A Visit to the Whisky Distilleries of Islay, Scotland

First appeared as “On Islay Time” in the April 2017 issue of Air Canada enRoute.
 

“Somebody want to be brave?” Ardbeg Distillery manager Mickey Heads has just thrown what could be described as a beer stein on a rope down into the humid recesses of a 23,000-litre washback – a giant barrel used in whisky-making – and drawn it up half full. This is how you test the character of both the wash, the product of the first ferment of barley that will eventually be distilled into whisky, and of the nosy Canadians who come poking around your distillery. I wouldn’t call myself a brave man, but I am certainly a curious one. The contents are frothy, opaque and warm with their own fermentation, the aromas yeasty and heady. The taste is like a rustic beer, with soft cereal sweetness, barely hinting at the peaty powerhouse it will become.

June 12, 2020
Whisky barrels at the Ardbeg warehouse in Islay, Scotland
Whisky matures slowly inside the Ardbeg warehouse.
Dunes on the beach at Machir Bay
Dunes on the beach at Machir Bay, which looks out on the North Atlantic Ocean.
A copper still inside Ardbeg Distillery
Dunes on the beach at Machir Bay, which looks out on the North Atlantic Ocean.
A copper still inside Ardbeg Distillery.

In spite of its spare population of about five inhabitants per square kilometre, the small island of Islay (pronounced “eye-la”) in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides boasts 11 distilleries, producing some of the most sought-after Scotch whiskies in the world. The three best-known, Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin, are but stumbling distance down the road from one another, along the southern coast. At this density, I expected to encounter a fearsome competitiveness between producers, but in the full swing of the whisky renaissance, there is a sense of shared destiny.

I meet bartender Emma McFarlane at the Ardview Inn, the less assuming of the two pubs in the southern village of Port Ellen (population 800). Her husband works as a mash man at Laphroaig. Her mother-in-law works at Kilchoman and her sister-in-law does PR for Bruichladdich. McFarlane’s preferred whisky? She barely hesitates, turning for a split second to survey the wall of glittering bottles at her back: “Bowmore Darkest is my favourite right now.” And she chose Ardbeg as the venue for their wedding.

Ardbeg Distillery's yard is covered with whisky barrels
Gordon Covell inside the Islay Woollen Mill
The yard is strewn with barrels waiting to take on new whisky.
At the Islay Woollen Mill, near Bridgend, Gordon Covell’s Victorian looms spin yarn into original tweeds, scarves and blankets.
Aerial view of Ardbeg Distillery at the water's edge
Founded in 1815, Ardbeg Distillery lies 3.5 kilometres east of Port Ellen.
Ian Laurie taking a break at the Ardview Inn
A platter of langoustines, brown crab and Loch Gruinart oysters
Ian Laurie, owner of Port Ellen’s only newsstand, takes a break at the Ardview Inn.
Local cuisine comes out of its shell at the Islay Hotel, on a platter of langoustines, brown crab and Loch Gruinart oysters.

With little cajoling she leads me through a selection of the island’s offerings, from some of the more modern, floral spirits made inland and up north to the famously smoky whiskies of the south (see map, below). Time slowing down is a well-worn cliché – locking eyes with your future love across a crowded room, that sort of thing – but it is no less compelling for wear. I remember the first time I tasted an Islay whisky, and the feeling of the rest of the world receding into the background, so I could focus on what was happening in my mouth: smoke and butter and burnt caramel, sure, but also the presence of so much beyond the realm of food – iodine, tar, oiled leather, trawling ropes?

Strolling down Port Ellen’s main street, I reflect that even under grey skies, Islay does not seem dreary. It is as if the island is the source of its own peculiar glow, the clouds above reflecting the soft light of the land down upon itself. I pick up hints of peat smoke from the Port Ellen malting plant, where the majority of the island’s whiskies have their barley sprouted and lightly toasted, mingling with the salty breeze coming in off Leodamais Bay. I’m walking within an exploded view of the palate of Islay whisky.

Craig Archibald gathering oysters from the sea
Craig Archibald has a loch on the Islay oyster trade.
Two copper pot stills at Ardbeg Distillery
Craig Archibald has a loch on the Islay oyster trade.
Two copper pot stills produce Ardbeg’s annual output of 1.25-million litres.
Twin malting chimneys at Ardbeg
Twin malting chimneys, no longer in use, stand tall over Ardbeg.

