Islay Whiskey Distilleries

Islay Whiskey Distilleries

Islay Whiskey Distilleries

There are eight Islay Whiskey Distilleries in this region of Scotland

Ardbeg | Bowmore | Bruichladdich | Bunnahabhain
Caol Ila | Lagavulin | Laphroaig | Port Ellen

It wasn’t until I’d spent time on Islay — strolled the streets of Bowmore, sat in a pub in Port Ellen, talked with the locals, and walked the malting floors of Laphroaig — that I developed a love for the strength and character of Islay malts.

My first day on Islay I drove the length of the island, ending up at the bar in the Port Askaig Hotel. As I sipped a measure of Caol Ila, a short distance from the distillery, the sun set on the Paps of Jura across the Sound of Islay. I savored the unspoiled beauty, ruggedness, and fierce individuality of the people of Islay.

An interesting note about Islay: It is the home of the world’s first commercial-scale wave-driven power generator. In November 2000, the Wavegen company, collaborating with the University of Belfast, began producing electricity by the use of partially submerged chambers that utilize changes in tides to displace air and drive turbines. The twin turbines generate 500 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power 300 average homes.

The Islay Whiskey Distilleries

Ardbeg distillery

For Islay malt lovers Ardbeg is practically the Holy Grail. At one time thought lost forever, the distillery was purchased and reopened by Glenmorangie plc (formerly McDonald & Muir), the owners of Glenmorangie and Glen Moray.

The Ardbeg Distillery

Distillery Bottlings:

The 10-year-old (46 vol.) is a pale gold color, with a powerful smoke, seaweed, iodine, and faint nutty notes to the nose. The body appears a bit oily but feels thinner on the tongue. The palate is very sweet at first, then a big rush of smoky, iodine flavors. The finish is bold and peppery, with a lingering interplay of sweetness, salt, smoke, and pepper.

A wonderful whisky in the way it controls and restrains the potentially powerful, young whisky.

Comments from visitors
Quite simply the only lunchtime malt — Rebecca Welch

The 17-year-old (40 vol.) is a rich, complex malt. In a few words: big, smoky, sweet, with seaweed and some pepper. As Ardbeg ages it develops an amazing smoothness and depth of character.

I am new to whisky (came to the US from Russia less than 5 years ago), but becoming a scotch fan very fast. After I tried the 17-year-old Ardbeg, I will never drink vodka again.– Vladimir Tankhimovich

Special Bottlings: There are quite a few special edition bottlings from Ardbeg and there will probably be more made available as the new owners experiment with their new acquisition. It’s a pleasure to see so many releases after the long period of having to rely on merchant bottlings.

1975 Vintage a limited edition release commemorating the purchase by Glenmorangie and subsequent rebirth of the distillery

Ardbeg 1976 a very limited edition from two casks, made available to members of the “Ardbeg Committee” (information is available at the distillery Web site), or it can be purchased at the distillery.
1978 Vintage (43 vol.) a limited edition 20-year-old release. No longer available.

Ardbeg Provenance (55.6 vol.) a limited, numbered edition of a 1974 distillation (24-year-old) commemorating the purchase by Glenmorangie and subsequent rebirth of the distillery. This has already become a treasured collectors’ item.

Very Old Ardbeg (30-Year-Old) (40 vol.) though not a true “limited edition”, the information provided on the wooden box states that it is released in “very limited quantities”.

Merchant Bottlings: There have been several bottlings from Gordon & MacPhail (20, 30 and recently 22 and 30-year-old), all very good but hurt somewhat by dilution to 40 vol. A big malt like this begs a higher alcohol content.

Several Signatory bottlings (28 and 23-year-old) are bottled at cask strength (about 51 vol.) and are much more enjoyable.

A Signatory 8-year-old (1991-99, 43 vol.) is a special treat. Until the distillery release of the 10-year-old (above), I had only encountered older bottlings of Ardbeg that were smooth and rich with smoke, seaweed, peat and oak. Having sampled (and loved) younger Port Ellens and Longrows I was curious about what surprises a young Ardbeg might hold. I was not disappointed.

It is almost clear, with a slight yellow cast and a dullness to the color. The nose is huge, smoky, with notes of seaweed, sugar, salt, and iodine — very medicinal. The flavor is sweet, then dry with youthful (pleasant) sour notes. The finish is long, smoky, peppery, and salty.

