Celebrating the Isle of Islay

Every year we host a tasting in which we celebrate the magical isle of Islay.  So to this end around 70 of us gathered at The Rutland Arms Hotel, Bakewell on Friday 28th November 2014.

First FlightThe Isle of Islay lies at the southern end of the Hebrides, it has a population of around 3500 people (less than Bakewell’s 4700), it has 130 miles of coast line, but mainly it is home to 8 of the world’s finest whisky distilleries. Yes 8. If 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.

Islay was first mentioned in the Biography of Saint Columba who stopped off on his way to Iona, around 720 AD. However there have been inhabitants on Islay since Mesolithic Times around 7500 BC.

There are a lot of legends about when whisky was first made on Islay – could have been St Columba and his followers, another popular theory, well on Islay at least, is that when Angus Og MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, married Aine O’Cathain a lady of good family in Antrim. She moved to Islay with an entourage including her personnel physician called MacBeatha. As a healer MacBeatha would have made medicine which would basically have been whisky this is back in the 13th Century so it could have been the first time whisky was distilled on Scottish soil.

Anyway distilling was certainly well established by 1703 when the writer Martin Martin, in Galic his name is Màrtainn MacGilleMhàrtainn, wrote about distilling in his book “A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland”. Martin talked about Uisquebaugh Baul – periless whisky – a four times distilled expression which could kill.

 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.

Anyway less about responsible drinking and onto the night’s offerings.

 Second Flight

Bunnahabhain 2004 – Gordon & MacPhail bottling – 43% abv.

The lighter side of Islay – just to ease you in as it were.

  • Situated on the Sound of Islay looking over towards Jura.
  • Founded in 1881 a large distillery can produce 2.7 m litres a year.
  • Today it is part of Burn Stewart which is owned by South African company Distil who own Amarula Cream & Three Ships Distillery.
  • Although popular as a single malt Bunnahabhain is used in a number of blends, including Edrington’s Cutty Sark and Burn Stewarts Black Bottle.
  • This bottling is from Independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail of Elgin. A gentle non peaty dram with citrus fruity nose and palate.


Bowmore Darkest – 15 years old  – Darkest – 43%

  • Islay’s oldest distillery. The town of Bowmore was laid out by Daniel Campbell, the Younger, in the 1760’s. In 1779 Daniel encouraged the distiller John Simson to open a distillery in the town of Bowmore.
  • The town is dominated by a lovely round church, round so the devil can’t hide in the corners. Why the devil should be in church when there’s a perfectly good distillery down the road is beyond me.
  •  Bowmore is not quite as peaty as some of the Islay whiskies only 25 phenols ppm – townies you see.
  • This expression is not only a 15 y/o – my favourite age for whisky – but also finished in Sherry casks. Giving a rich fruitcakey, & smoky whisky.
  • They also mature the Darkest in number 1 warehouse which is right on the beach next to the Atlantic – gets a bit seasidy.


Port Charlotte – Islay Barley – 50%.

  • For a change this year we decided that for the Bruichladdich offering we would do a Port Charlotte bottling.
  • Port Charlotte is the peatier version of Bruichladdich with a phenol level of around 45ppm, Lagavulin and Laphroaig levels.
  • It is named after the Village and distillery of the same name just down the road. The Village of Port Charlotte was founded in 1828 by Walter Fredrick Campbell – Laird of Islay – and was named after his mother.
  • What makes this expression particularly interesting is that the barley all comes from the Island. Many experts, including Laddy’s Master Distiller Jim McEwan believe that where the barley grows makes a difference to how the spirit tastes. I remember a few years ago Jim being disgusted with Diageo for buying Siberian Barley.
  • I think it has a creamy feel to it – silky going down.
  • This is also 50% abv – which again is because Jim thinks it’s best at this higher strength. Actually a lot of the guys I know who actually make the whisky like it strong.


