SPIRIT OF THE ISLES

Why is one Scot­tish is­land so fa­mous for mak­ing whisky? Mark Sut­cliffe takes a per­sonal pil­grim­age to Is­lay, the well­spring of ‘the wa­ter of life’ to dis­cover the se­cret

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - Pho­tos: Mark Unsworth

Its whiskies are fa­mous for the tang of smoke and sea­weed; Mark Sut­cliffe makes a pil­grim­age to Is­lay.

“This dense layer of peat is an­other clue to Is­lay’s whisky-mak­ing prow­ess”

The story of sin­gle malt Scots whisky is an in­tox­i­cat­ing tale – a heady mix of myths and leg­ends, swirling be­neath a dense veil of Scotch mist. One thing is cer­tain: some of the most dis­tinc­tive whiskies in Scot­land em­anate from the west-coast is­land of Is­lay, home to eight (soon to be nine) of Scot­land’s 98 ac­tive dis­til­leries.

So what spe­cial in­gre­di­ent makes an unas­sum­ing lit­tle is­land, ac­count­ing for less than onet­hou­sandth of Scot­land’s to­tal land­mass, be­come home to al­most a tenth of the na­tion’s dis­til­leries, pro­duc­ing some 25 mil­lion litres of spirit ev­ery year? I set off with my friend and fel­low jour­nal­ist Phil Clough to find out. The ferry leaves the main­land from the pier at Ken­nacraig and threads its way down the nar­row chan­nel into the Sound of Jura. From the deck there are splen­did views: west to the Paps of Jura, east to Goat­fell on Ar­ran. On the hori­zon to the south-west, pas­sen­gers oc­ca­sion­ally catch a glimpse of North­ern Ire­land’s Antrim coast through the haze. This prox­im­ity to the Emer­ald Isle might be our first clue to the ex­cel­lence of Is­lay whisky. The ev­i­dence sug­gests the Ir­ish were the first to dis­till spir­its, and it stands to rea­son that their near neigh­bours on Is­lay might have been the first Scots to learn the tech­nique from them. Per­haps Is­lay dis­tillers are so good at mak­ing whisky now be­cause they had a head start on the rest of Scot­land.

Be­yond Jura our des­ti­na­tion ap­pears be­fore us. By west-coast stan­dards, Is­lay (pro­nounced ‘eye-la’) is only mod­estly en­dowed in scenery. It’s largely low-ly­ing, with a non­de­script in­te­rior dom­i­nated by blan­ket bog. But this dense layer of peat is an­other clue to Is­lay’s whisky­mak­ing prow­ess. First, on an is­land with few trees, it pro­vides a re­li­able source of fuel. Sec­ond, it acts as both sponge and fil­ter, pu­ri­fy­ing the prodi­gious amounts of rain­fall. The cli­mate helps, too. Frosts are rare, and in the west of the is­land there is soil rich enough to grow bar­ley. Heat, clean wa­ter, grain: the three ba­sic el­e­ments of whisky.

THE PROM­ISE OF PEAT

Soon we can make out the first of Is­lay’s dis­til­leries: low-ly­ing malt­ings and ware­houses hug­ging the coast­line, their names sten­cilled in huge black let­ters on the white­washed walls. Ard­beg, La­gavulin, Laphroaig: they seem as rooted in the land­scape as the quartzite moun­tains that rise up be­hind them. Un­til the mid-20th cen­tury, grain and casks ar­rived by boat and the bulk of the whisky they pro­duced was ex­ported by sea, so the black let­ter­ing served as a nav­i­ga­tional aid.

From Is­lay’s Port Ellen, where the ferry docks, it’s a short hop to the ‘big three’ dis­til­leries on the south coast, but the best bits of Is­lay lie fur­ther afield: across the ‘moss’ – the grassy, wet fields – to the heart of the is­land, then on­wards to the west coast.

Be­side the High Road over the moss, we see tell­tale steps in the blan­ket bog where the peat had been har­vested as fuel. Once dried, the slow-burn­ing

turves im­part a dis­tinc­tive smoky flavour to the dry­ing bar­ley, to pro­duce the sig­na­ture ‘peated’ Is­lay malt.

The bustling lit­tle port of Bow­more is home to the is­land’s old­est dis­tillery, named af­ter the town. Here, Scot­land’s long­est-lived mat­u­ra­tion ware­house sits hard by the sea, with the deep­est cham­bers be­low sea level at high tide.