It’s a raw, full oIt’s a raw, full of rough edges, seemingly “straight-from-the-spirit-safe” whisky. It lacks complexity, but God is it good!

Bowmore Distillery

Bowmore distillery with Bruichladdich across Loch Indaal.
Bowmore is operated by Morrison Bowmore (who operate Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch), and owned by Suntory of Japan.

Distillery Bottlings: A young Bowmore can put a strong man off spirits. The briny, medicinal, phenolic character may taste like sucking on an old band-aid to the uninitiated, but add some age and those same characteristics soften and become the stuff of legend.

Bowmore DistilleryA wide selection of distillery bottlings begins with Bowmore Legend (no age statement), and continues through 10, 12, 15, 17, 21, 25, and 30-years-old expressions. While it’s interesting to go back and sample the younger expressions, if you haven’t tasted Bowmore before stick with an older bottling — the 15-year-old is bracing and full of character, the 17 starts to soften and meld all the contradictory flavors together, and the 21-year-old ages those flavors to perfection.

As Bowmore ages the rough edges are worn away and an almost soft (though thick and syrupy), elixir emerges.

Comments from a visitor:
Your description of a young Bowmore is about dead on. My god, that was a horrific experience! It does improve with age though. — Charles Greig

Special Bottlings: In the past few years Bowmore has been releasing many special bottlings or limited editions among which are Bowmore Darkest (sherry cask), and Bowmore Surf (whisky stored in warehouses closest to the ocean).

Additional special bottlings:

Bowmore Dusk (50 vol.) is finished in bordeaux (claret) casks. The color is a full amber with a reddish-purple cast. The nose is all Bowmore, medicinal, but not as evident as in other young Bowmores. There’s an interesting, old leather aroma. The palate is again all Bowmore, but smoother, softer. The claret is subtle, becoming evident as a grapey sweetness mid palate. The finish is a typical, big, briny, smoky, medicinal burst.

Bowmore Voyage (56 vol.) is the product of 12-year-old bourbon cask Bowmore, finished for 18 months in port pipes. It has a an amber color with a slight reddish cast. Similar to the Bowmore Claret the nose and palate are definitely Bowmore, medicinal, phenolic, smoky, salty and peaty, but softened to an extent by the port finishing. The finish is all Bowmore, salty, phenolic, medicinal, peaty, and smoky.

Bowmore Claret (56 vol.) is 12-year-old bourbon cask Bowmore, finished for 18 months in claret casks. The color is a full amber with a reddish cast. The nose is unmistakably Bowmore, with strong iodine, salt, seaweed, and smoke, but there’s a soft and subtle undercurrent of fruit and flowers. On the palate the powerful Bowmore flavors are the first impression but nuances of fruit and honey persist. The finish has lingering notes of fruit, oak and peat smoke with lots of salt and seaweed.

The best of the “finished” Bowmores and an exquisite whisky.
These wine finishes are from fairly youthful Bowmores (12 years in bourbon casks, plus “finishing”). Unquestionably, older Bowmores (17 years and above) rank among the finest single malts, but the distillery is having problems mass-marketing the fierceness of young Bowmore to a world clamoring for sweet, “flavored” whisky. The result is this string of “masking” experiments.

Glenmorangie is having huge success with similar “finishings”, but they are starting with a light whisky that accepts and melds with the subtle wine flavors. Bowmore, on the other hand, tends to fight any attempt at softening. I hope the distillery will continue the endeavor for another decade or more. It’s my guess that another ten or fifteen years will produce some magnificent and highly prized whiskies. It’s my guess a 21 or 30-year-old port finished, or even port cask Bowmore would be amazing.

Very Special Bottlings: Black Bowmore: What can I say? It’s truly a great malt. It’s the special bottle you pull out and share when you get married, have a son or daughter, or are made a partner in the firm.

It’s so thick you can cut it with scissors. It touches your lips and stays there — it takes all your willpower to pull the glass away. It’s that good.

There were three editions in 1995, only 500 bottles of which were exported to the US. Many bottles were purchased by collectors and occasionally become available at prices upward of $1,000.

Merchant Bottlings: I haven’t noticed a great many merchant bottlings though a recent Signatory was very interesting. The 20-year-old (subsequently a 23-year-old from the same 1975 distilling became available), was unlike the distillery bottlings — delicious, but missing the briny, medicinal character. Without being stored at the distillery and exposed to the coastal extremes the flavor was much cleaner, more Highland-like.

