by Shaun Layton | Islay is a dream trip for whisky fans. It’s a small island – the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides (population 3,000+) off the coast of Scotland – about a 30 minute puddle jump from Glasgow. Its main industries are malt whisky, agriculture and tourism. Some people visit for the bird-watching, while others want to tour the Islay Woolen Mill, which dates back to 1833 and still uses huge old machines to make tartans. They remain the Royal Family’s go-to producer and help the wardrobe departments on films (eg. Braveheart).
But when you really come down to it, Islay is about whisky. Full stop. It’s world famous for its deliciously peated brown stuff.
On a recent visit with wingman/friend Keenan Hood (bar manager The Keefer Bar), we were taxied into town by a rather jolly cab driver, an Islay native to the bone. He was my kind of people. Upon discovering we were there to tour the distilleries he graciously pulled out a sample of 35 year old Ardbeg and insisted we all take sips. The generous act was a bit of foreshadowing. Every Scot we met on our trip was equally hospitable.
We stayed at the Bait & Tackle, a cozy little B&B in the small port town of Port Ellen, which is within stumbling distance of such legendary distilleries as Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroig. The B&B’s hostess, Mary, makes the best Scottish breakfast in all the land (black pudding, sausage, stew tomatoes, mushrooms, toast, bacon, eggs, baked beans, hash browns – the full deal). Port Ellen itself is a charming place with an intoxicating smell, a blend of ocean seaspray and burning peat. Unforgettable.
Across the road from the harbour is a simple, unassuming-looking pub – The Ardview Inn – and on this particular Sunday it was loaded with locals singing Scottish drinking songs. The songs stopped as soon as we walked in, however. The chaps in the bar took one look at us and said, “You two are way too posh to be in here. Where you from?” They insisted we join them and they buy the first round when they learned we were Canadian. It was such a cliche moment that I thought it could have been a set up, but alas it was just more of the same genuine hospitality. (If you ever make it to the Ardview and meet a mystical character that goes by the name of “Murphy”, by the man a drink or two and get him to sing.)
On to the whisky. Our tour was focused on Ardbeg, though we were also able to visit Laphroig, Lagavulin, and Bowmore (if you wanted to, you could see all eight distilleries in two or three days). On your way to Ardbeg, cattle and sheep literally rule the roads and hills, so be careful as they cross wherever they please. The distillery sits right on the rocky shoreline. The location might be pretty (and boy, is it ever!), but it’s also crucial for the aging process as the sea air blows into the warehouse where the whisky sleeps.
Upon arrival, we toured the grounds with a keen young guide who loved chatting scotch. Ardbeg was founded in 1815 by John McDougall, but illegal distilling had been going on at the site well before then. By the late 1800’s, the distillery was producing over a million litres of whisky per year. In those days the trade was a lot more labour intensive. For example, over 60 workers were needed in production back then. Now, it’s about 16 people. A lot of this has to do with modern day technology, and the fact that the malting process is now done at Port Ellen by a company that takes care of the malting process for a number of distilleries on the island.
By 1911, Ardbeg was registered as a trademark, and the distillery was again owned by the McDougall family (it had changed hands a few times since opening). It stayed family-owned until 1977 when Canadian company Hiram Walker stepped in. This was not a good direction for the brand as production went way down. Dark days loomed. The distillery was shut until 1987 when Allied Lyons stepped in and purchased the brand. But once again, in 1991, the doors closed and the stills were turned off. There was light at the end of the tunnel, however, as in 1997 the Glenmorangie Co. purchased the brand. This was the Renaissance moment for the prided malt. Within a couple of years the old malting floors were turned into visitor centres and a restaurant (that arguably cooks the best lunch on the island) was opened. The whiskies were winning awards, production was climbing, and malts like the flagship, peat-forward Ardbeg 10 yr and the beauty Uigeadail (named after the lake where the water is sourced) were established.
By 2005, LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton) added The Glenmorangie Co. to its portfolio. The distillery was now back to its glory days hitting highs of over a million litres of whisky, the only difference being that the old malting floors were now the visitor centre. In the last decade, Ardbeg has gained a massive following and their unique releases sell out all over the world every year. If you are lucky enough to go to Islay, be sure to pick up their festival bottle, a yearly release that coincides with the island’s annual whiskey celebration. Every distillery does a special release that is only available for purchase on the island.
Our tour included a walk of the whole distillery. The majority of the malt comes in at a whopping 55 ppm (Phenol parts per million), which is the highest peat content on the island. At the moment, Ardbeg receives over 72 tonnes of malt per week. When it arrives, it’s put through the very rare and traditional Boby mill that lives at the distillery. This turns the malt into grist. The grist will be loaded into a huge mash tun, where water will be added three separate times at different temperatures to maximize sugar extraction. All waste from this process is turned into local cattle feed for some very lucky cows. The wort, as it now is called, will sit in huge wash backs made from Oregon pine, which is the best wood for the fermentation process. After yeast is added the magic process of fermentation begins. It takes over fifty hours. This is longer than most because of the higher than usual ppm. The “beer” is now at about 8% ABV (alcohol by volume). Two distillations follow. The first – through the wash still – condenses the liquid into vapour and then back to liquid state. This goes to the spirit safe where the distiller can monitor the proof and quality of the young spirit, which is now at about 24% ABV. The distillate now travels to the spirit still where the heads and tails (the parts of the distillate that are of low quality and possibly toxic) are cut out and the heart of the second distillation comes off at about 76%. This is reduced in the Intermediate Spirit Receiver to casking strength, which is 62.5%.
That was a distilled version of the process. It’s a lot more complicated, but I don’t want to get too nerdy. We were lucky enough to see the aging warehouses, too, which for me is always the best part of a distillery tour. This is where the magic happens – where the whisky sleeps for a minimum of ten years. It’s so quiet, and the smell of the wood and the young and old malts is just so serenely breathtaking. The initial resting period is done in used bourbon casks (prized for the quality American oak) whose charred interiors add great flavour and texture to the whisky. From there, different impressions of the malt are finished off in different casks with sherry butts and French oak being the most popular choices. After aging, the whisky will be cut with water or bottled and barrel-proof, and the next stop will be your glass. Cheers!
Shaun Layton has helped to maintain a top notch bar scene in Vancouver for ten years, and since day one at Gastown’s L’Abattoir, where he is the Bar Manager. He also runs his own consulting company, designing bar programs and training staff locally and as far away as St.John’s, NFLD. Layton has competed and travelled throughout the USA and Europe, touring distilleries, breweries and bars. He was recognized in 2012 as the Bartender of The Year by Vancouver Magazine.