For many of us, Islay (pronounced eye-lah) is synonymous with whisky. A tiny island, less than 250 square miles, it has a population just north of 3,000. With nine active distilleries, it produces a lot of whisky. But we’ll talk about that in a moment, because Islay is much more than whisky.
The first known visitors to Islay date back to 10,000 BC. The first major inhabitants, however, were Celts, who settled in the 6th century. A couple of hundred years later, the Vikings arrived and set up Norse colonies. Three hundred years later, the Scots reclaimed the island. And the Campbell Clan eventually settled in.
So, what else do you need you know about Islay before we go back to whisky? Well, there are about 42,000 sheep on the island. There are forty known shipwrecks around its shores. And it can be a little territorial. In fact, the Portnahaven Church, built in 1820, has a door on each side. For decades, the residents of Portnahaven entered and sat on one side, and the residents of nearby Port Wemyss entered and sat on the other. And in the words of Rudyard Kipling ‘and never the twain shall meet’.
Getting back to whisky, Islay, nicknamed “The Queen of the Hebrides”, is a separate Scotch Whisky Region in Scotland. There is a long history of illicit distillery activity on Islay, dating back to the 1300’s, when Irish Monks first introduced brewing and distilling. But whisky production first officially began in 1779, with the establishment of the Bowmore Distillery. Since then Bowmore has had a colorful history. The second owner, James Mutter, built an iron steamship to carry barley and coal to the island, and to carry whisky back to the mainland. During World War II, the distillery property was taken over by the RAF Coastal Command and turned into a flying boat headquarters, in order to hunt enemy submarines in the area.
In the early 1990’s after the distillery had come under the ownership of the Japanese Suntory Company, some scotch whisky drinkers noticed a perceived lavender/perfume-like taste on some Bowmore releases. Nicknamed FWP (which allegedly meant French Whore Perfume), the issue, if it indeed existed at all, was quickly resolved, and Bowmore continued in its production of fine scotch whisky.
Perhaps because of its smoke and peat tradition, Islay whisky has been the subject of many descriptive terms – leather, sweat, tobacco, old cheese, dirty peat, canvass, iodine, campfire, and my favorite – tastes like a burning hospital. If we look to the south shore of the island, four distilleries have come to represent this unique flavor – Arbeg, Bruichladdich, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig. The latter two have a particularly interesting history.
The Laphroaig Distillery was built in 1815 and has been producing a stellar peated dram ever since. The Lagavulin distillery was built nearby a couple of years later. In 1907, a rift developed between the distilleries, and the owner of Lagavulin, Peter MacKie, tried to block the water supply going to the Laproaig distillery. A court order soon remedied the situation with the removal of the blockage to the stream. The next year, MacKie built a distillery identical to the one at Laphroaig, hired Laphroaig’s master distiller, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to replicate their whisky. The new distillery, Malt Mill, was eventually closed and incorporated into Lagavulin’s operations.
One more quick story about Laphroaig. In 1929, then owner, Ian Hunter, went on a promotional tour of the US, Canada, and Latin America. Because of Prohibition, the importing of alcohol was not allowed into the US. Mr. Hunter, however, convinced U.S Customs agents that his Laphroaig was not liquor, but in fact, medicine. He insisted that they taste it, assuring them that the heavy iodine taste and pungent, seaweed odor could not possibly be liquor. After a quick sample, they agreed, and allowed the shipment to enter.
The final stop on our Islay tour is the Bruichladdich Distillery. Constructed in 1881 by the Harvey Brothers, it exists today much as it did then, with a gravity fed system, Victorian era wooden washback tubs, and absolutely no computer assisted processes. Everything is done manually, using the skills of the resident experts. They do, however, have a web cam in the distillery, that allow followers to watch the distilling process live on the internet.
One day, in 2008, at the height of the conflict in Iraq and the Weapons of Mass Destruction fiasco, the web cam system stopped working and remained off-line for a few days. This prompted a call from the Pentagon Defense Threat Reduction Agency, asking the distillery to restore its web cam broadcast. They further explained that the process of manufacturing chemical weapons and Bruichladdich’s’s distilling process were very similar, so it was using the Bruichladdich web site to train its operatives. Later, in response, Bruichladdich released a special edition whisky called WMD – Weapons of Mass Distinction.
Traditional distilling methods at Bruichladdich – popular with everyone, including the Pentagon.
As a footnote, there are a couple of newer distilleries on the island. Kilchomen, the first new distillery since 1908, opened in 2005. The Laing family’s Ardnahoe Distillery got up and running in 2018. And the Elixer Distillery in Port Ellen has been approved and is moving towards an opening date.
And there you have it. Islay – small, very cool, with lots of history. And the whisky? Second to none. Cheers!