The 2018 Legendary Islay Tasting

Aptly it was on St Andrews day, 30th November, that we held our 2018 legendary Islay Tasting.  I always find there is so much to say about Islay, its whisky, its history, that I don’t know how to start – So here goes:

There is no drink that so epitomizes a place, and its people as Islay whisky. This island, at the southern edge of the Hebrides has a landscape and people who are uncompromising. They can be harsh, rough, challenging, and incredibly beautiful, just like the whisky. It has a population of around 3200 people (less than Bakewell’s 4000), it has 130 miles of coast line, but mainly it is home to 8  of the world’s finest whisky distilleries.

And that’s not all, the Hunter Laing family have a new distillery at Ardnahoe which is not quite operating yet, I checked earlier this week. Diageo has recently announced they are to reopen Port Ellen Distillery, also there is Gartbreck Distillery, a small project run by Jean & Martine Donney a French couple, which is progressing very slowly.

The Line UpIf you talk to a whisky expert anywhere in the World and ask them to name their top 5 distilleries, I guarantee 1 will be on Islay.

People have lived on lslay since Mesolithic Times around 7500 BC., however Islay was first mentioned in the Biography of Saint Columba who stopped off on his way to Iona, around 720 AD. Distilling was certainly well established by 1703 when the writer Martin Martin – in Gaelic Màrtainn MacGilleMhàrtainn – wrote about distilling in his book “ A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland”. He wrote about Usquibaugh Baul – perilous whisky – 4 times distilled very strong and could kill you. Also, The Reverend Archibald Robertson in his Parish report of 1793 for his Parish of Kildalton wrote This island hath a liberty of brewing whisky, without being under the necessity of paying the usual excise duty to government. Strangely he meant this as a bad thing.

The Campbell lairds very important in the development of whisky as a viable business on Islay.

The Campbells were always considered the kings men and because of this Islay and Jura were exempt from the Scottish Board of Excise until 1797, the levies being collected by the Laird. However, this was not the only influence on distilling that the Clan had.

Islay was purchased in 1726 by Great Daniel Campbell of Shawfield who changed the agricultural system of the island from one of mainly raising cattle on common pasture to one of larger farms and fewer tenants, thus the need for greater diversity of jobs, and services which included distilling, an art already well established on the Island.

Great Daniel died in 1753 and the estate passed to his Grandson Daniel the Younger on his coming of age five years later, he continued his Grandfathers progressive lairdship, the most important development for us was his encouragement of the planting of Two-rowed barley, which in turn encouraged Distilling, Oh he also founded the town of Bowmore in the late 1760’s.

GuestsDaniel the younger died in 1777 at the age of 40 and the estate passed to his younger brother Walter Campbell, upon his death in 1816 it passed to his grandson Walter Fredrick Campbell, these two Lairds continued the reforms started by their ancestors.

In common with his contemporise on the main land Walter Fredrick encouraged tenants to move off the land; to this end he founded three of the larger villages on Islay.

Port Ellen – founded 1821 – named after his first wife Eleanor

Port Charlotte – founded 1828 – named after his mother

Port Wemyss – founded 1833 – named after Eleanor’s father the 8th Earl of Wemyss.

Young Walter encouraged other industries within these villages including, fishing, flax making and of course distilling. During this time the whisky industry was prospering, its success on Islay was partially down to the Campbells reforms and influence, unfortunately these same reforms took its toll on the Campbells finances and Walter was eventually forced to sell his estates in 1853

During the 19th and 20th centuries the distilleries benefited from the great rise in Blending, you didn’t need much Islay whisky to make a big impression on a blend.

Since the 1980’s there has been more emphasis on single malts – initially the industry thought that the challenging Islay whiskies would be too much for a broader audience, but Ian Hunter was selling Laphroaig as a Single Malt in the early 20th century. We know now just how wrong the industry can be.

Onto the nights offering:



Bunnahabhain 11 y/o – Discovery – 43%

  • This is the lighter side of Islay whisky, not heavily peated still very warming.
  • Founded in 1881, has a capacity of 2.7m litres a year, in 2017 they were looking to produce 2m litres.
  • Today it is part of Burn Stewart which is owned by South African company Distil who own Amarula Cream & Three Ships Distillery.
  • They are at the moment undergoing a long-needed refurbishment, with new warehousing, closer to the waters edge, and a new visitors centre due to open Spring 2019.  Not too bad because 10 years ago it looked like it might close. I think I may need to go and inspect this work, on your behalf.
  • This bottling is from Gordan and MacPhail and it’s all sherry cask matured so rich fruity. Very apt for this distillery built at the height of the popularity when whisky and soda was drunk in gentlemen’s clubs all over the empire.


Bowmore – 12 y/o – 40%

  • Daniel Campbell the younger founded the town of Bowmore in the late 1760’s around the famous round church, built to encourage people off the land. To this end Daniel got David Simpson to build a new distillery on Shore Street in 1779.
  • Today the distillery is part of Beam-Suntory, during 2017 they lost their Master Distiller Rachel Barrie. The new guy is Ron Welsh, been with Allied Domecq, and then Beam since 1992, I have met him and he was the man behind Laphroaig Quarter Cask (and Ardmore’s use of Quarter Cask)
  • This is their core expression 12 y/o.  Not as heavily peated as some of the other Islay whiskies, they use both ex-bourbon American oak casks and ex-sherry European Oak casks. So a well balanced malt.


