Whisky stills

The whisky island

There is a mystique about the distillation of single malt whisky, so E&T went to the Scottish island of Islay to unlock the secrets.

Just 50 minutes after the Boeing 737 leaves the dreary tenement blocks of Glasgow behind, it drops through the clouds to a land that time appears to have forgotten. As the aircraft swoops across the Mull of Kintyre, rounds the rugged outcrop of the island and skims Laggan Bay to land at the tiny airport, marked only by a single runway and small multi-purpose building, you are instantly beguiled by the barren beauty of the tiny island of Islay.

The Scottish Isle of Islay is part of the southern Hebrides and is home to some 3,200 hardy souls. The Isle of Islay is also called Queen of the Hebrides and the stunning scenery and amazing wildlife make it a favoured holiday destination. But rather than tourism, it is the eight working whisky distilleries for which the island is known around the globe.

Many would argue that it is the raw natural beauty of the island that supplies the chief ingredients to the wonderfully peaty malts that the island produces and it would be hard to argue against that. The exact effect of natural water and the harsh briny air on the taste of the finished product has long been a bone of contention. But talk to anyone from the island and they will tell you that they stamp the whisky with an enviable subtlety and distinctive flavour.

Islay is largely composed of peat. The water on Islay is brown, even the water in the burns is brown, and winter gales drive salt spray far inland which thus saturates the peat, which is then dried again by the briny, seaweedy breeze. All these characteristics go into the whiskies of Islay, to a greater or lesser extent.

There are now eight distilleries on the island, all coastal and battered by salt-winds, except for the new Kilchoman Distillery. Among their products are the strongest flavoured of all malt whiskies, a property which endears them to some and disgusts others. Most of the malt used for the production of whisky on Islay is done at Port Ellen Maltings according to the specific peat level requirements of each distillery.

The furthest north of Islay's distilleries is Bunnahabhain - pronounced Boon-a-havn, meaning river mouth. Not only is it the furthest north, but it is the most remote, even by the standards of such an inaccessible outpost. There is only one entrance to the distillery, along a six-mile narrow and pitted single track road from Port Askaig. It is along this same pencil-thin path that lorries must carry malt to the distillery and carry away the finished whisky.

The distillery was built in 1881 by a partnership, which was incorporated in 1882 as the Islay Distillery Co, and later amalgamated with Wm Grant & Co, (Glenrothes-Glenlivet) to form Highland Distillers. Until 2003, the distillery was owned by the Edrington Group but, endowed as they were with Macallan and Highland Park brands, they decided that one highland malt was enough and sold the site to Burns Stewart Distillers, which owns such names as Belevdere Vodka and the cognacs of Thomas Hine.

Rounding the final corner and dropping down into the coastal inlet, the initial impressions were disappointing. The site is sprawling and somewhat menacing, with the buildings painted an ominous slate grey and with only a handful of workers required to man the operation, there is an even greater sense of desolation and foreboding loneliness pervading the facility. Pinched between the steeply rising cliffs and the fast-flowing waters of the Sound of Islay, it could easily pass as a prison or detention centre.

That feeling was soon dispelled on being greeted by the gregarious distillery manager, John MacLellan and, after sampling a couple of drams of the finest 25- and 18-year malts, we set out to tour the operation.

Remote location

The first topic of conversation, not unnaturally, was the challenge of operating in such a remote location. 'If you are running a business with quite a lot of engineering in it, you need supplies and you may need spare parts, you have to be aware of that,' he says. 'If you need something on the line by today, there is no point phoning yesterday - you have to phone a week ago. You have to be organised, if you are not organised you will struggle.'

Most of the equipment at Bunnahabhain dates from the early 1960s. The only real exception to that are the boilers - a new set of two boilers were fitted in 2007. 'The previous boilers dated from 1961 and 1962 and that, of course, is the heart of the plant,' MacLellan adds. 'If you don't have heat then you are struggling.'

The technology, he explains, is not cutting edge. 'It is basic engineering, but I would say that it is a combination between engineering with the right people who know what they are doing. We have a few guys who have been here over 30 years. A few years back we had a guy who retired after 44 years service. So the expertise and knowledge being passed on over the years is certainly a big part of it.'

The start of the process is the malt itself. Some of the Island's distilleries malt their own barley, while others use the island's Port Ellen Maltery, but Bunnahabhain opt to buy theirs from the Simpsons Maltery on the mainland at Berwick. 'They buy good quality barley and sell it on to us malted to our specification; at a certain moisture and phenol content. Bunnahabhain is actually very lightly peated. We control that by how we set our spec to the maltsters.'

