The Dark Side of the Whisky Island

It was 9 years ago. Winter. The middle of January I think. Just me and my colleague in the entire building. Sitting in the back office with a cup of tea. Sharing the latest gossip. It’s almost noon, but we haven’t had a single soul in the distillery. The phone rings. Ah! Sound. Finally. It’s Laphroaig distillery.

29 April, 2019

by My Scottish Diary


‘Hello Fiona. How are you?’

After telling me all about her weekend’s she finally tells me the reason of her call.

‘This chap. A Scottish guy. He’s just left us and is heading your way. Could you please look after him and maybe give him a special dram or two. He’s a very good friend of mine and Lagavulin is his favourite whisky’.

‘Of course Fiona. No problem. We’ll look after him. Take care now. Cheerio!’

The doorbell rings. Fiona’s friend is standing in reception as happy as Larry. We take him to an empty tasting room. All three of us sitting in the comfortable leather seats. A Scottish chap with a dram of his beloved 16 years old, the two of us with more tea.

I had only just started working here at Lagavulin, when my colleague had taken me under her wing. She has worked here for over 40 years, as had her husband. It’s always a privilege to listen to her thrilling and fascinating stories from her many years working here. The excitement experienced by Fiona’s friend and me is visible in the room. Words floating like silk above our heads. Or maybe it’s just those angels escaping the whisky glass, wanting to be a part of this great afternoon.

Whisky distilleries are an inseparable part of this island. Together with local farmers, community, landscape and even the weather, it creates a magic chain. Farmers harvest the soil for the barley. Peat cutters prepare the peat. Distillery workers then mill and brew a brown liquid called mash before boiling off the spirit that will sit in the cask for us to enjoy many years later.

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It’s been like this for many years and although the tools used to make whisky have changed in most of the distilleries, the sequence of this ritual has remained almost the same. However, something has changed. It’s one of the main ingredients of this golden spirit. People and their attitude.

Whisky lovers around the world dream that one day they’ll put their feet on this holy land of peaty spirit. They hope to see with their own eyes where Laphroaig dig their peat turfs. Where Kilchoman grows their barley. Where Bruichladdich mature their whisky. The iconic view from the Caol Ila stillhouse. To discover the secret location of Bunnahabhain’s distillery. They want to celebrate ‘peat and love’ at Ardbeg. Meet Lagavulin’s legend, Ian MacArthur. Have a sneak view into legendary Bowmore warehouse No. 1. For most people it’s a pilgrimage journey and Islay takes a very special place in their hearts.

However, it comes as no surprise that with the rising popularity of Islay malts, the place and the way people look at it has started to change. Hundreds of pictures from the whisky island appear on social media every day. We can walk through the malting floors, enter atmospheric warehouses or enjoy scenic views of the distilleries without even putting our foot on Islay. And if we are lucky enough to come here, very often it feels like we are just chasing the ghost created by social media. (Un)consciously we are looking for those same images seen on Instagram instead of creating new ones ourselves. It’s as if we are becoming a simulacra of this lifeless virtual world, missing out on reality in front of us. I see it more and more often how my tours are looked through the eyes of gadgets. 

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Islay is no exception, and just like the rest of the world, is becoming one of those things on the ‘must do’ bucket list. A lot of visitors will now rush through the distilleries without properly experiencing any of them. I see it more and more often, how people leave the tasting room in a hurry, in the middle of the tour, just because they have another tour scheduled. Islay time? Not anymore. Quantity versus quality. More distilleries mean more pictures. More pictures mean more ‘likes’. More likes mean increased happiness. Mission accomplished. 

Today at the hotel I saw how four guys were caring special trays packed with Ardbeg whisky. My little girl wandered into the restaurant and was watching how the whisky boxes were carefully counted and sorted. She was considering joining them since the game looked quite fun, but the guys had dead serious, business like expressions and were too focused on their treasure. Islay whisky hunters. Buy bottles on Monday. Sell them on Tuesday. Holiday on Islay has been paid for. Money flippers. Not a fun game at all, so I can’t blame my wee girl walking away from them. I did too. I always do.

Is there now competition between Islay distilleries? It never used to be like this. We are all in the same business. One big family. Literally. Fiona’s son works in the Ardbeg café, her niece is a tour guide at Bunnahabhain and her uncle smokes barley at the Port Ellen Maltings. However, whisky is a business, after all. Isn’t it? And if it is a business, it has to make money. In order to make money you have to convince people to buy your product. How do you do this? You make your product stand out from the rest. But whisky doesn’t speak for itself anymore. Well, it does to some people. But the majority are seduced by your royal highness, Marketing. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, is when you start talking badly about your neighbours. And let me tell you a secret. Some will do this here.

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Now when I look back at that January afternoon at Lagavulin distillery, there is something very authentic, pure and innocent about it. Maybe it’s the quality of time. Really good whisky shared with friends. Absent of phones with their intrusive sounds. Silence. Stories. Being in the moment. Islay time. Is it still possible to experience such magic moments here? I think we can. As long as we don’t become them.





Lina Bernotaityte