It’s said that you have to give the devil his due. In Scotland, though, it’s the angels that take their cut, because once the spirit is distilled it must spend at least three years maturing in barrels inside Scotland before it can be called “Scotch whisky.” During that time, each barrel loses around 2 percent in alcohol per year as the alcohol evaporates through the wood. That lost 2 percent is known to distillers as “the angels’ share.”
Nowhere are the angels more inebriated than over the island of Islay.
Islay (pronounced “eye-luh”) is just off Scotland’s western shore, separated from the rest of the country by cold gray waters and a taste for peaty whiskey. The island is inhabited by around 3,000 people, myriads of sheep, a few cattle (some of which are the long-haired, long-horned Highland variety) and eight working distilleries.
After having headed to the area near Inverness a few years ago to sample whiskeys and pretend that we were rootless adolescents once more (see my column on Dalmore), my best friend and I decided to renew the experience by heading to the home of the world’s earthiest, most wild whiskeys: Islay. So we met up in Glasgow, rented a car, and drove to the tiny port of Kennacraig, then sailed over to the edge of Scotland.
It is evident even from the boat that Islay is a forbidding place. The Hebrides (of which the island is a part) are sparsely inhabited for a reason and the rocky coastline seems to be baring its teeth to any boats that may want to land there. Luckily, over the centuries, the inhabitants of the island have managed to carve a few ports into the coastline, where white buildings sport black gutters, adding to the overall black-and-white impression that you get from much of Scotland’s more weather-beaten regions. (It should be noted that all of Scotland is weather-beaten, but it shouldn’t be surprising that an island standing some way off into the Atlantic is doubly exposed to the elements, and I can’t help but think that if all filmmakers had been from the Hebrides they would have just kept on filming in shades of gray. But I digress.)
After having settled into our B&B in Port Ellen, we went off to rent a couple of bicycles from the local bicycle-rental emporium. Our unimaginably hospitable hosts had already booked the bikes for us, and we were furnished with an address that turned out to be that of a tiny row house with a sign on the door saying, “Bicycle rental. Open door and shout for Mick.”
Mick is a short, round, one-eyed, gray-haired fellow who was also painfully kind and who led us through his tiny house to his tiny backyard, where we entered his tiny garage and found five bicycles for rent, all of which we could try out until we found the bicycles that best tickled our fancies. As my best friend tinkered with seat and handlebar adjustments, trying and discarding a variety of wrenches, Mick leaned against the door and told us how his son had gone off to live in Pennsylvania to design outdoor clothing for a large company over there in the United States, and weren’t we from the United States, and we were free to keep on adjusting the bicycles, about which he knew nothing, and we didn’t need locks, no one would steal them on the island, although we should perhaps be careful if we were to ride them to Bowmore, as once, someone had stolen one bicycle out of four that he had rented to a group of Swedish bird watchers, although, come to think of it, they had locked the bicycles up and the thief (who undoubtedly hadn’t been from Islay, of course) had unlocked them somehow, taken one bicycle, then locked them back up again, which was rather perplexing when you think about it, but that was a couple of years before.
As Mick took a breath, we assured him that we wouldn’t ride the bikes as far as Bowmore, and we waved goodbye while he said that if we were going to Ardbeg to eat then perhaps he’d see us there since he needed a new bottle from the distillery and they served good soup.
Mick may still have been talking when we turned the corner, but he waved all the same.
I won’t describe all the distilleries to you, nor all the distillery tours. Suffice it to say that the creation of whiskey is a rather simple process. (In a nutshell: You distill beer a couple of times, then let it sit for a few years in a wooden cask.) All distilleries in Scotland follow the same basis process, but they end up with notably different whiskeys. The distinct nature of the whiskeys come from differences in how they malt the barley, the water they use, the shapes of the stills, and the types of barrels in which the spirits are distilled.
Most of the Islay whiskeys are renowned for their peatiness. They are smoky, rich, wild whiskeys, and the wildest of the lot is Laphroig (pronounced “La-froyg”).
