PART ONE: BOOM & BUST
Islay has a long tradition of whisky making. In many circles, that carries a weight and gravitas that heritage equals quality.
Beyond the borderline cheesy marketing used in today’s sales literature, the tradition of whisky making on Islay means that knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, sometimes within families. It can offer a unique perspective regarding the contrasts in techniques from then ‘til now.
“Whisky used to be made with time and care and respect”, you’ll hear. “It wasn’t forced through a still and made as efficiently as possible. There weren’t people sitting in front of a control board pushing buttons under air-conditioning.” If you go back far enough, to the 19th century say, there are documents supporting the suggestion that whisky-making in ‘the good old days’ was done with more effort, increased labour but also increased uncertainty. The workforce was thrice what it is in most Scotch distilleries today, and practices that kept spirit consistent were seldom applied. The process was far from ‘optimised’ with modern machinery but gradually marginal gains were sought, including where high-yielding barley could be sourced.
The older generation here will proudly comment on barley being brought from India, even as far afield as Australia, due to the large pea size, the ease of malting and the ultimate yield per tonne of alcohol. That’s not to say that all barley was grown outside of the country, but by the 1960s, in a global supply chain that was commercially driven, it was commonplace to buy the component that was most beneficial, rather than what was reared on your doorstep. Think outsourcing along the lines of today’s steel supply.
To give context to the time and place of when this barley was brought to Islay, distilleries were still being used as factories to produce the component parts for blends. The price of whisky was often dictated by another in the chain, and owners were forced to make whisky cheaply and in favour of consistency. The spirit was to be combined with other distiller’s spirits; a mixture of cheap grain spirit with a few single malts included for robustness and flavour. There was no starring role for single malts within a blend necessarily, no overt marketing benefit to the distillery’s name and so the temptation to make alcohol outgrew any desire to make that spirit as flavoursome as possible.
It was a boom and bust industry, where trends for specific types of drinks, world wars, and a prohibition movement could open and close distilleries in a matter of weeks. The commercial agility of distillers determined their survival. An industry left jaded by economic downturn is a necessarily ‘lean’ industry, one where a room for error is no longer tolerated and where the safe path is the only path.