The Whisky Chronicles

Sea mist shrouds Islay, Scotland, a rugged and remote island that is home to iconic whisky distilleries.

We were driving on what is locally known as the Golden Mile, a stretch on the wind-pummeled, rugged island of Islay off Scotland’s southwest coast that includes three time-honored, world-renowned distilleries that most Scotch whisky drinkers would recognize by name — Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.

It was shortly after 9 a.m. on Islay (EYE-lah), and just over a hilly green on the right, the waves of the Atlantic were lapping against the rocky coastline. To the left were vast expanses of farmland, peat bogs and intermittent homes. We slowed down as a majestic Highland cow crossed the road in no particular hurry.

Aside from the fact that the road, a mere gash in this ancient landmass, is now paved, the landscape looks much the same as it did in the 1880s when Alfred Barnard traversed it in a horse-drawn carriage.

Barnard, a handlebar-mustachioed Briton, worked for Harper’s Weekly Gazette, a drinks trade magazine that still exists as Harpers Wine & Spirit. He wanted a thorough education on the whisky industry in order to have a solid foundation for his work, so he went on a near-Homerian odyssey through Britain.

Credit...Andy Haslam for The New York Times

He visited 161 distilleries (129 in Scotland) and chronicled the journey. His voluminous entries were printed in the magazine and published in 1887 as “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom,” a doorstop of a book.

Leafing through its pages today, the book serves as evidence that the Scotch industry innovates and grows without actually changing much.

Among nations with a history of whisky-making like Ireland, Canada and the United States, Scotland is by far the most prominent. In 2017, over 85 million cases of Scotch were consumed globally. Compare that to 44 million cases of American whiskey and 28 million of Canadian whisky and just under nine million of Irish whisky, according to the Scotch whisky Association, a trade group.

At the moment, Britain’s northernmost country boasts 126 Scotch whisky distilleries. Fifteen of them have opened in the last three years and more are at various stages of development.

Islay, known as the “Queen of the Hebrides,” is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, accessible by ferry and plane. It remains unique among the Scottish regions in that its whiskies are characterized by smoky, peaty flavors and aromas. Many consider it an acquired taste, but for those who have acquired it, like myself, Islay is pilgrimage-worthy, much like Bordeaux is for oenophiles, and like those wine-producing regions where vineyards dominate the landscape, the local drink is more than just a drink on Islay.

“There are hundreds of years of history in Scotch whisky and that heritage is just so present and visceral when you’re in Scotland,“ said Flavien Desoblin, who opened the Brandy Library, a bar in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood, in 2004.

Of the more than 600 whiskies he offers, more than half are Scotch. “There’s definitely a clear link between everyday life and whisky throughout the country. There’s an intensity about it. It feels like it permeates everything.”

Barnard’s tome reads like a travelogue. Writing in the first person, he captured the lush scenery, encounters with distillery managers and workers, road conditions, even the weather. The morning sun, for instance, “filled our hearts with gladness.” His horse “trotted merrily along.” Yet he makes ”no pretension to literary merit,” as he fastidiously documented the distilleries’ technical details like capacities of grain storage units and sizes of buildings and machinery.

Seven of the nine Islay distilleries Barnard wrote about are still operational. Two closed in the mid-to-late 1900s, when demand for single malt Scotches (whisky made from 100 percent malted barley at a single distillery) declined as a result of changes in taste and fashion. Single malts long have been and still are largely used for blended Scotches, which are single malts blended with grain whisky; the pop appeal of single malts is a relatively new phenomenon.

When I first visited Islay 12 years ago, I was just starting to write about the spirits industry for magazines and newspapers. I took it upon myself to study the myriad details of production and, as it turned out, learn of Scotland’s colorful history while at it. Looking back, it was not unlike Barnard’s undertaking.

What strikes me now as much as it did then as I walked through grand still houses and cold, dim barrel warehouses, the air heavy with evaporated spirit that’s called “the angels’ share,” is how unchanging whisky-making remains.

This is despite how much the Scotch industry has grown. Distilleries are building new warehouses for aging whisky around the island and adding stills. And while automation has slightly reduced the need for as much hands-on labor, there’s no way to accelerate production, which consists of grinding malted barley into grist, cooking it in scorching water, adding yeast to ferment the mixture into a beer, distilling it to concentrate the alcohol and letting it rest in oak casks for up to several decades.

And the old-worldliness of it all suffuses Islay, which exists on the fringe of modernity. There’s a local paper, The Ileach, but it comes out “fortnightly.” There are public buses, but they double as school buses on weekdays, because on an island with a population of only 3,500, you can get away with that. Some people still heat their homes using peat: decayed, millennia-old vegetal matter that’s used here to fuel fires to dry barley, infusing the air with heady smoky aromas that define Islay whiskies. Many will tell you they never lock their doors.

During my stay, I spent several evenings at the Lochindaal Hotel, a fourth-generation owned pub and restaurant with lodgings. As I drank pints and chatted with distillery workers fresh off their shift, it didn’t take long to understand the deeply rooted sense of community that made the unlocked doors common.

