The Hebridean island of Islay is set to get a brand new distillery - its ninth. A French distiller is seeking planning permission for the venture. Celtic Whisky Company owner Jean Donnay - who runs Glann ar Mor Distillery in Brittany with his wife Martine - has applied for permission to demolish existing outbuildings at Gartbreak Farm, near Bowmore, and build a new distillery. The planned distillery, which is on the shores of Loch Indaal, is set to open in the spring of 2015. The venture will be called Gartbreck and will be Islay's smallest distillery - and the third owned by a French company. Islay went 125 years without getting a new distillery. Now it is set to have two in a decade, following Kilchoman's opening in 2005. Mr and Mrs Donnay have run their small Bretan distillery since 2005. "Islay has to be regarded as the maker of whisky on the planet. I can't think of a better place to have a distillery. Gartbreck is a magical site," said Mr Donnay. "I am currently making whisky exactly like they made it in Scotland 50 years ago. You get lots of distilleries opening up all over the world but they don't have the character of a Scotch malt. "Scotch whisky is like great classical music. You have to understand it to appreciate it, but that takes time - there's a complexity about it." He hopes to produce 55,000 litres-a-year of peaty mal.
THE PRICE OF ISLAY’S WHISKY SUCCESS
March 2019 by Scott MacCallum
Full employment, large-scale investment and rising tourist numbers – Islay’s whisky boom is a major success story. And yet islanders are increasingly conflicted about the impact it has on their daily lives. Following Scotchwhisky.com’s investigation of Islay’s infrastructure issues, here’s the view of Scott MacCallum, Islay-based journalist and former editor of local newspaper The Ileach.
Bruichladdich Islay Festival open day
Festival fun: But the popularity of Fèis Ìle can make the island ‘cramped and uncomfortable’
There has been an advert for Skittles, those little pieces of fruity confectionery, on our television screens recently. It shows a guy for whom everything turns into Skittles when he touches it. As we know, there is no such thing as a new idea – King Midas was doing something similar centuries ago – but, no doubt, an advertising agency will have been well-rewarded for its innovative idea.
The moral is that you should be careful what you wish for. It’s something which is particularly pertinent when discussing Islay and its relationship with the whisky industry. Is there too much whisky on Islay or, to be a little clearer, is the increased and increasing production of whisky on Islay becoming detrimental to the island as a whole?
Surely the production of such a valuable commodity can’t be a bad thing? But talk to the locals and you will find that the island is conflicted. The tourist dollar, yen, euro and pound are extremely welcome, but the increase in visitor numbers, particularly during the Islay Festival, when the population of the island soars from 3,200 locals to over five figures, makes things a little cramped and uncomfortable.
It’s a week when those who love queues as much as their drams are in their element. With every hotel and B&B room booked a year in advance, many visitors resort to camper vans, usually rented, and often with a steering wheel on the ‘wrong’ side. There are any number of near-misses on the narrow roads.
Local voice: Infrastructure investment is desperately needed on Islay, says Scott MacCallum
Ah, those roads. Built on peat and more than capable of dealing with the odd Morris Minor, but now facing a regular pummeling from huge articulated tankers making daily visits to the distilleries. One statistic which has yet to be fully rebuked states that one tanker causes more damage to an Islay road than 150,000 cars.
And those distilleries. Nine of them, if we count Ardnahoe – also including Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. Then there is Port Ellen, which is shaking off its mothballs and expected to reopen in 2020 – although that probably means more like 2022 in Islay time.
There are others at the planning stage, with hopes of going into production in the early 2020s. Among them is one between the village of Port Ellen and Laphroaig, at Farkin, a project of Sukhinder Singh, co-founder of Elixir Distillers.
Conservative estimates see Islay whisky production increasing by one-third over the next five years. And that’s not taking into account those distilleries still at planning stage or, indeed, that great new phenomenon – gin. Production of The Botanist at Bruichladdich is forecast to increase by 290% over the next eight years, and even now the distillery makes more gin than whisky.
One Bruichladdich footnote. As a distillery it employs many more people than any other on the island. The reason? It carries out everything in-house, from marketing to bottling. Bruichladdich currently has a staff of more than 100, which puts a great deal of food on a great many Islay tables. The other distilleries tend to run with a production and warehouse workforce in the mid-teens, boosted by visitor centre staff.
