Distillers on Islay are harnessing the concept of terroir to make exciting single-malt whiskies using locally grown barley and traditional methods. Fiona Rintoul looks at the trend.
Operators Jake Burgess, Neil McEachern and Jamie Muir outside the Kilchoman warehouse at Conisby. Picture credit: Konrad Borkowski, Whisky Island
There’s no better place to feel the pulse of the Scotch whisky industry than on the Isle of Islay. Dubbed ‘the Queen of the Hebrides’ because of its rugged beauty and fertile farming land, Islay is the spiritual home of Scotch. Bowmore, founded in 1779, vies for the title of oldest whisky distillery in Scotland, and illicit moonshine was distilled in the bays at Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg long before that – some say as far back as the mediaeval Lordship of the Isles, which was centred on Islay.
Were you to take Scotch whisky’s pulse on this bonniest of islands, you would find an industry where expensive single malts are thriving as cheaper blends do less well.
“The single-malt sector is increasing as more consumers turn to malts rather than blends,” says Anthony Wills, founder and managing director of Kilchoman, a small farm distillery near the end of a winding single-track road that leads to the great Atlantic-facing sweep of Machir Bay on Islay’s west coast. “The blended sector is very competitive and is driven by price, whereas this isn’t the case with malts.”
Kilchoman exemplifies this trend. When it opened in 2005 it was the first new distillery on Islay for 125 years. Some thought its founders were mad. How could a small, independent newcomer hope to compete with such iconic brands and Laphroaig and Lagavulin, backed, respectively, by Beam Suntory and Diageo?
Financial difficulties in the early days seemed to prove the naysayers right. But the artisanal distillery has found a place for itself in a mature market with a small production of high-quality spirit that doesn’t carry an age statement. For context, Caol Ila, Diageo’s workhorse on Islay, produces as much spirit in a week as Kilchoman does in a year. A bottle of Kilchoman rarely retails for less than £45, and some of the distillery’s specialist expressions cost much more.
Sunset over Bowmore distillery on Loch Indaal. Picture credit: Konrad Borkowski, Whisky Island
According to Wills, the key to Kilchoman’s success is its difference. “You have to have a different story to tell,” he says.
In a market that generally prizes maturity, Kilchoman has become recognised for quality at a relatively young age. The signature Machir Bay expression is created from three-, four- and five-year-old spirit. With this and and other expressions that don’t carry an age statement, such as the 100% Islay and the ex-sherry-cask-matured Loch Gorm, Kilchoman has achieved double-digit growth figures each year that it has been selling whisky.
But high-quality younger spirit is just part of Kilchoman’s difference. It has also reintroduced farm distilling to Islay – taking the industry back to its roots as a by-product of farming. Artisanship is an important part of its farm ethos, and Kilchoman doesn’t use computers. The production is all done by hand.
‘We are showcasing how whisky-making was done years ago,’ says Wills.
In line with this, Kilchoman uses barley grown on Islay in part of its production. As the distillery has its own small malting floor and peat-fired kiln, this means that its 100% Islay expression is the only single malt produced on the island where the entire barley-to-bottle production process is completed in-house. Neighbouring Bruichladdich, which pioneered the use of Islay barley in modern whisky production, doesn’t have a malting floor and instead uses the Diageo-owned Port Ellen Maltings on the island.
Wherever it is malted, the use of locally grown barley in whisky production on Islay has become a trope for the industry’s direction since its 1990s’ renaissance after the disastrous 1980s’ whisky slump that nearly killed off Ardbeg and Bruichladdich. The latter first started working with Islay farmers to grow barley locally in 2003. Nowadays, roughly a quarter of the 1,200 tonnes of barely it uses annually is grown on the island, and it works with 15 local farmers.
Some of them, such as James Brown of Octomore farm, have become rather famous as a result. Brown’s farm has given its name to an entire range of Bruichladdich whiskies: the super- heavily peated Octomore range, which complements the unpeated Bruichladdich and the heavily peated Port Charlotte ranges.