By David McKenzie
Simply pronouncing Islay (‘eye-la’) in correct Gaelic may be enough to convince yourself and others that you have a firm understanding of that delicious amber liquid you are enjoying. But those who delve deeper will come across the intriguing, and perhaps surprising, story of Islay’s phenomenal transformation over the past two decades. Islay has not enjoyed a continuous run as whisky’s Holy Land. In fact, it has only recently emerged from a disconcerting Dark Age, and its rapid return to the pinnacle has been fuelled by somewhat unexpected sources. Here is a snapshot of three distilleries that put the misty Scottish isle, and its world-class whisky, in perspective.
The Ardbeg distillery embodies the romantic image of Islay whisky. Clinging to the craggy shoreline of Islay’s southern coast, Ardbeg’s huddle of single-storey, barn-like buildings seem untouched since its official opening in 1815. Jim Murray, the most influential whisky critic on the planet, awarded an Ardbeg release the coveted title of ‘World’s Best Whisky’ in his annual Whisky Bible for three straight years between 2008-2010.
However, Ardbeg’s story is not the historical epic one might expect. After production peaked towards the end of the nineteenth century, it dragged through most of the twentieth century as a run-of-the-mill whisky label. The plug was pulled in 1981, when production was stopped and the distillery left as a relic of the past. After almost a decade as a ghost factory, small-scale production eked out of Ardbeg through the early 1990s, but it was not until after 1996 that Ardbeg’s resurgence began. Here, Ardbeg is indicative of a revolutionary blending of tradition and modern finance that has redefined Scotch whisky over the past few decades.
In 1997 Ardbeg was purchased by French luxury giant Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH). Financial security from this ownership allowed Ardbeg to ramp up to full production again, which it has maintained since 1998. Cash injections from LVMH also drove a marketing and distribution push that has reinvented Ardbeg as a leading Islay single malt that can be found at airports, shops and bars all over the world.
This is the upstart of Islay’s distilleries. In 2005, Kilchoman made the bold move to establish a new distillery on an island already saturated with whisky manufacturing and draped in whisky heritage. It seems the move was a good one. Kilchoman are succeeding in doing something entirely new – by doing things the old way.
Kilchoman is Islay’s first new distillery since 1881, and it is currently the island’s only fully independent whisky distillery. It quelled any suspicions of being a copycat riding on the coat tails of Islay’s whisky reputation by setting up on an isolated farm at the end of a hilly country road, making it the only Islay distillery not located beside the sea. Not only that, Kilchoman is the only Islay distillery producing a whisky – the ‘100% Islay’ – for which all production is carried out on-site at the distillery: the barley is grown on their farm, and the whisky does not leave Kilchoman until after being bottled and labeled. They are one of only six distilleries in the whole of Scotland still practicing floor-malting and, despite being the island’s newest distillery, they are the one most strongly championing Islay’s traditional practices.
It seems to be catching on: Kilchoman’s releases have already garnered fabulous reviews and multiple awards, even though they are yet to sell one that has aged for the ten or twelve year period usually seen as the base standard for good Scotch single malts.
In short, keep an eye out – we have a lot to look forward to.
Before Kilchoman, Bruichladdich were the (relative) new boys. In 1881, Bruichladdich introduced state-of-the-art machinery and methods that set them apart from the island’s other, older distilleries. Like other Islay brands, Bruichladdich had a hard time throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and in 1994 it was shut down.
In the new millenium, however, they have come back from the dead. A group of local investors pitched in to buy the distillery in 2000. Soon after, they dismantled the run-down distillery and rebuilt it, incorporating pieces of the original 1881 equipment into a modern factory design. One such piece is one of the tall, narrow stills from 1881, which is now the oldest functioning still in all of Scotland.
But Bruichladdich is not resting on its laurels. Showing remarkable finesse, Bruichladdich have managed to maintain links to its heritage while simultaneously forging an entirely new, modern path.
Long regarded by whisky connoisseurs as a light, floral Scotch in contrast to its peaty Islay neighbours, Bruichladdich has blown conventional opinion apart by producing the world’s most heavily-peated whisky, the fabulous ‘Octomore.’ Gone is Bruichladdich’s drab, pre-1994 bottle, looking like something the family would find on a table next to a 1970s Rolodex when clearing out granddad’s house and organising the estate. Bruichladdich’s new bottles are much more at home on top shelves of glitzy hotel bars, or on sleek Danish designer furniture between two open-collar Silicon Valley executives.
The international marketing and distribution push in the past few years, again, has been massive. And, again like Ardbeg, that is thanks in large part to alcohol behemoth Remy-Cointreau’s purchase of Bruichladdich in 2012, although daily operations continue to be run by skilled local employees.
It seems that the secret to Islay’s phenomenal resurgence is neither an adherence to tradition nor a forfeit to globalized finance. It is a rare balance of both, a unique situation of local artisans and giant corporations being able to strike a mutually beneficial balance of power.