Scotch’s final frontier

12 May, 2017

Ian Buxton takes a trip around the smaller and lesser-known distilleries of Scotland’s outlying islands where producers battle the elements to make some of the country’s finest whisky

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We all know and love Islay and its eight distilleries. But look around – Islay is only one of Scotland’s distilling islands and a quick look at the gazetteer reveals another eight distilleries on seven islands, all with their own distinctive identities.

They have a varied heritage, some old, some very new. Both Tobermory on Mull and Orkney’s Highland Park date back to 1798, whereas newcomers such as the Isle of Harris distillery have opened in the past 12 months. But let’s start with the only distillery on Arran, an island in the Clyde long a favourite of Glasgow holidaymakers.

The distillery at Lochranza in the north of the island recently celebrated its 21st birthday with the release of its first 18-year-old whisky. Like many small independent ventures it has experienced a number of difficulties with financing but today appears in robust health. In fact, the distillery will shortly shut down to permit an expansion – a £1.1m investment will see new stills installed and production rise from around 750,000 litres annually to more than 1.2m litres.

If that was not evidence enough of success then the news that the company has just begun construction on a second distillery, due to open in August 2018, should be conclusive. Having been unable to secure sufficient land for further building at Lochranza, the new distillery is at Lagg, at the island’s southern end where Arran’s last legal distillery worked until 1837.

Since opening, Arran has become the island’s most visited tourist attraction, with a remarkable 88,000 visitors arriving last year to sample the distillery’s 10, 14 and 18-year-old core products as well as one-off expressions and distillery-only bottlings.

The Arran malts are generally sweet and warming, with some well-balanced but gentle smoky notes. Lovers of more pronounced peat smoke-influenced whiskies will find the Machrie Moor expressions to be their favourite.

Our travels take us next to Islay, if only to take the short ferry trip to Jura.

The Jura distillery at Craighouse, the island’s centre, can trace its origins to 1810 but was closed in the 1920s. Distilling restarted in a new distillery in 1963, with further major expansion in 1977. For years the output was destined largely for blending and accordingly produced in a relatively mild-mannered style. Since the late 1990s, however, when a substantial proportion of the stock was re-racked (a 10-year rolling programme involving some 27,000 casks) the quality of the single malt has improved dramatically.

SEVEN-DAY WEEK

Today owner Whyte & Mackay is part of Emperador Inc of the Philippines, a globally significant brandy producer, and the distillery is currently working a seven-day week with all the planned 2.4m litres of spirit now reserved for sale as single malt – a marked change from the distillery’s early days. There are a number of expressions available. If familiar with the 10-year-old then try either Superstition, non-aged but carrying more peat weight, or the rich and full-bodied 16-year-old Diurachs’ Own.





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