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Recently, I misread a review of Beyoncé’s tour which said: ‘She whips the crowd up by getting them to chant: “I slay! I slay!”’ For a moment, I thought she was outing herself as an Ardbeg fan. It wouldn’t have surprised me. I mean, who doesn’t love Islay? I do, for starters: the place, the people, the whiskies. It’s an endlessly fascinating, layered place that goes way beyond peat and spirit.
Why, though, are people so obsessed with building distilleries there? There are three projects under consideration at the moment – Hunter Laing’s Ardnahoe proposal is due to be discussed by councillors in the next few weeks – and there might be more. In fact, by the time the Islay bush telegraph gets hold of this piece, we’ll be hearing that there’s 12 new stills planned.
The question is: why Islay? There is a theory that the most profitable place to start a new ice cream shop in a seaside town is not at the other end of the prom from an existing establishment, but right next-door.
Starbucks operates on much the same principle. Build a distillery on Islay and you, the theory goes, benefit from the halo effect. If you’re near to a famous distillery, then surely something will have rubbed off?
Aren’t we in danger of getting Islay distillery overload? How many variations on the Islay theme can you get? How much more land is there – or, to be more precise, how much more water is there?
Islay, for all that you might have read and maybe experienced, is not blessed with infinite supplies of water. In fact, in many places it’s scarce. That restricts the number of sites which can be built, and also their capacity.
The other aspect to consider is: how do these new distilleries cut through? If there are eight established distilleries, each with its own character (in fact more, if you factor in the peated/unpeated variants at Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila), where will your point of difference be? More peaty? More Ardbeggy? Less?
If you build it…: Hunter Laing’s Ardnahoe plans are up for discussion soon
Speaking personally, I’d rather be the first distillery on Colonsay than the ninth, 10th or 11th on Islay. That would give me a point of difference immediately. Actually, I might not build on Colonsay, tempting though it is, as it already has a decent wee brewery and semi-regular transport links to the mainland – needed for supplies and, let’s not forget, tourists.
Canna would be fun because I could then also run the Canna Film Festival (©D Broom/C Orr), but transport links would be trickier. Muck would be worth a look, but the same applies.
The outer isles have possibilities, as Harris and hopefully Barra will demonstrate, though St Kilda might be a push. Mull could support a second still, but water issues might make it tricky for a third one on Skye. Building on Raasay, seen in this light, makes a lot of sense.
I’d probably head to Tiree. I said as much to someone who was thinking of building on Islay. ‘Where’s Tiree?’ they said. Maybe that’s part of it. Most of Scotland’s islands are insulae incognitae to many whisky lovers because they don’t have distilleries on then.
The name Tiree, some believe, comes from the Gaelic Tir-iodh land of corn, or Tir-I the granary of Iona. It is the sunniest spot in Britain; it’s also the windiest. It’s fertile as well – hence the name – allowing the possibility of using some locally grown barley. It also has previous, which in itself is a salutary tale of whisky-making in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Sunny spot: Tiree would be Dave Broom’s choice of island distillery location
Up until 1786, most of the farms on Tiree were making whisky, which was either being drunk on the island, used as rent money, or exported (up to 300 gallons a year went off the island).
There appear to have been two legal distilleries in 1790, using local and imported barley, but these seem to have stopped with a failure of crops in 1794. Illicit distillation did, however, continue.
At the same time, the 5th Duke of Argyll was trying to ‘improve’ the island, shifting it away from the old ‘run-rig’ agricultural system and towards crofting and industries such as kelp farming, which would in turn make him more money..
Rather than seeing a distillery as a potential source of revenue (like Talisker or Clynelish), the Duke clamped down on illicit whisky-making which, as in other parts of Scotland, was the easiest way for farmers to pay their now rising rent. He also wished to sell the barley himself on the mainland (actually, barley was being shipped off the island – destination Ireland, where it was being used to make illicit whiskey!).
In 1801, 157 men were convicted of illicit whisky-making and, in a letter to Malcolm McLaurin, Chamberlain of Tiree, in June that year the Duke’s instructions were laid out:
‘His Grace is pleased to order…that every tenth man of these 157 be deprived of their present possessions & of all protection from him in the future…it is left to Major Maxwell & you to select the ring-leaders & and most idle and worthless, or to lay the punishment on the whole 157 by lot as you think best.’
By then, people were leaving the island.
The Duke appears to have had a slight change of heart and tried to set up a legal distillery, but no-one wanted to work it, and so whisky-making on Tiree ceased. Probably.
Anyway, it’s high time this situation was redressed, which is why it’s Tiree for me. Anyone want to crowdfund me?
Cregeen, ER (ed) 1964; Argyll Estate Instructions, 1771-1803. Scottish History Society, 4th series, vol 1
IA Glen, A Maker of Illicit Stills, Glen Scottish Studies, vol 14 (1970)
A History of Tiree Whisky Distilling
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