The isolated Scottish island of Islay is home to some of the best whiskies in the world. ELISE RANA visited some famous ditilleries to see how important the ‘liquid gold’ is to the locals.

The merchandise for sale at the Bridgend Spar is nothing if not diverse. It may be no bigger than any average local shop, but I struggle to remember the last time I saw porcelain rhinos, organic olives, glitter hairspray and a book on the conservation of desert antelopes on the same shelf anywhere else. A rack of high-velocity rifles looms above the post office counter at the back. Life on Islay, it seems, is a little different.

Of all the far-flung islands off Scotland’s west coast that make up the Hebrides, Islay is something of a success story. Its infrastructure is better than most of its neighbours, the farming fields of its five family estates are fertile, the economy is healthy and small businesses flourish – the local woollen mill may date back to the 1500s, but these days its main customer is Chanel.

Unemployment levels are low among Islay’s 3000 inhabitants, as is crime – the only great misdemeanour of recent years involved two desperate drinkers on Hogmanay who broke into a pub for a bottle of whisky (leaving the correct change on the counter). The island’s true treasure, however, lies in the distinctive whiff of the ground beneath us.

“Without the peat, there wouldn’t be the whisky,” our guide Jeremy tells us as we drive across what is Britain’s largest continuous peat bog. Originally from the Scottish borders, it was Islay’s unique landscape that drew Jeremy to settle here, although not because of the famous single malts it helps create. This is a man whose closest brushes with death (mountain bike crashes, capsized kayaks) have been due to bird-based distraction of the feathered kind, and here he can see more than 70 species in a day. Today, it’s geese as far as the eye can see: barnacles and white-fronts from Greenland, just some of the 60,000-odd that winter here every year. “If there was such a thing as a World Heritage experience, the sight of them all arriving would be one of them,” he sighs.

The World Heritage experience we’ve come for, though, is the one that’s earned Islay the name of Scotland’s ‘Whisky Isle’. Originally sited here in a bid to evade taxation through remoteness, only eight distilleries remain here of the countless (legal and otherwise) that have existed here over the centuries, yet the malts they produce are world-renowned. And it’s all down to the peat.

The pungent smoke of this traditional fossil fuel means that you won’t find it in every kitchen anymore, although families can still cut themselves a yearly share, by hand. “It’s very hard work, so you only take what you need,” says Jeremy. “The only commercial cutting is for whisky.” Although he reassures me that several centuries’ worth of peat remains, its importance is such that environmentalists lobbying against the cutting practice have recently been drummed off the island by the locals.

To find out more about the importance of the brown stuff to Islay’s liquid gold, we’ve come to Bowmore, the oldest whisky distillery on the island. Passing the town’s imposing round church (so as not to give the devil a place to hide, apparently), the circling gulls and pounding surf of the whisky’s logo are both in evidence. Head brewer Eddie MacArthur takes us through a process he’s been overseeing here since 1966.

The olfactory experience begins here with the warm aroma of barley, steeped for three days then spread out here on the malting floor for a further seven. The grains are then heated over a peat-fired kiln, cooled, mixed with yeast, water and then sugar. Eddie lifts the lid on a wooden vat and plunges a mug into the burbling liquid. It looks like Ovaltine, smells like liquorice and tastes like beer.

The peat’s all gone up in smoke and the whisky’s character is taking shape, though it’s at this next stage that it’ll become recognisable not just as an Islay malt, but one from the north. The four shining copper stills are like tall slender bells, a shape that produces a lighter, more floral whisky than the intense, smoky spirits from the short, squat stills of Laphroaig, Ardbeg or Lagavulin in the south (“like chewing peat” is how Eddie describes the latter).

After sampling the ‘new spirit’ straight from the still, we head down to the vaults to crack open a cask of 11-year-old. Dark caramel in colour as Eddie swirls it in the glass to show off the ‘necklace of excellence’ (the beads of air circling the surface that indicate quality), Eddie’s verdict is that it tastes “like a tin of tropical fruit”. When asked when this will be bottled, he tells us it depends on the blender, but agrees that right now seems like a perfectly good option. We’ve supped, savoured and seen the process – and this, usually, is where the whisky tour ends. At our next stop however, a different story is being told.

Since being saved from closure in 2000, Bruichladdich’s had an eventful time. In 2003, a temporary glitch that shut down one of their webcams prompted an email from the US government Defence Threat Reduction Agency, who, it turned out, had been taking a close interest in their suspectly WMD-shaped whisky stills online (“without knowing it, I’d been broadcast live on CNN!” grins shop manager Mary McGregor). The 1984 – Big Brother Is Watching You bottling was followed up last year by a second ‘WMD’ (Whisky of Mass Distinction) special when a submarine found by a local fisherman ended up in a local garden after the Ministry of Defence denied all knowledge of it. The ‘Yellow Submarine’ whisky and T-shirt are now available to buy.
If Bruichladdich are quick to spot a PR opportunity it’s because they have to be. As the only independent distillery on the island, bucking the trend is an uphill struggle.

“The industry is in the hands of just a few big companies that buy up distilleries and mothball them to close down the competition,” says Bruichladdich’s passionate and opinionated CEO Mark Reynier. “They think of distilleries as factories, not as tradition and people and craft. They’re marketing companies selling the ‘monarch of the glen’ image to hide the fact that it’s a computerised system with one guy pressing the buttons. We’re doing the opposite – going back to pre-19th century methods.”

With at least another five years before any whiskies from the ‘new’ Bruichladdich are ready, they’re taking the time to experiment – with among other things, organic barley, quadruple-distillation and aging in European oak wine barrels, which led to a batch of their 20-year-old emerging pink. Despite accusations of producing ‘gay whisky’, the batch sold out. To spread the gospel, they also run courses at their ‘academy’ to create the whisky ambassadors of the future.

“We’re one of the last handmade whiskies. We have webcams everywhere because we want people to see what we’re doing. We’ve nothing to hide.”

Our final Islay dram is an encouraging sign that the independent spirit is contagious. At Rockside Farm, Mark and Rohaise French have set up the island’s first new distillery in more than a hundred years, and the first farm-scale distillery in Scotland for twice that. Kilchoman’s unique boast is that it’s 100% Islay ‘from barley to bottling’.” It’ll depend on the quality, but we aren’t aiming for the casual malt whisky drinker but the collector,” says Mark as he proudly shows us the very first barrels, filled in December last year. “Time will tell.”