08 February 2024
Islay is the most southern island of the Inner Hebrides, which lie off the west coast of mainland Scotland and it’s the spiritual home of malt whisky in Scotland. It has a footprint of only 21 miles by 17 miles shaped like a kind of smudged version of the British Isles. Don’t let its diminutive form fool you though, with nine currently active distilleries (and more in the making) the 3,500-or-so people who call Islay home are sat on an industry that would probably make every one of them a millionaire were they to be an independent state. Unlikely as it may sound, once upon a time Islay and many of the other Western isles, were ruled as separate kingdoms, and it was the kings of those lands that in 843 founded the Royal House of Scotland. Even today “The Queen of the Hebrides” has that feeling of something epic, ancient and wild, weathered by old winds and relentless sea.
It was on Islay that the first Scottish whiskies were probably made. Once the know-how sailed over the short 19 mile crossing from Ireland, thirsty Lords set their minions to task creating aqua vitae. And Islay was ready for it: Soft water, fertile soil, not to mention the fact that around the third of the island is peat bog that could be used to fire the stills.
During the late 18th century illicit farmyard distilling was endemic and continued well in to the 1800’s. As Alfred Barnard put it in 1887, “In those days every smuggler could clear at least ten shillings a day, and keep a horse and cow”. Many legitimate operations were also registered during this period, but most failed the test of time, or were swallowed up by the more familiar names that still stand today. A church minister from Port Ellen wrote in 1794 that “The quantity of whisky made here is very great; and that the evil that follows drinking to excess is very apparent on this island.” - a few years later a small armed force were sent to Islay to deal with the issue of illicit distilling. Excise men were too scared to police the island, regarding the locals as ‘wild and barbarous people.’
Whatever their temperament, it didn’t take away from their thirst for making and drinking a good dram. By the middle of the 19th century Islay whiskies were held in high esteem, with even the Royal Household placing orders for “a cask of best Islay Mountain Dew” in 1841. As the time of blends drew closer though, Islay malt whiskies became more of a rarity, with almost all of the spirit being sucked up by blenders, such as Johnnie Walker, Black Horse, Dewar’s and Bells.
Nowadays, Islay whisky draws in a big crowd in its own right; It optimises uisge beatha. It’s the end of the journey, the final piece in the puzzle, and the huge rough-cut jewel in the crown. Islay whiskies are the raggedy blueprint for Scotch as a whole.
A visit to Islay today can be made by either ferry from the Scottish mainland, which takes about two hours, or on a short flight from Glasgow airport. The island is like an unofficial whisky theme park, colour-washed and wind battered by the fierce climate. Nearly all of its inhabitants are employed by whisky in one shape or another, whether it be a hotelier, providing accommodation for the droves of notepad-clad visitors; or a lorry driver, shifting the 1500 tons of barley that move around Islay every week; or a distillery worker, involved in one of the many tasks that take place on site every day.
Seaweed& Aeons& Digging& Fire is the 10th Islay whisky we have featured in six years of Whisky Me, however it is the first for almost two years. Here's all the ones we have featured in the past:
- Caol Ila Distillers Edition (January 2018)
- Kilchoman Sanaig (May 2018)
- Laphroaig Lore (November 2018)
- Bowmore Vaults (January 2019)
- Ardbeg An Oa (February 2020)
- Bunnahabhain 12 (June 2020)
- Bunnahabhain Toiteach A Dah (June 2020)
- Kilchoman Machir Bay (July 2021)
- Caol Ila 10 Year Old Whisky Me Bottling (April 2022)
We have never featured whiskies from Bruichladdich or Lagavulin or newcomer Ardnahoe - unless, that is, Seaweed& Aeons& Digging& Fire comes from one of them - however we will get to them eventually!