The Islay episode. A trip to the Big Smoke.
First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2013 edition).
I share a tradition with a great mate of mine: whenever we see each other the one who’s done the travelling will bring the other a good bottle of whisky. It’s not expected, it’s something that has just evolved, unspoken; it happened one day and has kept happening since. Unfortunately we don’t see each other often – a factor of distance and circumstance – but when we do we tend to sit down over a series of solid drams, partaking of the seamless camaraderie and easy conversation that comes from long acquaintance. I’m describing a synergy, I would think, with which many whisky lovers can identify – whisky and friendship each enhanced by the other. Recently, when I had it in my mind to embark on a whisky pilgrimage, he was the first person I contacted to accompany me.
There are many conceivable places to which one could travel to pay homage at the altar of whisky, but I’ll venture out on a limb in an attempt to narrow the field: the location of most significance, the Mecca, Jerusalem and Rome of whisky, the area on earth more than any other imbued with its very soul, is a waterlogged little island, stranded in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, called Islay. I ascribe this bold, rather categorical assertion to two observations:
Firstly, most obviously, is the voluminous presence of peat – the spongy, semi-decomposed vegetation to which the heritage of malt whisky is inextricably linked. It is at the heart of the lore. In the auld days it was peat which was most prolifically used to arrest the germination of barley and hence produce the malt for whisky. Its contribution went beyond the functional purpose of creating a heat source, stretching into the essence of the whisky itself. The smoky flavour which it imparts came to be a signature if not a defining feature of Scotch whisky. And of all the whisky places in the entire whisky world there is none more synonymous with peat than Islay.
Secondly, less obviously from afar, but quite evident once you arrive, is the dedicated, unwavering, wholehearted, fixated focus on whisky. Notwithstanding the sheep we spotted (and the odd cow), the few crops we were told were being grown somewhere (but of which we saw no signs), and the occasionally lines that are likely cast in the water, there’s not much else happening on Islay other than whisky, whisky and more whisky. I doubt that there’s any other self-contained area in the world that’s more committed to whisky – to the exclusion of everything else – than this curious place, which has fittingly established itself as one of the five official whisky regions of Scotland.
So Islay presents itself convincingly and self-assuredly as a destination of preference for the whisky tourist. Getting there however is another matter entirely; combine the obscure geography with foul weather and you get what can often turn out to be a logistical challenge. Our hideously-expensive, short flight from Glasgow – less than a third of the distance from Durban to Joburg, some three times the cost – was cancelled because of a bank of low-lying clouds prevailing over Islay’s Glenegedale Airport, throwing our plans into disarray. We started frantically evaluating alternative options. Another airline? There are none servicing this route (or any other route into Islay). Renting a car and catching the ferry? There are only three ferries a day and we’d miss the last one. Luckily, by outsprinting the others on the cancelled flight to the customer services counter (with some measure of guilt, many of them being geriatrics), we managed to get ourselves on the next morning’s flight (the only inbound flight on a Saturday). The locals informed us that this was a regular occurrence, ostensibly the reason for the high cost of the flight (the airline probably has to feed and accommodate one in every three passengers). There are thus, seemingly, a few vital qualities required of a potential visitor to Islay – persistence and flexibility. Once there though prepare yourselves to enter an unparalleled whisky wonderland.
Islay is only 40 kilometres long by 24 broad yet it boasts eight distilleries within that small area – or rather, as was pointed out to me by an industry veteran, seven distilleries and a micro-distillery. Short of gerrymandering a similar sized territory in Speyside, this is pretty much as impressive a distillery density as in existence; it takes no longer than an hour to drive from any one to any of the others (unless, like me, you opt for a few unscheduled stops on the side of the road to investigate the boggy peat banks dotting the landscape). They range in scale from Kilchoman, the micro-producer, to Caol Ila, which devotes the bulk of its output to Diageo’s muscular blended whisky portfolio, most notably Johnnie Walker Black Label.
A quick aside at this stage to deal with the issue of pronunciation; Islay’s Celtic heritage is apparent in the names of its distilleries, which can be phonetically baffling to the uninitiated, but lyrical and meaningful once through the door. This is important stuff. You don’t want to be sitting amongst the locals at the White Hart in Port Ellen on a Saturday night butchering their language as you’re calling for a dram. Indeed Islay (eye-la) itself is often botched as “eye-lay” or, most horrifically, “iz-lay”. This cringe-worthy scenario is best avoided – read on. The two distilleries (and whiskies of course) with which people usually have the most difficultly are coincidentally located adjacent to each other: Bunnahabhain (Bon-na-ha-ven), meaning “mouth of the river” and Caol Ila (Ka-lee-la), meaning “Sound of Islay”, the body of water over which it perches. The quest for linguistic purity though is not always straightforward, especially in Scotland. Even within its parent company, there’s no definitive consensus about Bunna’s pronunciation; some enunciate the first syllable as “bun” (as in a pastry), whilst others, including Distillery Manager Andrew Brown, opt for “bon” (as in Jovi). Other pitfalls include the overtly deceptive Bruichladdich (brook-laddie), the more subtly deceptive Bowmore (bo-more), and the confounding Laphroaig (la-froyg), with its close cluster of vowels. The remainder, Lagavulin (la-ga-voo-lin), Ardbeg (ard-beg), and Kilchoman (kil-co-min), roll themselves altogether more easily off an anglicised tongue.
