Around the Isle in 8 Drams - The Wee Dram Islay Tasting 2013

The Line up

There is no other drink, or food for that matter, anywhere in the world that so epitomizes the place where it is made as much as Islay whisky. Its rugged uncompromising style is typical of the Island folk who make it, the earthy, peaty flavours are as powerful as the elements which pound its shores, and as for the rough seas that surround this isle, you can actually taste it in the whisky, but despite, or because of this the whisky, the place and the people are beautiful.  It is also because of this that a capacity crowd gathered at The Rutland Arms Hotel on 29th November 2013 to sample a Dram of whisky from each of the eight working distilleries on the Island of Islay.

Islay has one of the claims to being the first area of Scotland to start making whisky, back in the 13th Century the Lord of The Isles, Angus Og MacDonald married Aine O’Cathain a lady of good family in Antrim. When she moved to Islay with her new husband she brought with her a number of Irish people of skill and learning, among whom was her personnel physician and his family called MacBeatha. The family settled in Kilchoman, on the Rinnes of Islay. As a healer, MacBeatha would have made medicine, which would basically have been whisky – this is back in the 13th Century so it would have been the first time whisky was distilled on Scottish soil.

 I always find it a little bit difficult to believe that an Island with around 2,000 inhabitants can be home to eight of the world’s finest Distilleries, so let’s look at what we tasted:


Bunnahabhain 2004 – Gordon & Macpahail  – 43%

Perfection in a glassThe Lighter side of Islay. Situated on the Sound of Islay, Bunnahabahain is a big distillery built in 1881 on a Victorian scale, it can produce 2.7 million litres of Spirit. It’s been an eventful year, their group, Burns Stewart were owned by a Trinidad Bank in financial difficulties but in the Spring they were brought by the South African drinks company Distell, owners of Three Ships and Amarula Cream. This is great news as it secures the future. Distell paid £160 million for the group which includes Bunnahabhain, Tobermory, and Deanston Distilleries and the Black Bottle Blend. This bottling is from the independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail of Elgin, distilled 2004 bottled 2013. A lighter, unpeated whisky with mainly citrus fruity flavours, and some rich dried fruit, with a lingering rich Finish.


Bruichladdich Scottish Barley – 50%


It’s over a year since this once independent distillery was brought by Remy Cointreau. Many were worried about how this Quality Control Teamwould affect the whisky and the ethos of this distillery. So, earlier in the year, Alison, myself and our entire quality control team (our 3 daughters) visited Laddie to find out for ourselves. Duncan, the distillery manager, was very quick to allay any worries, the production continues without any head office interference.  The Master Distiller, the legendary Jim McEwen, is still in overall charge of production, cask selection and bottling and has committed to at least another 2 years, before he retires (he’s been promising his wife he will soon retire for about ten years now).  Jim has free reign with the whisky as Remy have no experience in whisky – Jim has been in the whisky industry for over 50 years and as a native Ileach, has had whisky in his blood for the past 700 years.

This bottling shows this very clearly Jim is very keen on using Scottish Barley, from Islay where possible, and he has for a long time wanted to bottle at 50%, and hasn’t done so before because of cost. This is the future of the laddy, a creamy, lighter, elegant, fresh whisky with lots of flavour and body.  The future’s bright the future’s turquoise.


Bowmore 12 y/o – 40%

The oldest distillery on Islay. Daniel Campbell the younger founded the town of Bowmore in 1767, around his famous round Church. In 1779 Daniel persuaded Jon Simpson to move his distilling operations from Killarow near Islay House to the shore side in Bowmore. The distillery sits right on the beach; actually the walls of number 1 warehouse are the towns’ flood defences. A good year for Bowmore, their Manager Eddie MacAffer was awarded Global Distillery Manager of the Year for 2013 by Whisky Magazine. They still malt 40% of their own barley at Bowmore, one of only six distilleries in Scotland to do this, 3 of them are on Islay. We have chosen the 12 y/o bottling for this tasting, it’s got a great maritime feel to it. I think a bit of Lochindaal finds its way in. The Bowmore is the first of our Peaty Islay’s, the earthy smoky flavour, and aroma, comes from drying the Barley during Malting over peat fires. The 12 year old is rich, peaty, but with lemon and chocolate – good finish.