Bruichladdich Distillery

To the west, across Loch Indaal from Bowmore, Bruichladdich produced a quite enjoyable, though un-Islaylike malt. Perhaps that’s the reason for its closing in 1995. With the intensity of the other malts in the area Bruichladdich was easily overlooked.

Fortunately, Bruichladdich was rescued from extinction by Jim McEwan, formerly of Bowmore, and a small consortium (led by independent bottler Murray McDavid). The group plans to reopen the distillery on a smaller scale, with an output of 200,000 liters per year (about 10% of its capacity). There are plans to produce both the traditional Bruichladdich, as well as a more heavily peated version.

Bruichladdich has been released by independent bottlers under the names Lochindaal or Loch Indaal. The name Lochindaal actually comes from a another distillery that was dismantled in 1929, the remnants of which can be seen in Port Charlotte (two miles south).

Distillery Bottlings: Currently 10, 15, and 25-year-old distillery bottlings are available are available in the US. This may change, as the new owners have purchased 1.4 million liters of maturing stock dating back to 1964.

The 15-year-old has a dusty, salty nose with traces of cookie dough. The palate has a malty sweetness and creamy, buttery quality. A well balanced malt that finishes warm, salty, and slightly spicy.

Merchant Bottlings: There don’t seem to be large quantities of Bruichladdich in merchant bottlings which is unfortunate since it is a quite enjoyable malt. A Cadenhead 26-year-old (1969) is a good example — a touch of salt added to spice, flowers and a bit of wood.

Bunnahabhain distillery

Like Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain has a clean taste, almost light, a definite contrast to the more intense tastes of other Islay malts.

bunnahabhain distilleryDistillery Bottlings: The distillery release is a very pleasant 12-year-old. Much less powerful than other Islay malts, it’s much closer to a Ledaig in it’s combination of fruit-and-nut maltiness and sea-air heartiness.

Merchant Bottlings: A Murray & McDavid 17-year-old has a wonderful, spicy, herbal nose — ginger snaps and Brazil nuts. Very smooth with a little salt in the finish.

Caol Ila distillery

Caol Ila (pronounced “coal-eyela”) is a big, powerful malt that revels in character. The smoky, sea air Islay character is different, however from the South Islay distilleries — there’s a smooth, sweet, civilized tone. It seems to meld the unruly power of an Ardbeg or a Port Ellen, with the gentleness of a Bruichladdich or a Bunnahabhain.

A few years back a friend and I would play a game late in the evening on tasting occasions. We would pick the five whiskies we would want to have with us if we were stranded on a desert island. A Caol Ila was consistently one of the choices.

Distillery Bottlings: There aren’t any distillery single malt releases in the US, though in the UK there is a 15-year-old release from United Distillers as part of the Flora and Fauna line. Much of the distillery output goes into Bell’s 8-year-old blend.

Carol Ila DistilleryMerchant Bottlings: There are many merchant bottlings, and all are excellent to one degree or another. Recent 8-year-old bottlings from Signatory and Cadenhead are very good. Older 20 and 22-year-old bottlings from Cadenhead, Adelphi, and Rare Malts are all excellent. In the middle are some very good 12 to 14-year-olds from Cooper’s Choice, Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseur’s Choice and Signatory. The Cooper’s Choice selections are especially attractive, considering that they sell for about $35 in the US.

One note about the Cooper’s Choice releases — I don’t know where they store their casks after purchase from the distilleries but some seem to have a characteristic “melon rind” nose and palate. This is actually pleasant in the Caol Ila, but overpowers a more subtle malt like a Clynelish or Dallas Dhu.

No matter who bottles the whisky, or at what age, there is a consistent Caol Ila flavor: “big, dry, salt, and smoke”. In the younger bottlings there’s a youthful, sourmash and pepper factor. In the older bottlings the rough edges are worn smooth to create a big, balanced, complex malt.

An 8-year-old Cadenhead (1989-98, 60.2 vol.), has a white wine color and a big, briny, dry, and slightly oaky nose. The palate has a youthful explosion of dry, oily, seaweedy, peppery, and smoky flavors. The finish is long, dry, peppery, and smoky.

