A Guide to Scotch Whisky Regions - Islands

by Matt Chambers
at Whisky for Everyone

Scotland’s islands are scattered far and wide.

They are home to some of Scotland’s most iconic whisky distilleries. Although one of the most evocative Scotch whisky regions, the Islands are often, and somewhat lazily, categorised alongside the Highlands on the whisky landscape. However, the region has much to offer with its expressive single malts.

While Islay is the most well-known island for Scotch whisky, it is often separated from the other islands as we have here. Making whisky on an island is a difficult thing to do – all ingredients, casks and equipment must be transported and brought in by sea. Equally all whisky must leave in the same way. The islands are often remote and have rugged terrain to add to the difficulty.

Where are the Islands?

Scotland has over 750 islands sitting off its coastline. Only around 100 of these are populated. Most are found off the west coast in the Hebridean chain – this is split into the Inner Hebrides to the south and Outer Hebrides to the north.

Two other major island groups exist – the Orkneys, which start just north of the Scottish mainland, and the Shetlands. They are much further north in the North Sea and are located between Orkney, the Faroe Islands and Norway.

The largest island is Lewis & Harris in the Outer Hebrides, which covers an area of 841 square miles (2179 km²). Next is Skye with a land area of 639 square miles (1656 km²). The top five is completed by mainland Shetland (374 miles²/ 969 km²), Mull (338 miles²/ 875 km²) and Islay (239 miles²/ 620 km²). Given their wide geographical spread, the Islands are often grouped together as one of the Scotch whisky regions.

What are the Characteristics of Whisky from the Islands?

Island whiskies are commonly known for their robust coastal style, and some have peat smoke also. But what is a coastal style? This is often described as exhibiting a distinct freshness and salty quality and flavour, which is reminiscent of ozone or sea spray. This is especially true for whiskies that are matured in cask by the sea as the oak breathes in the sea air.

Island whiskies, including those from Islay, are regarded as some of the most evocative available. They are very much ‘of their place’ and reflect the rugged coastal terrain in which they are made. Drinking them in situ is one of the best whisky experiences available.

Peat smoke was historically a traditional component of whiskies from the isles. These remote places were some of the last in the UK to receive modern fuel alternatives such as coal, electricity, and gas. Traditionally, the only fuel available was peat and this was harvested as part of the annual farming cycle.

The peat would then be used for several aspects of everyday life – cooking, heating and preservation of meat and fish. But it was also the only fuel available to dry barley at the end of the malting process.

Compounds in the smoke, especially phenol, become locked in the barley as it dries, and these are carried through the entire production process until you pour the whisky into a glass to drink it.

The Scottish islands are one of the finest Scotch whisky regions

Well Known Island Distilleries

Famous names of the single malt world are littered amongst the many Scottish islands. Jura was originally founded in 1810 on sparsely populated isle of Jura. It was entirely rebuilt after a long period of closure in the 1960s. It is now a top selling single malt in the lightly peated style.

Talisker from the isle of Skye is arguably the most well-known of the Scottish island whiskies. It consistently sits with the top 10 for global sales of single malt and is known for its peppery and peated style. It was founded in 1830 and is also one of the most visited by whisky tourists, despite being on the remote western coast of Skye.

The Orkney islands are home to two famous distilleries – Highland Park and Scapa. Both are located within a couple of miles of each other in Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkneys. Highland Park is also one of the oldest distilleries that remains in operation in Scotland and one of the few from the 18th century. It was founded in 1798.

Scapa sits on the outskirts of Kirkwall and is a highly esteemed blending malt. Casks are rare on the market and the distillery sits right on the seashore near the famous Scapa Flow – one of the world’s largest natural harbours.

Tobermory is another very old distillery. Like Highland Park it was founded in 1798 and is in the town of the same name on the Isle of Mull. As with many island distilleries it has endured times of hardship but is now flourishing in the modern whisky world. They produce two styles of spirit – the heavily peated Ledaig and the classic unpeated Tobermory. Ledaig (pronounced lay-chick) is the former name of the distillery.

Lesser-Known Names from the Islands

Several new distilleries have popped up on Scottish islands as part of the craft distilling wave of the last decade. An early forerunner to these was Lochranza, formerly known as Arran. It was founded in 1993 and has gone on to win multiple awards for its single malts. It is one of the success stories of recent whisky history.

Lochranza is one of two distilleries on the island of Arran, which sits in the Firth of Clyde near Glasgow. More recently the same ownership built and opened Lagg distillery in the south of the island. The first distillation took place in 2019 and their specialism is peated whisky.

Other notable distilleries include Torabhaig on Skye, Abhainn Dearg on the Isle of Lewis, Isle of Harris on Harris (they have become known for their gin and pioneering bottle design while their whisky comes of age) and Isle of Raasay on the tiny island of Raasay, next to Skye.

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