile, I opted for the 26 year, unpeated bourbon finish Classic Laddie. All in all, my favorite distillery experience on the island. 

Kilchoman ("kil-who-men")

Islay’s newest distillery is also its smallest. While Islay is best-described as “rural”, Kilchoman is better-suited for the word “remote” — both miles from any town or other distillery and, unlike the equally-as-remote Bunnahabhain, stranded inland. To get there, our vehicle hunkered and jumped past rubber-necking sheep on the peat-cratered road.

The story goes that, after World War II, the family that owned the site on which Kilchoman resides were in the hunt for a vehicle that could navigate the island’s peaks and troughs better than cars of the day. After searching high and low, their search came up dry, so they took matters into their own hands, welding a cabin onto a sedan of sorts. The result was something that looked strikingly similar to the early Land Rover prototypes. Whether Land Rover lifted the idea from this Islay family is a matter of conjecture, but at the least, you can see how an Islay resident might conceive of the idea.

ASW Distillery - Atlanta craft whiskey & brandy distillery - Kilchoman Scotch Land Rover on Islay Scotland

Like Lagavulin, Kilchoman has opted for the traditional pagoda-style turrets that maximize the air flow to the malt kilns. If Kilchoman bought all its malt from Diageo’s Port Ellen malthouse on the island, Kilchoman, which began in 2005, wouldn’t have needed such technology. But, true to its motto as “Islay’s Farm Distillery”, Kilchoman not only malts a large portion of its barley onsite, but also grows the same barley in the surrounding fields. 

Its single 4000 liter wash still and correspondingly smaller spirit still make Kilchoman significantly smaller than many of the island’s distilleries. (By at least a factor of five if our math is correct.) But if you’ve ever had a dram of their flagship, Machir Bay (or "fertile landscape bay", in Gaelic), with the beautiful cornflower blue label, you know that what Kilchoman lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. Perhaps it has something to do with their ex-Buffalo Trace casks.

The tour guide was probably the most personable of any guide we met on the trip. (All the guides were entertaining in their own right.) At only eleven years old, Kilchoman’s stills are much newer than most stills on the island, and also contain the only reflux bubble I saw at any of the distilleries. (We at ASW Distillery have a similar reflux bubble here, 3rd photo.)

This can help provide more precise control over the final distillate. By applying lower heat for longer, the distiller can induce the spirit to condense on the sides of the relatively cooler reflux bubble and drop back into the kettle of the still more times before rising into the condenser. The result is a spirit that has undergone more “mini-distillations” before passing to the next stage of production.

ASW Distillery - Atlanta craft whiskey & brandy distillery - Kilchoman Scotch distillery Islay Scotland stills

Unlike the other tours, which ended after a look at the stills, Kilchoman led us to their bottling line to see us just how manual and hand-crafted their operation is. 

ASW Distillery - Atlanta craft whiskey & brandy distillery - Kilchoman Scotch distillery Islay Scotland bottling line Buffalo Trace casks

Finally, they ushered us into their private tasting room for a tasting of Machir Bay, Loch Gorn, and 100% Islay. As delicious as the last two were, the Machir Bay still captivated me the most with its notes of coconut and pound cake. As an independent distillery farther along in their whisky journey, we hope y'all give them a look next time you're in the hunt for something new.

Caol Ila ("cool-eela")

Not far from Islay’s world-renowned and Hollywood-enamored Woollen Mill where two of the world’s six operational Spinning Jennys clank out garments day after day sits Islay’s largest distillery and smallest tasting room: Caol Ila. Perhaps best known for supplying a large portion of the whisky that tumbles into Johnnie Walker bottles, Caol Ila has a small but dedicated following.

One of the world's last functioning Spinning Jennys.

One of the world's last functioning Spinning Jennys.

Our trip included two such loyalists, Norwegians who, while sipping whisky one damp Wednesday evening with members of their Dram Club back in Norway, had found Caol Ila 18 to qualify for their highest echelon of whiskies.

The narrow road to the distillery winds its way across Islay’s wind-swept fields before a final descent down a road perhaps better meant for pack mules than charter buses or Mercedes vans. Not a quarter mile across the Sound of Islay, a strait with one of the world’s strongest currents, the rocky mound of Jura rises like a breaching mastodon, beads of skittish deer dripping down its back.

ASW Distillery - Atlanta craft whiskey & brandy distillery - Caol Ila Scotch distillery Islay Scotland

This proved to be our shortest visit, as our guide Stephen had a promise to keep with the Bunnahabhain staff, who apparently prefer punctuality to the opposite. The tasting room barely fit our group of 16, but the staff was friendly as they poured us whisky. We sampled two drams, including Moch — both of which seemed a bit one-dimensional to my palate — before posing for a photo with our backs to Jura and the swift strait separating the two islands. As an interesting aside, in 2011, the government hoped to capitalize on the strait’s power by giving the green light for an innovative tidal turbine green-energy project on the ocean bottom.

