The secrets of Islay
Long Reads 13.01.2018
Words Richard Benson
Photographs James McNaught
Author Richard Benson goes in search of the spirit of a remote Hebridean island… where the whisky always comes with water. Dedicated to the memory of our friend Carl Reavey.
‘It’s about the liquid,’ people on Islay sometimes say.
They mean that no amount of advertising can sell a poor whisky, but they could just easily be talking about their island itself. Because Islay is all about a liquid, or rather water in its various states. Seas, mists, clouds, and rain; pooled peat-water, saturated bogs, burns and lochs. It comes at you from everywhere. In the winter the cold black sea boils up, and the cold black clouds sink down, and when the salt spray and sleet are swirling, the earth is reduced to a muddy incidental in a snarling scrap of waters. You know that story about Eskimos having hundreds of words for ‘snow’? One day during my stay on Islay we go for a walk on a beach, and we meet Jim McEwan, a very famous, now retired, master distiller. Rain and hail have been gunning down for an hour (on Islay people go for walks in the rain – the alternative would be hibernation), and after being introduced to Jim, I say, in that English way, ‘Bit rainy today, Jim.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that,’ replies Jim, squinting into the clouds as I imagine he once squinted into old amber malt whiskies. ‘I’d call this a long shower.’
The following day I will say to Adam Hannett, Jim’s successor as head distiller at the Bruichladdich distillery, ‘The weather here is mad, it changes by the minute!’ and he will say, ‘Weeeell, not so much minute by minute… I’d say it changes about, say, every… 20 minutes.’ I wait for him to laugh to show that this is a joke. He does not laugh.
Islay (pronounced eye-la) lies off the west coast of Scotland, a Hebridean island of 239 square miles and about 3,000 people. Its main industries are livestock farming, tourism, fishing, and whisky distilling, the latter commanding international renown: Islay single malts are famous for their strong, peaty flavours that come from the use of peat for heat in the barley-malting process. There are eight working distilleries, any number of abandoned ones, and three more planned. Distilling is not the biggest employer – farming and tourism are bigger – but it is important on an island whose population is falling, and where the alternatives of farming or fishing involve hard work for precarious money.
‘The good jobs are always in the distilleries,’ a fisherman’s daughter tells me in a hotel bar one night, ‘because they pay every month.’ Islay was a beautiful place, but it could be hard going. Twenty years ago there was ‘a lot of unemployment, a lot of fighting in pubs’, though that has improved thanks to the current good fortunes of whisky and tourism.
Laphroaig, Lagavullin, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Ardbeg… the Gaelic brand names are ancient, but in truth the whisky industry has for centuries risen and fallen with economic cycles and changing tastes, and for the upturn in the 2000s Islay has to thank – isn’t this so often the way? – a cultural shift, and a specific group of mavericks, or madmen or geniuses, depending on your point of view. The shift began about 25 years ago. Anthony Wills, the founder of the small, farm-based distillery in Kilchoman on the west coast, is an Englishman who has worked in the drinks industry all his life. Sitting in the distillery shop as overall-clad farm lads unload a 40-ton barley lorry outside in the yard, he remembers that, ‘Back then whisky was for old boys, and single malt seemed out of reach and uninteresting to younger people. The marketing changed, the distilleries opened up and what appealed to people was the fact you can line up 8-10 whiskies from Islay, and there can be great differences between them.
‘By contrast, other dark spirits – Cognac, Armagnac, brandy – are different but all within a narrow band. In the past 15 years the whisky brands have experimented and the customers have loved it, so while the market was dominated by six to eight brands, now there’s everybody, and all sorts of expressions are being released. The variety has caught on, and that will give it longevity.’
The madmen/mavericks/geniuses were assembled in the early 2000s at Bruichladdich (pronounced brook-laddy) – a late-19th-century complex that stands on the shore of the sea loch Indaal – by an eccentric, upper-class, third-generation London wine merchant called Mark Reynier. Reynier had become obsessed by Bruichladdich’s whisky, which was unusually delicate and unpeated. After the distillery was closed down by new, multi-nat owners in the mid-19s, he put together a consortium of 50 investors, and bought it and its stock for £6.5 million. No one knew quite what to make of him; he was critical of some Islay distilleries who bought barley in from anywhere and matured much of their stock off the island, and he adopted striking, modernist branding which was an implied attack on the usual clichéd Scottishness that often cloaked an industrial approach to the product. He refused to join the Scotch Whisky Association, and announced there would be ‘No massive publicity budget expounding on the “tartan and bagpipes”,’ and ‘No faux heritage or “where the eagle soars”, Monarch of the Glen bollocks.’
