We were in the Port Charlotte youth hostel kitchen, looking out on to Loch Indaal, the great sea loch that, with Loch Gruinart, almost bisects the Islay and once did.
"I’m getting kiwi fruit, dark chocolate, oriental spices," purred an Australian visitor, nose wedged in a swirling goblet of Islay single malt. "And there’s seaweed, saltiness, brine. A really strong whiff of brine."
"Aye," muttered the hostel warden, a no-nonsense Kilmarnock native, "the windae’s open."
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I’d been on Islay for a couple of weeks, having swapped the streets of Islington and a job as editor of an investment magazine for a part-time position as hostel assistant on the southernmost island in the Hebrides. This was my first, but not my last, encounter with what might be termed whisky mystique: the quasi-orgasmic submersion in taste, smell and feel that is a whisky lover’s communion with a fine dram.
Of course, you can send it up. It demands to be sent up. The windae was indeed open, and the obvious synonym for mystique is BS. The Ileachs won’t mind one bit if you do. Never in all the times I’ve visited Islay’s eight very different distilleries have I met anyone who takes themselves too seriously or is precious about their craft.
At Laphroaig, which nestles in a glittering bay on the island’s south-eastern coast and is perhaps the best known of the Islay distilleries, they plaster the walls with descriptions of their 200-year-old whisky gleaned from an "opinions welcome" campaign. These range from ecstatic to, let’s say, thought-provoking, from "makes your mouth and throat feel like they are lined with cashmere" to "like a wet dog coming in covered in seaweed from a terrible storm outside".
Islay’s whisky distillers have no need to be either arrogant or touchy. For, whether you’re getting kiwi fruit or not, these are the finest whiskies on Earth, and everyone knows it.
The mystique/BS reaches its apex in the rescued distilleries of Ardbeg and Bruichladdich. Ardbeg has been to outer space, and this peatiest of all the Islay malts is available in vapour form as Ardbeg Haar. Bruichladdich has created a turquoise marketing juggernaut around the traditional production methods at its refurbished Victorian plant and its belief in terroir – the winemaking term that refers to characteristics attributable to place of origin.
But both distilleries have their tongues firmly in their cheeks as they spin yarns about being wilder than an elephant, in the case of Ardbeg, or the subject of CIA investigations, in the case of Bruichladdich. What’s more, they can back up the hyperbole with superlative drams. And, heck, they have a right to feel pleased with themselves. Both came back from the dead in the late 1990s after the calamitous 1980s’ whisky slump to the benefit not just of themselves but the communities around them.
"So many things revolve around the distilleries on Islay," says Mickey Heads, who took over as distillery manager at Ardbeg in 2007, moving from the Isle of Jura distillery. In 1997 when Ardbeg was rescued by Glenmorangie, it was decrepit and on the point of extinction. Today it employs 25 people and attracts throngs of visitors to its Old Kiln cafe and visitor centre, which, among other things, is a useful stopping point on the way to Kildalton Cross, one of the finest early Christian crosses in Scotland.
Bruichladdich spent a decade in partial production and was shut down altogether in 1994 before being acquired by Murray McDavid in 2000. Today, it’s the largest private-sector employer on Islay, with 65 staff on the island, and in 2003, in line with its belief in terroir, it reintroduced Islay barley to whisky production. A quarter of the barley Bruichladdich uses each year is now grown on Islay, and it works with 15 farmers on the island. Islay barley doesn’t yield as much as barley grown in, say, East Lothian, but Bruichladdich believes the additional cost is worth it for the flavour.
"You get different flavours from barley grown on Islay in fields fertilised by seaweed and buffeted by the sea air than you can get anywhere else," says Adam Hannett, Bruichladdich’s head distiller.
The "progressive Hebridean distillers", as Bruichladdich styles itself, seems to have started a trend. Kilchoman, Islay’s youngest distillery, founded in 2005 out by the great Altantic-facing sweep of Machir Bay and the only farm distillery on the island, uses Islay barley in part of its production too. Two planned new distilleries, one at Gartbreck near Bowmore and one at Ardnahoe between Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila, intend to use Islay-grown barley in their production. The owner of Gartbreck, Jean Donnay, who runs Glann ar Mor Distillery in Brittany, also intends to heat his copper pot stills by live flame.
This contemporary emphasis on traditional methods and artisanship brings whisky making on Islay, which industrialised in the mid-1880s with the advent of the Clyde puffer, full circle. Puffers allowed the distilleries to use coal to run their stills instead of the much less efficient peat and to export their distinctive drams to a waiting world. The new wave of Islay single malts feeds the modern whisky drinker’s desire for something special and hand-crafted but has by no means replaced industrial production. The two sit side by side.
When I moved to Islay from London in 2005 as a kind of mad experiment, driving there at huge cost in a maroon 1970s’ Mercedes 250, I was seen off by London friends with a bottle of Caol Ila. Shortly after I arrived I visited the secluded bays on Islay’s north-western shore, accessed by winding singletrack roads, where Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain are distilled. I didn’t know it then, and you’d never guess it from looking down on the tiny distillery villages from the switchback roads, but with a capacity of 6.4 million litres Caol Ila produces twice as much as whisky any other distillery on Islay.