Ardnahoe distillery sign
Number nine: Ardnahoe has become the latest malt whisky distillery to open on Islay
The production increase will certainly put added pressure on Islay’s infrastructure – including those roads, where potholes re-emerge almost as soon as they are filled in, accommodation, and the overstretched and often unreliable ferries and planes.
Islay is rare among Scottish islands in boasting a two-boat ferry service, to cope with the large numbers drawn to the island. However, it reduces to one boat for much of the winter and whenever a boat on another route breaks down or is due for its regular refit.
It can often be impossible for an islander to book a ferry to or from the island at the time they wish to travel. Add weather into the mix and a visit to Islay can be a bit of a lottery – not knowing when or even if you will get on or off the island, thus incurring additional accommodation costs.
Meanwhile, despite the recent announcement of a new service to and from Edinburgh, flying is expensive, with the 25-minute, twice-a-day Glasgow service costing three times as much as a flight from London to Glasgow.
With virtually all of the distilleries owned by large multi-national companies, often based overseas (Kilchoman and Ardnahoe being the exceptions), profits leave the island and find their way into shareholders’ pockets.
Port Ellen beach and maltings
Port Ellen: The revived distillery is scheduled to reopen in 2020 – or 2022 in Islay time
There are some who look enviously at Shetland, which retains a levy per barrel of oil on the island, to the benefit of the locals. When that deal was struck in the 1960s, any thought of a similar agreement for Islay would not have crossed the minds of many, such was the low-key impact whisky was making at the time.
Now such a fund would make an enormous difference. The figure of £200m per annum is freely mentioned as the amount Islay sends to the UK Treasury by way of alcohol duty – yet very little of it returns. Were there to be a 5p-a-litre levy placed on whisky, Islay would benefit to the tune of around £1m a year – not much in terms of big business, but huge when it comes to what it could do for a small island.
But, and this is the counter-argument, why should distilleries on Islay have to pay more ‘tax’ than distilleries on the mainland? Don’t they give enough already? Kilchoman has contributed to the much-needed improvements to the public road which its lorries and visitors use to access the distillery. But was it really down to them?
Repair costs: Kilchoman helped fund maintenance of the public road leading to the distillery
Diageo has the biggest footprint on Islay with Lagavulin, Caol Ila and Port Ellen emerging from its mothballs, as well as the Port Ellen Maltings. The company points to Islay visitor numbers which don’t bear comparison with those at its busiest distilleries, Blair Athol and Talisker. Annually they have over 80,000 visitors each, while Lagavulin and Caol Ila – which is about to see its visitor centre expanded and improved – bring in 42,000 visitors between them.
The point is that the distilleries themselves are not the problem when it comes to the ‘too much of a good thing’ argument. It’s the failure of the infrastructure to keep up with the popularity of single malt whisky and the birth of whisky tourism.
The island has an unemployment rate of 0.6% which, in all but name, is full employment. In other words, there are more jobs than people.
Great, you might say – Utopia! But finding people to become tour guides, or to work as chambermaids or bar staff in hotels, is a huge headache. Locals already have one or more jobs, and incomers to the island help, but where are they going to live? Lack of available housing is another issue, compounded by the fact that there are many lovely houses which lie empty for much of the year. They are known as Dark Houses – holiday homes.
If this sounds like a litany of complaints, please forgive me. Islay is a fabulous place and it owes much to the production of its fantastic whisky. A small dot off the west coast of Scotland, but people make pilgrimage from every alcohol-drinking nation on the planet.
For many, coming to Islay is the culmination of a dream. We are very lucky to live on the island and enjoy the company of these whisky lovers. However, to maximise their enjoyment and to make our lives as liveable as possible, investment in Islay’s infrastructure has to match investment in the distilleries.
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Brewery opens experimental Scotch distillery
Deeside Brewery in Aberdeenshire has begun distilling an experimental style of Scotch whisky.
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15 March 2017
Torabhaig: countdown to distillery opening
The new Isle of Skye distillery documents key milestones from building work to production.
Groundhog Day for Scotch distillery boom?
FROM THE EDITORS
06 January 2017
Groundhog Day for Scotch distillery boom?
The surge in new Scotch distilleries has some striking similarities to the Victorian whisky boom..
THE FLIPSIDE OF THE ISLAY WHISKY BOOM
Islay is ‘whisky island’ – home to no fewer than nine distilleries, with more on the way. Whisky has brought investment and jobs to the Queen of the Hebrides, but there are challenges too, including crumbling roads and an inadequate ferry service. Richard Woodard investigates.
