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The Lost Whisky Distilleries of Islay

Updated: Mar 3


Lochindaal distillery Islay

Image by Islay dot Scot - Lochindaal distillery


The Isle of Islay is known for its heavily peated coastal-influenced whiskies and has become the desirable epicentre of smoky Scottish whiskies. As of October 2023, nine active distilleries were on the thriving whisky island. However, with new distilleries set to be established in the near future, we wanted to take a closer look at the island's lost distilleries, where they were likely located and how many were operational at one time.


How many have there been? Would you be able to name at least five of them? Keep reading to find out.


 

Snippet of History


Like many other islands off the coast of Scotland, Islay has a rich history of whisky smuggling and illicit distilling. The island's rugged and steep coastline provided ideal hiding spots in caves for illegal spirits that were either distilled on the island or smuggled in from the mainland.

whisky smugglers on shore

Image by History Scotland


Based on available records, the first distillery, Killarow, was managed by David Simson in the former capital of the island, Bridgend. However, it is unclear when Killarow began its operation. In 1766, Simson relocated his operation to Bowmore, where he built and established the distillery that still stands today. Distilling began in Bowmore in 1779. Later, John Simson, David's son, took over the license for a couple of years in 1816.


Closed and active distilleries in Islay map

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Islay was a popular spot for short-term distilling ventures after the Small Stills Act of 1816 encouraged individuals to obtain licenses. From 1810 to 1850, there were usually 10 to 14 active distilleries at any given time. In the year 1810, only three distilleries were operating, but by the end of the decade, 13 had produced whisky. By 1820, only 10 were still in operation. This pattern of distilleries being opened and closed within a few years continued for 40 years.


In total, 29 distilleries have called Islay their home - including the ones still operating.


Less than 10 distilleries operated on Islay for 140 years. Kilchoman was established in 2005, paving the way for new Islay whisky distilleries.


open and closed whisky distilleries Islay timeline

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


 

'The One's Lost'


The Lagavulin Compound


The Lagavulin distillery site holds secrets from two lost Islay distilleries. The Ardmore distillery, also known as 'Lagavulin 2', was established by Archibald Campbell in 1817, only a year after Lagavulin was built. By 1825, John Johnston from Lagavulin owned and operated both distilleries. However, after he died in 1835, Donald Johnston inherited both sites and combined them into one distillery which still exists today. A more fascinating and mystical story comes from Peter Mackie who built a distillery out of spite on the same site in 1908. Mackie had previously served as an agent to the neighbouring Laphroaig distillery and had a contract to obtain whisky for his blend. However, when Alex Johnston, the owner of Laphroaig, passed away in 1907, his nephew Ian Hunter took over the business and felt that the agreement between Mackie and Laphroaig was unfair. This led to a legal battle and ultimately, Mackie built a second, smaller distillery called Malt Mill on the Lagavulin site to replicate Laphroaig's style. The distillery produced only one-fifth of the amount of Lagavulin and used Laphroaig's head brewer to create the mash, which in those days included heather. Despite all of Mackie's efforts, the resulting spirit didn't match up to Laphroaig's quality. Malt Mill was used in the company's blends White Horse and Mackie's Ancient Scotch, and it was never bottled as a pure single malt. The distillery was closed in 1960, and the building now serves as a reception centre for the Lagavulin distillery.

Lagavulin distillery

Images by Distillery Tours


 

The Laphroaig Site


Only a half-hour walk away from Lagavulin, the neighbouring Laphroaig distillery has been used as a site for other distilleries in the past. In reality, only one other distillery was established on this site that changed names multiple times.


In 1837, the landowner Walter Frederick Campbell leased an adjoining plot to Laphroaig to James and Andrew Gardiner. They soon established the Ardenistle (Ardenistiel) distillery on site, hoping to tap into Laphroaig's already-established fame. In 1849, the distillery was assigned to John Morrison, who changed the name to Kildalton. Three years later, Hunter & Sharp renamed it Islay.


The distillery was eventually liquidated in 1866, and its buildings were absorbed into the Laphroaig distillery. Today, the remaining buildings serve as warehouses and offices for the distillery.


Laphroaig distillery

Images by The Single Cask/ Scotchwhisky.com

 

The Village of Port Charlotte


The village of Port Charlotte has been home to two distilleries - Octomore and Lochindaal. Both names are now used by the nearby Bruichladdich distillery.


Nestled just outside the village, Octomore was founded as a single-still farm distillery by George Montgomery in 1816. Not much is known about its operation today. Although the old buildings at Octomore Farm still stand, some have fallen into disrepair while others have been converted into holiday cottages.

