Islay (pronounced ‘EYE-lay’) is the southernmost of the Western Isles of Scotland. It has the highest concentration of distilleries on any of the other islands with around 8 distilleries. Because of this and because of the unique whisky produced Islay is classed as an island in it’s own right. Whiskies produced in Islay are usually associated with a strong peaty flavour. Islay produces some of the best single malt whiskies from the whole of Scotland. It was probably in Islay where whisky distillation was started in Scotland.
Distilleries on Islay
Let’s take a short tour of some of the most well know distilleries on Islay, starting with the north and working our way south.
(Pronounced ‘BOON-a-havn’) produces one of the milder Islay single malts and has a very unique taste, different to that of other Islay whiskies. It has been producing whisky since 1881.
History – Islay
The northernmost of the distilleries on Islay was founded in 1881 by James Ford, James Greenlees and William Robertson at the mouth of the Margadale. Around the distillery the small village of the same name gradually developed. The production of whisky began in 1883 and the distillery was closed from 1930 to 1937. In 1963 the distillery was extended by one wash- and one spirit still. Between 1999 and 2003 production was sporadic. Until 2003 the distillery was owned by Highland Distillers (The Edrington Group). Before the threatened closure the distillery was bought by Burn Stewart Distillers in 2003. In April 2013 the South African Distell Group Ltd. bought the Burn Stewart Distillers for £160m.
The distillery’s water, which is not very peaty, comes from the Margadale river. This is an underground spring. The water is supplied by pipeline. The malt used is partly sourced from the Port Ellen malting plant. The distillery has one mash tun (12.5 t) made of stainless steel and six fermentation vats (66,000 l each) made of Douglas fir wood. Distillation takes place in two steam-heated wash stills (35,386 l), which are the largest in Scotland, and two spirit stills (15,546 l each). To cool the stills, water from a small stream is used, which flows out of Loch Staoisha in the southwest and into the Islay Sound near the distillery.
The oldest distillery on the island and one of the most popular Islay whiskies being the second best selling whisky behind Laphroaig. The whiskies produced are peaty – not as light as Bunnahabhain and not as intense as Laphroaig and Lagavullin. Most of the barley used is locally sourced, with some also being imported from the mainland. They produce many llimited editions whiskies, with the most expensive being the Bowmore Trilogy – three rare whiskies which cost around £15,000.
The whiskies distilled here are some of the most intense smokiest whiskies a person will taste. The peat is taken from a local peat bog which has very dark peat. The whisky is one of the slowest distilled, with the first distillation taking around 5 hours and the second 9 hours. Most of the whisky is for sale as single malt and only about 2% is kept for blending. It is one of the six classic malts. It used to be the best selling Islay malt until Laphroaig took over.
(Pronounced ‘La-FROYg’) Currently the best selling Islay whisky and it has an almost cult following. There is certainly not another single malt which compares to Laphroaig. It has an very pungent flavour. It also has royal connections, with the 15 yr old single malt being the favourite of Prince Charles. They also produce 27- 30- and 40- year old single malts which are rare and expensive.
Islay whiskies represent some of the best Scotch whiskies available. They have all the elements that people expect from single malts with very pronounced peaty tastes, although some of the more pungent ones might be a little to strong for some people.