A History of Whisky on Islay and Jura

Islay Illicit Still It is believed that the Irish monks first introduced the art of distillation to Islay, during the early fourteenth century. On Islay they found an island eminently suited for the production of Uisge Beathe, (water of life) with unlimited supplies of peat, lochs and rivers filled with pure soft water. The local crofters grew the fore-runner of the modern barley, called bere used for their subsistence, and the surplus distilled.

In the early days, distilling was carried out openly in black shebeens until the introduction, in 1644, of the Excise Act when a tax was levied on whisky. This forced the distillers to move into the remote glens and caves to avoid detection, but in fact the first Gauger did not dare to set foot on Islay until 1797. There was great reluctance on the part of the exciseman to come to an island where the natives were regarded as a "wild barbarous people". In 1777 it is reported by the Reverend John McLeish of Kilchoman Parish that, "we have not an excise officer on the whole island. The quantity therefore, of whisky made here is very great and the evil that follows drinking to excess of this liquor, is very visible on the island". The situation on Islay in 2002 has reverted to that of 1797 where no Gaugers were stationed on the island.

The Mull of Oa peninsula was well known for illicit distilling, with stills found at Cragabus, Stremnishmore, Lower Killeyan and Goil. There were also stills at Octomore, Bridgend, Dail, Lossit, Tallant and Mulindry. Today we are left with eight licensed working distilleries on Islay and one on the island of Jura; between them they produce in excess of 20,000,000 litres of alcohol per year and with a rate of duty of £19.81 per litre of alcohol, Islay and Jura can hold their heads high as major contributors to the UK economy.

In former years possibly 95% of the whisky produced was used in the make up of all the famous blends, i.e. Johnny Walker, White Horse, Black and White, Dewars White Label, Ballantines, Chivas Regal, The Famous Grouse, Bell's; the list is endless, however with the increased interest world wide in "Single Malts" a far greater proportion of whisky is "laid down" for this market. As a result of the shortage of stock of mature whisky for the Single Malt market, some of the current bottlings have become very collectable. Recently a bottle of Black Bowmore, distilled in 1897, sold at auction to an American collector for £14,000. Scotch Whisky can only be made in Scotland, and cannot legally be called whisky, untill it has matured for a minimum of three years, in oak casks; prior to this the spirit is referred to as P.B.S. (Plain British Spirit).

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