Octomore farm Islay

Images by Ron Steenvoorden - Octomore Farm


Lochindaal (aka Rhinns) distillery, on the other hand, operated for a century in the village centre of Port Charlotte. It was established in 1829 by Colin Campbell and changed ownership multiple times during its existence. Eventually, it was closed by DLC in 1929. The distillery buildings still stand; some have been converted into a Youth Hostel and a garage repair. The warehouses, however, have been continuously used by other Islay distilleries. Currently, Bruichladdich uses them to age its Port Charlotte whiskies.


Lochindaal distillery

Images by Royal Mile Whisky/ Diving for Pearls/ Islay dot Scot


 

The Old Island Capital - Bridgend


Bridgend, also known as Beul an Atha in Scottish Gaelic, was once a much larger village than it is today. In the early 1700s, it was called Kilarrow and became home to major landowners and the lairds, the Campbells of Islay, who dominated the distillery industry. The first recorded distillery on the island was Killarow, owned by David Simson until 1766 when he relocated it to Bowmore, where it still operates today. During the early 1800s, Bridgend and its surroundings were home to six short-lived distilleries. Octovullin was established in 1816 but closed after three years, and its exact location and operator remain unknown. Scarabus, run by John Darrach & Co, was located on a farm near Loch Cam, off Bridgend to Ballygrant road, and survived for only one year.


Scarabus farm Islay

Image by Mahorobi in Japan - Scarabus farm The Bridgend single still distillery, named after the village, was purposely built by Donald McEachern Sr, and operated by his son Donald McEachern Jr. It operated for only four years from 1818 to 1822. Daill, founded by Walter Frederick Campbell, a member of the Campbell family, was operated by the McEachern family for two decades until its closure in 1834. The demise of the distillery came with difficulties in shipping the spirit to the mainland markets. The buildings by Redhouses near Bridgend still stand today.


Daill farm Islay

Image by Mahorobi in Japan - Daill farm Newton, also founded by Walter Frederick Campbell, was established in 1818 on the road to Port Askaig, not far from the Daill distillery. It was later operated by Thomas Pattinson and survived until 1837 when most small-scale distilleries had disappeared. One modified building of the distillery remains as an outbuilding at Newton House.


Newton distillery Islay

Image by kilchomandistillery.com - Newton distillery Tallant, once again founded by landowner Walter Frederick Campbell in 1821, was the longest-surviving distillery. The license was acquired by brothers Donald and John Johnston at the time of the distillery's opening. Located at Tallant Farm near Bowmore, the distillery was often referred to as 'one of two Bowmore distilleries'. However, it never achieved the same level of success as Donald and his son Alexander Johnston's Laphroaig distillery, because John was heavy-handed towards workers and farmers, offering them free drams of whisky. Tallant Farm still stands, although some of the buildings have fallen into disrepair.


Tallant farm Islay

Images by Islay Pictures Photoblog - Tallant farm

 

On the Road To Port Askaig


The Ballygrant distillery, located in the Lossit Kennels on the road from Bridgend to Port Askaig, was also founded by Walter Frederick Campbell in 1818. Like many of his other distilling operations, it was entrusted to others to manage. Initially named Ballygrant, the small-scale farm distillery was renamed as Lossit in 1821. It was looked after by the Stewart family for most of its operational life until the distillation permanently ceased in 1860. This makes Lossit one of the longest-surviving farm distilleries in the history of Islay. After its closure, the warehouses were used by other distilleries for almost another decade.


Lossit distillery Islay

Images by Adrian B McMurchin?/ The Lost Distillery Company


 

Mulindry


Mulindry Distillery was established on another piece of land owned by Walter Frederick Campbell in 1826 and managed by John Sinclair. Located at the junction of Neriby Burn and the River Laggan, the latter provided water and power for the distillery. Sinclair, who was a big fan of his own whisky, ran the distillery for just five years before he declared bankruptcy and moved to America. Today, all that remains of the distillery are the walls and a heap of rocks.


Old site of Mulindry distillery Islay

Images by Mahorobi in Japan

 

The Others


Islay has had another five distilleries whose details remain a mystery to historians, with only brief mentions in documented records. One of them is Torrylin, for which no information about its owners, location or establishment dates has been found. Upper Cragabus was a distillery that only operated in 1841, with no exact location or owners being reported.


Distilleries like Achenvoir (1816 to 1818) only provide information about the licence holder, Malcolm McIntyre. The establishment date of Freeport distillery is unknown but it was run by William Campbell up until 1847. The Glenavullen distillery, which operated from 1827 to 1832, is yet another mystery with information only available about its five-year window of operation.

 

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3 Comments


Helpful article. Can you confirm the sources, please? Thanks!

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Thank you, that is really helpful. Appreciated!! 😀

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