Referring to a golden age of distilling, Barnard wrote in 1887, “Ten years ago, there were but few Distilleries in Islay, but the increasing demand for this valuable make of Whisky for blending purposes, encouraged further enterprise in the extension of existing distilleries and the erection of new ones.”

Now, as ground breaks on new distilleries around Scotland — and the world — it feels as if another golden age is upon us.

Barnard’s exuberance and chattiness made me think he’d be a charming companion, so when I traveled to Islay in the winter of 2016, I packed his nearly 500-page tome along with my rain gear in preparation for the island’s classic blustery winter conditions. As it turned out, a Victorian view of Islay is pretty modern.

The four-mile road to the village of Bunnahabhain (BUNE-ah-hab-hain) is narrow, steep and serpentine. When the distillery of the same name opened in 1881, the owners constructed the path to the main road for horse-drawn carriages to bring coal and barley to the facility. Today, however, 40-foot trucks use it to take whisky away to be bottled.

The narrow road made for a hair-raising encounter on a drive up the hill, as an enormous truck careened down it. When my friend, Jeroen Hanselaer, a Belgian photographer, and I reached the top, a sweeping view of grand Victorian-era buildings and a tremendous pyramid of empty oak barrels stacked six-high-by-13-long came into sight down a shallow slope to Bunnahabhain Bay.

We parked and followed Barnard’s path through the stone “noble gateway” into a courtyard surrounded by gray production buildings. “Some say it feels like a cathedral, some say it reminds them of a prison,” Robin Morton, a stillman, told me with a hearty laugh.

Morton is a burly chap whose arms are covered with conversation-starting Scottish pride tattoos — a Celtic knot, Gaelic dragons. We chatted amid the echo-y mechanical hiss of the still house, which has a soaring ceiling and four squat yet grand copper stills. They aren’t polished to a shine like the stills everywhere else, giving the space an antique ambience.

He started at Bunnahabhain in 1978, when the 36 distillery workers all lived in the quaint, chimneyed houses clustered around the distillery. Today, only one of the houses is occupied and there are plans to raze many of them and renovate the rest as the distillery launches a refurbishment project over the next three years.

Morton spends much of his day at a computer screen, which, he’s quick to point out, only monitors the stills’ activity, not controls it. So to heat the stills, he walks over to the steam wheel and cranks it. Nonetheless, that monitor does make things a little easier: When he started, he had to measure the flow rate of the spirit with a wood stick. Now he reads the measurements from the glowing screen.

As far as Scottish island distilleries go, Bowmore is practically urban. Built in 1779 in Islay’s capital village of the same name, it’s a collection of whitewashed buildings on four seaside acres, just off the main thoroughfare, which is lined with a bustling grocery, a hardware store, gift shops and a bank.

In the cement-floored malt barn, a single beam of light streaming through a small window gave the large, stark room the luminosity of a Vermeer painting. A man was pulling a rake-like instrument across a barley-strewn floor, making furrows so air could circulate through the germinating grains. Bowmore is one of the few distilleries in Scotland to use the old-fashioned floor-malting method. Today this part of the malting process is typically done in industrial-size drums at giant plants.

Heather, my genial guide who wore stylish glasses and her hair in a loose pony tail, scooped up a fistful of barley and instructed me to crush a single soft sprouted granule between my fingers — the “maltster’s rub.” It was silky and chalky, moist enough to absorb the peat smoke that ultimately gives whisky its characteristic flavor.

“That’ll be going into the kiln at six tonight,” she said, leading me to a steel door at the top of a few metal-grate steps. She removed a sturdy lock and unleashed a blast of heat and plume of smoke. Phenolic, savory aromas knocked me like a right hook. She motioned me into the haze. I sank into a knee-high bed of 21 tons of malted barley in the tennis-court-length kiln, where grain sits for 60 hours, absorbing smoky, savory essences from a peat-fueled fire burning underneath.

She suggested I lie down and make a “grain angel,” as one would do in fresh snow. I imagined Barnard would have let his stiff upper lip get in the way of such tomfoolery, so I laid down in the pillowy, fragrant barley and dedicated my angel to his guiding spirit.

After wandering through the still house and the cold, dark warehouse known as the No. 1 Vaults, which has been used to age whisky since Bowmore was founded in 1779, making it reportedly one of the oldest maturing warehouses in the world, my friend and I kicked back in the modern but cozy tasting room, which has expansive floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the sea. I sipped the 12-year-old single malt, the youngest sample in the tasting flight of four — a softly peated drink that smelled of sea spray and grain.

During Barnard’s visit here, he wrote, “The Distillers say the proximity to the sea favours the various processes of malting, brewing and distilling.” As I watched the mist fly off the swirling “white horses,” local parlance for the waves of the cobalt Atlantic as they crest and slam against the shore, I appreciated one of Islay’s whiskies’ most crucial ingredients: the local air.

As we approached Ardbeg, a cluster of buildings with pagoda roofs that appears like an oasis of civilization amid expanses of green hills, Barnard’s description rang clear: “a lonely spot on the very verge of the sea, and its isolation tends to heighten the romantic sense of its position.”

