Gallery: Where There's Smoke, There's Scotch: Making Whisky in Islay, Scotland

Eddie McCaffer of Bowmore
Eddie McCaffer of Bowmore
One of only six distilleries with malting facilities in all of Scotland, Bowmore’s Master Distiller, Eddie McCaffer, grew up about 600 yards from the distillery and started working for the company in 1966. One of his first jobs: Manually turning the germinating malt every half hour with a wooden shovel.
Germinating Barley at Bowmore
Germinating Barley at Bowmore
Moisture and a little bit of time allows the barley to germinate and sprout, providing all kinds of good starchy sugars for the added yeast to turn to alcohol during fermentation.
Bowmore No. 1
Bowmore No. 1
Established in 1779, Bowmore’s No. 1 Vault is the oldest maturation warehouse in Scotland. Their whiskies show a deft hand (most recently, that of Master Blender Rachel Barrie—one of only three female MB’s in all of Scotland), even in their base-level 12 year, which shows notes of tangerine, vanilla bean, white pepper, and smoke.
Lagavulin Barrels
Lagavulin Barrels
Lagavulin tends to use and re-use their bourbon barrels and sherry butts for between 80 and 100 years before retiring them. Their whiskies range in expression from the cask strength 12 year, which has lots of smoke up front that clears away leaving you with pretty citrusy and salty notes, to the rich and luscious, like 1995 Distiller’s Edition, which begins in bourbon casks and gets finished in a Pedro Jimenez sherry butt, lending this decadent dram notes of coriander, yellow raisins, nutmeg, and spice cake with a bit of smoke sneaking up only on the finish.
Lagavulin Distillery
Lagavulin Distillery
With around 2.4 million liters of whisky distilled per year, Lagavulin is a small but sparkly gem in Diageo’s whisky portfolio. The whiskies from the southeast part of the island, where Lagavulin has officially operated since 1816 (rumors of unofficial distilling prior to this abound) tend to be characteristically heavier, says Distillery Manager, Georgie Crawford. “We believe like the French in terroir: You couldn’t make Lagavulin down the road and have it be the same,” she says. “But Islay is so deeply entrenched in distilling. I grew up in a pub in Port Ellen! It touches everyone here.”
Jackie Thompson of Ardbeg with Some Peat
Jackie Thompson of Ardbeg with Some Peat
Ardbeg’s Visitor Center Manager Jackie Thompson demonstrates how intense the aroma of smoked peat can be. Ardbeg, which began distilling in 1815 shut down in 1981 for eight years until it was purchased and re-born as the quirky distillery it is today. “Single malt as a concept is really only 40 some-odd years old,” Thompson says. “Before that, it was really about blends.”
The Stills at Ardbeg
The Stills at Ardbeg
Ardbeg double distills their 700,000 liters of whisky produced annually in copper pot stills (although they are gunning to up that capacity to 1.1 million liters for 2013). Their whiskies have incredible texture, especially the buttery Lord of the Isles and the silken and very special Galileo—the texture is in part the result of some liquid stock laid down in 1999 in both bourbon and Marsala casks. The whiskey has a silky, almost unctuous mouthfeel and notes of white figs, dates, vanilla, and powerful smoke.