What's so special about Islay anyway? - Comment
Islay whisky is booming, says Ian Buxton
The news that Hunter Laing & Co has committed GBP8m (US$11.4m) to move from independent bottler to full-blown distiller by building its own, brand-new distillery on Islay got me thinking: What makes the place so special? After all, it's hardly the only Scottish island with a distillery.
For Jean Donnay, who confirmed to just-drinks that construction of his Gartbreck Distillery near Bowmore will start in April or May, Islay is quite simply "the Mecca of whisky on this planet".
For former Bruichladdich boss Mark Reynier, it's a matter of history and geography - he says distilling flourished thanks to18th Century tax concessions, and the island's climate and topography are relatively favourable. In his view "Islay had barley, peat and water in abundance. And minimal tax."
For Diageo's head of whisky outreach, Nick Morgan, it is "the world's most celebrated whisky-making island" thanks to Islay's famed phenolic single malts. And while acknowledging that "smoky whiskies can be made elsewhere" he goes on to add that "with its vast native reserves of peat, and a sprinkle of magic dust, Islay does it best".
Which is all very well, except it's not so very long ago - at least not in the context of the history of Scotch whisky - that there was a glut of peaty Islay single malts on the market. Take a quick trip in a time machine to the 1980s and you would find the style unfashionable, close to unsellable even.
Blenders only required tiny quantities and the single malt market, such as it was, didn't want to know. As recently as 1989 the late whisky writer Michael Jackson observed of Ardbeg that "it has not operated since 1983 and its future must be in further doubt." I recall visiting the site about then. The buildings were forlorn, desolate and cold, on the verge of dereliction, mouldering slowly in what Jackson captured as "a Gothic mood".
How wrong can you be? Today, Bill Lumsden, director of distilling for Ardbeg's parent company The Glenmorangie Co, tells me that he is in the process of "actually trying to squeeze a wee bit more than 110%" out of the distillery's estimated 1.2m OLA (original litres of alcohol) capacity. And as I can testify from personal experience that if you want to visit the distillery, let alone eat in its popular Kiln Café you had better come early or be prepared for a long wait. Some have even adopted the distillery's logo as a tattoo. Now, that's brand loyalty.
When I asked Lumsden to explain this mystique he suggested "many, many things, not least the fact that it is such a difficult place to produce, given its geographic location. If you are going to produce there, you had better produce something truly special, which the great peaty whiskies of Islay, such as Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig truly are".
Well, yes. But the uncomfortable fact remains that less than 30 years ago you could hardly give the stuff away.
Ardbeg wasn't all but abandoned; other stills turned down and the now-iconic Port Ellen closed on some capricious whim. The commercial reality is that they weren't considered economically viable and their owners saw no future for them. Production was highly restricted, which is why, of course, Islay whisky of any great age is now virtually impossible to find.
But across the island at Bruichladdich - famously revived in 2001 - they were singing the same upbeat song as their rivals. Output will reach 1.3m OLA this year following millions of pounds of investment in new Islay warehousing. Islay warehousing, note, because as the distillery's Carl Reavey explains: "At Bruichladdich we are completely committed to the idea of there being a qualitative connection between the unique character of our spirit and the environment in which it is made and matured." So on Islay it must stay, regardless of cost.
French craft distillers The Celtic Whisky Compagnie, which currently operates Glann ar Mor in Brittany, seeks to revive "the traditional methods of whisky making" at their proposed Gartbreck distillery, near Bowmore. With construction imminent, the goal is "to have the distillery running by spring or summer 2017". Gartbreck will have its two pot stills operating with direct heating from a live flame, which is certainly traditional, and claims the capacity to produce 120,000 litres of new-make spirit annually.
Diageo's Morgan reminded me that back in 1904 Alfred Barnard noted that Lagavulin was "in such demand that the orders exceed the output" and Morgan went on to observe that today, in its 200th anniversary year, "it is currently distilling at full capacity". It's a similar story at Caol Ila, expanded in 2011-12 to increase production capacity to 6.4m OLA. Today,it is Islay's largest distillery.
So a whisky island once on the edge of being forgotten is now booming as never before.
For the moment, it seems that if you build it they will come. For the moment, the sun shines on the Queen of the Hebrides. Make hay, distillers, make hay!
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