We walked across a courtyard to the visitors’ center, located in a high-ceilinged former malt barn, one of the original buildings. Barley was delivered here when the distillery opened in 1815. It’s been retrofitted with a bustling airy eatery and book-lined gift shop. At the stone-floored restaurant, the Old Kiln Café, locals can be found amid tourists, socializing over fish pies, plates of smoked salmon or scones and cappuccinos.

We were greeted by the distillery manager, Michael Heads, a casual avuncular fellow with white hair who introduced himself as Mickey. He brought us to a neighboring building and led us through a long, sepia-hued chamber with deep empty wood vessels on either side of a narrow planked floor. The smell of peat from barley stored here in Victorian times still lingered in the air. An echo resounded when my pen dropped to the floor. There was an ethereal, old-world aura to the space.

After being led through a few more equipment rooms, we emerged into a sunlit room with a pitched churchlike ceiling. In front of us were six huge washbacks, vessels in which yeast feasts on sugary solution, generating bubbly activity on the golden liquid surface as it turns starch into alcohol.

Through a small window, far past those low cresting “white horses,” I could make out Northern Ireland’s hills of Antrim. Long before trucks existed, the narrow pier right outside was the primary access to the rest of the world: Barley and yeast came off boats, whisky was sent out. It was easy to envision the ships in gridlock on the now bare waters.

This distillery’s whitewashed buildings with turquoise-framed windows surround a small courtyard with an entrance just off the main road that runs along the shoreline. Observing the scene from the mash house, Barnard described it as “one of the finest and most healthy spots on the island.”

I peered down into the mash tun, a massive iron vessel where giant curved rakes revolved through seven tons of grist steeping in 21,000 liters (or nearly 5,550 gallons) of piping hot water, giving off a heady peat smell that called to mind a smoldering seaside campfire and hot tar. This porridge-like mix would become Octomore, the smokiest single malt on the planet. Spending time in a room heavily infused with the aroma of smoked grains cooking made my sweater smell like iodine and ashes for days. I found it delightful.

A study in gears and grace, the nearly seven-foot deep mash tun is the stuff steampunk dreams are made of: a contraption of cast iron, steel and bronze. The nearly 150-year-old machine is one of several pieces of equipment that was restored to its Victorian-era glory. The distillery, which opened in 1881, was abandoned in 1994, then resurrected by an English wine merchant in 2001.

Bruichladdich (brooch-LAH-dee) is a compact distillery, the smallest among the ones we visited. I followed a wood walkway, past six hulking pine washbacks, into the still house. It was a hot, noisy chamber where a network of copper pipes connects the stills.

Budgie, the stillman, was laser-focused on the spirit safe, a brass-framed, glass-paneled box that captures the 136-proof spirit as it trickles off the still. He methodically measured alcohol levels and temperatures then shuffled over to a wobbly desk to record the data in a broad ledger. With bearlike hands, he wrote in tiny script with a fine-point pen. I later met Adam Hannett, the youthful, soft-spoken head distiller, who told me that Budgie started in 1989.

“Of the 60,000 casks we have here, Budgie will have been involved in all the spirit made since October 1989,” he told me. “There’s probably 1,000 casks — or about 500, now that I think about it — that Budgie has not had an influence on. Is that not quite something?”

The craggy ruins of Dunyvaig Castle that captivated Barnard are still a vision of faded majesty as we approached Lagavulin, the last of the distilleries on my visit. Perched on a peninsular rock, the ruins dominate the distillery’s seaside panorama. Centuries ago, Lords of the Isles, island rulers during the Middle Ages, retreated to this property overlooking masses of rock rising from the sea, which Barnard likened to “weird monsters of the deep.”

The crash of the waves was drowned out by a mechanical rumble when my tour guide, Georgie Crawford, the distillery manager, led us into the mill room where a lofty antique-looking steel contraption pulverizes barley, a large portion of it peated, into a coarse powdery grist. It always amazes me that these fine particles will become elegant, complex Scotch whisky.

Ms. Crawford, affable yet matter-of-fact, put a handful of milled grain on a screen in a shoebox-size, weathered wood box, shut it and shook it — 50 times up and down, 50 times side-to-side. This, she explained, is how they make sure each batch of barley isn’t too fine or too course, quite a remarkable thing to do by hand considering Lagavulin makes 2.4 million liters of spirit annually. (It was merely 284,000 liters in the 1800s.)

“Sometimes the most basic thing can do the job you need to do. You can get a machine, but we trust our guys to count to 50,” she said with a merry shrug.

Barnard does not much comment on the actual whiskies throughout his travels, but he made particular mention of an eight-year-old Lagavulin, declaring it “exceptionally fine” and noting that this distillery was one of the few that released single malts in addition to producing the spirit used for blended Scotch.

As a nod to that accolade, Lagavulin, on the occasion of its bicentennial in 2016, reintroduced an eight-year-old single malt. It’s assertive yet elegant, with lively citrus notes popping through the smoke and iodine. I’m sure Barnard would have relished it. I certainly did.

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