Kilchoman 100% Islay – 3rd Edition – 50%

This is Islay’s newest distillery, it started production in 2005. It is the brainchild of owner Anthony Willis who wanted to have a proper farm distillery, going back to roots of distilling. So he built this very cute little distillery at Rockside Farm on the Rinns of Islay. They are planning to increase production next year to about 14,000 litres. They have had a busy year, a new warehouse has been built to hold 9000 casks and they have a new bottling line – they can do 4 bottles at a time now. When we were up in July I got to try this, it’s their 100% Islay bottling, it’s actually 100% Kilchoman. Barley grown at Rockside farm, Malted at the distillery – they malt about 40% of their total requirement  – It is made and matured for 4 years on site using refill and first fill ex- Buffalo Trace Bourbon casks (ok there’re not from Islay) and now bottled at the distillery. We decided that this was perfect for this tasting so we saved a couple of cases just for the night. Again it’s lightly peated – 25 phenols parts per million (Phenols ppm is the measurement of how smoky the whisky is) citrus fruit – apples and pears – sorry it’s all gone.

Kilchoman Still House


Caol Ila – The Wee Dram Islay 2004 – 46%

Owned by Diageo, the world’s largest drinks company, the largest of Islay’s distilleries, their capacity is now 6.5 million litres of spirit a year, running seven days, 26 mashes, a week. Although originally built in 1846, it was demolished and completely rebuilt in 1972, very modern and well laid out. The still house has great views across the sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura.  Caol Ila means Sound of Islay. The vast majority of Caol Ila (98%) finds it’s way into blends, mainly Johnny Walker.  This bottling is from those great single cask bottlers – us.  We aren’t allowed to put Caol Ila on the label, but this is a typical Caol Ila with a gentle floural note which goes very well with the peaty smoky flavours.

Now down to the Kildalton Estate on the south coast of Islay for the big peaty whiskies.


Lagavulin 16 y/o – 43%

Happy DrammersAlthough founded in 1816 by John Johnson 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 Lords of the Isles originate with Somerled a man of both Celtic and Norse blood who started a Dynasty based on the power of his ships. The first to adopt the title of Lord of the Isles was Good John of Islay in 1336. The Lords of the Isles where very influential with lands spreading around the islands and mainland of Scotland and Antrim. 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. 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 less copper contact so a heavier – richer, more complex, peatier, oiler spirit. They then mature it for 16 years in second fill ex sherry casks, to give rich dried fruity flavours and a hint of sherry.


Laphroaig Tripple Wood – 48%

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 Phenols ppm. The bought in barley is 35-45 ppm. Originally founded in 1810 by brothers Alexander and Donald Johnson. Today it’s owned by Jim Beam, Beam Global, but in the past it’s had some interesting characters owning and running the distillery. In the first years of the twentieth century it was owned by two Johnston Sisters, Isabella and Catherine. Isabella’s son, Ian Hunter, ran the distillery from 1908 to his death in 1954. Ian was responsible for Laphroaig becoming a world brand well before Single Malts were universally popular. Following Ian was his one-time Secretary Bessie Williamson who ran the distillery when Ian’s health started to fail and took over fully when Ian died. Bessie expanded and modernised and sold to Seagrams in 1967 – she retired in 1972. When I first went in the 1990’s the distillery manager was Iain Henderson, founder of the friends of Laphroaig. Even today they still have their characters with the youngest Manager on Islay, John Campbell.

This bottling has benefited from being matured in three different casks. First the spirit goes into ex-bourbon American White Oak casks, then into the Quarter Casks, an American White Oak cask which is a quarter of the size of a Hogshead, this allows the whisky to see a lot more of the wood, the final cask is ex sherry European oak to give a bit of dried fruit richness. The final outcome is a complex whisky with Vanilla, citrus fruits, a little bit of rich dark chocolate, and of course the medicinal peaty flavours which makes Laphroaig, well Laphroaig.


Ardbeg Corryvreckan – 57.1%

Ardbeg is one of my favourite whiskies and distilleries. The current distillery dates back to 1815 but there have been records of legal distilleries on the same site since 1794. Ardbeg was closed in the 1980’s when it belonged to Allied Domecq, who also owned Laphroaig. In 1990 they started to run the distillery for a few months each year to get filling for the blend Ballantines. The distillery was run on a wing and a prayer by the then assistant Manager of Laphroaig Micky Heads.  Today Micky is Ardbeg’s Distillery Manager and one of the World’s best distillers. In 1997 the distillery was sold to the Glenmorangie Company for £7.1m, including stock. They had to spend at least the same amount again to update the distillery.  The distillery is really doing well with a lot more attention to detail and much better wood policy which brings me to this bottling.

The Corryvreckan is matured using first fill American ex bourbon casks and Virgin White American oak casks that have not held any liqueur before. The whisky gets a lot of woody notes so it does not need as long to mature. They have to have some normal ex-bourbon casks in the bottling to calm down the woody whisky. The outcome is a big peaty whisky with lots of vanilla, wood, oaky flavours but with all that peaty smoky malty flavour it can handle a bit of wood – as for the finish, it lasts a couple of days.