The whisky island

Gavin D. Smith charts the distilleries of Islay
By Gavin D. Smith
Of all the whisky-producing ‘regions’ of Scotland, Islay has undoubtedly been the most numerically consistent since the Victorian era. When Alfred Barnard visited the Hebridean island in the mid-1880s, there were nine working distilleries there, just one less than today.

It would be wrong to assume that the ‘whisky island’ escaped the economic vagaries that affected the Scotch whisky industry.

Since Barnard there have been two major losses, namely Port Ellen and Lochindaal, but an entirely new distillery in the shape of Kilchoman has been constructed to swell the Islay ranks.

Port Ellen (see WM63) operated between 1825 and 1983, though it was silent from 1930 until the mid-1960s, when a substantial rebuilding programme took place.

Lochindaal Distillery was founded during 1829 in Port Charlotte village, on the shores of Lochindaal, initially operating under the name Port Charlotte Distillery. The facility was making 128,000 gallons of spirit per annum during Barnard’s mid-1880s visit, which compared with Lagavulin’s 75,000 gallons and the 250,000 gallons being produced by Ardbeg at the time.

In 1920, Lochindaal’s owners JF Sheriff & Co were bought out by Benmore Distilleries Ltd, and nine years later they suffered the same fate as many struggling distillery ventures during the hard years of the economic depression, being purchased by the Distillers Company Limited (DCL), which immediately closed Lochindaal.

The plant was subsequently removed, but some of the buildings continued to be utilised by the now defunct Islay Creamery until the 1990s, while others were taken over by a garage business and by Islay Youth Hostel. Two substantial, stone-built warehouses have remained in use for the maturation of spirit, and one of them is the projected home for a new distillery, due to be developed by Bruichladdich under the Port Charlotte banner at an as yet unspecified date.

Beyond the two large scale, high profile losses of Port Ellen and Lochindaal, however, many other smaller and more obscure Islay distilling operations have disappeared over the years.

One good example is Malt Mill, which was created not as part of any prevailing trends in the industry, but rather the result of one man’s personal pique. In the early 1900s, the high-profile Islay distillery of Lagavulin was owned by Mackie & Co (Distillers) Ltd, whose company produced the renowned White Horse blended Scotch whisky, while White Horse’s Peter Mackie also acted as sales agent for nearby Laphroaig. When he lost this role due to a disagreement over water rights, Mackie decided to make his own version of Laphroaig by way of retaliation. Accordingly, he constructed a small distillery named Malt Mill within the Lagavulin site during 1908.

Despite Mackie’s efforts, Malt Mill never seriously rivalled Laphroaig in terms of quality and character, perhaps partly due to its use of a different water source. Nonetheless, the distillery survived until 1960, when production ceased, and two years later the plant was dismantled and its pair of pear-shaped stills were transferred to the Lagavulin still house, where they saw another seven years of service. The site of Malt Mill is now occupied by the Lagavulin visitor centre.

Islay is noted for a proliferation of farm-based distilleries established, or legalised, in the wake of the 1816 Small Stills Act.

The now lost distilleries of Ardmore (later absorbed into Lagavulin), Ballygrant, Bridgend, Octovullin, Octomore, Newton, Scarabus and Tallant all dated from the years following the Small Stills Act. The 1823 Excise Act once again led to a spate of new Islay distilleries. These included Glenavullen, Lossit and Mulindry as well as the larger Port Ellen and Lochindaal distilleries, along with Ardenistiel, which was ultimately absorbed into the Laphroaig site.

Lossit, near Ballygrant, was a medium-sized farm distillery, producing more than 12,000 gallons of spirit in 1826/27. It operated until 1862, and was the last Islay farm distillery to close. Today, Islay’s newest distillery, Kilchoman, continues the tradition of making whisky within a working farm environment, utilising local barley which it malts on site.