 The Wee Dram  Islay – 2004 -46%

  • We have to keep secret the identity of the distillery where this whisky is made.
  • The largest distillery on Islay is called Caol ila which overlooks the Sound of Islay, the name means Sound of Islay. It has lovely views towards the Paps of Jura.
  • The distillery was demolished in the early 1970’s and completely rebuilt – all except the warehouses. So very modern.
  • It’s owned by Diageo and can produce 6.5 m litres. 26 mashes a week.
  • Used extensively in blends and despite having quite a few single malt expressions around both owner and independent bottlers – it still is about 98% used in blends.


  • Back to this bottling it is a single cask chosen by the awesome tasting team – me and Alison.
  • Hope you like it. If you don’t please just lie – I’d rather be happy than right.

 Lovely Colours

Kilchoman Machir Bay 2014 – 46%

  • A new distillery which started producing in 2005, owned by the Willis family – Anthony, Cathy, and their 2 sons.
  • Situated on Rockside farm a farm sized distillery, Antony wanted to get back to where distilling started as part of a farm, can produce 150,000 ltrs a year.
  • They have their own bottling line and malting floor, but can only malt about one third of its barley requirement, the rest comes from Port Ellen Maltings.
  • This bottling is their Machir Bay – a nearby beach. The Machir is the area between a beach and the land – not quite soil but not quite sand dunes.
  • A spirity smoky fresh bottling proving that peaty whisky does not need to be very old. It’s all about the Barley, about the Barley not the casks.  We know a song about that!


Lagavulin Pedro Ximenez Finish – 43%

  • Ok this was a bit of a treat. The great earthy peaty flavour of Lagavulin and the sweet Pedro Ximenez Sherry.
  • Founded in 1816 by John Johnson, there has been brewing and most likely distilling around Lagavulin bay since the Middle Ages, as Dunyvaig Castle is just next door. An important stronghold and naval base for The Lords of the Isles since the 13th Century.
  • The distillery was owned by the Mackie family in latter part of the 19th Century and early 20th Century and it was a key component in the very successful White Horse Blend.
  • 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, but this expression has spent the last part of the maturation in Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks. PX is made with sun dried grapes to intensify the sugars so a sweet rich treacly sherry.
  • Gives a rich sweetness to the already complex Lagavulin.


Laphroaig Select – 40%

  • Laphroaig is the biggest seller of all the Islay whiskies and is in the top 10 biggest selling Single Malts worldwide.
  • They malt some of their own barley (14%) but they require a lot more from Port Ellen Maltings. Their own malt is peated up to 40-60 Pheonals ppm. The bought in malt is 35-45 ppm.
  • Capacity of 3.3m litres a year.
  • Originally founded in 1810 by brothers Alexander and Donald Johnson.
  • Laphroig is owned by Jim Beam – Beam Global which at one time was part of a large US conglomerate, but was split off. However earlier this year Beam Globel, consisting of Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Makers Mark, Teachers, Laphroaig, Canadian Club, was brought by Suntory of Japan for $16 billion. So Bowmore and Laphroiag are now under the same ownership.
  • This is a new bottling created using the normal mix of ex-bourbon casks used for 10 y/o Laphroaig but with an extra addition, some of the whisky – described as the heart of the bottling – has been finished in brand new American white oak casks. The finished result is a wonderful balance between the grain with it’s distinctive “Laphroaigy” peatyness and the vanilla wood flavours from the virgin casks.


Ardbeg – 10 -46%

  • Ardbeg is made with the peatiest barley of any standard bottling – 50 phenols PPM.
  • I think a lot of us are familiar with the recent history of Ardbeg – closed 1982-1990 – run  3 months of year 1990-96. Glenmorangie brought it in 97 for £7m spent £10m on it.
  • Was originally founded in 1815 by John MacDougall – however there is evidence of distilling on the site since 1794.
  • This year I thought we should try the standard 10 year old bottling – still a favourite of mine. Matured in ex-Bourbon, white American oak casks.