Why Islay?

Islay is one of the four original whisky "regions".

These regions were purely administrative, based on concentrations of distilleries, therefore distilling licences.  How come Islay had 20 distilleries on an 232 square mile island and the other Hebridean islands barely one?

One reason is fertility. Another is location. But one catalyst was tax exemption.

Until Parliamentary Union with England in 1707, Scottish alcohol taxes were collected by contracted taxmen, and in remote places often the local laird. Whether he passed them on to Edinburgh or not was debatable. But after that pivotal date the Crown took responsibility for collecting all duties and taxes in Great Britain. Except Islay. Owing to a rather convenient clerical error, Islay was left off the charter.

This tax ‘exemption’ led to 20 legal distilleries being built, capped only by fuel and barley limitations.  By 1840 there were 12, 1887 there were 9, today there are 8. Fewer, though, bigger distilleries -  the total volume of alcohol is probably about the same.

In 1794 the Kildalton Church Minister lamented “The island hath the liberty of brewing whisky, without being under the necessity of paying the usual excise duty to government. We have not an excise officer in the whole island. The quantity therefore of whisky made here is very great.”

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