Port Ellen distillery artist's impression
Back from the dead: The revived Port Ellen is one of many new projects on Islay
The whisky industry has been kind to Islay. In the past 20 years or so, Ardbeg and Bruichladdich have been revived, Kilchoman and Ardnahoe built, and production expanded at Caol Ila.
And there’s more to come, with £100m-plus in investment planned for the island: Kilchoman and Ardbeg are doubling capacity, Laphroaig is expected to expand, Bruichladdich continues to invest in warehousing. More distilleries are set to follow: Elixir Distillers’ new plant at Farkin, the resurrected Port Ellen and, maybe, long-awaited Gartbreck.
Then there are the tourism projects, including Diageo’s grand plans for Caol Ila, and Bunnahabhain’s £10.5m makeover. Kilchoman is about to open a new visitor centre too, reflecting the fact that today’s Islay is not just a location for whisky production, but also a tourist destination in its own right.
Islay and Scotch whisky are an undoubted success story, but one that brings challenges and headaches, as well as benefits. A creaking ferry service, the parlous state of the island’s roads, employment and housing issues… the list goes on, and islanders are increasingly frustrated that their concerns are not being addressed.
‘It’s more difficult when you’re island-based and you’re so dependent on the services you get,’ explains Anthony Wills, founder and MD of Kilchoman. ‘My big gripe is that they haven’t dealt with it. I’m not saying we’re at crisis point, but they need to be energised into dealing with it.’
Latest addition: Ardnahoe has now become Islay’s ninth operational whisky distillery
Islay’s whisky production is likely to increase by 35% over the next five years, according to estimates from Islay Community Council. Even before that expansion, the island paid £196m in excise tax in 2016 (excluding gin).
‘This industry contributes so much to Islay and to the Exchequer and to everyone,’ says a community council spokesperson. ‘The government should be recognising that – don’t kill the goose that’s laying the golden egg.’
Islay is served by two Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferries from Kennacraig on the mainland to Port Askaig and Port Ellen, but – even though the routes account for more than 20% of CalMac’s revenues – the service is patchy, with frequent cancellations and capacity constraints.
‘We’re the only [CalMac] crossing with two ferries, so when another of the ferries on the fleet is down, off our second one goes,’ says Wills. ‘That has a dramatic impact on doing business.’
Of the two vessels, MV Hebridean Isles is ageing, while MV Finlaggan, at the time of writing, is in dry dock for maintenance. According to Transport Scotland, Islay has been in line to receive the next new ferry to join the CalMac network since 2016, but the timescale is vague, with a spokesperson saying that ‘work on vessel specification is currently being taken forward’.
‘What’s really disappointing is that we’re in 2019 and the goalposts keep shifting,’ says the Islay Community Council spokesperson. The understanding is that Islay will get a ‘Finlaggan-plus’-style ferry; however, the island can’t accommodate the larger, 100-metre vessels currently being built because the piers at Port Askaig and Port Ellen are too short.
MV Finlaggan at sea
Patchy service: Islay’s ferry links with the mainland suffer regular cancellations
Bruichladdich CEO Douglas Taylor acknowledges that the distillery is ‘quite accustomed’ to dealing with the immediate impact of cancelled ferries, but he also warns: ‘While our business may not be significantly impacted in the short term, the continued deterioration of CalMac’s current fleet is of concern. Their lack of flexibility – due to only a small number of vessels able to berth at our ports – will certainly lead to an unsustainable, unreliable service.’
Tourism is also suffering as a result, Taylor believes: ‘Other than the obvious operational strain we’re put under, we suspect there are opportunities lost in terms of visitor numbers too. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact figure, but when ferries are cancelled, rerouted or at full capacity, the logical conclusion is our potential custom goes elsewhere.’
Islay is hardly alone in having a pothole problem on its roads but, with whisky production set to expand further in the near future, lorry movements will increase, with the use of 44ft artics putting pressure on the weakest sections at the road edges, says Islay Community Council.
The council reckons it would cost about £17m to bring Islay’s roads up to scratch – but, at a time of public spending cuts, where will the money come from? ‘I have some sympathy with the council – Argyll & Bute’s roads network is so huge that they simply do not have the money to maintain it,’ says Michael Russell, MSP for Argyll & Bute. ‘But the infrastructure on the island is not sufficient to carry the burden that it has.’
