Why Islay is still hot property for distillers

Why Islay is still hot property for distillers

Islay has held mythical status among whisky lovers for decades, but even this most traditional and romanticised of whisky heartlands is not immune to the industry’s modern pressures

Regional Focus | 15 Sep 2023 | Issue 193 | By Liza Weisstuch

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The headline on the cover of the 20 May 2023 issue of The Ileach, Islay’s local news source, was captivating in its simplicity, restraint, and grammar: “Fourteen?” Anyone reading these pages knows that that number can only relate to one thing. The thing that makes the 25-by-15-mile, peat-scented ancient rock world renowned today: whisky. 

 

The story goes on to detail how plans for a distillery at Gartbreck farmhouse, which fell through in 2017, look to be back onboard, which would bring Islay’s distillery count to 14. And why wouldn’t new producers want to be in on the single malt game? Distilleries reported strong sales throughout the pandemic, showing that it’s the kind of spirit that provides drinkers a comfort. As any smoky Scotch enthusiast can attest, a sip – or sometimes merely a sniff – transports them to the wind-pummelled shores, as powerful in its emotional pull as it is in its smoky wallop. But there’s a lot of people power, resources, energy, strategy, muscle, art and, of course, time that goes into getting each bottle into shops, bars, and homes around the planet. 

 

There are a lot of challenges, too. In addition to the trials that distillers throughout the United Kingdom, and the world, have had to confront, such as the disruption in grain access due to the war in Ukraine and various tariff issues, there are problems that are unique to whisky makers on a relatively remote island. The ferries to and from the mainland have been notoriously unreliable over the past few seasons. Limited service, a result of breakdowns of an ageing fleet of boats, has interfered with transportation of raw materials, distilling equipment, barrels, and more. (And that’s to say nothing of the daily aggravation it causes island residents and tourists.)

 

Nonetheless, whisky’s footprint on Islay is deepening. As construction continues on new distilleries, centuries-old operations expand to quench the unflagging thirst of customers and release exclusive and very old bottlings for the countless folks more than willing to shell out serious cash for that transportive moment. 

Inside the Ardbeg Distillery on Islay. Credit: Ardbeg

In response to the ceaseless demand for Islay single malts, distilleries have been adding equipment and kicking up production in recent years. All signs indicate there’s no slowing down, despite the bevy of challenges.

 

Bowmore has installed additional wooden washbacks to provide the capacity for a minimum 70-hour fermentation time. According to David Turner, distillery manager of the 244-year-old facility, the team is currently investigating installation of a closed-loop cooling system to minimise its water footprint and conserve water resources on Islay.

 

Laphroaig, which turns a sprightly 208 years old in 2023, is projected to turn out 3.3 million litres of alcohol by year’s end. In March, construction of two new washbacks was completed. The equipment will enable distillery manager Barry MacAffer and his team to extend the fermentation length from 53 hours to 72 hours. They also installed a new first-of-its-kind heat economiser, which has been fitted to the boiler chimney and will help Laphroaig lower its carbon footprint.

 

Ardnahoe Distillery, owned by Scotch blender and bottler Hunter Laing & Co., started production in April 2019, making it the island’s youngest fully operational facility. New make has been flowing off the stills at a steady clip and the launch of its single malt, which clocks in at a phenol level of 40ppm, is in the diary for spring 2024. But enough barrels are being filled to necessitate new accommodations for growth. Three warehouses are under construction on the bucolic property. They’ll each have capacity for 12,000 casks and should be operational by October or November, says visitor centre operations manager Paul Graham. Nonetheless, the distillery does a brisk tourism business, welcoming guests to its on-site restaurant not only for meals and snacks, but for special pairing events. Those who come for a distillery experience can try Scarabus, a single malt made by an undisclosed Islay distillery to mark Ardnahoe’s opening, and taste the house whisky as it ages.

 

There’s also been a fair bit of construction lately at Kilchoman Distillery. “We’re moving ahead faster than we thought. We want to have enough to share around the world,” said Anthony Willis, founder and managing director. “It’s always been the case in the Scotch industry that there’s peaks and troughs. Single malt Scotch did well during the pandemic and we’re investing back into the distillery.”

