Mike Gerrard - 2008-05-26
The Scottish island of Islay is the kind of place where you can’t fail to adjust to the slower pace of island life. Go for a relaxing early evening stroll and you can watch sea otters washing themselves just off-shore and seals playing in the waters near the rocks. There are other ways to relax on Islay, though, and that includes sampling some of the local produce.
The Islay distilleries, a lesson in history
This small island off the coast of west Scotland is home to no fewer than eight whisky distilleries, including some of the most famous names in the world such as Ardbeg and Laphroaig, the latter said to produce Prince Charles's favourite tipple. Others include names that will be familiar to any whisky connoisseur including Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin and Caol Ila.
The distilling of whisky on Islay is experiencing something of an upsurge with a ninth distillery due to open soon at Port Charlotte. The eighth distillery, Kilchoman, arrived in 2005, the first new distillery on the island in 124 years. The Bruichladdich distillery, which first began making whisky in 1881, had closed in 1994 but in 2000 it was re-opened under new ownership, though still using much of the original Victorian equipment. Since its return it has been named Distillery of the Year several times, combining the industrial heritage of its equipment with modern developments such as webcams and online whisky-tasting sessions.
Like most of the distilleries Laphroaig is open to visitors, though only at set times unless you've made special arrangements. The name of Laphroaig, one of the most famous and strongly flavoured of all Scottish whiskies, means 'the beautiful hollow by the broad bay'. The name seems to sum up the way the landscape, the language, the people and the island's favourite product, all blend to produce a distinct identity, an island flavour.
Laphroaig was established in 1815, the same year as Ardbeg, a whisky renowned for harnessing the peaty nature of the Islay terrain and capturing the taste in its bottles. Islay whiskies also have hints of seaweed and salt, while the Bowmore distillery uses some sherry casks which add another layer of flavour to the complex mix. They must be doing something right as Bowmore has now won more awards than any other single malt whisky. Then again, they've had longer to do it, dating back to 1779.
Islay between tradition and modernity
Its churchyards feature ancient Celtic crosses, its countryside has even older stone circles, and in the main town of Port Ellen there's a thriving cyber café. It's the fifth-biggest island in Scotland, but with a population of under 4,000. It has only one main school, but eight whisky distilleries and a micro-brewery. Fortunately for visitors, who come across on the 2-hour ferry ride from the mainland or the twice-daily flights from Glasgow, Islay also has plenty of hotels, inns and guesthouses.
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