The Islay Debate: Where are we now?

IN

YOUR SAY.

In September, we proposed a question; is Islay just a badge or is it a provenance? Our views were outlined in a previous article.

Never too shy for a bit of healthy debate, the whisky community’s response was overwhelming. Across social media, there were motions of agreement, that ‘Islay’ should mean more than just being distilled on the island.

R.e. aging, I’m not sure the island would cope well with the production volumes of [some of the other Islay distilleries]. But at the very least an Islay whisky should be a brainchild of Islay. Filling a tank with spirit and shipping it off does not make an Islay whisky.

It should BE of Islay, contain Islay and work for Islay. That’s a no-brainer, right?

Being of and for a place with a product is essential I believe, Islay is iconic in the whisky world and malts from the island should be clearly identified and celebrated as such. I would feel the same for any region and especially if we had one on Cowal.

Parma Ham; Melton Mowbray Pork Pie; Champagne; Parmesan; Balsamic Vinegar of Modena… Islay Single Malt – to me it’s about guaranteeing and protecting the provenance and terroir… not just a label. Love what you are doing with The Laddie… keep it going.

After all what goes in the bottle is not just a liquid for consumption, it is a legacy:it is about the people from one generation from the next who pour their love and talent into every part of the process which makes every bottle that leaves Islay the very best representation of the people of Islay.

Others flew the flag for honesty and transparency over all else:

I think being honest is what it is about. It is fine for me if the whisky is matured somewhere else, although I would prefer Islay maturation, but the whisky loving world wants to know how it is done and not be fooled! I think being honest pays off!”

We want more transparency in Scotch whisky and Bruichladdich are fighting for it!

Have two Islay labels distilled and distilled, aged and bottled. Islay & Islay alpha to omega.

Some were indifferent, owing to the fact that whisky is after all a drink, and that so long as it tasted good, what difference did it make where casks were matured or where the whisky was bottled?

It’s all about the final product, as long as it’s got some elements of Islay, and it tastes fantastic!

I don’t really care where the barrels lay. But it should be spirit only – without added artificial colour.

Others pointed out, quite rightly, that if every distiller on Islay were to mature here, our beautiful island home would be littered with warehouses, scarring the landscape. We countered that some see it as a sign of industry and warehouses can be carefully landscaped (with time). We, however, are in full agreement that should every inch of our island be dominated by whisky production, it would be in sad state of affairs.

A hard question. Basically, it would be more honest that it should be aged on Islay as well. However with the output of the other distilleries, I guess more of your beautiful nature would have to be destroyed for warehouses if they want to be called Islay single malt. Space is limited, it could lead to more traffic to move casks and some streets are already in a bad condition. This would be the cons which from my view is more important.

Nevertheless, our island is dominated by a whisky culture. Many on the island rely on whisky tourism for an income, whether that’s through providing hospitality or direct employment by distilleries (around a tenth of the population are employed directly). No doubt, visitors attracted to the island will buy from local businesses here but does that make us little more than a tourist town?

This must solidify the belief that terroir matters beyond just exploitation of a commercial opportunity.

OUR SAY.

Our challenge as a business running from Islay, is indeed that, to challenge. Not just to provoke the wider industry for change, but also to question ourselves, and to take subsequent action.

For now though, we look to the progress we have made over the past two decades. We’ve contributed considerably to lowering the unemployment rate on the island. We’ve provided stable jobs for heads of families, and for young people looking to stay here. A smattering of our younger staff have either bought or built houses on the island. Where once they may have left for better opportunities, we have a population rooting in over winter and supporting our economy year-round.

Working with our farming community in partnerships, not a conventional supply-chain, has helped us to share a piece of the ever-growing single malt pie. Our farmers have made a significant commitment to grow for us, and we hope in return, we’ve helped to provide alternative incomes to a community at risk.

It is obvious that we shout loud and clear about the social and economic impact of our business. But the practices that we, perhaps arrogantly sometimes, profess to the world have been in place since the early 2000s.

This no compromise approach has taken a tonne of hard work and financial risk, and a commitment from our entire team, not just the head distiller or those signing the cheques. When we flinch slightly at the idea of a ‘campaign’, it’s because this is reality to us. It’s not knee-jerk marketing (thanks to the critics who suggested it might be though, it helps us to check ourselves every now and then).

Put aside the romantic side of it. Focus on flavour for a moment. There is no denying that there has been a sharp uptake in the number of spirits producers exploring terroir. From vodkas, to gin, to our own brothers in arms paving the way in the Pacific Northwest, a rising crescendo of flavour-focussed pioneers are upon us.

Once, we were dubbed ‘crazy’, now suddenly there are hundreds of smaller producers nipping at our heels, chanting our values back to us. This must solidify the belief that terroir matters beyond just exploitation of a commercial opportunity.

As drinkers ourselves, it is more sensible to taste these differences and to go on gut and instinct.

AN ISLAY FLAVOUR.

It was previously mentioned that the effect of Islay on flavour could rage on forever. This is in part due to our own sensorial approach to whisky-making; by hand, eye, taste. Our argument is subjective in parts, and if we had an interest in analysing flavour compounds in a laboratory, perhaps we’d have more definitive results. But at our distillery, there is no such interest. As drinkers ourselves, it is more sensible, important even, to taste these differences and to go on gut and instinct. These are not ‘results’ then, but findings all the same:

Barley

If you’re uber geeky, you’ll know about our regional trials. They explore the influence of location and weather on the growing of just one varietal of barley (Concerto) in four different areas of Scotland. The experiment has not yet been unleashed on the world, but for now, you can directly compare our Scottish barley bottlings with our Islay barley bottlings. You can even compare different editions of our Islay barley editions, some from single fields, others from multiple farms. Each are a direct expression of Islay.

Peat

We’ve yet to fully explore the impact of Islay peat on our whiskies. In the early days we chose to work with maltsters based in Inverness due to their abilitiy to malt small batches for us. This also meant we sacrificed the opportunity to use Islay peat. However, Bairds work has been pivotal to the success of our malts and without them, we would not have the provenance and traceability we so covet. In the future, we may look to use Islay peat once we have installed on-site maltings.

Cask

Maturing our casks by the sea, on the brink of the Atlantic MUST have an impact on our casks. If not directly through the permeation of the salty sea air into our warehouses, then at least the cool, fresh air allows a long slow maturation.

Our head distiller has immediate access to all of our stock. Where human intervention is needed, Adam can make a judgement call based on his intimate knowledge of our distillate, how it is performing and what path it may take next. Without this connection, we could not influence the flavour on what surely should be the most manual element of the distillation process.

Water

Our single malts are brought to bottling strength with Islay spring water. Using soft, neutral spring water that has filtered through some of the oldest rocks in Europe means the true characters of our malts come to the fore. We could not guarantee this if bottled on a facility off the island.

There are many elements in our whisky making that cannot be controlled. Allowing nature and our location to have an influence on our spirits goes part of the way towards exploring an Islay terroir. The other is knowing that people; the farmer, the maltster, the distiller, the warehouseman goes the rest of the way. They play their part. This is why, in our great Islay debate, it is not enough to consider just what we do here, but also who does it. This is about a real people in a real place. A single malt that speaks of a real community.

Popular articles from the newsdesk

Bruichladdich Distillery
Due to regulations in your own country of residence, you cannot access this website

By entering you accept the use of cookies to enhance your user experience and collect information on the use of the website. Find out more