Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Islay be back

Published:  23 July, 2008

News: Ardbeg's cult following by peat freaks is set to continue, with a raft of single malt releases for 2006. (Single malt bottlings have increased to 70% of distillery production since manager Stuart Thompson's arrival nine years ago).

ARDBEG (continued)

Following on from the huge success of the six-year-old heavily peated vatted malt Very Young (the first in a series of cask-strength bottlings from the same 1998 distillate) in 2004, comes the similarly unchill-filtered eight-year-old Still Young (56.2% abv), bottled in April. There are 5,000 bottles available, retailing at 30. Almost Young will be bottled as a 10-year-old to complete the trio.

Taste: The distiller's premium release to coincide with Feis Ile was 165 bottles of 1975 Ardbeg (46.3%) matured in Fino hogsheads in the seafront warehouse. It was expected to have sold out within days despite the 299 price tag. For those with deeper pockets, September sees the release of Ardbeg 1965, a 40-year-old bottled last year that is likely to retail at more than 1,000. More affordable will be a 1990 vintage 15-year-old launched in time for Christmas. One of the big talking points is the Ardbeg Oogling (the little Uigeadail!), a blend of three bourbon hogsheads of 1998 and one Sherry butt of 2002. Only 1,392 bottles of this four-year-old were made and it sold out in 10 days, after being offered to members of Ardbeg's Committee' via internet.


News: Whispers abound that Bowmore's exuberant distillery manager Ian 'Percy' McPherson may retire this year. Until that does or does not happen, the big news at Bowmore concerns architecture. A new visitor centre now incorporates a tasting bar, bathrooms, and display areas for Bowmore merchandise as well as whiskies from sister distilleries Auchtentochan and Glen Garioch. Five renovated whitewashed island-style cottages lie within or beside the distillery on the shores of Loch Indaal. They feature all the mod cons amid traditional dcor and can accommodate couples as well as groups. Guests receive a complimentary tour of the distillery.

Taste: The Feis Ile release generated lots of comment from whisky connoisseurs. Bowmore 6 Year Old (57.4%) was matured in bourbon casks in the distillery's no.5 lochside warehouse. Just 600 bottles were released, retailing at 59.99.


News: Plenty going on at Bruichladdich, not least of which was the discovery that Islay was once joined to Peru. Not only that, but the area of coastline from which the Scottish island broke off during tectonic plate shifting 750 million years ago, has its own town of Islay. To celebrate the link, Mark Reynier, Bruichladdich's managing director, invited the Peruvian Mayor of Islay to its 125th anniversary celebrations and Feis Ile open day. The distillery also released a commemorative limited-edition bottling in his honour. Reynier discovered that Bruichladdich's spring water flows through a fissure of 1,800 million-year-old gneiss rock that geologists have confirmed was the same rock found in Peru's Arequipa province, home to the Islay of the ancient Incas. Mayor Miguel Roman Valdivia and Reynier have now formalised a twinning arrangement between their two communities. In other news, the private distillery opened a 350,000 state-of-the-art Italian bottling line that can bottle, label and pack 2,000 bottles an hour. Plans are also underway to reopen the neighbouring Port Charlotte distillery that it uses as a warehouse for its Port Charlotte malt. Since reopening in 2001, Bruichladddich, the largest employer on the island, has doubled both its profits and production of raw spirit, and increased its single malt production threefold to 600,000 litres a year.