One potential solution was for Dunlossit Estate’s Ballygrant Quarry to provide repair materials for Islay’s road maintenance, but the local authority wanted to use one provider across its entire region, and would not commit to a long-term agreement.
Road on Islay
Wear and tear: Islay’s roads are ill-equipped to cope with increased lorry traffic
As a result, materials are imported onto the island, taking up valuable ferry space and leading, says the community council, to short-term, poor-quality repair work on the roads.
Bruichladdich’s Taylor adds: ‘Combine this situation with the heavy goods traffic flow on Islay and you have the same squeeze facing the ferries – that more pressure is put on the local system due to a unique set of commercial circumstances (eight, soon to be nine or 10 distilleries), all within a restricted island set-up which adds more cost, more complexity and inevitably more need for flexible provisions.
‘Again, the local government will miss the mark if they do not realise that the one-size (one contractor) fits-all policy just cannot work for Islay. It will be costly in the long run, not just economically, but socially too.’
HOUSING AND EMPLOYMENT
Another problem of success. Islay’s unemployment rate is effectively zero, and distilleries are offering relatively well-paid, good-quality jobs in production and tourism – a ‘fantastic’ situation which is encouraging young people to stay on the island, rather than leaving to find a job elsewhere, says the community council.
This is altering the local employment culture, adds the council spokesperson. ‘Traditionally, folk got a job and stayed with it for ever on Islay. I think there will be more shifting about, but more employment and more youngsters settling down. We see the population increasing.’
Elixir Distillers distillery artist's impression
Situations vacant: New distilleries, like that planned by Elixir Distillers, need staff
This creates two issues for employers: finding new staff, and finding them somewhere to live. Social housing is filled almost as soon as it’s built and, for the first time in 40 years, house prices are rising by more than 10% in a two-year period.
‘Finding the right staff and giving them accommodation is the biggest issue for anyone setting up a business on the island,’ says Wills, adding that Kilchoman is currently doing up a cottage on-site to offer part-time staff somewhere to stay.
Meanwhile, the new distillery planned by Elixir Distillers for a site near Port Ellen will include accommodation for staff and visitors, subject to planning permission.
Wills adds: ‘We deal with it and we get on with it, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to run a business if you want to bring new staff onto the island to work for you. That’s very difficult because you can’t find housing.’
Pointing out the problems related to Islay’s whisky boom is one thing; suggesting practical solutions quite another. Ferries and roads are, most would say, the most pressing matters on the agenda.
A new freight ferry link between Islay and Greenock or Port Glasgow has been suggested in the past, but there are potential flaws – the need to circumnavigate the Mull of Kintyre via a long route vulnerable to poor weather, and the reluctance of CalMac to allow another operator onto its patch.
Nonetheless, Taylor believes it is ‘an avenue which merits further investigation’, and reports resurfaced at the weekend that Western Ferries may look to start a new freight-only service.
Others are taking a more long-term perspective. Diageo, which owns Lagavulin, Caol Ila and the Port Ellen Maltings (as well as the soon-to-be-revived Port Ellen distillery), says it is in a constant dialogue with local and national government on infrastructure issues, both directly and through the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).
Douglas Taylor, Bruichladdich CEO
Hidden cost: Bruichladdich’s Douglas Taylor thinks Islay’s ferry woes are impacting tourism
Meanwhile, following an Islay Summit on the island last year – attended by local businesses, politicians, CalMac and other interested parties – the SWA has joined forces with Highlands & Islands Enterprise to investigate the future demand for freight ferry services.
‘The Scotch whisky industry is committed to working collaboratively with the local community, Scottish Government, CalMac Ferries and others to ensure the industry and the island of Islay continue to flourish,’ says an SWA spokesperson.
However, the frustration for many on Islay is that potential solutions are still being investigated and discussed, rather than acted upon. ‘There is always a fondness to do more studies,’ says Russell. ‘I’m not against getting more information if it can help, but there has to be recognition that Islay is a special case.
‘If the whisky companies are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on Islay and the tax revenue goes to Westminster, then what role should Westminster play in this? The question the companies have to address is: should they be saying to the UK Government: “Hang on a minute, we need more help here.”
‘This is a problem of success, but it’s got to be tackled. This is a 21st-century industry, but it’s one that’s being served in a 19th-century way with ferries that are almost like something out of Whisky Galore. We need radical thinking.’
