In the shadow of behemoth, historic malt distilleries, small-scale craft distilling is alive and well on Islay. In fact, it’s alive and well within the walls of those historic distilleries, too. It’s a trend some might say started in 2011 when Jim McEwan – Bruichladdich’s longtime, now retired, master distiller – revved up a refurbished Lomond still he called ‘Ugly Betty’ to produce the Botanist, a gin made with locally foraged botanicals. Today, it’s one of the best-selling premium gins on the market. Given the sheer number of gins in the world, one cannot help but think that’s due in no small part to the name recognition of Islay. As the last few years have shown, this Inner Hebrides island’s outsized impact and reputation belies its modest size – just a 15-by-25-mile ancient rock in the stormy Atlantic, just off Scotland’s west coast. A brand in its own right, Islay draws the attention of traditionalists and forward-thinking entrepreneurs alike.
According to data the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) released in February, Scotch exports totaled £4.51 billion in 2021, a growth of 19 per cent over 2020. Volumes increased by 21 per cent to 1.38 billion 70 cl bottles, with drinkers in Latin American and Asia-Pacific nations driving the growth. While this isn’t quite pre-pandemic levels, the numbers show that the world’s thirst for Scotch did not dwindle over lockdowns and travel restrictions. Nonetheless, Mark Kent, chief executive of the SWA, warned that it’s no time for complacency.
Indeed, as the world begins to open up again, Islay producers are not resting on their laurels. Distilleries are ready to meet the certain demand from committed peat enthusiasts ready to return, as evidenced by how quickly hotels and other accommodation sold out for this year’s Fèis, the first in-person festival since 2019. Moreover, the pandemic, with its abundant virtual events, fostered newly curious drinkers who are anxious to make their maiden voyage to the isle.
Islay was not immune to the pandemic’s wallop to tourism. Supply chain snarls were drastic, given the fact that everything arrives by ferry and service was limited early on in the pandemic. Distilleries’ construction projects went on pause. But this small community of just over 3,000 people endured the worst of the past two years by neighbours helping neighbours. There was no shortage of hand sanitiser, of course, and charities that stepped up to help with services (ranging from provision of vocational training and mentoring for young people to emotional support for individuals with health conditions, just to name a few) are being integrated into post-Covid life.
Anyone who’s been to Islay will confirm that it’s the kind of place that even the most rationally minded, unsentimental types describe as ‘magical’, ‘mystical’ or simply ‘overwhelming’. It could be chalked up to the history and tradition that hangs thick in the sea-sprayed air, the dazzling scenery, or the fact that, on entering a distillery, one is crossing the same threshold and often looking at the same equipment that people encountered over a century ago. It’s said that people value religion because of the way rituals and traditions can connect a person to their ancestors and their community – and to the past overall. Something similar happens when wandering through an Islay distillery.
The commitment to – if not obsession with – Islay’s signature peaty single malts is enough to convince industry leaders, entrepreneurs and investors that new distilleries are a very worthwhile bet. Brothers Sukhinder and Rajbir Singh are no strangers to the preferences of drinkers. In 1999, they founded The Whisky Exchange, an offshoot of their parents’ shop in Hanwell, west London. It grew to be the world’s largest online whisky retailer. In 2021, they sold it to Pernod Ricard, owner of Chivas Brothers and the country’s second-largest Scotch whisky distillery owner. The sale allows them now to focus on Elixir Distillers, their independent bottling company, through which they created Port Askaig, a range of limited-edition Islay single malts; Elements of Islay, which encompasses Islay single malts and blends; and Single Malts of Scotland, an independent bottling label.
The brothers’ latest undertaking is construction of a brand-new distillery on Islay, located along the stretch between Port Ellen and Laphroaig. The distillery is yet to be officially christened, but until now it’s been known as Farkin, a name borrowed from a house in the vicinity. They poached Georgie Crawford, longtime distillery manager at Lagavulin and Islay living legend, to oversee the project, which will encompass a malt whisky distillery with a one-million-litre annual capacity; a floor-malting facility, spanning three floors, with the capability to malt 50 tonnes of barley per week; a visitor centre with a shop, bar, restaurant and tasting areas; and an experimental pilot plant for what Crawford teasingly calls "other spirits".
Speaking in February 2022, Crawford provided an update on this project's Covid-delayed progress: ground preparations began in October 2021, and the intention was to have it wrapped up by March 2022 and start construction of the buildings, which will likely take the most part of this year. Early next year comes the equipment, windows and roofs. If all that goes as planned, production will start sometime in autumn 2023.
In a move to address the growing housing shortage on the island, an issue that affects distilleries and other businesses trying to recruit and maintain staff, Elixir is about to produce a separate planning application to build staff housing near the distillery. “It’s so that we can not only attract and retain staff, but in the future, it will be an asset we can use in fostering and growing young local talent who historically wouldn’t come back to Islay after going to the mainland for further education, due to lack of housing,” explained Crawford.