In the dining room of the Islay Hotel, a charming, simply appointed space rebuilt in 2011 in the image of the inn that stood on the spot before it, it is immediately obvious that Islay has been inadequately served by Scotland’s international reputation for such items as haggis and deep-fried pizza. The meal is a tour of the region’s considerable bounty: a seafood platter piled high with scallops, langoustines, oysters from Loch Gruinart to the north, mussels and meaty crab claws, followed by a perfectly rare seared pigeon breast and an almost laughably large braised beef cheek served with celery root two ways – char-grilled and puréed. Scottish surf and turf (and sky) at its best. The hotel’s bar has one of the deepest whisky selections on the island, including many bottles long unavailable from the distilleries themselves. A dram of Ardbeg’s Dark Cove makes for the perfect digestif – all chocolate, smoke and black pepper, a hint of mincemeat on the finish.

A plate of traditional Scottish breakfast
A portrait of Gibby MacCalman
Prepare for a hike on the moor with a hearty Scottish breakfast.
Gibby MacCalman hails from Ardbeg village, which once stood near the distillery.

“Oh, this is great, this is incredible, I’m going to take this home and use it for my porridge.” Lize-Gwen Moran, who has been charged with keeping me from getting sucked into a marsh or eaten by a ewe, draws a swig from the bottle we have filled straight from the waters of Loch Uigeadail, her bright, mischievous eyes growing wider still. Although the loch is the sole water source for Ardbeg’s whisky, the distillery is required to purify it (“You never know when a sheep might fall in,” Moran jokes), so we’ve plunked in an Aquatab for good measure. She offers it to me and I take a sip. It tastes like clean, pure water, maybe a little grassy.

The right to walk through even privately owned land is codified in Scots law as the “freedom to roam,” and our three-kilometre hike from the coast has taken us through farmers’ fields, past impossibly cute Blackface lambs cavorting under the watchful gaze of their mothers, and across heath and moor enlivened by explosions of daffodil and golden-yellow gorse. I pause to fortify myself with a cheese sandwich and a sip from an improvised roadie of Perpetuum, an Ardbeg anniversary bottling, then descend into the tangle of medieval Scottish woods, where the hazel and birch hug the contours of the land to protect themselves from the salty Atlantic winds that so buffet the island.

An ewe grazing with her offspring in Islay, Scotland
Nothing compares to ewe.
Mickey Heads holding a glass of whisky by the water
The dining room of the Islay Hotel
That’s the spirit: Mickey Heads considers his final product.
Inside the dining room at the Islay Hotel.

Back at the distillery the following evening, my thoughts return to the notion of time, but in a different way. “This is something really special,” Mickey says as he pours something burnt-honey-coloured from a bottle, one of 400, blended from a pair of Oloroso sherry and American oak barrels laid down in 1974 and 1975, respectively – a whisky older than I am. Mickey and I walk in the lowering dusk, past row upon row of barrels, between the whitewashed, high-windowed buildings that house the distillery works. They have a holy, but also a homey, feel. “It’s funny,” Mickey reflects. “I’m 58. Some of the whisky I’m making today I’ll never be able to taste in its finished form.” He is not wistful.

As I take a sip, it occurs to me that the tasting of a whisky is usually very personal, very inward-looking. But here on Islay, it is as if the rhythm of the rest of the world has slowed down to match it, to a pace where one has the time to appreciate such things, not as an escape from life, but as an expression of it. Time spent, time passing, time slowing. “One more for the road?” Mickey asks, and who am I to decline? I step into the night, glass in hand. The whisky is powerful, and powerfully Ileach, but refined by its age. It is sweet, elegant and caressing. This time, time doesn’t slow down, because the pace of life here is just right.

The Islay landscape near Kildalton
The Islay landscape near Kildalton.

The making of an Islay whisky

  1. Islay’s peat bogs have formed over millennia, composed of grass, moss, seaweed, earth, shells and more. Slowly smoking the malted barley over burning peat imparts many essential flavours.

  2. Distilleries draw their water from nearby lochs and streams that run over the island’s peat and heather landscape.

  3. Traditional copper pot stills draw out impurities and finesse the distillate. Most Scotch whiskies are distilled twice.

  4. First-fill American oak and second-fill bourbon casks impart spicy and floral notes, with sherry casks or even the occasional wine barrel used for a finishing flourish.

  5. Many distilleries’ warehouses lie close to the shore, lending their whiskies a briny vigour.

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