Everything seems to slow down on Islay - this southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides - also known as ‘The Queen of the Hebrides'. Drivers wave as you pass them on the narrow roads. It‘s disconcerting at first: how can they ALL know you? Perhaps they think you're someone else - perhaps someone famous! In fact, it's simply what these 3,000+ friendly and open islanders do - wave at each other and, while you're on the island, they wave at you too. You become, temporarily, part of the island's community. And, after a short while, you start to recognise these waving people - sailing on the ferries, working in one of the island's seven distilleries, or farming the land.
Islay's main land use is agriculture, and it connects with the island's distilleries and, of course, the sea. From the pure water flowing through heather and peat bogs, to the locally farmed barleys, malt and botanicals, Islay's islanders work together, often using traditional methods, in creating an environment that is unusually ‘green', community-based and traditional.
Islay's whiskeys are renowned for their character, which has much to do with each distillery's individual copper stills and the peatiness of the malt. Despite the beautiful, rich peat colour of Islay water, it has very little to do with the peat flavour in the whisky.
All the whisky on Islay is brewed using malted barley. The process is basically as follows (and necessarily condensed for this article). Barley is moistened and kept warm, which encourage the grain to grow - followed shortly after by baking. This arrests the process, and the resulting grain will be crunchy and sweet. The ground grain is then combined with hot water to soak out all the sugars. Yeast is added, and fermentation begins. Once it is completed, the liquid is then distilled twice, and the resulting whisky is poured into oak wood casks, to slumber there for the next eight to 40 years.
Michael Heads, distillery manager at Ardbeg, describes the whisky distilling as ‘the ultimate green process.' Ardbeg claims to be the most heavily peated malt in Scotland. The distillery has a stunning location, just 34 miles from the ferry at Port Askaig. Its purifier is the only one on Islay, and the distillery uses traditional earthen floor and wooden rails.
Traditional methods shape the character of Islay distilleries' single malts. Both Bowmore and Kilchoman produce their own floor-malted barley, hand-turned by traditional wooden malt shovel. The barley is soaked in water, and then spread out on a traditional malting floor to germinate. Wooden shovels are used to turn the malt to ensure an even temperature, and to make sure the roots don't tangle up and begin to germinate.
Bowmore's water is drawn from the Laggan River, with its rich peaty overtones, and it's the same Islay peat that fires the malt-drying kiln. Continuing the use of Islay's own material, the 53 bottles of the Bowmore 40 Years Old were sculpted using molten glass and stones collected from the Islay shore. Lagavulin legitimately claims to be one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland; distilling on the site is thought to date from as early as 1742, and by 1875, the distillery was producing 75,000 gallons of powerful whisky with a peat smoke aroma.
Islay supports many rare species and habitats; at Kilchoman (Machir Bay), on the Rhinns, there are fossilised dune systems with a ‘machair' morphology, found only in the north and west of Scotland, and in western Ireland. The small Kilchoman distillery is only five years old, and produces about 18 barrels a week. Being environmentally useful is important here. As John MacLellan, general manager, says: ‘Barley comes from the farm, and effluent from the process goes back to the farm.'
Ugly Betty gin
Bruichladdich, also on the Rhinns, calls itself the only independent Islay distillery, and is proud of being a ‘distillery with attitude'. The distillery had been closed since 1994 when Mark Reynier, the director of Bruichladdich, reopened it in 2001 with the aim of ‘creating a superior whisky that reconnected the spirit to its original roots'.
Bruichladdich sources all ingredients locally, using local spring water and its own bottling plant. As Mr. Reynier says about the distillery process, using organic methods and local grain: ‘This is like farming used to be: a time-honoured cycle that goes back 1,000 years. We're proud of the whisky made from barley grown here on Islay, and we use as much Islay barley as possible.'
And in that vein of independence, and striving to be different, Bruichladdich has produced its first gin, using a still called the Ugly Betty. Distilled exclusively with 21 Islay botanicals, 2,500 cases will be available before the end of 2010. ‘We knew what the base would be, but the unknowns were the effect of the still and the effect of the Islay botanicals. It fits in very much with what we do - authenticity, going back to the pre-industrial days. We're pleased and proud with the community support: it really touched us, the excitement and sense of community.'
Sense of community
That awareness of the importance of Islay's community is also seen at the Laphroaig distillery: ‘There are three main ingredients for making Laphroaig - barley, water, and yeast, but the secret ingredient is the people.' The distillery is proud of its history of ‘uncompromising, tough and determined group of people who work to ensure that this defining whisky has always remained true to its origins.'
And that neighbourliness is also reflected at Bunnahabhain's distillery, out on Islay's north-east coast: ‘Although all seven Islay distilleries produce very different malts, we do have similar machinery. Part of life on an island is a reliance on your neighbour ... at each of the distilleries, you will find sheds with many, many old parts ... you never know when an old spring or cog can be reused in an emergency.'
Future tidal power
Caol Ila opened in 1974 at a cost of £1 million, and yet this modern distillery retains traditional methods of malt whisky production. Craftsmen reproduced six stills from the original design to ensure the distinctive quality, and barley is brought to the island and whisky returned to the mainland by ferry. The seafaring tradition at Caol Ila continues; the Royal National Lifeboat Institution stations a lifeboat at Port Askaig and distillery employees have served as lifeboatmen.
And in that seawater lies another of Islay's steps into an eco-friendly future. Scottish Power Renewables are proposing to develop a demonstration tidal array in the Sound of Islay, with ten 1MW tidal stream generating devices. These will be fully submerged on the seabed just south of Port Askaig. If the demonstration array operates as expected, it will generate around 30GWh per year - enough energy for Islay's homes and the island's distilleries. And recently, researchers took samples of whisky distilling by-products as the basis for producing butanol that can be used as fuel. The demonstration device array manufacture is planned for 2012, with an expected installation date of 2013.
Modern technology and tradition combine harmoniously on Islay; back on the mainland, the magic of Islay's community based environmental uniqueness fades away. The air no longer smells of peat, the pace is faster - and I've got to stop waving at everyone!
Photo credits: all images by Donald Reid
Ffion Llwyd-Jones is a freelance journalist
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