For Caol Ila enthusiasts, this will be a welcome stop, although for the uninitiated who lacks that most precious resource, time, I would encourage forgoing it in favor of Bunnahabhain just a few minutes to the north.

Bunnahabhain ("boon-uh-hahvin")

The northernmost distillery on Islay, Bunnahabhain lies a few clicks north of Caol Ila. As you arrive, the slate gray tides slushing against polished ocean stones sounds like a distracted daydreamer sweeping a porch. Across the Sound stand the Paps of Jura, a somewhat oxymoronic name given to the two barren slopes prominent on that end of the island.

ASW Distillery - Atlanta craft whiskey & brandy distillery - Bunnahabhain Scotch distillery Islay Scotland Paps of Jura

A fine distillery in its own right, Bunnahabhain is perhaps best known as the “unpeated Islay whisky”. Affiliated with the Deanston Distillery in the Highlands, their flagship 12 Year and delicious 18 Year both fall into this unpeated category, which you can sample up a flight of stairs, past a mounted bell formerly used to announce allotted-dram time.

Before heading to the gift shop, it’s worth checking out their version of the Distillery Experience, nestled in the back of an Amontilladan-like catacomb of their warehouse. The distillery braces you against the cold of the catacomb by furnishing complimentary blankets on the pews surrounding the selected casks on display. In lieu of a jaunt through the rest of the distillery, our tour guide brought us to this dunnage lounge straightaway and talked about the history of the distillery and its whisky.

Both effervescent and knowledgeable, our guide spoke to the distillery’s annual production (around 1.3 million liters per year) and its capacity (closer to 2 million liters per year). Apparently, the demand for Dewar’s, where the casks that don’t make the cut for Bunnahabhain’s own bottlings end up, is not what it once was. (Down 5% in 2015.)

After a sampling of a sherry-influenced expression straight from the sherry butt they had finished the whisky in, we walked back to the tasting room for our final organized tasting of the trip. The 12 Year was a solid expression, brown sugar and jam on the palate, while the 18 Year really shined, melting on the tongue like a warm salted caramel. Fitting, given Bunnahabhain’s location next to the ocean. 

ASW Distillery - Atlanta craft whiskey & brandy distillery - Bunnahabhain Scotch distillery Islay Scotland

Before departing, our group pooled resources to buy Stephen, our wonderful tour guide, a bottle of Bunnahabhain Toiteach. As much as he’d spoken highly of Lagavulin, Laphroaig 18, and Bowmore, throughout the trip, he’d been raving the most about Bunnahabhain. We figured the least we could do would be to give him a bottle he wouldn’t be permitted to consume any time soon. (Duty calls, after all.) He graciously accepted the bottle and took it home to enjoy with his niece, no doubt.

What's next ("watts-neckst")

If you like the taste of Scotch, or enjoy spending time with those who do, Islay is a must-visit. Don't let its remote location deter you. It's only a half-day's drive from the international airport in Scotland's largest city, Glasgow - and half that time is spent on a truly inspirational ferry ride past rocky atolls and uninhabited islands. The weather in spring alternates between brilliant sunshine and hovering mists, but the temperature doesn't dip much below approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Certainly not a place to soak up the rays on a beach, but pretty much the ultimate place to soak up the rays of the liquid sunshine in your glass. GO. And make haste. You aren't getting any younger.

(Fortunately, neither is the whisky. Unless you've become despondent about age statements disappearing from bottles. Which, historically, is quite precedented, as age statements only appeared with consistency fairly recently as companies figured out ways to market their stocks of long-aged whisky. But that's for another entry entirely. Until then, Cheers and Slainte!)

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(1) In the US, a purifier is known as a dephlegmator and is more often associated with the column stills used in large-scale bourbon distilleries, rather than the pot stills of small-batch makers. Current President of the American Distiller’s Institute, Bill Owens, in his book The Art of Distilling Whiskey, Moonshine, and Other Spirits, describes it thus: “The dephlegmator resides above the top bubble-cap tray. It is a chamber at the top of the column with numerous vertical tubes for the vapor to travel through on its way to the condenser. There is a water jacket around the vertical tubes that the operator can flood with cooling water to increase the amount of reflux [volume of spirit that recirculates through the still for further refinement]. The water level in the dephlegmator can be adjusted to give granular control over the amount of reflux.”