In February, another new application for an Islay distillery – this one called ‘ili’ – was submitted by Alan Higgs Architects. Unlike most of the distilleries on the islands, which have ‘shed’ forms, this one has been designed to replicate the round structure of the famous church in Bowmore, along with the Hebrides’ historic brochs (forts). A funding model based on a community benefit fund has been proposed, with a commitment to contributing to the local community when operational.
These new facilities will join Ardnahoe Distillery as part of what one might call Islay’s ‘new guard’. Ardnahoe’s parent company is the family-run independent bottler and blender Hunter Laing, which is headed up by Stewart Laing and his sons, Andrew and Scott. The distillery follows a well-trodden path, one exemplified by Alexander Walker, the grocer who bought and blended his own whisky, then wanted to own a distillery he sourced from. It opened in 2019 and the team are already prepping for growth. According to Argyll and Bute Council records, their planning application to build additional warehouses was approved in November 2021.
“We did indeed have our third birthday to become single malt but have no plans to release until late 2023, when the whisky reaches five years of age,” said Paul Graham, operations manager at the Ardnahoe visitor centre. “That will depend on if we think it is ready to be bottled.”
The iconic longstanding distilleries around the island are also preparing to accommodate the international demand and tourism’s return. In April 2021, Ardbeg’s stunning new stillhouse came online, complete with a clever heat-recovery system, after three years of pandemic-slowed construction. It doubles the distillery’s annual production capacity to 2.8 million litres. The aim is to produce 2.5 million this year, according to Jackie Thomson, Ardbeg’s visitor centre manager. Getting it started was no small feat – one might even go as far as to call it baptism by fire – for Colin Gordon, former site operations manager at Port Ellen Maltings, who took over the reins from Ardbeg’s longtime distillery manager Micky Heads in October 2020, while everything was under construction. Meanwhile, the visitor centre, long known for its Kiln Café, a local hangout, has been undergoing an upgrade. When it reopens, the eatery will feature bistro-style fare, a counterpoint to the casual eats sold by Ardbeg-themed food trucks often parked on the property, which lent it an outdoor festival vibe last summer. In preparation for tourism’s return, April will bring a reimagined tour and tasting programme.
Laphroaig also recently saw turnover in leadership, as distillery manager John Campbell left his position in November, after 25 years at the site, to start work as production manager at Lochlea Distillery, a family-owned startup in Ayrshire. His successor, Barry MacAffer, is a local Islay lad who has been with Laphroaig since 2011, starting as a maltman and warehouseman and working under Campbell as assistant manager since 2016.
Kilchoman’s outlook is bright, too. In January, the distillery secured £22.5 million in funding, which will be directed at increasing production by an estimated 40 per cent, hiring more staff, and warehouse construction.
In 2019, Diageo announced a £150 million investment in Scotch whisky tourism. The cornerstone of the plan is Johnnie Walker Princes Street, in Edinburgh, which opened last year. The eight-storey attraction features immersive experiences and bars. But some of the company’s other distilleries are getting upgrades, too. Covid stalled the Coal Ila project – a refurbishment of a sprawling waterside warehouse, which is being transformed into a visitor centre with a bar overlooking the water and a new visitor experience – but construction crews are back at work. Foundations and steelwork are also underway at the much-anticipated Port Ellen Distillery and Visitor Centre. Assuming there are no more delays, it’s projected that it’ll be up and running by spring of 2023.
More single malt from Bunnahabhain is on the horizon, too, as distillation moves from five to seven days a week. All the while, parent company Distell International is greening up production. It is nearly finished with a new biomass energy centre, a £6.5 million undertaking designed to make Bunnahabhain the island’s first net-zero distillery and save 3,500 tonnes of carbon annually.
Sustainability will also continue to be Bruichladdich’s primary focus as it looks forward. In 2021, the distillery unveiled the Biodynamic Project. The inaugural release was a 10-year-old single malt, the first in Scotland made from biodynamically grown barley. It’s a fitting endeavour for a certified B Corp, a designation for companies that can show their commitment to their employees, customers, environment and community, as well as how they govern their businesses. It’s also aligned with the distillery’s unwavering efforts to investigate how barley’s terroir impacts flavour. This project, however, has led to findings beyond character.
“What started as a journey to understand flavour ended in a mission to understand soil health, which plays into the environmental crisis, and how soil health can actually do more than trees for the environment,” said Douglas Taylor, CEO of Bruichladdich.
Biodynamic farming is no simple enterprise, but it’s child’s play compared to extracting hydrogen from water for energy. In its mission to decarbonise distillation by 2025, Bruichladdich is seeking alternative fuel sources. All signs point to hydrogen. With funding from the UK government, the distillery has successfully completed a feasibility study for a project dubbed ‘HyLaddie’. It involves installing the remarkably futuristic-sounding ‘dynamic combustion chamber’, which basically electrolyses water, splitting the liquid’s molecules through vacuum combustion. The hydrogen can generate high-temperature steam to fuel distillation equipment without emissions. If all goes as planned, the team will scale up at the distillery. Ultimately, the machinery could be implemented at distilleries around the isle, significantly reducing Islay’s overall environmental impact and once again securing this magical island’s place in whisky history.