Meanwhile, Islay Community Council’s message to the UK Government is simple: ‘Come on, step up to the plate and recognise that this island is totally unique because of the circumstances. It’s the only island that generates that level of revenue per head for the government. Here you’ve got a real success story, but it needs more help.’
Or, as Anthony Wills puts it: ‘The island has got busier and busier on the back of the whisky industry. The council and the government have just not reacted, and so we get into this meltdown situation.
‘It’s not about doing more bloody studies, it’s about getting off your backside and doing something about it.’
ISLAY’S TURBULENT WHISKY HISTORY
Despite centuries of warfare, taxation and changing economic tides, Islay’s resilient population has kept whisky making alive on the island. Iain Russell explores Islay’s tempestuous whisky history, and the island’s recent peaty revival.
￼￼Lagavulin distillery’s iconic White Horse emblem was a notable landmark for shipping to Islay
No one knows when the people of Islay – the Ileachs – began distilling, but commentators were noting the islanders’ fondness for whisky by the 1770s. It was at this time that Islay’s largest landowner, Walter Campbell of Shawfield, was actively encouraging diversification of the island’s predominantly agricultural economy through the development of industries such as linen-making, mining and fishing. Campbell hoped distilling would boost demand for locally-grown barley, earn much-needed cash for his tenants through exports, and foster jobs in new and prosperous industrial communities.
Campbell ‘farmed’ the excise duties on Islay – he held the right to set and collect the payments on the island, in return for an annual payment to the government. However, when a national prohibition on distilling was introduced in 1795 during a period of crop failures, he did his patriotic duty: he confiscated and locked away at least 90 stills belonging to his tenants, to ensure they could not be used. In addition, he gave up the excise farm; in future, the islanders would have to pay duties set by the government.
In response, according to the report of a senior excise official in 1799, Campbell’s tenants ‘got over from Ireland tinkers, who fitted up for them cauldrons and boilers as stills’. When the prohibition on distilling ended, not a single Islay distiller applied to the Scottish Excise Board for a licence nor paid a single penny in duty – the industry had gone underground
There was an explosion of whisky-related criminality on Islay during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. British historian Alfred Barnard wrote that ‘smuggling was the chief employment of the crofters and fishermen, more especially during the winter… and large families were supported by it’.
Islay whisky flowed freely to Argyllshire, Inverness-shire, Mull, Lewis, Galloway and Ireland. It was smuggled across the Mull of Kintyre to Ayrshire. It was carried in the holds of small boats along the River Clyde, hidden under cargoes of potatoes, straight to the heart of Glasgow.
At first, the small band of excisemen stationed on the island was overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge. They complained of threats and physical assaults when they attempted to confiscate or destroy the illicit stills. They called for reinforcements.
Excise boats were sent to patrol the seas around Islay, and they landed armed raiding parties to search for and destroy stills hidden in houses and byres, in bothies and in caves. Hundreds of men and women were charged each year either with making or selling whisky without a licence, most notably on the Oa peninsula and along the south coast.
Yet the Ileachs were not passive victims of excise persecution, as they are sometimes portrayed. Many offenders simply refused to turn up in court when summonsed. Members of the McEachern family, for example, were charged with breaking into an exciseman’s cellar and stealing 125 gallons of whisky. Like others who failed to appear in court, they were outlawed. Reports suggest that, rather than flee from the island, they went into hiding and continued to make whisky illegally.
Those convicted of excise offences were hardly discouraged. Fines were deliberately set at a low level by the island’s magistrates who knew the offenders as friends, tenants or customers. In 1824, the Scottish Excise Board received a complaint that ‘some of the delinquents have been fined upwards of 30 times, which has no other effect than encourage them’.
After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, greater efforts were made to stamp out the illicit trade and some of Islay’s more ‘responsible’ tenants were encouraged to take out licences to distil. However, while these men might have mastered the art of distilling, most lacked the capital, the business skills or the market contacts – sometimes all three – required to survive the periodic crises which buffeted the industry.
One by one, these small distilleries failed or were acquired by members of the new breed of whisky brokers and blenders emerging on the mainland. Port Ellen was acquired by mainland interests in the 1820s, Lagavulin in 1836, and Bowmore in 1837 – the same year that Ardbeg, which was effectively in liquidation, was rescued by its Glasgow agents.
