Islay distilleries rain OK

IMG_5337Caol 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.

IMG_5385Nigel 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.

IMG_5188Lines 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?




3 réflexions sur “Islay distilleries rain OK

  1. I do claim to be a whisky connoisseur, having started my « discovery » during the Summer of 1983 while touring Scotland (26 days) on a motorcycle. But I have now narrowed my drinking to mostly Ardbeg & Caol Ila, Springbank, Glenfarclas and the Macallan. This does not mean to say that others cannot be bonnie drams. Last time I visited Caol Ila was a cool rainy day of September 1992 (!), at the wheel of an aging right-hand-drive Peugeot 205. They were in the process of changing the swan-necks of their huge stills and had dismantled the large windows facing the sea in order to achieve the replacement. You fully appreciate the meaning of « chilly morning » on such occasions. Sir Paul is right: « (…) mist rolling in from the sea » and I, for one, also have the desire « always to be here »!


  2. Luc – Given your desire to always be on this sodden Scottish island, if it was anyone but you I would consider it curious that you have decided to settle and set up shop in the driest area of France ……..


  3. There is more than one side to Léon. And it was a MISTAKE to settle there. The grapes are fine, when they grow, but most of the rest is below standards, experience has shown me. Mind you, not because of people as such, but because the way France is run, organized and the way people interact. I must be the most « unfrench » of all French residents. But too late … I was born in the wrong family, with the wrong kind of mind, studied in the wrong direction and chose poorly the last phase of my life. I’m not complaining and accept full liability. Cheers.


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