It's in the water

Before we start the process a quick word about the water itself. The distillery is unique on the island because it uses water from a spring rather than a loch and so, unlike the brown, heavily peated waters of malts such as Laphroig or Ardberg, it is crystal clear. 'It comes up through the rock,' MacLellan explains. 'We catch it at source and it is then piped to a holding tank and on to the distillery.

'That is quite important for us here because we are aiming to make a low phenol whisky. If you imagine some of the distillers are taking water from a hill loch that is running across the hill over heather, over peat, being percolated through the peat. So in times of high rain fall, they don't really have any control over any extra peat that may be in the water.

'For high peated whisky this isn't a problem, but for us making an almost unpeated whisky it is a problem, so we want to keep our water as clear and as untainted by peat as possible.'

Mash and wash

Whisky is essentially distilled beer. The first process is the mash, where hot water is added to the ground grain in giant mash tuns. Bunnahabhain has the biggest on the island - when filled it usually accommodates just under 13 tonnes of mash. The process soaks the fermentable sugars from the mash and produces a hot, sweet liquid - a cereal tea, if you like - called wort.

'At the mashing stage we would start off at a reasonably cool mash,' MacLellan says. 'Different distillers will follow different temperatures, but ours is normally around about 64C. The second water about 80C and the third at 90C and unusually a fourth wash at 90C again.

'All distilleries do three washes apart from ourselves who do four. We do four because our mash is so big here - our mash is 12.52 tonnes of barley compared to Laphroaig where I think it is about 4.5 tonnes.'

The wort is then ready for fermentation and is moved on to one of six Oregon pine washbacks, each of which can be charged with 66,500 litres and the yeast is added. As part of the process of producing such a light, pure spirit the fermentation process at Bunnahabhain is not rushed. And as the company move from producing blending spirit to their own bottled product, this is now edging up to almost 80 hours, climbing from 18C to almost 34C

After fermentation, the beer is ready for distillation. Malt whisky needs to be distilled twice, primarily because of the inefficiency of pot stills, unlike the massive continuous stills used for grain whisky. However, it should be remembered that pure flavourless spirit is not the aim.

Double distillation

There are four stills at Bunnahabhain - two wash stills and two spirit stills. The wash stills are flat and compact, while the spirit stills are far more rounded with a high belly. 'The shape of the stills is very important,' MacLellan explains. 'If you get a distillery with tall stills then you will very often get a lighter spirit because if you imagine the stills are boiling, the vapour is rising, the heavier alcohol will fall back and the lighter ones will make it over.'

The first distillation in the wash is a fairly simple process where all possible spirit is extracted - at this stage called low wines. But it is in the spirit distillation that the real skill comes in. Not all the spirit is desirable. The early and late spirit runs, called foreshots and feints respectively, contain toxins and other undesirable products. These are recycled with the next batch of low wines and redistilled.

The foreshot is fairly short, lasting only ten minutes. The required spirit run - called the middle or spirit cut - lasts around three hours, as does the feints run. The spirit is then cooled and placed in casks for maturation and stored in one of the distillery's seven warehouses.

'Maturation is very important,' MacLellan says. 'I would sum it up by saying, if you were producing a slightly inferior quality spirit, which we are not here and never do, but if we were, we could probably improve that by putting it into a very good quality cask.

'If you take good spirit and put it into a poor cask, really you want shooting. The wood that you put it into is very important. If you have gone to all of the hassle of buying your barley, oil and manpower and all of the things that we have talked about and making really good whisky, why put it into a bad cask?'

Flexible

As in all manufacturing operations, flexibility is important. 'Looking at it from my perspective, at the moment, small is beautiful,' MacLellan adds. 'The smaller companies seem to be doing well. The small guys find it easier to respond to challenge and to react. What the market needs is that in the bigger companies I think.

'I am not saying that the bigger companies can't do it, but the smaller companies seem to be doing well at the moment, hence small is beautiful.'

Aside from the extended supply chain, MacLellan says the biggest challenge at the moment is the economic situation. 'At the moment, things are tough,' he admits. 'We are a large distillery and normally we would make whisky for other people. Because the economy has shrunk a bit, a lot of these companies are cutting their cloth to suit; they have cut back on their orders, basically.

'The business is a series of peaks and troughs. We are getting better at it, we are managing to flatten them out a little bit but there are still peaks and troughs. I have been here almost 21 years. I started at a low, then went high, low, high and now we are back low again. And that is just my time working here.'

Shortly after my visit, MacLellan ended his tenure at Bunnahabhain and moved on to pastures new, but the legacy he left behind of a thriving distillery is perfectly positioned to prosper as single malts continue their rise in popularity.

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