Taste: Not afraid to experiment, Bruichladdich has a raft of new releases for its fans, including a number of ACE (Additional Cask Enhancement) bottlings, which are 'less flavour-imparted than a finished whisky', says Lynn McEwan, daughter of master blender Jim. A peek in the warehouse suggests trials are being carried out with old Chteau Yquem, Condrieu, Rioja, Madeira and Rivesaltes casks. The three 2006 festival Valinch bottlings are: the Drambusters (18-year-old, bourbon cask); Cotes du Rhinns (17-year-old, bourbon cask, enhanced in ex-Guigal Hermitage Syrah casks); and The Mayor of Islay (18-year-old, Sherry cask). Each limited bottling of about 400 retails for 55. Festival-goers had the chance to bottle and label their own and have them signed by Jim McEwan and distillery manager Duncan McGillivray. While it won't be released for a while yet, the quadruple-distilled Perilous, which came off the still in March 2006 at 92% - the world's most alcoholic whisky - can be bought en primeur. Look out, too, for the 1,000-bottle release in September of the 2001 Port Charlotte heavily-peated single malt as well as the third edition of the world's most peaty dram, Octomore (160ppm phenols - about four times more than Port Charlotte). And, while not entirely a whisky, Bruichladdich, in conjunction with the island's sole brewer, Islay Ales, launched Worts n' Ale! at the 2006 festival: a characterful beer brewed to 9% from Bruichladdich wort (see News section).


News: Only 25% of this giant distillery's production currently goes to single malt, the rest going to blends, including the successful Black Bottle brand. But with the huge interest generated at the 2004 festival by Bunnahabhain's first-ever heavily peated whisky (any of the 310 50 bottles that remain can fetch up to 250), there is likely to be more single malt in future. Distillery manager John MacLellan said that of the 1.2 million litres Bunnahabhain produces, 200,000 litres were of the peated style, with trials being done for single malt bottlings using various levels of peat from the island's Port Ellen Maltings. As well as changes inside Bunna bottles, there are differences on the outside, too. To celebrate the distillery's 125th anniversary, stylish, upmarket packaging replaces outdated labels on both the single malt and Black Bottle brands, which had not changed since 1979. Look out, too, for the new distillery website set to go live in July. It will be home to the Bunnahabhain Explorers (like the Ardbeg Committee or Friends of Laphroaig) and will feature an online shop where visitors can buy whiskies and merchandise, including the new Bunnahabhain tartan.

Taste: This year there was an unusual festival bottling of 12-year-old Sherry butt whisky finished for two years in Pedro Ximnez casks and bottled at cask strength (52.6%). Just 761 bottles, retailing for 65 each, were matured and bottled on the island, and each is hand-signed by McLellan, as well as one of the 11 distillery staff. There will also be a limited edition super-premium 125th anniversary gift pack launched in time for Christmas. Four casks of 1971 will go into 750 hand-numbered and signed crystal bottles, packaged with a commemorative book detailing the distillery's history. Master distiller and master blender Ian MacMillan says it's the best Bunna, and one of the best whiskies, he has ever tasted, 'and I've tasted a lot'.


News: Diageo general manager Steve McGingle is a busy man when on Islay, zipping between Lagavulin and Port Ellen Maltings in the south of the island to Caol Ila in the north. Caol Ila is the biggest distillery on Islay, producing more than 3.5 million litres of whisky a year. Much of it is used in blends, but its single malts, crafted by 30-year veteran distillery manager Billy Stitchell, are winning acclaim on the world stage. McGingle is particularly excited about the eight-year-old Highland Blend, bottled at 59.5% from bourbon hogsheads, set for release this year. 'We're known as a mid-peated malt, so this eight-year-old is unique for us,' he says. The limited 1,000-bottle first release is expected to retail at 60.

Taste: To coincide with the 2006 Feis Ile, Caol Ila released its Distiller's Edition (43%). Off the still in 1993, it spent 12 years in bourbon hogsheads then separate parcels were finished for different lengths of time in Moscatel Sherry casks until bottling this spring. The limited release retails at 48.50.


News: Since it was established last November, Islay's newest distillery has rarely been out of the news. From production problems, bad advice, delays in opening and other 'teething problems', setbacks culminated when the kiln caught fire earlier this year. Sparks ignited to flames in the wind, destroying the dried barley and the maltings floor, and preventing on-site maltings for the next 12 months. But manager Anthony Wills and distiller Malcolm Rennie are battling on and excited about the new spirit they are producing. In fact, things are going so well that they are distilling at twice the anticipated speed, so will soon need to double the two tonnes of malt they currently go through. Plans are to take half from Port Ellen at a heavily peated 35ppm and malt the other half on site at 25ppm to produce two separate bottlings. Rennie says Kilchoman hopes to produce 40,000 litres of spirit in 2006, and increase that to 70,000 in 2007, up to a maximum of 100,000 litres. 'We're a farmhouse distillery with two workers and 9 to 5 office hours four days a week. We're no giants!'

