Earth, fire and smoke: a journey to Islay


A black-and-white photo showing rows of oak barrels lined up on the shore, with the waves lapping up on the beach. The tops of the barrels are gleaming wet, and there is a long jetty in the background, with mountains on the horizon. This photo was taken outside Bowmore distillery on Islay.

Earlier this year, we visited Islay in the Inner Hebrides. Here, the spirits are peat-smoked, taking on deliciously pungent flavours that are proving increasingly popular among whisky-drinkers. Islay’s star is firmly on the risebut what do the locals think about it all?

Reaching the remote shores of Islay, for many whisky-lovers, is a pilgrimage. Peat smoke, moss, seaweed, iodine and brine; for those with a taste for it, nothing beats Islay’s distinctively pungent whiskies.  

We take off from Glasgow in a plane so small it feels like a bus with wings. With a view straight down the aisle into the cockpit, we watch as the captain pulls a couple of levers from the ceiling – and just like that, we’re up into the air. Despite its romance, there is something disconcerting about being able to see the captain’s every move, or feeling every tremor of wind. I try not to think about it, turning my gaze to the spectacular views outside the window.  

The skies are soft and pink with dusk, and Islay’s dark, craggy shores are sketched out against the deep blues of the Sea of the Hebrides. Someone points out Ardbeg distillery, a cluster of white-washed buildings with pagoda chimneys, perched on the wild, windswept coast. A young moon hangs in the sky, and Venus shines diamond-like beside it. Tomorrow, our adventure on Islay properly begins.  

Business is booming

The rhythm of Islay takes a slower pace. We begin our day at the Carraig Fhada lighthouse just outside Port Ellen – the second biggest town on Islay after Bowmore. The chimneys of Diageo’s Global Supply are smoking across the water; a few years ago, the multinational company announced that it would be reopening Port Ellen distillery.  

One of Islay’s best-known names, Port Ellen closed its doors in 1983 when the whisky market crashed. It’s scheduled to reopen in 2024, alongside three other distilleries: Port Charlotte, Portintruan and Laggan Bay. In just over a year, that will bring the total number of distilleries on Islay to 13.  

Business is booming. The whisky industry is the largest employer on the island, simultaneously fuelling the growth of the tourism and hospitality industries. In the summer, the island’s population of 3,200 will swell with 80,000 visitors. Islay is particularly busy during Fèis Ìle, the annual whisky festival held in the last week of May.  

But right now, in late February, the island is at peace. The locals are readying themselves for the start of a new season.  

From blends to single malts

It’s 9am and we’re at Bowmore, Islay’s oldest distillery. David Turner, the distillery manager, welcomes us with a dram of an exclusive 1996 Bowmore ex-Sherry cask. It’s a fine way to start the morning, and more bracing than a coffee. 

He gazes out of the window to the sea. “April to October, that used to be the tourist season here. Now it’s more like mid-February to December,” he says. “I’ve been here since the 1990s. When I started, there was just one person working full-time in the distillery. Now, we have a team of 13.”  

David, like many of the other people we will speak to, is from Port Ellen. “Islay born and bred,” he says proudly. How has the island changed over his lifetime?  

“Oh, it’s totally different. There are opportunities now. Whisky has made it possible for young people to stay on the island. In the past, the whisky industry was old men making whisky for old men. Now, it’s wide open. You get young people coming here, just as many women as men, from all around the world. It’s completely changed.”  

David explains that 30 years ago, Bowmore was making whisky mostly destined for blends. But the emergence of the single malt category saved Islay. It gave the distilleries a sense of identity, and located them within the wider context of Islay’s peated expressions. This is what gave people a reason to visit them, fuelling the exponential rise of tourism.  

For David, it’s a welcome development. “The future looks good,” he nods, still looking out to sea. “Aye, the future looks good.” 

Earth and smoke

A huge part of Islay’s success is the distinctive character of its whiskies: pungent, flavourful and peat-smoked. Peat is soil made up of fossilised plant matter – an early stage of coalification. On Islay, this is mostly heather, moss and seaweed that has decomposed for thousands of years.  

The peat is cut from around two metres deep, where it is more moist and flavourful. The deeper you go, the harder and denser it gets, and the more it burns like coal – making it a traditional alternative to firewood on the island. But distillers are after smoke, not heat. A cool fire with moist peat is ideal, and releases the most flavour.  

Slabs of peat are loaded into a furnace, to which wood and paper are added to get a fire started. The smoke rises up a chimney, filling a large kiln-room laid out with malted, slightly damp, barley. The smoke coats the barley, imbuing it with that all-important profile that has become so synonymous with Islay.  

Subtle distinctions

It’s easy to think of Islay as uniform in its smoke, but across the island, there are subtle yet important distinctions. Along the south coast, Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin present their smoke up-front. These are punchy drams: one sip, and the smoke hits you instantly, thick and oily. Further north, the peat influence emerges more softly: a hint of caramel, a touch of spice, then that beguiling wisp of smoke.  

