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You can’t move on Islay without accidentally bumping into a distillery as there are eight of them on a 230 square mile section of land! What’s more, there will be another two distilleries in the very near future named Port Charlotte and Gartbreck. It is estimated that Gartbreck will start distillation in 2015 so we won’t see the fruits of their labour for some years yet, although sources suggest that they will exclusively create heavily peated single malts. Port Charlotte is owned by Bruichladdich who produce a whisky by the same name. It was scheduled for construction in 2009 but was held back due to the economic downturn. Now that plans have been put into action, it appears it will be a dead heat as to which distillery opens first! Single malt whisky from Islay has attracted a near cult following over the years, from the small farm distillery of Kilchoman to mighty behemoths like Ardbeg and the closed distillery of Port Ellen.
Islay is commonly known for producing the strongest flavoured whiskies in all of Scotland with an emphasis on extreme peat and an idiosyncratic medicinal quality. This is due to the terroir of the land which is composed of rotting, compacted peat and moss which is used as fuel for drying out the barley. The salt from the sea carries inland along with the pungent odour of seaweed, soaking the peaty ground and infiltrating the warehouses where the maturing whisky is stored. The three southern Ileach powerhouse distilleries of Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin epitomise this style perfectly with their intense smoky flavour, overriding peatinees and iodine like medicinal finish. They really are Marmite drams, the polar opposite of the gentle Speyside offerings, making people either love them or hate them with equal aplomb. The lost distillery of Port Ellen, which closed in 1983, also falls into this category and its remaining whisky is a highly valuable and much coveted commodity. Most of the islands’ malting still occurs at Port Ellen, with barley prepared to the various specifications of the distilleries.
Not all whisky from the island is quite as powerful however; the imposing centrally located Bowmore distillery and northern Cao Ila are still imbued with a smoky peatiness, but not to the utmost degree as is the case with the southern distilleries. Kicholman is the only inland distillery and also produces peaty whisky in line with this slightly more sedate style. The other two northern distilleries are a completely different prospect with their lighter, nutty style. Bunnahabhain maintains this style through the use of unpeated barley and the use of fresh spring water from Margadale Springs, which miraculously manages to avoid contact with the peat beds. Bruichladdich is sheltered from the elements by the mountainous terrain of the Rhinns and also uses lightly or unpeated barley and fresh water. However, they are a slightly maverick distillery who likes to take varying approaches to whisky distillation. As such, they have recently started making Octomore which is a heavily peated dram. As mentioned previously, they also produce the excellent Port Charlotte, which is a mid-range peated whisky. Without exception, all Islay malts possess a dry finish.