Only when you are inside Caol Ila’s cathedral-like still room do you grasp the scale of the the place. The six giant copper stills seem to dwarf the scree-clad Paps of Jura, which are framed in the still room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Just the same, Caol Ila, like Bunnahabhain – both at one time work horses churning out spirit for blend – has known how to respond to the rise in demand for specialist drams. It is bottling more of its subtly smoky single malt and has introduced three complementary expressions. Bunnahabhain, meanwhile, has won fans with a mellow, barely peated malt, distilled using spring water, that flies in the face of the tongue-scorchingly phenolic Islay mainstream.
There is simply no such thing as a rubbish Islay whisky. Each spirit distilled on the island has its own qualities, and each distillery has something unique to offer the visitor. At Laphroaig it might be the traditional malting floor, where the barley germinates to become malt, at Bunnahabhain the enormous Oregon pine washbacks, where the beer known as wort is fermented, at Lagavulin the unusually tall, pear-shaped stills, at Bowmore the ancient No.1 Vaults, the oldest maturation warehouse in Scotland, which lies partly below sea level.
In the No.1 Vaults, you can find casks that date back decades and ones that point the way to the future: whisky being finished in Mizunara casks made of Japanese oak introduced by Bowmore’s current owner, Beam Suntory. Upstairs in the visitors room, resplendent in a hand-blown glass creation flecked with platinum, is the last remaining bottle of the 1957 Bowmore.
My own love affair with the twinkling, tawny liquors distilled on this beach-fringed island of some 3,200 souls began with the landscape and the people, rather than the whisky, and that is, I think, the right way round. Whisky does not define Islay, but Islay and the Ileachs do define the special beast that is Islay single malt whisky.
Of course, you can enjoy a nip of Islay single malt in a bar in New York, London or Berlin without ever having sailed into Pork Askaig on a glorious sunny day or scudded across the sky in a 34-seater Saab 340 twin turbo-prop from Glasgow. I did so myself many times before my sojourn on Islay. But to appreciate these fine drams fully you need to inhale the sea air, stare into a sparking peat-fired kiln and let the sounds of the island – the wind, the waves, the voices – roll over you.
I first came to Islay on 4 July 2005. I remember the date very clearly, because a couple of days later I was frantically phoning friends in London after seeing news of the July 7 bombing on the TV in the Islay airport cafe. It was a beautiful day. The sea sparkled in the sunlight and the blue sky was vast. My friends still felt very close – many of them would visit Islay that summer – and all my sympathies were with Londoners that day. But London itself, though I’d been living there less than a week before, seemed far away – an irrelevant urban blur. I knew already that I would never go back there.
When I wasn’t working at the hostel that summer, I explored Islay. I hiked out past Bunnahabhain to Rhuvaal lighthouse and on to the incredible buff-coloured sands of Bagh an Da Dhorius (bay of two doors). I followed the coastal path to the beautiful stone-built bothy at An Cladach on the Sound of Islay, swam in the bay and ate my tea watching the sun disappear behind the Paps of Jura. I visited Jura too, an altogether wilder place than Islay with just 200 inhabitants, 6,000 deer and a magnificent hinterland of bog and pathless coast crowned by the three quartzite mounds of the Paps of Jura. I drove the Mercedes up Jura’s one road to Road End, exhaust bumping on the deteriorating road surface, then struck out across the bog to the uninhabited west coast with its gleaming bays, raised beaches and rugged coastline.
When my boss visited me from London, he gamely trudged through steep, muddy fields of cows in the rain to watch the light playing on the crashing waves at Lossit bay. In the evening, he took me for a meal in the Port Charlotte Hotel and was astonished that it was just as good – maybe even better – than what you might get in a London restaurant.
Along the way, I tried out the different Islay single malts and was amazed by how they reflected the sensory qualities of the landscape: glints of sun on the water; the sweet medicinal whiff of bog myrtle; the briny lick of a coastal wind. There was something else I liked about them too. As well as escaping the insane vortex of London, I’d come north to get away from a doomed relationship with a hopeless alcoholic. An island with eight distilleries might seem like a strange place to do that. But, I discovered, quaffing a complex Islay single malt is the opposite of boozing. These are one- or two-nip drams that demand to be savoured and then left for the next time.
I’m not from Islay – I am in fact from East Kilbride – but Islay and its wonderful warming drams brought me home. It is an enchanting place of silver sand beeches, flitting westerly light and expansive skies, and its whiskies, which range from light and floral to phenolic and oily, are second to none. They are made with great care and skill by people who carry their knowledge and abilities very lightly indeed.
In 1990 in The Other British Isles, Christopher Somerville wrote: "Islay’s malt distilleries have been in the doldrums since the 1960s." Happily, those days are gone. Islay’s white-harled distilleries, set against the ever-changing colours of the surrounding sea, now thrive, helping the magical island that is etched on their every molecule to thrive too.
Whisky Island by Fiona Rintoul and Konrad Borkowski is published on October 27 by Freight Books, priced £20.