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Islay whisky

The Whisky Island

On the small Isle of Islay, life revolves around traditional whiskymaking
and farming, with one distillery for every 400 inhabitants.

BY PAUL STAFFORD

Winters on the island of Islay can be punishing. All along the west coast of Scotland, storms and rain seem to take up residence like migratory birds. Islay is frequently left in isolation as choppy seas and high winds cause cancellations to ferries and flights from the mainland. The Calmac ferry I had taken from Kennacraig had stumbled over the surf like a lecherous drunk; the rest of the dayís crossings had already been cancelled in advance. During inclement weather such as this, whisky makes more sense than ever.

Of the five whisky regions in Scotland, this peaceful island in the Southern Hebrides is perhaps the most revered. Islay has a population of around 3,200. For the sake of context, that means there is one whisky distillery for every 400 people here. To these eight operating distilleries, one more will be added at Gartbreck, which plans to start production this year. Another at Ardnahoe is rumored to have received planning permission.

As I arrived at Bruichladdich Distillery the rain showed little sign of abating. My contact there was stuck on the mainland; his flight home had been cancelled. Instead, his colleague Christy bustled into the visitorís center. She pulled back her shock of auburn hair into a ponytail and inquired about what I wished to know.

"I'd like to see where the whisky starts its life, where the ingredients come from," I said, eager to discover more about the natural properties on the island that lend the whisky such vitality.

Fifteen minutes later, shivering slightly in the frigid air, I pulled on a pair of Wellingtons. We had driven inland to harvest peat, that core ingredient of Islay single malt that creates the distinctive smoky, at times almost medicinal, taste-bud tingle. The terrain on all sides was a russet expanse that was slowly eaten up by the disquiet of an encroaching Scotch mist. Christy handed me a pitchfork and a peculiar tool known as a tusker, which has a right-angle blade for slicing the earth.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2017 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos© Paul Tomkins / VisitScotland / Scottish Viewpoint