Whilst we were out exploring the Port Ellen nightlife (somewhat limited), and exercising our Gaelic proficiency (somewhat erratic), my mate decided to order an Octomore, famed for being the most highly peated whisky ever produced. As I alluded to earlier peat is central to life on Islay; it has been used by the islanders (Islayanders?) as a source of fuel since time immemorial, and whilst it might be less commonly used for that purpose today we were told that some people still haul out their “fals” (purpose-built peat hewing tools) and cut peat for the sport of it. Peat is in their blood, metaphorically, and in their whisky, literally, although more so in some than others. The peat levels in whisky are measured in parts per million phenols (ppm), and each distillery pegs an approximate point on the phenol scale for the bulk of its production. Ardbeg for instance has a standard peating level of 55ppm, the highest on Islay (and anywhere else), but will occasionally vary it for specific products: Blasda is much lower, Supernova is much higher.
Peat smoke is the most easily identifiable flavour in whisky, which I think is why it resonates with certain people. This is probably a contributing reason for Islay’s iconic status. I remember as a novice feeling a sense of satisfaction (hey, I’m getting this!) from being able to spot a peated malt. The smoky flavour typical to Islay malts is even more distinctly recognisable; it is pungent and intense with medicinal, briny, and iodic overtones, stemming from the seaweed, and other coastal vegetation and material (including shells), from which the peat was compacted, and from its saturation by ocean spray. This flavour sets it apart from other peated whiskies, made using other differentiated sources of peat – Highland, Orkney, Skye and so forth. The Octomore (fifth release), which weighs in at a throat-constricting 169ppm, might be an Islay malt in name, but with its malt sourced from Bairds of Inverness in the Highlands, it doesn’t share the same defining genes as its peated Islay brethren.
Our itinerary kicked off at Bowmore, situated conveniently close the airport – especially given our delayed arrival. Bowmore and Laphroaig, which unfortunately we didn’t get to visit, are in a sense the most complete distilleries on the island, in that they both still do their own maltings, or, rather, a proportion thereof, on site – a practice which has largely died out. The others source malt either from the industrial maltings at Port Ellen, or from the mainland. Now, a cautionary note: distilleries are factories; they’re quaint, they’re old (mostly), and they’re picturesque, but they’re still factories. They may fascinate me personally but I have (just) enough self-awareness to realise that this sentiment is unlikely to be universal. So I’m going to focus on something altogether more consensually exciting – the whiskies! As we meandered our way from distillery to distillery, enjoying the desolate Islay scenery through a steadily increasing perceptual haze, we enjoyed the most awesome of all whisky tasting adventures. The magnificent bar at Bowmore, where we were poured stiff drams of the 15YO Darkest, the 18YO and the 10YO Tempest, gave way to the more rustic surrounds of Bruichladdich. Energetic, experimental, and prolific; this distillery can probably claim the widest range of products on the island – certainly in the past decade. What it lacks in aged stocks (there was no production between 1994 and 2000) it makes up in daring. I was particularly pleased to taste Nostalgia, a limited edition 20YO whisky fast-finished (or aced) in Gaja Barolo casks – and a typical example of the distillery’s style for pre-closure distillations. Our final stop on the first day was Lagavulin, where we were hosted to a tasting in an old style drawing room. One of my favourite Islay malts, the Lagavulin 16YO, was trumped by the Distiller’s Edition (effectively the 16YO turbo-charged by a further three to six months of extra maturation in PX casks), and by the incredible 21YO, a treat of whisky, although somewhat steep at about R4900 equivalent. We settled ourselves into the comfort of the leather armchairs, and, before we knew it, closing time had come and gone. The distillery staff had to pry us loose to eject us from the premises – the whisky was that good.
The treasures didn’t ease up on the next round of visits. Bunnahabhain served up the recently launched 40YO (outstanding!) and some sherry casks of less common variety, Manzanilla and Amontillado amongst them. The distillery is splendidly isolated (even from nearby Caol Ila) on the Northern coast of the island; its casks in dunnage virtually on the water’s edge, greedily inhaling the ocean influence. Finally, we made our way to our last stop, to Ardbeg, to arguably, and I do argue it, the most beautiful and picture-perfect of all Islay’s distilleries. The white-washed walls, the elegant pagodas, and the seemingly-manicured layout of it spoke of a place in which tremendous pride has been invested. In our good fortune we had resided in a superb, newly-renovated cottage on the premises (which is available to guests for rental) during the length of our sojourn, so from ambling around the grounds and soaking up the atmosphere our anticipation had been gradually building. Ardbeg, like Bruichladdich, has gaps in its aged stocks; it was closed from 1981 to 1989, and it only operated on a limited basis between 1989 and 1996. Necessity is the mother of invention and if ever proof was needed then Ardbeg’s portfolio duly provides it. Using relatively young whiskies they’ve created a complex, integrated, unique and increasingly acclaimed range. The Uigeadail, Corryvrecken and Alligator passed our lips – soothed against the cold by Ardbeg infused balm from the cottage – like three prodigies bringing gifts of incense…well, you get the drift.
My intention had been for an epic trip – of fast friends, great whisky, and moments to remember; I wasn’t disappointed. The writer Iain Banks once suggested: “If you can’t find a Bowmore to fall in love with, you may have to consider very seriously the possibility that you’re wasting your money drinking whisky at all”. I think the same philosophy is true of each and every distillery on Islay. May the dram be with you!