Islay’s population peaked at around 15,000 people around 1830, with most of the population still living by subsistence farming. During the second half of the century however, much of the rural population was lost through emigration. Many of those who remained were resettled in Port Ellen, Bowmore and other villages, and the distillers began to play an increasingly important role in island life.
The distillers lobbied for and provided better piers and sea connections with the mainland. They supplied community leaders such as the Grahams of Lagavulin, the Hays of Ardbeg and, most notably, John Ramsay of Port Ellen. Small coastal villages grew up around the distilleries – Ardbeg, for example, was at one time home to around 200 people and had its own post office, school and billiards hall.
To what extent the people of Islay benefitted from whisky making is open to debate. The distilleries provided an income for hundreds of islanders and their families, but there were very few well-paid positions in management. Company profits were largely repatriated to the mainland. A social divide was exemplified by the fact that, while English was the language of the distillery office, Gaelic remained the predominant language in the maltings and warehouses until the 1960s.
Islay whisky hit new heights of popularity in the 1870s and 1880s, when it was highly sought after to provide body and big, peaty flavour for blended Scotch whiskies. Investment flooded in to the island to extend existing distilleries and to build new ones at Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain.
Yet Islay whisky was always at the mercy of international events. Two world wars, Prohibition in the US and the Great Depression of the late 1920s until the ‘30s resulted in long periods of closure for the distilleries. In the worst cases, Lochindaal closed forever in 1929 and Port Ellen, mothballed that year, did not reopen until 1967. There were years of extreme hardship for those who had been employed at the distilleries or in whisky-related jobs such as peat-cutting and transport.
A new boom in sales of blended Scotch in the 1960s and early ‘70s brought renewed investment in distillery plants and facilities on Islay, but also fuelled the period of overproduction which filled the infamous ‘whisky loch’ of the early 1980s. Islay whisky’s rollercoaster ride continued; the surging worldwide demand for lighter spirits such as vodka, and the change in taste from big and peaty to light and delicate blended whiskies, accentuated the slump in orders for fillings from the island.
Ardbeg closed entirely between 1981 and 1989 and hirpled through the 1990s with little investment. Bunnahabhain closed for two years in 1982 and Port Ellen was closed in 1983 and demolished. Bruichladdich shut in 1995. Job losses affected a significant proportion of a population that had fallen to under 4,000.
And then came the single malts revival. A growing interest in traditional foods and drinks, and in products with bold, distinctive flavours, was exemplified by the success of the Campaign for Real Ale in Britain. Journalists like Wallace Milroy, Michael Jackson and Jim Murray began to sing the praises of peaty single malts. Lagavulin acquired a cult fan base after it was included in the ground-breaking The Classic Malts of Scotland selection by United Distillers & Vintners in 1988. Allied Distillers launched the category-defining ‘Love it, Hate it’ campaign which promoted the cult of Islay, and encouraged whisky drinkers to visit the island on a peaty pilgrimage.
Suddenly, Islay was on the rise again. Ardbeg and Bruichladdich reopened under energetic new management. Sales of Islay single malts have increased exponentially. Kilchoman and now Ardnahoe have opened, Port Ellen is to be rebuilt and at least two other distilleries are in the planning pipeline. Islay’s annual Festival of Music and Malt has become one of the most eagerly anticipated events on the world’s whisky calendar, and attracts tens of thousands of visitors.
While the expansion of the whisky industry on Islay has brought well-publicised challenges and inconveniences, there is no doubt it has made a huge contribution to a renewed confidence in Islay’s economy and to the end of nearly 190 years of depopulation. Whisky tourism is a growing island industry. There is a strong interest in exploring ‘traditional’ ways of doing things on Islay; to rebuilding maltings, to working with local barley and to exploring other aspects of Islay ‘terroir’. The distillers have begun grooming young Ileachs for jobs as brand ambassadors and in sales and management – jobs which have been dominated by mainlanders in the past. No one can better communicate the personality of Islay, than a person from Islay.
Islay’s international reputation as the home of big peaty whiskies is now well-established, and the fortunes of the people who live there will be inextricably linked with the industry for the foreseeable future. But the lessons of more than 200 years of boom and bust are that popular tastes are cyclical, that demand for Islay’s single malt whisky can plummet as spectacularly as it can rise.
There is a realisation that the way ahead is to diversify – to produce Islay whiskies that range in flavour from extremely peaty to not peaty at all, as at Bruichladdich, and to develop and promote new types of whiskies and other products such as gin, always with a distinctive Islay character.