 

It’s hardly the first major investment at the 18-year-old distillery. In 2020, it opened an expanded visitor centre with a vast tasting room alongside the café, a popular destination among tourists and locals alike. The year before that, Kilchoman doubled production from 300,000 litres to more than 600,000 by adding another set of stills and a mash tun, as well as seven fermentation vats. Willis said plans for the near term include another two sets of stills, a bigger mash tun, and bigger fermenters, ultimately doubling production again to 1.2 million litres by sometime in 2024. 

Kilchoman Loch Gorm. Credit: Kilchoman

Bruichladdich Distillery’s steadfast commitment to conceiving, distilling, maturing, and bottling everything on Islay lends itself to a perpetual need for new additions. According to Allan Logan, the distillery’s production director, there is a programme to build new maturation warehouses to increase on-site capacity for ageing. To accommodate increased production of malts and The Botanist, Bruichladdich’s gin, designs are underway for a new bottling facility.

 

“This Islay-centric approach keeps as much of the process – and in turn jobs – on the island, supporting the local community,” Logan wrote in an email. “An on-site maltings is the final piece of this ‘all-Islay’ operation, which is in the pipeline for the future.”

 

No update on Bruichladdich would be complete without mentioning the team’s research on Islay barley. In 2018, the distillery purchased Shore House Croft, a 30-acre parcel that will play a crucial role in crop research, grain development, soil health, regenerative agriculture, and crop rotation. “It’s the opportunity for us to test and learn on Islay, and share knowledge, best practice, and learnings with our farming partners,” Logan wrote.

 

As far as the elephant in the proverbial room goes, details surrounding the long-awaited resurrection of Port Ellen are hazy, aside from the opening being projected for next year. In addition to the stills being built to the same size specifications as the original, the distillery will include two experimental stills of the very same design, just one-third of the size. 

 

Be their guest

 

The ferries have caused headaches galore, but once visitors arrive on Islay, they are richly rewarded with visitor experiences that go beyond touring the stillhouse and tasting drams. In 2022, Caol Ila opened its new visitor experience, making it the seventh of Diageo’s whisky brand homes to be re-imagined as part of the company’s £185 million investment in whisky tourism. It includes a modern retail space and a bar featuring floor-to-ceiling windows that provide breathtaking views of the Paps of Jura.

 

“It truly is a unique experience with immersive storytelling rooms that bring to life Caol Ila’s history, and the origins of Scotch whisky and of Islay’s place as the island where ‘the water of life’ began to flow,” explained Ewan Gunn, global brand ambassador for Diageo Scotch Whisky.

 

Bowmore is rolling out the red carpet for guests this year as the distillery prepares to unveil an exclusive Bowmore Aston Martin DBX Experience to celebrate its collaboration with the luxury carmaker. High-rolling visitors will hop into the passenger seat of an Islay-inspired Aston Martin DBX, one of 18 of the SUVs produced, and get a personal tour of the island with a Bowmore host at the wheel. It includes lunch, an in-depth distillery tour, a warehouse tasting in the legendary No.1 Vaults, and the opportunity to hand-fill an extremely rare and exclusive Bowmore single malt straight from the cask. 

Caol Ila whiskies in the distillery's new tasting room, overlooking the Paps of Jura. Credit: Diageo

The race to sustainability

 

Disruptions in supply chains and the effects of climate change have prompted distilleries to shuffle priorities, fast, and put sustainability at the fore. Greening a 200-plus-year-old whisky-making operation is no easy feat. Resourcefulness and creativity are as crucial to the effort as engineering.

 

“Sustainability continues to be a primary focus for us, we are more focused on the sustainability of peat and how it can be managed responsibly and be able to be a sustainable source for the whisky industry now and in the future,” Bruichladdich’s Logan wrote. He points to the launch of the distillery's Regeneration Project, the first whisky made primarily with Islay-grown rye, as “testament to the power that whisky can have when it comes to making a positive impact”.

 

Bruichladdich’s sustainability strategy is a comprehensive programme of four ‘pillars’: energy and emissions, agriculture and biodiversity, packaging and waste, and Islay and community. On the energy front, the team are zeroing in on ways to reduce their carbon footprint. With a goal of decarbonising production by 2025, they’re starting to work with biofuels, greener alternatives to the fuel they currently use to power distillation. There’s also feasibility research on how green hydrogen could be an energy source in the future.