Lagavulin Distillery

Distillery Bottlings: The distillery offering is a 16-year-old (43 vol.) — surprisingly old considering that Laphroaig, (only a few yards down the road), and Ardbeg, (only a few yards up the road), are released in 10-year-old expressions. The extra six years is worth the wait. Lagavulin (lagga-voolin) is big and strong yet soft and refined, like a powerful race horse gently eating an apple from the hand of a baby.

The color is a full amber. The nose has the Islay intensity (salt, peat, iodine, and smoke), but is softened by a measure of sherry. The palate has an intriguing interplay of smoky dryness and sherry sweetness, combined with a richness of intertwined, subtle flavors (grassy notes and salt water taffy in the foreground). The finish is big, dry, and peaty. One of the great malts.

Lagavulin DistilleryTo the fan of Islay whiskies the flavor is the perfect balance of contradictory sensations. The older whiskies in the mix give a wonderful depth, softness and complexity. Every time I taste a sample I marvel that a malt this big can be so subtle and nuanced.

Comments from a visitor:
Earlier this year I experienced Lagavulin for the first time. It is exactly as you say — big, robust, but gentle. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Scotch more. — Albert Flootman, Ontario, Canada

Merchant Bottlings: Independent bottlings of Lagavulin are relatively rare, though there’s a notable exception. A release of Finlaggan (40 vol., no age statement) from the Vintage Malt Whisky Company is actually a youthful Lagavulin.

Finlaggan has an amber color, similar to the distillery release. The nose has a dry mixture of iodine, seaweed, phenols, a faint sherry sweetness, and smoke. The palate is surprisingly smooth and balanced for a presumably young whisky. It is dry, peaty, salty, and smoky. The finish is the same, but adds a peppery spiciness.

Finlaggan isn’t nearly as complex and balanced as the distillery 16-year-old, but it is a very enjoyable single malt, and sells for less than half the price of the distillery release.

A new variation of Lagavulin is an 8-year-old released under the Dun Bheagan name.

Lagavulin is also bottled as Signatory Vintage Islay.

Laphroaig Distillery

I remember a famous silent film era documentary titled “Man of Arran,” about the harshness of life on the nearby island. It could have been about Islay. Every time I drink Laphroaig I think about that film — the cold, harsh winters, the salt spray of towering waves crashing on the rocks, the warmth and sanctuary of a peat fire, the companionship of friends, and a dram of whisky in a local pub.

Distillery Bottlings: Laphroaig’s (“lah-froig”), most popular bottling is a 10-year-old (43 vol.), and what a whisky it is — strong, briny, phenolic, and seaweedy. Lagavulin (above) may be a gentle race horse, but this Laphroaig is the wild bronco that refuses to be broken. You already either love it or hate it, nothing I can say will ever change your opinion.

Laphroaig DistilleryThe color is full gold with orange highlights. The nose is unmistakably medicinal, briny, and smoky. Faintly reminiscent of smoked salmon. The palate is surprisingly soft, with a seaweedy, salty character.. Lightly sweet at first, it turns dry and peppery in the finish.

Comments from a visitor:
You described the first taste I had of Laphroaig perfectly, it took us a while to come to terms but now we are the best of friends! — Eddy Saul

A 10-year-old “Original Cask Strength” bottling has been introduced but I haven’t had the opportunity to sample it.

The 15-year-old (43 vol.) is another matter. It’s the gentrified older brother of the 10-year-old feral child. The added age knocks off many of the rough edges — age has a way of doing that with people and whisky. If you love the wildness of the 10-year-old you may not care for this older expression, but it’s a special pleasure.

It has a gold color, slightly lighter than the 10-year-old, and a nose full of phenols, iodine, brine, salt spray, smoke, and a hint of mustard. The palate has an initial sweetness and creamy richness (in flavor and texture). Then a quick transition to powerful iodine, sulphur, salt, and a peat smoke nuttiness. The finish is long, with echoing salty, iodine notes, combined with an earthy peatiness. Exceptional.

The 30-year-old bottling ( 43 vol.), puts me in mind of an old, landlocked sea captain, reminiscing about his youth at sea.

It has an amber color with a slight greenish cast. The nose is big, aromatic, with elements of sherry, oak, phenols, iodine, seaweed, and smoke. The body is a bit thick and oily. The palate is rich and complex with the contrasting flavors that make the 10-year-old wild and unruly, but in this older expression they become subtle nuances. The finish is long, oily, medicinal, salty, smoky, and a little peppery. Quite exceptional. It’ll cost you an arm and a leg, but you’ll find it worth the expense.

