Islay is one of five whisky distilling localities and regions in Scotland whose identity is protected by law. There are eight active distilleries and the industry is the island’s second largest employer after agriculture. Islay used to be home to up to 23 distilleries at one time and even though they only have a fraction of their former glory, Islay still remains famous for it’s delicious whisky. One of the main reasons is the conditions and weather remain consistent during the year ranging from 35-60 degrees F and doesn’t get that much ice or snow. The malts get open-air fermented and the consistent weather is important so the malts don’t spoil so it makes for an ideal location. Also, peat is produced on the island for the famous smokey flavor that a bunch of the distilleries add to their whiskies. The wet but not freezing conditions makes the bog or moore conditions perfect for producing the decayed vegetation or “peat” burned to create the peat smoke. Peat is mostly composed of a particular moss but also include shrubs and other plants wet-fermented and packed tightly.
We had planned on going to 5 of the now 8 distilleries on Islay and were able to visit 6 missing the Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila distilleries. The first stop of the day was Bruichladdich and it was quite possibly my favorite of all the visits that day. Bruichladdich is Gaelic for “stony shore bank” or “rocky lee shore” which refers to the rocky shoreline right outside of the distillery. Bruichladdich was opened in 1881 and almost closed in 1994,was renovated in 2001, bottling line added in 2003, and was just purchased in 2012 for the sum of 58 million pounds. Bruichladdich is one of the only distilleries on Islay who does their bottling on-site and offers other spirits like Gin. They also offer one of the most heavily peated whiskies on the island.
First, I love their marketing and design of their labels. We were greeted by their still and barrel sign in the front and the cleverness won me over. Second, they have amazing free wifi. I know, who cares about that when I should be drinking whisky, right? I wanted to instagram what we were drinking and also consult my whisky expert friend on what I have to try on Islay according to him and he influenced us to make a stop at Kilchoman on the way from Bruichladdich to Bowmore thus making our tour increase to 6. Thirdly, they gave us amazing tasters of whisky. We had at least 5 tasters and they would’ve kept pouring if we didn’t decline because we had to get moving and I couldn’t handle much more…and it was 10:30am! In hindsight, this would have been the perfect location to end our tour because they had the best selection of tasters and a seriously adorable tasting room that was cozy and comfortable. We opted to buy the smaller bottles from each place and I also splurged on a wooden Bruichladdich pen that I love so much. Also, the 21 year Bruichladdich aged in French Oak Barrels was amazeballs. I am so pissed at myself for not buying it!
Next was Kilchoman and it was only 5 minutes down the road from Bruichladdich. Some green hills and cows later, we arrived to what appeared to be a working farm and followed the signs to the tasting room. It was pretty genius, a farm/distillery that could produce farm-fresh food for a cafe and whisky at the same time. Kilchoman is the newest distillery to the Islay scene, they opened in 2005 and is the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years. They are one of the few distilleries that follow the traditional floor-germinating of the barley or malt. They are young but are making very promising whisky and it will be interesting to see how their flavor develops over time. We didn’t have any tasters while we were there, we only grabbed a few small bottles and got back on the road. I did try their standard offering and their 2009 Autumn release at dinner and the Autumn release was wonderful.
After Kilchoman we went to Bowmore which is possibly the most famous of Islay whisky distilleries. Bowmore is the oldest legal distillery on Islay, established in 1779 and is owned by the Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd who also owns Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch distilleries. Visiting the Bowmore distillery you can tell it’s very popular and well operated. They offer bottles of Bowmore, Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch in the shop for purchase and we took advantage and got a little bottle of each. I have to say, the Auchentoshan Three Wood and 12 year Glen Garioch were at the top of my list of all the tasters we brought home from Islay. The tasting room had a great view of the harbor and really interesting old bottles from the distilleries’ past. We had a quick taster and was on our way for lunch and more whisky!
The B&B owners told us that Ardbeg is known to to be a great spot for lunch so we took their advice and went there next. We both had the potato leek soup and sandwiches and it was damn good! Ardbeg started producing whisky in 1798 and the name in Gaelic means “little height.” It’s well known for having heavily peated whisky and I can say first hand that it’s pretty damn peaty. We enjoyed our lunch and took a few pics and were off to the next stop, Lagavulin.
Lagavulin had a small shop and when we inquired about a taster we were escorted to a “study” type room where we could sit and quietly drink a dram of the 12 and 16 year whisky. It was a lovely getaway from the whirlwind pace of the trip, a timeout, a breath of musty air and Ron Swanson’s mustache. Another group of three tourists were already there, quietly chatting in another language so we followed suit and maintained a conversation at the level of whisper. Lagavulin’s name means “hollow by the mill” which makes a bit of sense since it’s close to the Port Ellen Maltings. It was opened legally in 1816 but there are documents to show them in business illegally as early as 1742. Once thing we wanted to do was to take photos of the white Lagavulin sign painted on the outside of the building and we were told that we couldn’t walk through the distillery to do that but we could drive up a little ways and hike down to the water for photos…so we did just that. There was some ruins there as well as a wonderful view of the distillery and it was a really memorable moment.
The last stop of the day was Laphroaig and we arrived at the perfect time to add our names to the list for the last tour spot of the day. Laphroaig opened in 1816 and is reportedly the Prince of Whales’ favorite whisky. While waiting for the tour to start, we enjoyed tasters of wonderful whisky. Sean had the three wood and I had the 18 year. The tour was really fun, we got to see the floor germinating of the barley and the peat smoker and the big stills. We got to taste some of the wort from the wash tanks and it tasted like a really sweet beer wort and I was thinking: “Why don’t they just add hops and make a Laphroaig beer?” We also got to stick a finger in a barrel bunghole and try some of the aging whisky…and it was delicious. I love the barrel aging section where it looked like the barrels were in jail and also very haunted. Wouldn’t want to have to venture inside there at night or by myself. We ended the tour by getting tasters of the cask strength 10 year and they gave the DD’s a little bottle to take home. It was a beautiful tour and really fun. It was cool to see the floor germinating by adding water and rotating the barley to get them to open instead of milling them. It must impart some awesome complexity to the malt that wouldn’t happen otherwise. I wish they made beers this way!
The day came to an end and it was such a fun visit. I couldn’t believe all the tasters were free, especially since I am accustomed to paying for beer tasters and this was whisky! Thankfully all the little bottles made it home safe and my favorites were: 21 year Bruichladdich aged in French Oak Barrels, Auchentoshan Three Wood, 12 year Glen Garioch, and the 16 year Lagavulin. I wish I had brought home more! I hope we can come back for our 5 or 10 year wedding anniversary and experience it all over again.