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Distillery Diaries with Greg Sanderson: Islay

Distillery Diaries with Greg Sanderson: Islay

If you are into smoky whisky… Well any whisky really, one of the great mecca’s of the world is certainly Islay, a small island with whisky at its heart. Islay is the southern most of the Inner Hebrides Islands, off the west coast of Scotland and just 40 kilometres north off the Northern Irish Coast. Renowned as “The Queen of the Hebrides” and with good reason, Islay is home to some of the greatest whisky distilleries on earth.

If you’re looking for a destination full of lush forests, kissed by sunshine and surrounded by beautiful sandy beaches, turn around and head a few hundred thousand kilometres in another direction.

Islay is a barren land, covered mostly by low lying vegetation, prone to strong winds and rain, rain and more rain. Despite this Islay is rich in Gaelic, Norse and British history, is a great spot for some bird watching and is home to the famous Kilarrow “Round” Church (built as such to allow no corners for the devil to hide).

So, if you’re like this Whisky Freak and among the thousands of other whisky loving tourists that visit each year, you will remember Islay as one of the greatest journeys of your life. Rain, snow or shine when you’re on the island you are immersed in a place that is just as passionate about whisky as you are.

There are just two travel passages to and from Islay. A ferry from the mainland that takes around two hours (depending on which port you disembark) or a short flight from Glasgow.

On my pilgrimage I chose to fly, as it was just a week before Christmas and my time was limited. If you’re not a great flyer, I 100% recommend the ferry. The plane was no larger than a small shuttle bus and as I was sat, I noticed the flight crew seating passengers (of the half-full flight) in random seats spaced around the plane.

It took me a little while to realize that they were trying to disperse our weight evenly due to the incredibly small size of the plane. WTF! At this point it was dawning on me that the ferry may have been the safer option, especially as the UK was experiencing severe snow storms.

Surely a plane would out run a snow storm right? Not quite.

As we began our decent all I could see from the tiny plane window was a pelting snow storm, meanwhile the pilot is announcing that he may not be able to land on the short runway in this weather! I was sure the ferry would have been a better option.

Casually neglecting to inform us what might happen if he couldn’t land, thank fuck after only one failed attempt I never had to find out the alternative.

The population of Islay today is only 3000, spread all over the island in small remote communities. After surviving the flight I headed toward the centre of the island to Bowmore, where the majority of the islands accommodation is located. Over the course of the next few days I would be told by many locals that “it hardly ever snows on Islay, it will be gone tomorrow”. It snowed every day… but what perfect whisky drinking weather!

There is evidence that whisky production has been taking place on Islay since the early 1700’s, with many believing it to be even earlier. When you think about the taxes that the English were imposing on whisky production on mainland Scotland, it makes sense that thriftier distilling Scots took up residence on Islay.

Today there are 9 distilleries on Islay including the famous Port Ellen malting facility that once also housed the Port Ellen Distillery (to be resurrected in 2021). With one main road circling the island it is super easy to see all the distilleries in a matter of days, although some are better set up for visitors than others.

While I was visiting back in 2008 I was working for Diageo’s Classic Malt Range in Australia, so Diageo owned distilleries Lagavulin and Caol Ila were at the top of my list. My first drive was to the south east corner of the island to Lagavulin where I found myself at 9am, sitting in the Distillery Managers office with a cup of tea, some biscuits and half a glass of Lagavulin Distillers Edition. Suffice to say I was NOT the designated driver this day.

Even before my trip to Islay, Laguvulin was my desert island whisky and still is to this day. But sitting there I took a moment to soak it all in and realise just how fucking awesome Scotland and whisky is!

Lagavulin is largely an automated distillery with very few workers. After the full distillery tour I was shown into the barrel rooms where I was introduced to Iain McArthur, the “legend of Lagavulin”. Iain had worked at the distillery for 40 + years (in 2008). We tasted whisky from the barrel that was upward of 60 years old that was terrible (that was the point), drank samples from numerous barrels, talked history, shared stories and I was lost in his passion for every drop of liquid that was in those barrels. For so many, not just in Scotland but around the world, whisky is more than just a beverage it’s a passion and Iain exuded his passion with every breath.


Lagavulin Distillery Specs

    • Condenser Type: Shell and tube
    • Filling strength: 63.5%
    • Spirit Still Charge: 11,500L
    • Stills: 4
    • Washbacks: 10
    • Ferment time: Min 55hrs
    • Mash Tun: Lauter
    • New Make Strength: 68 – 69%
    • Wash Still Charge: 10,500L
    • Washback type: Wood
    • Water Source: Lochan Sholum
    • Yeast Type: Creamed

From Lagavulin I headed north to Caol Ila. Now I am sure I am not the first person to ever say this but; Caol Ila is hands down one of the prettiest distilleries on earth. When you arrive at Caol Ila you actually park your car above the distillery as it is set down a very steep decent with the site itself backed right up against rocks.

As you walk down the steps you look out towards the ocean just meters away and come face to face with the distillery that makes some of the finest single malt whisky in the world.

The copper stills are literally meters from the water, set behind enormous floor to ceiling glass walls. From within the still house you can look out over the ocean back towards mainland Scotland and from outside looking in, the big beautiful copper stills catch the light and add to the scenery what a sunset does to a beach in Thailand.

With just days before Christmas the distillery was actually closed however I was lucky enough to have the Distillery Manager come down from his nearby home on the hill to give me a personal tour. From the mash tons to the fermentation tanks to the still room, I can remember the tour like it was yesterday. I could have spent the entire day just looking out the windows over the ocean with a whisky in hand thinking over and over “how fucking awesome is Scotland and whisky!”

Caol Ila Distillery Specs

    • Condenser Type: Shell and tube
    • Filling strength: 63.5%
    • Spirit Still Charge: 12,000L
    • Stills: 6
    • Washbacks: 10
    • Ferment time: Min 55hrs
    • Mash Tun: Lauter
    • New Make Strength: 70%
    • Wash Still Charge: 20,000L
    • Washback type: 8 wood, 2 steel
    • Water Source: Loch Nam Burn
    • Yeast Type: Creamed

During the remainder of my stay I visited other distilleries (Bowmore is great for visitors and Ardbeg has great food at the Old Kiln Cafe), met amazing locals, sought out ancient ruins, sat by the fire in the local pub drinking whisky, ate locally caught peat smoked fish and soaked up every element of what comes together to form the amazingness that is Islay.

At the time of writing this blog it has been 12 years since my visit to the mecca of whisky and I can still recall almost every detail and fondly remember my time there as one of the best trips of my life.

To visit a location that you have read about, talked about, educated about, drank whisky from and become passionate about there is no substitute to the feeling you get when you are finally there. Islay is everything you hope it will be and so much more. If you have ever dreamed of, or drunkenly talked about going to Islay, I 100% recommend you make that booking and treat yourself. The trip may last days, but the memories will last a lifetime…

P.S. I took the ferry back to the mainland…

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