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Islay History

Out in the wilds of the North Atlantic lies Islay, the Queen of the Hebrides. An unassuming island, a glance over a map would never suggest that this small community of just over 3000 people is one of the great drink producing regions on the planet. Islay is a true icon of the whisky world, with 8 active distilleries, including some of the best known and bestselling across the globe. These distilleries produce malts that thunder with power and drams that dazzle with complexity. Whisky made in Islay is closely tied to environment of the place, with their distinctive smoky flavour produced using peat from local bogs, and the briny undercurrents coming from the ocean waves that often crash against the warehouses. Islay whisky is a truly Scottish institution.

Islay whisky is believed to have a history stretching back to the 14th century, when Irish monks arrived at the island. Whilst Islay is a rugged and somewhat unforgiving place, the monks found a location perfect for distillation, with a ready and endless supply of peat and flowing soft waters from the lochs and rivers. Bere, a precursor the modern barley, was also grown to support the subsistence living of the islanders, yet this often produced a surplus- ideal for brewing and whisky making. In these early centuries, distillation was a monastic and cottage industry, with farmers seeking to avoid crop wastage, very different to the mass production we know today.

Indeed, the spirit itself was rather different to what modern drammers are used to. Clear and vodka like, the warm golden colour we are now familiar with came later as a side effect of storing and moving the drink in wooden barrels. It also had an extremely high strength, as the remarkably named 17th century travel writer Martin Martin attests to:

… the first taste affects all the members of the body: two spoonfuls of this last liquor is a sufficient dose; and if any man should exceed this, it would presently stop his breath, and endanger his life.

This, perhaps the world’s first tasting note, describes usquebaugh-baul, which translates as “perilous whisky”, a spirit that was sometimes quadrupled distilled. In the centuries that followed, distillers often found themselves on the wrong side of the law, and illegal distilling was particularly rife in Islay, a place that government officials avoided due to the “wild and barbarous people”.

Distilling as we know it began with the easing of restrictions on whisky production at the beginning of the 19th century. A little before this, Bowmore was founded, now the oldest distillery on the Island. In time it has been joined by seven other, distilleries (Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Laphroaig, Lagavulin) and has seen many others come and go.

Peat has come to define Islay. This thick soil-like substance is a type of degraded ancient vegetation, which can be dried and burnt for fuel (much of the peat on Islay is over 8000 years old, dating back to the time of Woolly Mammoths), in distilling, peat is used to dry and flavour the malt, giving it a distinctive smokiness.

Whilst it is true many Islay distilleries have the similarity of producing peated whisky each offers something different, and something worth exploring. Laphroaig is known for its particularly maritime style, with heavy iodine flavours and a medicinal nature. Ardbeg has a heavy ashy quality, and oily mouthfeel. Lagavulin has been compared to cognac, and is typically sherried, but retains a peaty intensity. This trio are known as the “Kildarton Cross” distilleries, and they lie in close proximity along the island’s south coast.

To the north is Caol Ila, the largest distillery on the island, which has a gentler peat and a distinct grassy note. Close at hand is Bunnahabhain, notably as it produces largely an unpeated whisky, with a toffee and chocolate profile (it has recently made some forays into peated whisky, with great success).

Then to the west are three more distilleries, Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Kilchoman. Bowmore is the elder statesman of Islay malts, reflected in its balanced and restrained peat. On the other end of the scale are Islay’s unruly teenagers, Bruichladdich, who has recently undergone a revam, and Kilchoman, the newest distillery on the island. Bruichladdich is known for its creative cask and progressive approach, producing fine unpeated whisky, alongside its outrageous super heavily peated Octomore line; whilst Kilchoman has challenged preconceptions about young whiskies, and produces many furiously fiery youthful expressions, with a crisp ashiness.

As the last two distilleries attest, Islay whisky has an impressive future to look forward to, as well as an astonishing past to reflect on. Despite the polarising effects of peat, these distilleries produce some of the best selling and best loved malts in the world. Things look set to continue, as Bruichladdich revives the Port Charlotte brand from its dormant state, and planning permission is granted for a ninth distillery- Gartbreck. If this means more delicious Islay whisky, then that is something we can all raise a dram to.

Did you know?

If Islay was to become independent, it would have one of the highest GDP’s per capita in Europe, due to the low population and impressive revenue from whisky production.

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