More than anything else, Islay, the most southerly island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, is about whisky, and at one point, it was home to as many as 23 distilleries. Though the number is down to nine today, the spirits crafted by the remaining producers are treasured for being among the best in the world. Most feature a peaty smokiness, a legacy of the fuel still used in fires to dry the damp barley from which they are distilled. In addition, hints of salt come from their being made in such close proximity to the sea.
Over the years, Islay whiskies have nurtured the growth of a tourist industry, and today, visitors travel from far and wide for tastings at places with lyrical names such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Bruichladdich.
I began my whisky tour at Laphroaig. Established in 1815, this is the first distillery seen by passengers arriving on the ferry in Port Ellen, its sprawling complex of whitewashed buildings hugging the rocky shores of the Atlantic just east of town.
There, I participated in a tasting that included samples of four whiskies, all of which had been aged in bourbon casks before being “finished” in ones that once held sherry. The first was a Càirdeas Masters Edition, which is made of Laphroaig whiskies ranging in age from 11 to 19 years. There was nothing shy about this offering, and its smokiness reminded me of the peat fires I had smelled at a local farmhouse while playing golf on The Machrie links that morning. Next up was a golden Càirdeas (which is Gaelic for “friendship”), a 15-year-old single malt. I detected hints of honey as I held it in my mouth for a spell. The third sample was right out of a cask — Cask 22, to be exact — and it had been aged for 13 years. At 105% proof, it possessed a pretty good kick, and I loved the scents of the sea and its hints of caramel. Things concluded with a rare 21-year-old single malt; I marveled at its exceptional smoothness, which is what invariably happens as a whisky ages.
My second stop was at Bowmore, the oldest distillery on Islay, founded in 1779. It was the tour of the waterside facilities that really captivated me, especially the malt barns. There, the distillers lay out barley that has first been steeped in vats filled with water from the nearby River Laggan. Intermittently, the workers move the grain around with “malt shovels” in order to control the temperature of the barley — which is generally 3 to 6 inches deep on the stone floor — and the rate of germination. I was able to inspect the kilns that provide the heat to dry the barley once the germination is over and that are fired by the local peat that endows Islay whisky with its distinctively smoky character.
The final stop on my distillery crawl was Bruichladdich, which was founded in 1881. It closed down in 1994, before being reopened seven years later with a new owner and a new energy. The recent whisky releases have been very well-received, especially an un-peated 10-year-old called Laddie Ten.
However, nothing has created a bigger stir in the world of spirits than the runaway success of the Botanist gin, which Bruichladdich now manufactures. it is produced with local spring water and the nine core berries, barks, seeds and peels required for gin, plus 22 botanicals that grow wild on Islay and are foraged by hand. The mixture is distilled for 17 hours in a still called Ugly Betty. First sold in 2011, the Botanist has become something of a cult favorite in Europe and throughout the United States.
I had signed up for the two-hour “Botanist Experience,” during which I learned about the history of gin and the ways in which it has been manufactured through the years, as well as how all the botanicals give the spirit its unique and refreshing taste. Then it was time to drink a couple of gin cocktails. Alas, I had driven myself to the distillery and was sternly warned by my tour guide not to imbibe, due to the seriousness with which Islay police treat driving under the influence. I had to be content with running glasses under my nose. Fortunately, I knew that the bar at The Machrie would be able to provide equivalent cocktails on my return.