‘The Scots whisky industry had educated people to believe certain things,’ says Carl Reavey, Bruichladdich’s media content creator, who has been involved with the company since Reynier’s arrival. ‘People believe it is associated with place, when its association with place is often very limited. People believe it is a natural product, when much of it is not, because you can’t produce Scots whisky at 40 per cent without it being cloudy, unless you take out its natural oils with a process called chill filtering. People believe it’s old, when most of the whisky in blended whisky is quite young, and coloured with caramel to make it look older – the industry has educated people to think darker equals older, which isn’t necessarily the case. And also, it has taught them that older is better, which again is not necessarily the case. With a heavily peated whisky, the peat flavour peaks at five years old, then fades. We attacked all that.’
Reynier recruited Jim McEwan from the Bowmore distillery, where he had worked for 38 years, and set about doing things differently. Refusing to use colouring or chill filtering, they introduced ideas associated with French notions of terroir. They used local barley, so that for the first time since World War I, customers could buy Islay whisky made from Islay grain. They made micro-varieties, non-peated, peated and incredibly heavily peated, experimenting with casks and barley varieties, even to the extent of producing batches from the barley in specific fields. And they guaranteed that every drop was matured on the island. This latter point is important. ‘Whisky-making’ tends to conjure images of the mash, the fermentation, the great, hot copper stills and the stillmen expertly capturing the right vapours at the right time; those images are valid, but that process, which produces a clear, sharp-tasting spirit, takes only weeks. After that comes the storing and warehousing in the wooden casks – almost always secondhand, usually bourbon or sherry but these days also madeira, port, rum and wine – that impart natural colour and flavour. In the choice, changing, blending and storing of the oak casks lie the origins of all the colour, and 60 to 70 per cent of the eventual flavour.
There are dozens of dim, glassless-windowed warehouses full of ageing spirit on the island, busy with deliveries and pick-ups, but also a bit like ancient earthworks, buildings made by people with a different sense of time. Scotch isn’t Scotch until it’s been matured for three years, and most of it isn’t much cop until it’s 10 years old. People make claims about time moving slower on islands everywhere, but here that time-sense is genuinely apparent in the way the distillers talk about the island making the taste of the whisky.
‘I was tasting some of our Port Charlotte whisky yesterday afternoon in our warehouses in Port Charlotte,’ Adam tells me one morning in the dark, cold, sweet-smelling warehouse behind the Bruichladdich distillery. ‘They’re very, very old, from a distillery that closed in 1929. The whisky I was tasting was from 2001, the first distillation the distillery made under the new owner, and it had this incredible salty flavour. I looked around the warehouse and I saw the rust, the windows barred but with no glass, the wind coming straight through… and in maturation the cask is essentially breathing, drawing in the air, you know? The alcohol evaporates, so air is drawn in, and reacts with the spirit. Maybe that’s only a small part of what makes it taste the way it does, but it’s important. That’s why we think Islay whisky should be matured here.’
The conversations Bruichladdich kicked off in the industry and their de-fogeyfying of the drink must have helped. It is strange to think that 30 years ago, for all its fame, Islay whisky was mostly thought of in the industry as an ingredient to make mainland blends more interesting. The majority still goes for blending, though that is mainly thanks to some huge-scale production in a few highly mechanised distilleries.
It’s in the everyday stories and turns of phrase that you feel the drink in the culture, really, and there’s a sort of implied lyricism in the descriptions of process, tools, machinery, buildings and landscape that reminds you you’re only 20 miles from Ireland. Most of the islanders – not all – talk about themselves as practical rather than poetic, but what kind of practical person chooses to live on a tiny, inaccessible island that has eight whisky distilleries, and where farmers have to wait until the seed-hungry wild geese migrate before they plant their crops? Poetry flickers beneath the surface of life here like brown trout in a loch: one Friday afternoon I sit down with James Brown, a farmer who grows barley for Bruichladdich, and he opens a bottle and says, ‘Shall we throw this cork away?’ Another day I go on a tour of the Bruichladdich distillery. The guide is Christy, a woman in her 20s from the east side of the island, and at one point she pauses to remark on the old barley milling machine, used to grind the malted barley into grist for brewing. It is a ‘Boby mill’, made by Robert Boby of Suffolk in the early 20th century, and she thought it was marvellous, especially as they had had the proper belts attached. ‘I walked in there, and I was like a kid in a sweetshop, saying, “My God! Look at this!” Health and Safety has made them cover the belts up a bit now,’ she sighs. ‘But it’s still so exciting to see.’
Somewhere near the bottom of the bottle that afternoon, James Brown says that until recently, Islay ‘didn’t know what it had’. ‘Think of the tax on every bottle,’ he says. Think of the money we generated. It could have been the wealthiest place in the world, but none of it came back here.’
Christy, who has brought me to see James, tells a story about people who say Islay should be a sovereign state.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I would be minister of agriculture’
‘You’d drink all the produce.’