Caol Ila by the shore
Having spent a very long week on Islay it is now all too apparent why there are so many distilleries on the island. During our seven days it rained every day and this included at least 60 hours continuously. It is no surprise that Islay has over 400 days of rain annually – an astounding stat …. Also for at least 50% of our time on this watery destination it blew a gale.
All in all a profoundly depressing holiday week.
If it is depressing to spend a week in the rain can you imagine what it must be like to live on the island full time….
It is all too obvious that Islay’s appalling wet climate has long driven its inhabitants to strong drink. Hence the startling number of distilleries on Islay far more than the island’s population and land mass would imply.
There are now eight distilleries on Islay. This represents 7.5% of the whisky distilleries in Scotland. There are 106, apparently, currently in operation. According to the 2011 census the population of Islay is 3228 – just 0.06% of Scotland’s population of 5.3 million people. Equally the proportion of Islay’s land mass is just a small fraction of Scotland as a whole – 620.6 square kilometres against 80,077 square kilometres, so just 0.77%.
Of course the propensity for rain also provides a wonderfully plentiful supply of water for making whisky.
The number of distilleries on Islay may also provide a indication of climate change. Although eight would appear to be plenty to satisfy a population of 3228, there used to be many more distilleries on the island. An article on Islay’s « lost » Whisky Distilleries lists 13 that are now closed. In contrast only one new distillery – the Kilochoman Farm Distillery – has opened in the last 124 years. It was founded in 2005. Thus it may be possible that Islay’s climate during the 19th century was even worse then than it is now. This improvement could have contributed to the demise of the 13 as the population gradually needed fewer drams survive the local climate.
Nigel talking about maturation – Caol Ila
Following my post last week – Islay partially distilled – Hervé asked about the role of terroir in whisky. I am an occasional consumer of whisky, mainly single malts, and make no claim to whisky expertise. We did just one distillery visit – Caol Ila, part of the Diageo group. Nigel, our Tour guide, did a good job pitching the Tour at a level that worked for those for whom this was a first distillery tour as well as those who had already been around a number of distilleries.
The basic Caol Ila tour is good value – £6 per person and you get to take away a whisky tasting glass, which retails at the distillery shop for £5 plus one malt from a choice of three to taste.
Lines of cut peats, Islay
Bearing in mind Hervé’s question last Tuesday about the role of terroir in whisky (Islay partially distilled) I was very interested when Nigel explained that due to the limitations of space here that much of the whisky produced at Caol Ila is shipped to mainland Scotland for maturation in a warehouse at Stirling. This would appear to rule out any substantial influence on the whisky’s flavour from the distillery’s very close proximity to the sea during its maturation.
A maltings floor @Kilchoman
However, even though Caol Ila is a much more gently flavoured whisky, its shares the family Islay characteristics – salty, iodine, sea weed etc. – but far less in your face than a malt like Laphroaig. If a significant proportion of most of the Islay malts are aged on mainland Scotland, then, leaving aside the choice of cask, I assume that the flavour is set by choices and decisions made during the malting, fermentation and distillation processes along with the choice of water, barley with the use (or not) of peat during the malting as well as the shape of the stills playing a part.
If site doesn’t play a role, assuming a broadly similar climate, in cask maturation, I wonder whether it would be possible to reproduce the flavours of Islay malts miles away from this sodden island?