Island of dreams

Nicholas Morgan, head of whisky outreach for Diageo, which owns Lagavulin and Caol Ila on the island, thinks not.

“Provided the environmental impact can be properly managed in regard to traffic movements, water usage, effluent disposal and so on, it must be good for the island if it creates employment and attracts more visitors,” he says.

“There is no reason it would harm existing distilleries. Quite the contrary – it helps to promote Islay as a whisky island and it’s probably safe to assume that Islay’s fame in this respect helps to promote any whisky made there.”

Lumsden agrees. “I can only see this as a good thing for the island,” he says. “Most of the established brands are struggling to keep up with demand, so as long as the new distilleries are going to make good, well-matured whisky, and not simply charge high prices for three to four-year-old juice, then it will be positive all round.”

Growing concern

But while Lumsden strikes a positive note overall, his final comment reflects a growing concern both from Scotland and elsewhere that some scotch whisky is meeting the increased demand by turning to younger whiskies, many of them without an age statement. And some of them, frankly, are ordinary. 

Rachel Barrie is the master blender at Morrison Bowmore and has a long relationship with Islay, having worked with the heavy hitting peaty whiskies of Ardbeg in her previous job with Glenmorangie. She was concerned enough to set about addressing the matter officially.

“I think there is a real risk that some of these non-age statement whiskies will damage the scotch whisky category because they are not ready,” she says. “But that’s why I brought up the idea of a tasting panel at the Scotch Whisky Association. They were talking about how to get the most whisky, and increase yield from the barley, but what about the taste of scotch whisky? It’s a hard thing to assess though. How do you decide?” 

So is it possible to find a path that stays true to tradition but allows for innovation and change at the same time? Perhaps it’s as simple as ensuring that the whisky in the bottle remains outstanding but the bottle reflects progress and modern commercial realities. 

This is the route Bruichladdich, Bowmore and Bunahabhain have taken. But actually, there is no reason why, in the right hands, the spirit can’t change, too, provided – and all the major whisky makers agree on this point – the high standards of Islay are maintained.

“I am working on experiments for possible Bowmore bottlings in 2014 as we speak,” says Barrie. “By selecting interesting casks it’s possible to take the whisky into new places by staying true to the distillery’s character but exploring the whisky’s complexities.

“For me making great whisky is all about collisions of nature, and Islay is as good a place as any to explore that. It is one of the ironies of whisky that the biggest collisions of nature happen on Scotland’s smallest islands.”