The mythical island off the Western coast of Scotland which is home to 8 distilleries of some repute. Often referred to as the Queen of the Hebrides by the locals, it is an island with a landmass of approximately 620 square kilometres and a population of approximately 4000 people.
To put that into perspective, the island state of Singapore has a landmass of 718 square kilometres and yet is home to 5.7 MILLION inhabitants. Go figure.
The terrain of Islay is somewhat unique in comparison to that of the mainland in the sense that it incorporates hills, mountains, arable fields, water sources (or lochs as they are known), marshes and even arid portions on which nothing can grow. But it is this mix of terrain that makes Islay the perfect place to make the whisky that is so highly prized around the world.
The 8 distilleries on the island are as follows:
– Caol Ila
In recent years, there has been talk of a 9th and even a 10th distillery being built on Islay. Bruichladdich were looking at spinning off the production of their Port Charlotte single malt whisky to a facility of its own, prospectively built on the site of a distillery of the same name which closed in 1929. However, no work has commenced so far and the officials at the distillery are being tight-lipped about it for now at the very least.
However, another project that could see the light of day within the next year or so would be the proposed Gartbreck distillery located a few miles down the road from Bowmore. The distillery is the brainchild of Jean Donnay, who is also the owner of the Glann Ar Mor distillery in the Brittany province of France that is currently producing some stellar whisky in the Scotch style.
Jean intends to build a distillery which runs according to the traditional methods of whisky making and intends to see that idea through to the end. While there were rumours with regard to initial difficulties in securing the critical water source for the distillery, it seems that the issue has been surmounted and building has commenced on the site, with a scheduled completion by the end of 2015 and production coming on stream sometime in early 2016.
But lets get back to the 8 established distilleries on the island. While all of them make varying styles of whisky, the one common factor between all of them is the use of peat to dry the barley. Peat is a source of fuel which is made from decomposed vegetation and other plant matter. As Islay has an abundance of peat, it is readily available and is used by the locals to heat their homes and by the distilleries to dry their malted barley.
The peat fires which are used to dry the barley influence the character of the malt in the sense that the barley takes on the smoky character of the peat due to the smoke being emitted during the burning process. Different distilleries require different degrees of peated malt to keep in accordance with the style of whisky that they intend to produce.
While the likes of Bowmore, Kilchoman and Laphroaig malt and dry a percentage of their barley requirements on their own premises, the majority of their requirements are sourced from commercial vendors such as Simpsons on the mainland or from the Port Ellen maltings located on the southern side of the island in a village of the same name.
While the likes of Ardbeg, Bowmore, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig produce only peated whiskies, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila have been known to experiment with both peated and unpeated whiskies with varying degrees of success.
In my next post, I will commence the first of an 8 part series of posts which will cover all the Islay distilleries in detail and provide insight on their operations. This post will also contain the first of my whisky reviews so stay tuned!