Here, in the north-west of the island, Bruichladdich produce a range of different whiskies varying in peat intensity, one of which isn’t peated at all.  

“I think there’s sometimes this misconception that Islay whisky is all smoke and nothing else,” says Frazer Matthews, Bruichladdich’s Brand Ambassador, as he guides us around the Victorian distillery. “But the range of flavours on Islay is massive.”  

A core part of Bruichladdich’s philosophy is focused on the grain itself – which is where the question of Islay-grown barley comes into focus. Bruichladdich work with 20 farmers around the island, who provide them with home-grown barley and allow them to speak proudly of supporting local agriculture, which, alongside hospitality, is the other major employer on Islay.  

Home is where the heart is

Just up the road from Bruichladdich, we head next to Kilchoman for lunch. Founded by Anthony and Kathy Wills in 2005, Kilchoman was the first new distillery to be built on Islay in over a century. Unlike many of its neighbours, Kilchoman remains independent, championing a farm-to-bottle philosophy. The couple are very much involved in the day-to-day running of the distillery, alongside their three sons and a wider team.  

We’re guided around the distillery by Kirsteen Turner; after living in South Africa for 30 years, she returned to her home island last year. The allure of Islay was too strong to resist. She tells me she would have returned earlier if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. “Home is where the heart is,” she says with a smile.  

Robin Bignal, Kilchoman’s Production Manager, comes out to meet us. He explains that the Kilchoman philosophy is all about doing everything on site: growing the barley, malting, peating, bottling. Islay is on the goose migration path, so the barley is planted once the geese have departed in spring, left to ripen through the summer and harvested in autumn.  

These are the grains that go into Kilchoman’s 100% Islay bottling – the embodiment of the Wills philosophy. The jewel in their crown, they’re keen for us to taste it before we leave. It’s just the thing to warm us up, before we continue our whisky journey on the other side of the island. 

The whisky loch

Despite Islay’s huge success, a few of the people I speak to express a sense of caution. It’s clear that memories of the whisky crash of the 1980s – “the whisky loch” – are still very much alive. 

A move away from peated whiskies resulted in the closures of Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain and Port Ellen distilleries, and the loss was keenly felt. Resulting in unemployment across the island, it’s little wonder that some are cautious about the seemingly unstoppable boom that’s taken Islay by storm.  

Infrastructure is a topic that comes up again and again. “The transport’s just not equipped for this constant demand,” says Robin. “The ferries are really struggling at the moment. There’s a lot of pressure on companies to get produce on and off the island, just to meet demand, yet things keep booming. And you’re just wondering… when it’s all going to crash?”  

The Islay wave

It’s a 40-minute drive across the island to Laphroaig – our final distillery visit. Outside the window, the sea sparkles in the late afternoon sun, as we sit down for a dram with Barry Macaffer, Laphroaig’s Distillery Manager. Barry’s connection to Laphroaig spans generations: his grandfather was born on the very site where the distillery now sits, and various members of his family have also worked here. 

“I’m grateful that the generations that came before me preserved the distilleries and protected the island’s traditions, because we wouldn’t be where we are now without them,” he reflects. “Now, we must do the same for future generations.”  

As Islay continues to grow and attract more visitors, the challenge, Barry says, is to meet the demand while “keeping it Islay”. The conversation turns to the topic of the “Islay wave”. If you ever drive around Islay, you’ll notice people waving at you in the car as they pass – an automatic hand raised in greeting. We even had a few waves from pedestrians as we drove by.  

“It comes from the days when everyone knew each other,” says Barry, with noticeable pride. “The car you were passing was guaranteed to be driven by someone you knew. Nowadays, it’s a local custom, an old habit. But that’s the Islay way.”  

If you saw a stranger lost in the street, you’d invite them in for a glass of whisky. “What would my mother say if I let you leave without a dram?!”  

A tale of community

Today, the story of Islay is one of huge successes. But beneath the surface, it’s a tale of community: local people brought together by the craft of whisky-making.  

Even to an outsider, the deep connections across the island are obvious. On the face of it, you might think the nine distilleries on Islay are natural competitors – but when you speak to the people who work there, they tell you about an aunt who works at X distillery, a partner who works at Y. They speak of collective memories and generational knowledge, pulling on threads across time.  

The ongoing whisky boom is driving growth and employment, creating new opportunities and giving young people a reason to build careers on the island – and that is undoubtedly something worth celebrating. Can Islay continue to flourish while holding onto its unique character?  

“We must protect what makes Islay Islay,” says Barry, as we finish our drams. “Little things like the Islay wave – we must never lose that. Oh, and adding whisky to your porridge.”  

This article was originally written for the 2023 commemorative edition of our No.3 magazine, exploring the theme of “generations”. It has been edited for the blog. You can read the article in full in our digital magazine here