It is said that one either loves or hates Laphroig, but I think it’s a question of mood. There are times when I’d never drink it, and other times when only a Laphroig could possibly work. Thanks to the latter sentiment, I’ve been a member of the “Friends of Laphroig” for some 12 years now, which means that I have an official deed for one square foot of peat bog near the distillery. I am therefore entitled to show up at the distillery at any time, visit my land, and claim rent from the distillery.
I know it’s a marketing ploy, but it’s a nice one, and the distillery itself is a pleasant little place overlooking the sea, so my friend and I rode over on our bicycles and took the tour, which was nifty enough … but what I was really waiting for was the chance to go out and find my square foot of bog.
Upon being informed that I was a long-standing Friend of Laphroig, the manager explained how to find my parcel, No. 64193. It turned out that the number indicates a certain distance from a certain post over in the bog across the road. I needed only to find the post, then take a prescribed number of steps south and a different number of steps east. I was provided with rubber Wellington boots, a rather silly hat, strings to tie around my trouser legs so the stoats don’t run up them, and a small American flag, which I could plant on my land so as to stake my claim.
My friend and I stomped across the road and, after some difficulty, found the post. I then started striding south, then east, carefully counting each step. South was OK, but east began leading me into ever-deeper bog, so that I was worried the muck would suck the Wellies off my feet. I managed to find the spot, though, just before the goo got above Wellie-height, and I proudly stuck my flag into plot No. 64193 (or thereabouts), where it promptly began to sink.
After I extricated myself from the peat, we stomped back to the distillery and collected my rent, in the form of a dram of whiskey.
Laphroig is neighbor to two other distilleries: Ardbeg and Lagavulin. All three are within a couple of miles of each other. These, along with Caol Ila, on the other side of the island, are the tall, dark strangers of the whiskey world, full of peat and bravado.
Far less peaty, but perhaps the most amusing distillery I’ve ever visited, is Bruichladdich (pronounced, roughly, “Brookladdy”). This distillery had closed down for a couple of years before being purchased by a partnership of very fun guys, who are pretty much the Ben and Jerry of the whiskey world. All of this was explained to us by Mary (pronounced, roughly, “Meeerry”), who informed us that, unlike many distilleries, Bruichladdich intended to do everything locally, from growing the barley to bottling the whiskey, and that all the employees had shares in the company, and all were having a rip-roaring good time. She also explained the still out front as you drive up, which is an old, out-of-commission still that has a pair of feet sticking out the top. It would seem that, a few years ago, the U.S. Defense Department actually monitored the newly reopened Bruichladdich, since the stills had a shape that seemed ominous to some intelligence analyst with a vivid imagination and a stick up his ass. (I will make a deliberate digression here to point out that distilleries tend to have four to eight stills, which are beautiful shiny copper things shaped like stretched-out teardrops, usually about 10 feet tall.) The distillery was therefore monitored by the same clever fellows who ensured us that Saddam Hussein had model airplanes armed with nuclear weapons aimed at Coney Island. When they learned of this, the owners decided to come out with a bottling called WMD, for “Whiskey of Mass Distinction,” and they stuck a couple of boots in the top of the still near the entrance, took a picture of it, and labeled it “Weapons inspectors at work.” It made the local papers and gave everyone a good laugh.
I bought a lot of whiskey from Bruichladdich.
Islay isn’t only about beautiful white distillery buildings with quaint little piers in front; it’s also about the aforementioned cattle and sheep and gorse and bluebells and strikingly empty hills that roll down to the sea. In fact, we ended with such a hill, as we drove back from the Bunnahabhain (pronounced with difficulty) distillery. Bunnahabhain is located on the northeastern shore of Islay, on the channel facing the island of Jura, which is one of Western Europe’s most pristine places, with a population density of roughly one person per square mile. The road from Bunnahabhain follows the channel between the two islands, and after a while we stopped and strode out across the heather toward the water.
It was only upon approaching the edge that we realized that we were, in fact, on a tall cliff. A vista opened up before us: some three or four hundred feet below us was the slate-gray sea, moving swiftly in the channel. Across it was Jura, enormous and stretching off into the distance, the peaks of her mountains lost in the haze. On either side of us were the browns and yellows and grays that make up these islands, subdued in the mist. Nowhere was there any sign of man or his constructions. It was all as it must have been millennia ago when men themselves were new in this world and the angels were sadly sober.