Taste: With the first distillate put into bourbon casks in December 2005, you'll have to wait until at least 2010 for the first bottling. Nevertheless, Kilchoman has pre-sold 122 casks and expects to sell more as word of mouth spreads. Watch out for a website offer.


News: Returning to his home island of Islay was a 'natural progression' for Graham Logie. But Lagavulin's new distillery manager says that, despite his origins, some may see his move to another island as punishment after four years at fellow Diageo classic malt Talisker, on the Isle of Skye. 'Years ago that may have been true, but island living grows on you. I'm very happy to be coming home.' An added bonus is that Lagavulin's lauded 16 Year Old is his favourite dram. 'And, no, I'm not just saying that!

Taste: No festival bottling as such, but a Lagavulin 30 Year Old (53.5%) will be released this year. Taken from about a dozen mainly bourbon casks (and a few Sherry casks) from the distillery's sea-influenced warehouses, the limited 2,340 bottles are expected to retail for 210.


News: As expected, since former Laphroaig distillery manager Robin Shields left last year, acting manager John Campbell has taken on the role permanently. At 35, Campbell is the youngest distiller on the island and the first Ileach (Islay native) to run Laphroaig in its 190-year history. He joined Laphroaig in 1994 and has worked in all aspects of distilling there, as well as in other former Allied Domecq distilleries such as Ardmore, which, like Laphroaig, has recently been acquired by Beam Global Spirits & Wine, part of the US company Fortune Brands. The distillery expects to increase production to 2.3 million litres this year, with 50% going to single malt - an increase from 30% last year.

Taste: This year's festival bottling, a natural cask strength (56%) 13-year-old, commemorates Campbell, who filled the casks as an apprentice brewer in 1994 and then bottled the whisky 12 years later as distillery manager. As last year's Feis Ile release sold out within four hours, this year, 100 bottles a day, at 50 each, were divvied out for each of the six days of the festival.

The Quarter Cask, matured in the distillery's no.1 dunnage warehouse on the seafront, was available only to Friends of Laphroaig until recently, and was the top seller during the festival at 27.99. Spirits, averaging five to seven years, mature in butts and parcels are then blended and finished for 12 months in quarter casks (60% smaller), which impart more wood flavours. The whisky is non-chill filtered and bottled at 48% cask strength.


News: Like Bowmore, Jura is expanding. 'We are one distillery with one island,' says John Vincent, marketing director for Isle of Jura's parent company Whyte & Mackay. 'We need to recognise ways of attracting visitors over here, not just for the whisky but for the Jura experience as a whole.' And to do that, W&M is opening Jura Lodge, a three-storey, five-bedroom property that will welcome guests seeking a taste of island life. Renovated as a luxury hunting lodge, guests can treat the property like home: there will be no reception, and cooking and cleaning services can be provided on request. Following great response in a masterclass, look out for Jura's characterful new Limousin French oak-finished bottlings. The 2007 Feis Ile release, maybe?

Tasting: Peat freaks rejoice! Jura, which has a normal phenol level of 2ppm, has now released its first-ever heavily peated dram for the 2006 Festival - at 38ppm. Brand ambassador, master distiller and former distillery manager Willie Tait says lovers of Jura's Superstition, at 12ppm, drove the decision. Only 600 bottles of the cask-strength 1999 distillate (58.4%) were produced, retailing at 45 each. They were matured for six years in bourbon butts and were then finished for six months in old Matusalem Sherry casks. 'This is great for young whisky,' says Tait. 'Don't hide it away, drink it now and watch it develop.'