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The Ultimate Guide To Islay Distilleries

Islay is home to ten whisky distilleries, each with their own history, profile, and dedicated following. Despite being one of the smallest whisky regions in Scotland, Islay distilleries produce around £20 million liters of whisky per year. In this guide, I will break down each of the distilleries that have made a home on the Queen of the Hebrides, and give Islay its stellar reputation as a scotch whisky powerhouse. 

Islay Distilleries Map

This handy map shows the locations of the distilleries on Islay.

Ardbeg 

Founded: 1815
Owner: Glenmorangie plc
Capacity: 2.1 MLPA
Phenol Parts per Million (PPM): 50ppm
Auction Record: Ardbeg 1974 Single Bourbon Cask #2742 – £35,000, November 2022
Highest-rated WhiskyFun Bottle: Ardbeg 1967 29 YO Kingsbury Cask #922 – 96 points

Ardbeg was founded in 1815 by the McDougall family on the south coast of Islay. The distillery was soon a bustling community, providing most of its malt for blends. 

Between the 1920s and 1979, the distillery saw a number of ownership changes and shareholder purchases. By the end of the 1970s, Hiram Walker had taken full control of the distillery. At this time, the blended whisky market was experiencing a dip. To compensate for the lack of demand for peated Ardbeg, the distillery began to produce Kildalton, an unpeated malt. 

In 1981 the distillery was mothballed and miraculously survived the 1980s whisky loch, reopening in 1989 under Allied Distillers. The distillery closed yet again in 1996, and in 1997 it was purchased by Glenmorangie. 

Determined to capitalize on Ardbeg’s following, Glenmorangie promptly reopened the distillery, built a new visitors’ center, released a 10 year old, and established the Ardbeg Committee

Today, Ardbeg is an Islay institution, producing high-class single malts and exclusive committee releases. The distillery also hosts annual events such as Ardbeg Day

Shop Ardbeg 

We have an amazing selection of Ardbeg whiskies on our shop to suit all budgets.

Browse the collection here.

Ardnahoe 

Founded: 2018
Owner: Hunter Laing & Company
Capacity: 0.9 MLPA
Phenol Parts per Million (PPM): 40ppm
Auction Record: N/A
High-rated WhiskyFun Bottle: N/A 

Ardnahoe is the newest of the Islay distilleries, having been completed in 2018. Production began in October of that year and the distillery opened to visitors in 2019. 

The distillery is owned by Hunter Laing & Co, set up by Stewart Laing after he and his brother divided assets and split their company (Douglas Laing & Co) into two in 2013. Douglas Laing & Co. is now under the ownership of Stewart’s brother, Fred. 

Stewart Laing saw potential for a new Islay distillery due to the growing demand for Islay whiskies and embarked on a journey to build an £8 million distillery just south of Bunnahabhain. Under the watchful eye of production director Jim McEwan – formerly of Bruichladdich – Ardnahoe single malt spent years slumbering away. 

Ardanhoe Single Malt Scotch Whisky was officially launched on May 10th, 2024.

Bowmore

Founded: 1779
Owner: Morrison Bowmore Distillers
Capacity: 2 MLPA
Phenol Parts per Million (PPM): 25-30ppm
Auction Record: Bowmore Stac 1962 55 YO – £450,000, October 2023
Highest-rated WhiskyFun Bottle:  Bowmore 1966 Samaroli Bouquet – 97 points 

The oldest distillery on Islay, Bowmore is said to have begun operations in 1779. The distillery was granted a legal distilling license in 1816. Bowmore began to gain traction in the 1840s, with Windsor Castle requesting a cask of Bowmore in 1841. 

Bowmore was acquired by Stanley P. Morrison in 1963, and the distillery’s golden years began. The distillery was modernized and expanded. Vintages from the Stanley P. Morrison era are highly prized and sought-after by collectors. Perhaps one of the most recognizable series of whiskies distilled in the Morrison era is the Black Bowmores. 