 

At Ardnahoe, according to Graham, there’s talk of hydrogen energy as well as projects involving the current that runs across the tidal floor between Islay and Jura. Questions are also being asked about whether the distillery could tap the wind turbine array northwest of Islay. In other words, there’s no shortage of inventive opportunities.

 

Discussions are underway at Ardbeg in this realm as well. “We are looking at a lot of stuff, biomass boilers, electric boilers, [and] we are cutting down on water usage with [the] hot water system in [the] stillhouse,” Jackie Thomson, visitor centre manager at Ardbeg, wrote in an email. “We’re fitting a chiller in [the] mash house to use less cooling water in the summer. We are fitting a pre-heat system for pre-heating the mash returns using the hot water system making it more efficient and also reducing the amount of diesel
we burn.”

Bowmore Distillery. Credit: Beam Suntory

Newer distilleries have the advantage of integrating sustainability measures at the get-go. At the recently christened Portintruan, Elixir Distillers’ under-construction facility just outside Port Ellen, vessels, stills, and mash tuns are expected to be installed by the end of summer. The anticipated completion date is end of 2024, and the distillery will ultimately be producing four different products of varying phenol levels, grains, yeast, and fermentation and distilling times. News of exactly what they are is a while off, as each has to be commissioned first. But the exciting bit to report now is how far Elixir is going to design the distillery with sustainability in mind. 

 

“The two main areas for sustainability are water consumption and energy consumption,” said distillery manager Georgie Crawford, who formerly worked at Lagavulin. She explained that with the heating/cooling loop being constructed at Portintruan, hot water produced in the condensers will be used in the maltings to power the kiln that dries the barley. Once cooled, the water then moves back to the stillhouse.

 

“The system ensures the maximum amount of water is recycled and reused. The water keeps travelling around, none of it drains, it’s being reused,” she explained. “The only time we’ll take water from environment is what goes from mash tun into washback. Water in the system will go between the stillhouse and maltings.” Biodiesel will be used to power the direct-fire stills.

 

Lagavulin’s sustainability efforts are directed at protecting local wildlife, said Gunn at Diageo. It includes the installation of beehives and bird, hedgehog, and bug boxes. The distillery is also leading the preservation of peatlands through a partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which is working to restore and conserve almost 700 acres of peat bog on the island. Caol Ila’s efforts are more on the operational side: the distillery utilises an innovative sea water cooling system in its distillation process to conserve fresh water resources.

Blending samples at Bruichladdich Distillery. Credit: Remy Cointreau

New and collaborative

 

Now that we know how the distilleries are running their operations, what are they sending off from the island to our local stores and bars? The answer, in short, is plenty.

 

Islay’s mystique has a gravitational pull on creative types of all stripes, so various notables have been collaborating with historic brands to create something new, interesting, and often personal. Consider Lagavulin’s wildly successful series developed with actor and comedian Nick Offerman, who’s said to have been a Lagavulin drinker since his days on NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation. The third edition was introduced last fall.

 

In June, Laphroaig released the Francis Mallmann Limited Edition Scotch with the acclaimed Argentine chef and author (it’s expected to arrive in the US in September).

 

“The 17-year-old spirit, finished in a white Madeira cask, embodies the unmistakable signature smokiness of Laphroaig with the evocative aromas and flavours of Mallmann’s elemental cooking style,” said MacAffer. “The expression truly brings the essence of our trailblazing partnership with Francis to life. The packaging also features hand-drawn sketches by Francis from his time on Islay, inspired by the cold-smoking process that makes our whisky like no other.”

 

Bowmore’s releases have high-flying moon-shot sensibilities. The latest offering of the Frank Quietly series, released in October, is a collaboration between the graphic artist and now-retired master blender Ron Welsh featuring 22- and 33-year-old malts. But that’s young compared to the distillery’s collaborations with Aston Martin, which include the 2022 ARC-52, a 52-year-old wonder in an aerodynamic decanter conceived by the car company’s designers. 

 

Bruichladdich is pressing on with some experimental offerings, including through the Bruichladdich Project Series, a collection of small-batch experiments which allow head distiller Adam Hannett to really push the boundaries of whisky making. Joining The Ternary Project and The Biodynamic Project is the latest release, The Regeneration Project, launched in March 2023. Made with Islay-grown rye, it’s heavy on inventiveness and flavour and light on impact. Bruichladdich’s partners on it? Celebrities in their own rights – the local farmers.

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