Though small in size, the island of Islay (pronounced “EYE-la”), located at the southernmost tip of the Hebrides archipelago, holds its own when it comes to delivering sought after expressions for both peated and non-peated Single Malt Whiskies. This small island, measuring only 620 square kilometres, is home to nine active and very popular distilleries.
A LONG HISTORY
Some historians believe that Islay was where distillation first took place in Scotland, having been imported from Ireland in the 13th century when the Lord of the Isles took the daughter of an Ulster Baron as his wife. Similar lore suggests it was visiting Irish monks who brought and taught the locals to make whisky. Regardless of origin, these early pioneers discovered an abundance of raw materials perfectly suited to their needs: rich peat, good quality water, and barley crops.
Distilling in these early centuries was typically done in sheds or outdoors. In 1707, England and Scotland were merged under the Acts of Union, which led to a rise in taxation for Scottish distillers. The English Malt Tax of 1725 pushed many whisky makers underground so as to avoid paying these high fees – some would brew only at night, leading to whisky’s famous nickname, “moonshine.” Due to its remote location, Islay distillers were better able to elude the tax men than their more centrally situated counterparts. It did not hurt that Islay locals had a reputation as being cantankerous and violent tempered. Even so, distillers worked mainly in remote locations.
By the late 1700s and early 1800s, distilling became a legal activity, leading to the establishment of more permanent distilling setups. These operations were often built on the coast, allowing for easy import of supplies and export of finished product. The first recorded distillery was Bowmore, founded in 1779, which remains active today. The other eight distilleries are Ardbeg, Ardnahoe, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.
Islay is also famous for its “lost” distilleries, a term which refers to distilleries which were closed due to economic, political, or manufacturing problems, such as water shortages. Bottles from lost distilleries are coveted by collectors, owing to their scarcity as much as their mythology. One of the most sought-after is Port Ellen, which was founded in 1825 and shut down in 1983. Collectors view Port Ellen’s products as emblematic of Islay’s style, with strong smoky, turfy flavours. Other closed distilleries include Ardenistiel, Ardmore (not to be confused with the Highland distillery of the same name), Daill, Lochindaal, Lossit, Malt Mill, Mulindry, Newton, Octomore, Scarrabus, and Tallant – if you see any of these bottles at auction, don’t hesitate to bid on these coveted collector’s items!
ISLAY NOW AND INTO THE FUTURE
Interest in Islay is international, with tourists flocking to the island to sample its world-famous drams. Known as “Whisky Island,” Islay plays host to an annual Whisky Festival. Visitors love the proximity of so many world-class distilleries, an immediacy unrivalled by other whisky producing areas. New distilleries are being built as well, with a revival of the Port Ellen Distillery planned for 2024 as part of the Diageo portfolio. It is projected that within a few years, the total number of distilleries on the island will rise from nine to thirteen.
The “typical” Islay whisky expresses dominant notes of smoke, seaweed, brine, carbolic soap, apple, and kippers. The smoky flavours in Islay whisky come from malting the barley over burning peat, which releases chemical compounds known as phenols. These oily compounds within the smoke adhere to the barley, creating that signature peaty, smoky taste. This style is epitomized by the “Kildaton” trio of distillers on Islay’s southeast coast – Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroig – Kildaton referring to the parish in which they are located. That said, not all bottles from Islay are super smoky – Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich on the northern coast typically skip the smoke and make unpeated whisky.
ISLAY AT AUCTION
Waddington’s is pleased to be offering a plethora of Islay whiskies in our February Fine Spirits auction, online from February 27-March 7, 2023. A highlight in this auction is the Bowmore 40 year old, distilled in 1955 and one of only 306 bottles produced. We offer over 30 expressions of Ardbeg (including two 25 year olds), bottles from Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and the very sought after Port Ellen, including a 29 year old and a 31 year old both distilled in 1978.
The auction also includes the very rare 1938 Macallan Handwritten Red Ribbon and the 1965 Clynelish, bottled at cask strength. From the year 1955 we are offering the 40 year old Bowmore, the 40 year old Rare Collection Glenfiddich and Private Vintage Glenfiddich. In addition to the Islay Malt Whiskies, there is also a great selection of Bourbons, including a rare Pappy Vertical, and Cognac.
Please contact us for more information.