Across the salt­wa­ter in­let lies the Rhinns of Is­lay, a penin­sula of an­cient rock jut­ting south-west into the At­lantic. It’s an at­mo­spheric place, where choughs wif­fle and soar above the gnarly sea­cliffs stand­ing guard over pris­tine and de­serted beaches. We climb to the radar lis­ten­ing sta­tion at the sum­mit of Cnoc nam Much­lach (known lo­cally as Granny’s Rock) and ad­mire the views stretch­ing north over the im­mac­u­late sands of Machir Bay to the rugged head­lands of the north­ern Rhinns.

From this van­tage point, we can see Is­lay’s new­est dis­tillery: Kil­choman, where my trav­el­ling com­pan­ion Phil bought one of the early casks of liquor shortly af­ter the dis­tillery opened in 2005. Phil’s here to check how his cask is ma­tur­ing, so we pop into the Kil­choman vis­i­tor cen­tre to col­lect a cou­ple of sam­ple bot­tles straight out of the bar­rel. “It’s got po­ten­tial,” Phil reck­ons, “but I’d say it needs a few more years yet.” So Phil agrees to a plan to trans­fer the whisky to a port or sherry cask for a cou­ple of years to give it more depth and com­plex­ity.

EL­E­MEN­TAL FLAVOURS

On the shel­tered east coast of the Rhinns is the pretty lit­tle fish­ing vil­lage of Port Char­lotte and just up the road, the dis­tillery of Bruich­lad­dich. Us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods honed over 135 years, Bruich­lad­dich pro­duces a light, re­fined and sweet spirit that bal­ances the as­trin­gent peati­ness of the south­ern dis­til­leries. Dis­tillery guide Kathryn MacNiven in­vites us into one of the ware­houses for a dram of 13-year-old Port Char­lotte whisky.

The dark and dusty vaults are suf­fused with a heady mix of del­i­cate aro­mas: wood, sherry, spirit. The age­ing process gives the liquor its colour and in­flu­ences the flavour: the bar­rels once con­tained port, sherry, bour­bon or, in this case, red wine from Château Mou­ton Roth­schild. At 57 per cent al­co­hol-byvol­ume, ‘cask strength’ whisky de­serves re­spect, but a splash of cool spring wa­ter re­leases the sub­tleties of

“The dark and dusty vaults are suf­fused with a heady mix of del­i­cate aro­mas”

the spirit. If you’re not on foot and are plan­ning to sam­ple a few whiskies, it’s worth know­ing Scot­land has strict drink-driv­ing laws, so even the tini­est dram could be enough to put you over the limit. Pub­lic trans­port is lim­ited on the is­land, but taxis are plen­ti­ful.

With the sun dip­ping to­wards the hori­zon, we head for the jewel in the Rhinns’ crown: Saligo Bay, where huge At­lantic rollers crash on to a sandy beach riven by rocky out­crops, and the bur­nished palette of the fad­ing day­light re­flects the hon­eyed hues of the is­land’s many malts.

Is­lay’s whiskies are clearly in­flu­enced by this el­e­men­tal is­land en­vi­ron­ment, but it’s the se­crets passed down through gen­er­a­tions of dis­tillers that re­ally shape the most dis­tinc­tive sin­gle malts in Scot­land. The peo­ple who pre­side over the whole process – from har­vest­ing the grain to judg­ing the peat­ing, sourc­ing the wa­ter and se­lect­ing the casks used to fin­ish the whisky – are ab­so­lutely cen­tral to the taste, tex­ture and colour of the fin­ished prod­uct. The spirit of these pas­sion­ate ar­ti­sans per­me­ates the an­cient bedrock of this rugged is­land and flows into the peaty well­springs from which these dis­til­leries draw their wa­ter. You can hear it in the mu­sic in the pubs and bars, feel it in the pas­sion of the dis­tillers, touch it on the rocky head­lands of the Rhinns and taste it in the smoky tang of a peaty Is­lay malt.

5 Machir Bay’s pris­tine sandy beach 6 Mark and Phil look out for wildlife above Machir Bay on the Rhinns of Is­lay 7 Founded in 2005, Kil­choman is Is­lay’s youngest dis­tillery 8 Kil­choman uses bar­ley grown in the fields sur­round­ing the dis­tillery 9 Phil drinks in the view at Ard­beg on the Three Dis­til­leries Walk 9

Crash­ing waves at Saligo Bay – the per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment to a sin­gle malt, or three

Walk­ing among the gnarly out­crops above Sanaig­more on the north­ern tip of the Rhinns

The beaches of the Rhinns of Is­lay are spec­tac­u­lar

The Ki­dal­ton Cross

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