Kilchoman Sanaig – 46%

  • Founded in 2005 at Rockside Farm. Owned by the Wills family – is a farm sized distillery at present, but they are expanding.
  • They have already opened a new malting floor and kiln, so they can now malt up to 30% of their malt requirement.
  • Work is due to start around now on a second distillery unit at Kilchoman, which will be the same as the current distillery, and will double output to 2.4m litres a year.
  • They also have plans for 5 new warehouses.
  • They are the only distillery on Islay that does all the process on site – grow the barley to bottling.
  • This expression is the Sanaig – named after a beach on the Rinns. It has a lot of sherry cask influence – so rich and dried fruits.


Port Charlotte 10 y/o – 50%

  • From Bruichladdich Distillery this is their Heavily Peated expression.
  • This 10 year old was introduced earlier this year,
  • Bruichladdich was originally founded in 1881 – out of concreate blocks.
  • I remember back in 2002 when the distillery was just being reopened Jim McEwan told Alison and I about his idea to make Heavily Peated whisky at Bruichladdich. I can’t believe that was 16 years ago.
  • Today the distillery is owned by Remy Cointreau. Remy has recently brought a couple of other whisky distillers, the French Domaine des Hautes Glaces, and Westland Distillers in Seattle. Simon Coughlin, who was one of the consortium leaders who put Laddy back into production in 2001 now heads up all Remy’s whisky businesses.
  • They still style themselves as Progressive Hebridean Distillers. This year they have been using some Islay grown Rye along with malted barley.
  • Make a big thing about always using Scottish Barley, or Islay barley.
  • This expression is just what Jim told us it would be – big peaty strong – 50% abv.


Caol Ila

  • Founded in 1846, was demolished and rebuilt 1972 – 1974, and was further upgraded in 2011. Capacity of 6.5 m ltrs.
  • It was first brought by The DCL , now called Diageo, in 1927, along with Lagavulin. Caol Ila supplies the Islay filling for all Diageo blends including Johnnie Walker and Bells.
  • Last week they put in plans to council for a new visitors centre.
  • Caol Ila is not even put into casks at the distillery, it is tankered off the island for filling into casks and maturation.
  • As it’s used extensively in blending, and thus traded with others it is often used for independent bottlings of Islay malts.

Big Strand – 46%

  • This bottling is an independent Islay malt from Morrison & Mackay.
  • Big Strand is a lovely long beach near the Machrie Golf Course and Airport.
  • This is a young whisky, but then a good peaty whisky does not have to be that old. Lots of zesty smoky flavours. Very fresh.

 Happy Guests

Laphroaig Quarter Cask – 48%

  • Founded in 1815 by Brothers Alexander and Donald Johnston.
  • Donald died in 1847, when he fell into a boiling kettle of pot ale. His son Dougal took over. He passed it on to a cousin Alexander. In 1907, on the death of Alexander ownership passed to his sisters Cathline Johnston and Isabella Hunter.
  • Isabella’s son Ian Hunter took over the day to day running, and eventually the ownership of the distillery.
  • Now strange as it may seem today there was a time when Peaty whisky was not very popular, only being used for giving a blend a big umph. Ian Hunter, and the owners and managers who followed, Bessie Williamson and Ian Henderson did a great deal to change that and were instrumental in making peaty whisky as popular as it is today.
  • This bottling, the whisky is matured in ex-bourbon casks for about five years and then transferred into casks which are a quarter of the size of a normal Hogshead.
  • The whisky sees more of the wood so rounds off quickly. Also 48% abv and unchilfiltered.


Lagavulin 16 – 43%

  • Founded in 1816 by John Johnson but there has been brewing and most likely distilling around Lagavulin bay since the middle ages. Dunyvaig Castle next door to the distillery was an important stronghold and naval base for The Lords of the Isles.
  • The distillery was from the 1860’s owned by the Mackie family. Mackie’s blend was the very successful White Horse Blend. White Horse Distillers, including the distillery became part of the Distillers company in 1927.
  • Big news this year is the distillery manager Georgie Crawford has left, but don’t worry she is heading up the project to rebuild Port Ellen Distillery. New manager is Colin Gordon – previously manager at the Port Ellen Maltings.
  • Lagavulin is a big peaty earthy rich complex dram. They fill the stills to 95% capacity which is really full – they also have very tight bend on the lyne arm – so there is a less copper contact so a heavier – richer more complex peatier oiler spirit.
  • They use predominantly re-fill Oloroso sherry casks, gives a rich fruity complex dram.



Ardbeg Grooves – 46%

  • Ardbeg was founded in 1815, has a capacity of 1.4m litres.
  • Closed by the then owners in 1983, was run for a few months each year from 1990 – 1996. Sold to the Glenmorangie Company in 1997 – back into production 1998. Moet Hennessy brought the whole company in 2004 for £300m.
  • At the moment they are building a new still house which will hold 4 stills. The old still house will be used for 6 new washbacks. This will double production to 2.4m litres.
  • All should be finished by this time next year.
  • This bottling is the Grooves released for Ardbeg Day at the Islay Festival this year. Uses heavily charred casks which look like they are grooved.

 In full flow

Another story about Islay – in May 1859 the Ship Mary Ann was out of Glasgow to New Brunswick (Canada) when it was wrecked in Kilchoman on the west coast of Islay. 200 cases of whisky and at least 6 Puncheons – big casks – came ashore. Hundreds of islanders came to the beach to drink the whisky rather than take it away 2 Police Officers came to try to restore order but were chased off by a mob of 40 people and had to lock themselves in a nearby farm. After 4 days of binging, 3 men were dead including Donald MacPhayden who was reputed to be the strongest man on Islay.