On the outer edge of Western Europe, off the coast of Scotland lies the island of Islay, home to some of the best whisky in the world. As the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands, Islay is mainly low-lying with the highest point being Beinn Bheiger at 491m. The fertile and rich moorlands with rainy weather, and westerly winds bringing mild air from the Atlantic create the perfect conditions for creating smoky whiskies of excellent quality.
The island doesn’t only boast some of the best drinks, but with perfect climate conditions, the farmers on the island also produce exceptional beef, lamb and game. Not to be outdone, the fishermen are known among the locals for their incredible, top quality seafood with some of the best shellfish Scotland has to offer. So, it is no wonder that tourists flock to the island for a culinary feast of fresh langoustines, hand-dived scallops, as well as home grown oysters. All this food can be washed down with an ale from the local brewery, or for a real treat, a serving of world class whiskey from one of the nine distilleries on Islay.
What makes whiskies from Islay so excellent?
The island of Islay was once known as ‘bere’ due to the barley grown in abundance on the fertile land. With layers of peat, a spongy material formed by the partial decomposition of vegetation, locals have been using it to heat their homes and produce whisky.
With pure, fresh water easily accessible, and peat in no short supply, it is clear the island is well-equipped to produce powerful malt whiskies. Although often creating polarizing opinions on taste, one thing people agree on is that island is rich in history where locals are proud to tell their story and show off their whisky heritage.
The festival and its famous Islay distilleries
Islay’s reputation as the ‘whiskey island’ has grown over the years and is proud to host the world-famous whiskey festival, Fèis Ìle. Having humble beginnings as a charitable organisation 34 years ago, the festival has grown to be world renown as a festival of Malt and Music. Everyone in the whisky world knows that the end of May is a time for celebrating! Not just about Islay whisky, but Scottish culture, music, dancing and much more. It is not uncommon that the population on the island triples during the festivities to accommodate the tourists flocking to the region to have a good time.
As there are nine distilleries on the island, each gets a day of celebration where exclusive releases are announced, distillery tours provided, and whisky tastings arranged. These tastings can be as simple or as decadent as you want, depending on your budget, of course. A tasting could range from receiving goodie bags, sampling some of the finest wares Islay has to offer, enjoying whisky and music pairing sessions, to VIP treatment where one can arrange to meet distillery and malt managers and even get your whisky signed.
And for those not such a fan of whiskey, why not sample the gin from the three local producers, Islay Ales? The festival is sure to delight all who attend as the island offers something for everyone: Tantalizing food, crafts, music, dancing, and boat trips around the bays, to name just a few. And with free busses and shuttles to move around, there is plenty opportunity to experience as much as possible and not miss out.
What is also quite exciting is that no year has exactly the same activities. The Fèis Ìle Committee organise a wide range of their own events, making each year unique to keep tourists coming back for more. Don’t miss out next year as the Fèis Ìle will be held from 28th May – 5th June 2021.
Southern Islay Distilleries
Of the 9 distilleries on Islay, three of them are found on the south coast– Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin – are located next to each other, and are collectively known as the Kildalton Distilleries. Port Ellen used to be part of the group, but unfortunately closed in 1983. The whiskeys found on this part of the island are distinct in flavour and their reputation speaks for themselves: All of the four are ranked as Top 10 of the collectors league table and within the top 10 value market share ranking of Rare Whisky 101’s 2019 full year report. Port Ellen boasts a rank in the top 10 investor distilleries, as it is sought after by connoisseurs, collectors and investors! Not to be outdone, Ardbeg and Laphroaig also feature within the top 20 of this league table.
These distilleries don’t only have titles and awards in common, they all use heavily peated malt and peaty water in every step of whiskey production. Fun fact: Until the 1980s, Ardberg even had its own floor maltings and used to steep the barley in the same water.
Northern Islay Distilleries
On the opposite side of the island, are the northern Islay distilleries: Bruichladdich (the ‘ch’ is silent) and Bunnahabhain (‘Boona-hah-ven’). If the southern whiskeys are too strong on the pallet, then perhaps these will be more appealing as they are much milder in flavor. They still rank high and both distilleries have featured in the top 20 of the collectors league table by Rare Whisky 101’s 2019 full year report.
The creation of unpeated whiskey results in a dynamic flavour of earthy tones with some seaweed, nuts but still with a crisp and dry finish. The water used in the process is drawn directly from the spring, and the light and un-peated barley is used to ensure the earthy and peaty taste is minimized as much as possible.
Bowmore Distillery, founded in 1779, is the oldest distillery on Islay, and among the oldest in Scotland. It is located in the middle of the island on the shore of Loch Indaal. In the 1970s and 1980s, the distillery became known for a more floral whisky, with hints of toffee, and traces of linseed oil. Those who know whisky are sure to know Bowmore as it boasts 3 noteworthy rankings: Top ten investor distilleries, top ten value market share and top 10 collectors ranking.
The largest distillery on the island, Caol Ila, is located close to Bunnahabhain and produces a delicate, greenish malt, with some salt balanced by floral notes and a peppery finish. It ranks 17 in the collectors’ league table.
Ardnahoe Distillery, the 9th distillery, officially opened in 2019 and is Islay’s newest distillery and the first to be built on the island since 2005. Located on the north-east coast of Islay, with picturesque landscapes and view of the sea, Ardnahoe is a family-owned distillery that uses tried and tested methods from generations of whiskey makers. The spirit produced is unique and bold with a honey sweetness that is silky smooth yet with a peaty, almost tobacco smoke notes into the finish.
Although Port Ellen closed in 1983, it is still used by the distilleries on the island for the maltings, according to the specific peat levels for each whisky. Only Bowmore, Laphroaig and Kilchoman have their own malting floors. Fun fact: Port Ellen Distillery will be brought back into production starting 2020! So, another reason to go to the Islay Festival in 2021!
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