Today, Bowmore is owned by Beam Suntory, following Jim Beam’s purchase of Suntory in 2014. As well as an established core range, Bowmore churns out a number of limited releases and is in collaboration with another luxury brand, Aston Martin

Shop Bowmore 

If you are looking for a Morrison-era Bowmore, look no further than this Bowmore 1968 Celtic Heartlands, chosen and bottled by whisky legend Jim McEwan. 

Browse the full selection of Bowmore whiskies on our shop. 

Bruichladdich 

Founded: 1881
Owner: Bruichladdich Distillery Company
Capacity: 1.5 MLPA
Phenol Parts per Million (PPM): Octomore – 80+ppm, Port Charlotte – 40ppm, Bruichladdich – unpeated
Auction Record: Bruichladdich 1960 Sherry Cask 100 Proof – £10,000, December 2018  
Highest-rated WhiskyFun Bottle: Bruichladdich 1970 bottled 2002 – 95 points 

Bruichladdich Distillery has had a rocky history involving multiple purchases, mergers, and a period of mothballing. The distillery was built in 1881 by the Harvey brothers. Between 1937 and 1995 it was owned by Joseph Hobbs, DCL, AB Grant, Invergordon, and Whyte & Mackay. 

1995 saw the distillery doors close and the stills become silent. They remained so until 2001 when a group of Islay landowners and a London wine merchant pooled resources to purchase the distillery for £6 million. 

With limited funds but a lot of passion, Bruichladdich was resurrected. Innovations included a new bottling line, an updated wood quality policy, and gin distillation. 

In 2012, Bruichladdich was purchased by Remy Cointreau for £58 million which resulted in significant upgrades such as new machinery and warehousing. 

In addition to Bruichladdich, an unpeated Islay malt, the distillery also produces two peated expressions: Port Charlotte and Octomore. Port Charlotte was launched in 2006 as a medium-peated expression. Octomore followed in 2008, and is amongst the most heavily peated whisky in the world, with a PPM of over 80. 

Shop Bruichladdich 

Included in the wide range of Bruichladdich available on the Whiskey Wash Shop is this Bruichladdich 37 Year Old Legacy Series

Browse our full Bruichladdich collection here

Bunnahabhain

Founded: 1881
Owner: The Bunnahabhain Distillery Company
Capacity: 2.74 MLPA
Phenol Parts per Million (PPM): Plan malt – max. 2ppm, peated malt – minimum 35ppm
Auction record: Bunnahabhain 50 YO Beatson Sherry Cask – £11,500, September 2019
Highest-rated WhiskyFun Bottle: Bunnahabhain 1968 34 YO Auld Acquaintance – 93 points 

Bunnahabhain is the most northerly distillery on Islay, located on the northeast coast. It was built in 1881 by William Robertson complete with a pier and roads for access. 

In its early history, Bunnahabhain was used almost exclusively for blending, appearing in famous blends such as Famous Grouse, Black Bottle, and Cutty Sark. This continued throughout the blending boom of the 1960s. 

However, in 1982 the distillery was mothballed. Despite reopening two years later, production levels were not at their previous level. 

In the late 1980s, production was ramped up, and Bunnahabhain was ready to re-invent itself. 

The distillery was purchased by Burn Stewart in 2003 and subsequently taken over by the South African firm Distell following the collapse of Burn Stewart’s parent company, CL Financial. 

Ownership by Distell has worked wonders for Bunnahabhain, which now has an established market in Africa. 

In recent years, Bunnahabhain has undergone significant redevelopment, including the establishment of a biomass energy center, helping the distillery to run sustainably. In 2022, Bunnahabhain won the Sustainable Development of the Year Award at the Scottish Green Energy Awards. 

Shop Bunnahabhain 

Bunnahabhain is famed for its sherry influence amongst a host of peated whiskies. Browse Bunnahabhain whiskies on our shop. 

Caol Ila 

Founded: 1846
Owner: Diageo
Capacity: 6.5 MLPA
Phenol Parts per Million (PPM): 35ppm
Auction Record: Caol Ila 12 YO James Macarthur London Scottish Malt Whisky Society – £26,000, January 2021
Highest-rated WhiskyFun Bottle: Caol Ila 12 YO James Macarthur London Scottish Malt Whisky Society – 96 points 

Caol Ila means ‘Sound of Islay’ when translated from Gaelic to English, the distillery being named after the water that it overlooks. The distillery was built in 1846 by Hector Henderson and subsequently owned by Bulloch Lade. 