Originally this was released as a special limited edition of 2,400 bottles, all to be distributed in the US. Since then it has quietly become part of the standard distillery line. Many people who bought the early release as an investment had a rude shock when they learned that it wasn’t really a limited edition after all.

Merchant Bottlings: A 15-year-old Old Malt Cask (1986-2001, 50 vol.) is a very pale gold with a greenish cast. The nose has all the Islay characteristics, briney, medicinal, phenolic and smoky, but somewhat understated. The palate is firey and peppery at the 50 vol. bottling strength, but a splash of water softens but doesn’t tame the flavors. The palate is clearly Islay but very different from the 10 and 15-year-old distillery releases. Its a raw whisky, not tempered by the addition of older whiskies. Delicious, but closer to an Ardbeg that the Laphroaig you’re used to.

A 12-year-old Cadenhead and an 11-year-old Murray McDavid are both softer than the distillery bottling, most likely the effect of maturing in warehouses in other parts of Scotland. Both are very enjoyable.

Alas, no longer available is a 26-year-old Hart Brothers bottling that was delightful. Again, the wild Islay origins become subtle nuances in an older, mature whisky. Those nuances are exquisite.

Comments on Merchant Bottlings: There has been a long-standing battle between the distilleries and the merchant bottlers over the use of the distillery’s name on the independent bottlings. In most cases the original intent when the whisky was sold was that it would be used in blends. With the current enthusiasm for single malts, many blenders have found there is more money to be made by bottling the individual whiskies rather than blending them. In the case of Murray McDavid, Allied Distillers (the parent company of Laphroaig) sued them and won a restraining order preventing them from using the Laphroaig name. Murray McDavid then adopted the name “Leapfrog” and were again sued. At long last the case has concluded and Murray McDavid has won the right to use the Laphroaig name.

In many cases distilleries are now selling whisky with legal provisions that it not be bottled as a single malt, or not be bottled under the distillery name.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has adopted a system of numbering its bottlings to circumvent the use of distillery names on the labels of their releases. Members are sent a list with a number for each distillery.

Port Ellen distillery

Silent In what has to be one of the great crimes in the world of single malt whisky, Port Ellen ceased production in 1983. The distillery is no longer licensed, and the stills have been dismantled. The likelihood that it will ever function as a distillery again is very remote.

In a way it’s unfortunate that UDV still produces maltings at the distillery, (which are sold to all the other Islay distilleries). Since Port Ellen is self-supporting (if only as a maltings facility), it’s unlikely that it will be sold to any parties interested in reopening it. Considering the cult-like following of Port Ellen, it’s very unlikely that UDV would sell what would certainly be competition for its other Islay distilleries, Lagavulin and Caol Ila.

Port Ellen DistilleryWe can only hope that if the reopening of Ardbeg by Glenmorangie plc, and the planned reopening of Bruichladdich prove successful, UDV may feel there is enough interest in Islay malts to warrant the reopening of Port Ellen.

Distillery Bottlings: In 1998 a rare distillery bottling of Port Ellen was released under the name Port Ellen Maltings. The 21-year-old was released on the 25th anniversary of the maltings at Port Ellen (sadly, and without note on the label, it was the 15th anniversary of the silencing of the stills.

Merchant Bottlings: There are still many merchant bottlings available, but they are beginning to become less frequent. Samples from Signatory, Gordon & MacPhail, and Cadenhead have been excellent.

An exceptional 22-year-old (1975-98, 43 vol.) is available from Hart Brothers. The color is a light gold, and the nose is briny, smoky, and medicinal. The palate is sweet and smoky, with an exquisite balance of heathery sweetness, peaty smoke, and seaweedy salt. The finish is dry, smoky, and somewhat peppery. Delicious.
I’m sure there are many casks set aside in vaults, and for many years to come bottlings of 20, 30, and 40-year-old Port Ellens will be available (at ever increasing costs). The real tragedy is the absence of young Port Ellens.

A few years ago Cadenhead released a 12-year-old from the last year of operation at the distillery (1983-95, 57.8 vol.). Most older bottlings have the powerful smoke, seaweed and malty sweetness, but the 12-year-old had a youthful sweet-and-sour quality to the nose and palate, which tapered into a long salty and peppery finish.

I’m slowly working my way through my last bottle. Each sip brings a tear to my eye.

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