A Guide to Scotch Whisky Regions - Islay

by Matt Chambers
at Whisky for Everyone
02.06.23 11.13

Islay, famous for fiery, heavily peated whiskies.

Scotland is split into six whisky regions – Campbeltown, Highlands, Islands, Islay, Lowlands, and Speyside. Of all the different Scotch whisky regions, arguably none is more evocative or of its place than the Hebridean island of Islay.

Famed for its peaty and smoky style of whisky, and rugged landscape, Islay offers a glimpse into the history of Scotch whisky with its use of traditional ingredients and techniques. It is also home to Fèis Ìle – the legendary annual Islay Whisky Festival.

a glass of Scotch single malt

Where is Islay?

Islay is the most southerly island in the Hebridean chain, which sits off the west coast of mainland Scotland. It is Scotland’s fifth largest island and the eighth largest in the UK. It sits directly west from Glasgow and on a clear day you can see across to Northern Ireland some 30 miles away.

The island is centred around Loch Indaal, a large sea loch, and extends in a horseshoe shape around three sides of the loch. The main centres of population are the villages of Bowmore with its central location on the shores of Loch Indaal, Port Charlotte on the western peninsula and Port Ellen in the south. Bowmore is the island’s capital.

How Many Whisky Distilleries are on Islay?

Islay covers a relatively small geographical area of 240m² (620km²) but is home to nine operating distilleries. There are also two further in development, which are expected to be open by 2025 – the rebuilt distillery of Port Ellen and the new Portintruan.

The oldest distillery on Islay is Bowmore, which was founded in 1779. It is also home to the oldest bonded warehouse in the UK – Warehouse No.1. The most recent is Ardnahoe, which was founded in 2017 and began production a year later. It is yet to release any single malt.

The other seven distilleries in chronological order are Ardbeg and Laphroaig (both founded in 1815), Lagavulin (1816), Caol Ila (1846), Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain (both 1881) and Kilchoman (2005). Caol Ila is the largest with a production capacity of 6.5 million litres per annum, with Kilchoman the smallest at just 450,000 litres.

Three distilleries practise the traditional method of floor malting. Bowmore, Kilchoman and Laphroaig produce a small percentage of the malt they need and then buy in the remainder. Bruichladdich are rumoured to be re-starting the practice again soon.

Floor malting sees barley soaked in water and then laid out on a stone or concrete floor for five to six days until the starch has turned to sugar. This is then dried over a peat fire to make it ready for whisky production. Few do it now, only seven in the entirety of Scotland, due to the labour intensive and time-consuming nature.

Although one of the smaller Scotch whisky regions, there is another important whisky-related building on Islay – the Port Ellen Maltings. This huge facility is in the village of Port Ellen and provides most of Islay’s distilleries with their malted barley. Each distillery has its own specification for peat levels. This modern commercial operation was founded in 1974 and uses local peat harvested from designated areas of Islay.

Why is Peat Used for Islay Whisky?

Peat was historically the only consistent fuel source across much of Scotland, particularly in remote areas such as the Highlands and Hebridean islands. Peat is a slow-growing material constructed of vegetation compacted over many years. This can include grass, moss, fern, bracken, heather, tree roots, seaweed and kelp depending on location.

Peat is traditionally harvested each Spring and then dried over Summer. This would form part of a farmer or crofter’s annual cycle. The dried peat would then be used as fuel over the following Autumn and Winter. It would be burned for heating, cooking, and preserving of meat and fish. Therefore, as peat was the only fuel source in many remote places it was also used to dry barley at the end of the malting process.

What are the Characteristics of Islay Whisky?

Distinct from other Scotch whisky regions, Islay whisky is known for its peaty and smoky style of Scotch single malt. The rich aromas and bold flavours are intense but can also be used in more subtle ways, like seasoning food when cooking. Lower and subtle levels of peat give depth, complexity, and earthiness to a whisky.

Key descriptors for Islay whiskies range from ash, bonfire embers, tar and bitumen to surgical bandages, medicinal notes, and iodine. These characteristics often relate to any coastal or island whiskies. Lighter peat levels can show softer and gentler smokiness with notes of honey, earthy and woody spices and burnt caramel.

Big Names of Islay Whisky

What is the best Islay whisky? The biggest-selling single malt is Laphroaig. This sits comfortably and consistently within the top five for total worldwide sales and dwarfs any of its island rivals.

Other popular brands are Ardbeg and Lagavulin, both of which are located close to Laphroaig on Islay’s southern coast. The three distilleries sit just a few miles apart. All have a big, bold, and robust smoky character.

Bowmore is also popular and offers a wide range of products for consumers. It is known for a more gentle and elegant style of peat smoke. It is in the island’s capital on the shores of the imposing Loch Indaal.

Hidden Gems from Islay

Away from the big names of Islay whisky are a set of truly wonderful distilleries. Caol Ila may be the island’s largest distillery but only a small percentage gets released as single malt. When they do, they are excellent and sit in a mid-range of peatiness. Why so little single malt released? The answer – most Caol Ila contributes to the smoky flavours in popular blends, especially Johnnie Walker.

Also in the mid-range is the family-owned farm distillery of Kilchoman, located out on the wild western peninsula of Islay. Bunnahabhain in the northwest make a delicately peated style for much of the year but then more heavily peated, called Moine, for shorter periods. Finally, Bruichladdich on the western shore of Loch Indaal makes three styles – classic unpeated Bruichladdich, peated Port Charlotte and heavily peated Octomore.


A short history about the Islay Whisky Region

Whisky making has a long history on Islay. As with other whisky regions of Scotland, illicit distilling was King in the early days. Evidence shows whisky or uisge beatha (‘water of life’ in Gaelic) being made on the Hebridean island as far back as the early 1600s at Kildalton near Ardbeg.

When distilling became legalised with the Excise Act in 1823, Islay remained an illegal production hotspot. The remote location and rugged landscape made it difficult for the tax men, police, and authorities to track down illicit distillers.

The remote location and rugged coastline also made Islay a difficult place to make whisky. The transportation of goods to and from the island, especially as distilleries expanded, was tricky. Everything had to be sent by sea including barley, distillery equipment, barrels, and whisky. This remains the case today. As a result, most Islay distilleries are on the coast with easy access for boats.


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