In 1927 the distillery was brought under the DCL sable and ran until 1972. That year, the old distillery demolished and completely rebuilt. This new distillery had six stillsm making Caol Ila the Islay distillery with the highest capacity. 

Caol Ila was a huge contributor to Johnnie Walker blends, due to being owned by DCL (now Diageo). 

During the 1980s whisky loch, Caol Ila’s high capacity allowed for distillation of both traditional peated and unpeated malts for blends. This dual distillation allowed Caol Ila to remain open during this turbulent time for the industry. 

Yet another expansion in 2018 brought the capacity of Caol Ila up to 6.5 million litres per annum. Caol Ila has also recently had a new visitors’ centre, with Diageo spending £150 million on upgrading visitor facilities at Caol Ila, Johnnie Walker, Clynelish, Cardhu, and Glenkinchie. 

Shop Caol Ila 

From original bottlings to whiskies selected by Douglas Laing and Signatory Vintage, we have a great range of Caol Ila whiskies available on our shop. 

Kilchoman 

Founded: 2005
Owner: Kilchoman Distillery Company
Capacity: 0.5 MLPA
Phenol Parts per Million (PPM): 20ppm
Auction Record: Kilchoman Cask No.1 2005 – £12,000, October 2023
Highest-rated WhiskyFun Bottle: Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2015 – 90 points 

Another of the more modern Islay distilleries, Kilchoman is a farm distillery aspiring to stay self-sufficient. Kilchoman was founded by Anthony Wills in 2005, and was the first distillery to be built on Islay in over 124 years at that time. Wills’ vision was a 100% Islay distillery, single malt, and single farm. 

In recent years the distillery has seen the construction of a new warehouse, an additional malting floor, a new kiln, a new still house, a new mash tun, and several new washbacks. 

It is no surprise, then, that Kilchoman’s work ethic has seen a number of young single malts come to the market, and capacity almost double in 2019. 

Lagavulin 

Founded: 1816
Owner: Diageo
Capacity: 1.4 MLPA
Phenol Parts per Million (PPM): 35ppm
Auction Record: SMWS 111.1 Lagavulin 1980 – £5,000, August 2018
Highest-rated WhiskyFun Bottle: Lagavulin 1985 21 YO bottled 2007 – 95 points 

Lagavulin was founded by John Johnston in 1816 and shared its site with a second distillery. This other distiller was absorbed into Lagavulin in 1837. 

In 1862, John Logan Mackie, a blender, purchased Lagavulin. His nephew, Peter Mackie, came to Islay in 1878 to learn the distilling trade. He took over control of Lagavulin in 1889, and made a name for the distillery on a wider scale. He also created the White Horse blend and co-founded the Craigellachie distillery. 

Another distillery, named Malt Mill, was built on the Lagavulin site in 1908. Peter Mackie planned to use the distillery to produce whisky was the same character as the neighbouring Laphroaig. However, this venture did not go as planned and the distillery never produced Laphroaig or Lagavulin whisky. It was closed in 1962. 

In 1988, the famous Lagavulin 16 Year Old was selected as one of Diageo’s six Classic Malts, which boosted the distillery’s reputation. Today, the Lagavulin 16 Year Old White Horse is one of Lagavulin’s most popular and sought-after whiskies. 

Shop Lagavulin 

We have a wide range of Lagavulin whiskies available on our shop, including the fabled Lagavulin 16 Year Old White Horse, and a rare Lagavulin 15 Year Old Ceramic Decanter

Laphroaig 

Founded: 1815
Owner: Beam Suntory
Capacity: 3.3 MLPA
Phenol Parts per Million (PPM): 40-55ppm
Auction Record: Laphroaig 1967 15 Year Old Samaroli – £61,000, July 2018 
Highest-rated WhiskyFun Bottle: Laphroaig 10 YO Bonfanti Milano Import 1970s – 96 points 

Alexander and Donald Johnston built the Laphroaig Distillery in 1815 and, despite Donald’s death in 1847, the distillery remained under D. Johnston & Co until the 1960s. 

