For travellers, islands have an unspoken allure as places of mystery and otherness, destinations that promise to take us – body and mind – somewhere new. Some, like Atlantis and Avalon, are places of myth and fantasy, while others – Ellis Island in New York Bay, for instance – can be portals to a new life.
What islands share is a distinct sense of their own identity, represented by their unique landscapes, but also by the people who inhabit them, the lives they lead, and the artefacts they create. Island whisky may make us think of Islay, Orkney and Skye; of Arran, Mull and Jura. But, beyond the borders of Scotland, whisky is being made right now on islands dotted all over the globe, from Hokkaido to Nantucket, Tasmania to Taiwan.
To begin in Islay, though, legend has it that the science of distillation first found a Scottish foothold here more than seven centuries ago, and the Hebridean island is currently in the grip of a single malt boom, with nine distilleries in operation, and at least two more on the way.
Islay-born Bruichladdich head distiller Adam Hannett has lived there nearly 40 years. ‘It’s about the place and the people, not just the whisky,’ he says. ‘You see the shadows coming across the loch, the way the light is at this time of year. The love of the place – that comes through into the whisky. If we were making whisky elsewhere, somewhere else in the country, it would be different.’
And yet talk of an ‘Islay’ style of whisky is problematic. You might think ‘Islay = peat’, but Bruichladdich’s single malts have none of it (the distillery’s Port Charlotte and Octomore expressions cater for peat freaks), and neither do those from Bunnahabhain, located away on the northeast coast. Even when we talk about the famously peaty Kildalton trio of Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin, the contrasts are as important as the similarities, and few would mistake Laphroaig’s medicine cupboard tang for Lagavulin’s billowing smoke.
Beyond Islay there is lonely Jura, recently given an impressive flavour overhaul; Talisker’s savoury chilli pepper smoke on the Isle of Skye (alongside brilliant new ventures from Torabhaig and neighbouring Raasay); Isle of Arran’s excellent twin distilleries; Highland Park and Scapa on Orkney; Tobermory on Mull; Isle of Harris; Isle of Lewis… Given Scotland’s unrivalled island whisky riches, it’s no surprise that others have sought to emulate its example.
Around the world
When Japanese whisky pioneer Masataka Taketsuru sought to open a distillery almost a century ago after a pilgrimage to Scotland, his quest for suitably Caledonian conditions took him north to the island of Hokkaido. To this day, the distillery he built there, Yoichi, embodies a sooty, oily style of whisky that, while inherently Japanese, carries distinct echoes of Scotland.
For Bill Lark, often dubbed ‘the godfather of Australian whisky’, the lightning bolt struck one day in the early 1990s, when he was fly fishing with his father-in-law in the Tasmanian highlands. He recalls: ‘I realised: “We have top-quality barley, some of the cleanest water in the world, the climate is spot-on and there are peat bogs in the state.” The idea to start making whisky here always seemed like a no-brainer to me.’
Three decades on, Tasmania is the epicentre of Australia’s resurgent whisky industry, and Lark is still at the forefront. ‘The climate and environment of a distillery has a huge impact in the creation of spirits, and the goal of any distiller is to capture the essence of your surroundings,’ he says. For Lark, that means locally sourced barley and freshwater sphagnum moss peat cut from the company’s own bog in the Tasmanian highlands.
At a time when we are more curious than ever about how and where things are made, this sense of place is increasingly vital. Bruichladdich sources about half its barley from farms on Islay – no mean feat, given how frequently the island is battered by Atlantic gales – and all its whiskies are matured and bottled locally.
Still, though, it remains a work in progress: malting is carried out on the mainland (Bruichladdich plans to open its own maltings within a few years), and the peat for Port Charlotte and Octomore is not sourced on Islay. Hannett hopes that will change, but for the moment he remains proud of a distillery that was mothballed between 1994 and 2001 – and that now employs dozens of islanders.
‘If we were worried about cost, we wouldn’t mature or bottle our whisky here, but there’s a bigger picture,’ he says. ‘All of this does shape the whisky, but it’s a bigger thing about community and responsibility – people still remember 20-30 years ago, when distilleries here were closing.’
Strip away the romance, and the production of whisky is an essentially industrial, chemical process. But factor in the location where it is made, and the people who make it, and the result is something that transcends the dry science of distillation. Or, as Lark puts it: ‘Yes, there is an unmistakable scientific process involved, but there is also a kind of alchemy where we distil the properties of our island home into each Lark release. Our ingredients, our team and our soul are Tasmanian, and that resonates in every dram.’
Island treasures: eight whiskies to try
Impeccable provenance – made from barley grown in 2011 by eight Islay farmers – and a typically bright, zesty ‘Laddie’, with comforting layers of vanilla, coconut and salted caramel. A delight. Alc 50%
Lagavulin 8 Year Old
Originally released to mark Lagavulin’s bicentenary and now part of its core range. The purity and precision of the fiery maritime smoke snatches the breath away like a raw blast of wind on a clifftop. Alc 48%
Highland Park 18 Year Old Viking Pride
A study in expression and balance, with the elusive, perfumed smoke always lingering in the background, accompanied by beguiling, ever-changing notes of black cherry, honey and mocha. Alc 43%
Isle of Raasay Single Malt R-02
Exceptionally promising single malt from a young distillery. There’s smoke, but the fruity spirit and eclectic cask choices make for an earthy whisky that marries richness with maritime salinity. Alc 46.4%
Jura 18 Year Old
Jura’s rebooted, softly smoky and savoury spirit style (dating from 2018) really hits its stride with age, and here a red wine cask finish adds layers of brambly fruit, dark chocolate and sandalwood. Alc 44%
Yoichi Single Malt
Yoichi’s diverse spirit styles are melded in this NAS (no age statement) single malt of considerable complexity, combining sooty smoke with ripe orchard fruits, spice and a rooty, herbaceous lift. Alc 45%
Kavalan Sherry Oak
Sherry cask malt, showing unctuous flavours of damson, fig and raisin, alongside a faintly smoky cigar box aroma. Look out for Kavalan’s imminent Triple Sherry Cask release. Alc 46%
Lark Distillery Berry Bros & Rudd Single Cask
Ridiculously complex for a four-year-old whisky, with smaller, 100-litre casks bringing tobacco leaf, cinnamon and vanilla to a vibrantly fruity distillate. High strength, so add water wisely. Alc 60.2%