Uisge-beatha: Following the Scotch trail on Islay

Ever wanted to learn how to make whisky? Here’s your chance.

But what about uisge-beatha, you say? What does that mean? Read on, and all will become clear.

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We did a 4-day whisky tour of Islay, a small island in the Hebrides. The tour took us all around the island. Along with a selection of the distilleries that make up the heart and soul of Islay, we also stopped at many scenic points, beaches, and ruined castles. A thouroughly enjoyable trip. Even though I didn’t have a taste for whisky when I set off, I have developed a liking for the Islay kind after so many visits (and tastings).

Distillery living

First, we checked into our cottage; Distillery House.

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The cottage was lovely and had everything we needed, complete with Bowmore tartan pillows and throws.

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Spacious and cosy bedrooms

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Lovely view of Bowmore Square from our bedroom window

The distilleries

We visited six of the eight distilleries on Islay: Bowmore, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Kilchoman and Bruichladdich. All of them are worth a separate post, but I suspect there are limits to how much whisky you want (metaphorically speaking). As we lived at Bowmore, I’ll focus on that. Incidentally, the village is also called Bowmore, and is the administrative hub of Islay.

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Bowmore high street

As you can imagine, after visiting so many distilleries (also including Oban on the mainland on the way back to Edinburgh), I now feel like I could make whisky with my hands tied behind my back. Though it’s not a very complicated process, what I really appreciated about it, is the traditional techniques still being used in all the distilleries. I like the fact that no computers and fancy machines are involved, and that there are still Ileachs who do the nitty gritty.

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How to make whisky the Islay way

So, how does it work then? To begin with, barley is spread on the malting floor after being thouroughly steeped in water. After that, it needs to be turned (by hand) every four hours, day and night. Peat is collected out on the marshes, and after being dried, it is used to smoke the barley to give it that distinctive peaty Islay taste.

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Bowmore is one of the few distilleries left that use their old Pagoda chimneys to smoke their malt.

The grains left after the smoking is called malt, and this is grinded to a semi-fine substance called grist. At Bowmore, they still use their Porteous mill from the 60s, which grinds eight tonnes of barley in three hours.

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After the grinding, the grist is put into the Mash Tuns along with yeast and fresh water from Bowmore’s own water supply. The Mash Tuns at Bowmore are over 100 years old, built around the same time as the Titanic! Also, nothing goes to waste at Bowmore Distillery. The protein rich spent grain from the Mash Tun is sold to farmers who feed their Highland Cattle with it. Apparently it’s very popular with them.

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The mixture is left in the Wash Backs to ferment…

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…and then sent to the stills, where it is triple distilled.

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The Spirit Safe makes sure the alcohol level is safe. After all, uisge-beatha is gaelic for ‘water of life’.

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And that’s that! The clear spirit is now ready to be put into sherry barrels and stored for a minimum of three years before it can call itself a proper whisky.

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Interested in following the Scotch trail?

We booked with Rabbie’s, paid for it all ourselves and are happy to recommend them.

About the Author:

One of the kids in ‘travel with kids’, avid traveller, mystery writer, chocoholic, currently working on a WWII biography.

7 Comments

  1. Gilla 13 August 2015 at 0620 - Reply

    Never realized that there was so much work to make whiskey. Thanks

  2. Cathy Sweeney 13 August 2015 at 1917 - Reply

    Yes, I would love to follow the Scotch Trail! Very interesting to learn about the process and Bowmore looks like a nice place to visit. In the psat year or so, I’ve toured a few small North American distilleries — in Nova Scotia, Montana, Minnesota. Family-owned craft distilleries seem to be cropping up many places around here.

  3. Ana O 14 August 2015 at 0032 - Reply

    OK, random thoughts triggered by this article:

    My father-in-law loved peaty whiskey.

    We have bottles of Laphroaig at home.

    How do you pronounce all these names??

    Drunk cattle.

  4. Alexandra 14 August 2015 at 1754 - Reply

    Ana O,

    Uisge-beatha: ushkebeh
    Laphroaig: Lafroy
    Bruichladdie: Bru’laddy
    Kilchoman: Keloman
    Islay: Isla

    The other ones are fairly straight forward

  5. Jeff Titelius 15 August 2015 at 0218 - Reply

    How fascinating! I love to discover how products are made, especially in the time-honored traditions of the region. But you never told us how it tasted. Did you like it? 😉

  6. Natalie 16 August 2015 at 1000 - Reply

    It is so complicated, it makes you wonder how ever someone discovered this process!

  7. Marcia 17 August 2015 at 1242 - Reply

    This sounds so labor intensive, I wonder how many bottles they process and how much each costs.
    Still, with almost everything taken over by automation, it’s gratifying to see some traditions endure.

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