One name is synonymous with Laphroaig, and that is Ian Hunter, the great-grandson of Donald Johnston. Ian Hunter is credited with putting Laphroaig on the map and by the 1920s Laphroaig was being marketed and sold as a single malt scotch whisky. 

When Ian Hunter passed away in 1954, he left control of Laphroaig in the hands of his confidant Bessie Williamson, who successfully marketed Laphroaig in the US and further grew the business. 

Over the next few decades, Laphroaig changed hands multiple times, and is now owned by Beam Suntory. 

Laphroaig Distillery was awarded a Royal Warrant by then Prince Charles in 1994. Friends of Laphroaig was established in the same year and is considered the first of the modern memberships such as the Ardbeg Committee. 

Shop Laphroaig 

This fixture of Islay has released many stunning single malts over the years. We have a wide range of Laphroaig whiskies on our shop, including this beautiful and understated Laphroaig 1981 27 Year Old

Browse the full collection here

Port Ellen 

Founded: 1825
Owner: Diageo
Capacity: 1.6 MLPA
Phenol Parts per Million (PPM): ~35ppm
Auction Record: Port Ellen 12 Year Old Queen’s Visit 1980 – £100,000, May 2022
Highest-rated WhiskyFun Bottle: Port Ellen 1969 15 Year Old Celtic Label for Intertrade – 96 points 

Credit: Diageo

The long-lamented Port Ellen was finally resurrected in March 2024 after over 40 years of closure. 

Port Ellen Distillery was established in 1825 by John Ramsay. It remained in the Ramsay family until 1920, when it was sold to the conglomerate Port Ellen Distillery Co. 1925 saw acquisition by DCL (now Diageo), but just five years later the distillery was mothballed for the first time. Port Ellen did not reopen until 1967. 

Its second lease of life was rather short-lived. Port Ellen was closed in 1983 in the midst of the Whisky Loch. Port Ellen’s whisky has been missed ever since, with fans sustained on old and rare independent bottlings as well as intermittent releases from Diageo’s aged stock. 

So, when Diaego announced plans to restore Port Ellen (and Brora) in 2017, Islay whisky fans rejoiced. Following several delays due to the COVID-19, Port Ellen Distillery reopened on March 19th, 2024

The new distillery features two sets of stills: The Phoenix Stills – created as replicas of the old stills, designed to produce the old style Port Ellen spirit – and The Experimental Stills which will be used to experiment with new distillation methods. 

It will be a few years before we see any new stock coming out of Port Ellen. In the meantime, the distillery is focusing heavily on the luxury market, evidenced by the release of the Port Ellen Gemini

Shop Port Ellen

Over the years, dwindling Port Ellen stocks have risen in value on the secondary market. With the original distillery having closed in 1983, there are very few opportunities to own historic Port Ellen whisky. 

Browse our full collection of Port Ellen whisky here, including this Port Ellen 11th Annual Release from Diageo.  

Future Islay Distilleries 

Given the ever-increasing demand for Islay whiskies, there are plans in place for new distilleries to be built on Islay in the coming years. One such plan is for the Portintruan Distillery, owned by Elixir Distillers’ Sukhinder Singh. 

A Whisky Powerhouse 

So, there you have it: the ultimate guide to Islay distilleries. Despite its small size and few distilleries, Islay is considered a scotch whisky region in its own right. This is thanks to the island’s distinctive profile, culture, and dedicated whisky makers. The legacy of Islay will always be one of whisky-making. 

If you are interested in visiting Islay or any of the distilleries mentioned above, visit islayinfo.com.

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Beth Squires

Beth joined Mark Littler Ltd full-time in October 2020 following the completion of her university degree. Since then she has gained wide-ranging knowledge of all things whisk(e)y, and has written extensively for both company and external publications. Beth is passionate about industry innovation, marketing, and sustainability. With a particular affinity for independently bottled rare scotch, Beth is also a whisky bottle investment specialist.

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