Islay, in the Inner Hebrides, has far more distilleries than any other island, and it is currently feeling in a mood to raise a toast. Those of us who always pursued its whiskies with a passion, and were mocked as masochists for loving their extreme pungency, will hoist our glasses, too. The outside world is discovering the Islay malts, and the haughty distillers in the mainland glens are showing overdue respect.
What makes Islay whiskies great has always threatened their very existence. The windswept Atlantic, the seaweedy shore and peat-covered terrain shape the saltiest, most medicinal, phenolic of all malt whiskies. Even the juniper bushes that grow everywhere on Islay seem to get into the flavour of at least one of its malts: Caol Ila.
No whiskies taste more obviously of Scotland. There are Islay malts in every famous blend from Bell's to Grouse to Johnnie Walker. A bottled blend may contain 30 or 40 malts, but typically less than 1 per cent of the whisky will come from Islay. In the years when blended Scotches attempted to appease the blander tastes of vodka-drinkers, that percentage diminished toward vanishing point.
Now, we have the remarkable sight of one highly regarded blend, Black Bottle, adding to its label a guarantee that it contains malt from every one of the Islay distilleries (with clearly more than a dash of the fresh, nutty, grassy Bunnahabhain).
The island, about 25 miles long, with a population of fewer than 4,000 people, has seven distilleries, two with their own active maltings. There are also the maturation warehouses of two defunct distilleries, and an active free-standing maltings.
The happiest two stories in the whisky industry in recent years have been the opening of a distillery on nearby Arran, and the re-birth of Ardbeg, on Islay.
It is more than chance that the owners of Glenmorangie, from the Highlands, bought (for more than pounds 7m) and re-started Ardbeg, which once made the smokiest of all whiskies. Glenmorangie is the only distillery in Scotland to sell every last drop of its whisky as single malt. The company has since spent a further pounds 1m on restoring the fabric of the Ardbeg distillery, and will invest three times that amount in its first two years.
When I mentioned Ardbeg here earlier this year, I pointed out that the whisky would never be quite the same unless its maltings, closed in 1976, was also reactivated. I am now told by manager Stuart Thomson that it is a serious possibility, though it would cost at least a further million. When I took a walk around, the only swallow in the place was a bird, but the building was still heavy with the wonderful reek of peat-smoke.
A 1975 bottling I tasted was full of heathery rootiness, with the smokiness of an apple-wood barbecue. This will be available in October, at around pounds 30 topounds 40 a bottle.
The distillery itself was still functioning in 1980-81, producing the perfumy, sweetish 17-year-old that is currently in the market, but then closed until 1989. It operated for a couple of months most years during the 1990s. This will permit a 10-year-old to be released soon as a regular version. At the island's Lochside Hotel, at pounds 2.95 to pounds 15 a shot, there are 34 versions of Ardbeg at various ages, from six different bottlers.
During the most difficult years, a merger placed Ardbeg in the hands of Allied Distillers, which wanted its contribution to its Ballantine blends, but was less interested in its potential as a single malt; it already owned the neighbouring Laphroaig, rightly famous for its seaweedy single.
Down the road at that distillery, manager Iain Henderson told me about the 80,000 "Friends of Laphroaig". People who sign up for this club are rewarded with a lease on a square foot of land. A more committed friend of Islay had just arrived on the island from Sweden when I called. He was marrying a woman from the hamlet of Laphroaig, and the wedding was taking place at the distillery.
Laphroaig is one of the world's Top 10 biggest-selling malts. So is the intensely dry Lagavulin. There, they were arranging a quiet room with armchairs for visitors. Manager Mike Nicolson likes a "meaningful exchange" with pilgrims to Lagavulin, though he worries about his hearing after years of leading a loud, Gaelic-accented rock band (called Ninety Proof). I did not see his CD at the distillery, but it was on sale at the airport (two flights a day in and out).
The most visited distillery, with sometimes 10,000 guests a year, is Bowmore, in the tiny town that is capital of the island. When I got there, a Breton schooteacher had just arrived in his 10-metre sailing boat. He was having a drink of the lavender-tasting malt (again in the Top 10) in the office of Jim McEwan, who was until recently distillery manager. "What is your title now?" I asked McEwan, whom I am as likely to see on the road in Iowa or Idaho. "Just call me an Ileach," he responded (alone among his peers, he was born on the island). But he now wears the soubriquet "Bowmore Brand Ambassador".
Single malts are not brands, they are places, as McEwan's employers should know. He is an ambassador, but for the island of Islay and all of its whiskies. When he talks of "the little beauty across the loch", he is referring not to a woman but the ostensibly "rival" Bruichladdich distillery. This chateau-like establishment is on the waters of Indaal. It is the source of a 10-year-old, flowery and seaweedy, recently released under the name Lochindaal by a group of investors. After half-a-dozen years' silence, Bruichladdich recently fired up for a few weeks' new production. The plumes of steam brought further excited speculation to the island. "We thought a new Pope had been elected," laughs McEwan
A taste of Islay
Pride of Islay Vatting of Islay malts, from Gordon and MacPhail, of Elgin with fresh, persistent, seaweed aromas. Iodine dryness, minty oiliness and late, oaky vanilla sweetness.
Islay Mist Laphroaig-accented blend, also with Highland malts. Light, firm, dry sharp, appetising.
Black Bottle Soft, sweet, nutty barley flavours and fresh, juicy, grass, with late, light, peat-smoke fragrance and salt.