It is believed that the Irish monks first introduced the art of distillation to Islay, during the early fourteenth century. Due to the fact that Islay was a fertile island for growing barley, called bere in the old days, with excellent pure water sources and plenty of peat, the island had everything in favour to distill whisky. For a detailed history of whisky distilling please visit the Islay whisky history page.
Islay is very largely composed of peat, layer upon layer of spagnum mosses and other vegetation have been rotting away and created the compact black banks of peat which are used for home fuel and for the whisky industry. Most of the water on Islay is brown, even the water in the burns is brown, and winter gales drive salt spray far inland, and this saturates the peat, which is dried again by the briny, seaweedy breeze. All these characteristics go into the whiskies of Islay, to a greater or lesser extent.
Some of the Islay Single Malt Whiskies are the strongest flavoured of all malt whiskies, a property which endears them to some and is less appreciated by others. Most of the maltings, used for the production of whisky on Islay, is done at Port Ellen Maltings according to the specific specs (peat level) of each distillery. Only Bowmore, Laphroaig and Kilchoman have their own malting floors.
The southern distilleries - Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin, also referred to as the Kildalton Distilleries, and Port Ellen (the latter was closed in 1983) - are the most powerful, producing medium-bodied whiskies, saturated with peat-smoke, brine and iodine. Not only do these distilleries use heavily peated malt (54 ppm at Ardbeg, 40 ppm at Laphroaig), they use the island's peaty water for every stage of production - until they were closed in the early 1980s, Ardbeg had its own floor maltings and used to steep the barley in the same water.
Bruichladdich Distillery seen from the pier
The northern Islay distilleries - Bruichladdich (the 'ch' is silent) and Bunnahabhain ('Boona-hah-ven') are, by contrast, much milder. These draw their water direct from the spring, before it has had contact with peat, and use lightly or un-peated barley. The resulting whiskies are lighter flavoured, mossy (rather than peaty), with some seaweed, some nuts, but still the dry finish.
Bowmore Distillery, in the middle of the island on the shore of Loch Indaal, stands between the two extremes - peaty but not medicinal, with some toffee, some floral scents, and traces of linseed oil. Caol Ila ('Cal-eela'), although close to Bunnahabhain, produces a delicate, greenish malt, with some peat/iodine/salt balanced by floral notes and a peppery finish.
Islay whiskies generally reverse the characteristics of Speysides, tending to be dry and peaty; behind the smoke, however, can be gentle mossy scents, and some spice. The southern Islay distilleries produce powerfully phenolic whiskies, with aromas redolent of tar, smoke, iodine and carbolic. Bowmore, in the middle of the island, shares these characteristics but is not quite so powerful, as does Caol Ila. Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain are lighter and much less smoky. All Islay's Malts have a dry finish, the southern ones with quite a bite.
Port Ellen Warehouses and Maltings seen from the Ferry
Kilchoman (pronounced kilhoman) is a Farm Distillery and the first to be built on Islay for 124 years. It is the 8th distillery on the Island and opened in 2004. The whole production process is done on Islay including growing their own Barley on the Island. The location of the distillery is near Loch Gorm and only 500 metres (as the crow flies) from Machir bay on the Atlantic Ocean. The perfect ingredients for another great Islay Malt.
Family-owned blender and bottler Hunter Laing is making its first move into distilling with its plans for an £8 million investment in the new-build project at Ardnahoe. More info on our Islay Blog
Port Charlotte Distillery was announced in March 2007 and is expected to produce a rather peaty whisky. The new Port Charlotte Distillery was planned to start in 2009 but the plans were postponed due the economic crisis. It is not confirmed if the distillery will be built at all, but when it does, it will be located in the centre of Port Charlotte using some of the old buildings of the former Lochindaal Distillery.
If all goes as planned Gartbreck Distillery will become Islay's ninth distillery. Conversion of the current farm-buildings, south of Bowmore on the shore of Loch Indaal, is planned to start in Spring 2016 while production will start in the Autumn of 2017. Gartbreck Distillery will produce 100% peated single malt whisky from its two fire-heated copper pot stills, which are unique to Islay. They anticipate that around 20% of the whisky produced will be made using Islay barley, with the remainder shipped over from mainland Scotland. The distillery, which will run six days a week, will produce an initial 60,000 litres of alcohol per year, and feature its own on-site floor maltings and kiln.
The Northern Distillery of Bunnahabhain at the Sound of Islay