Scotland’s whisky islands are coping with an enormous Covid hangover

(CNN) – On the south west coast of Scotland is a collection of small islands that make some of the most distinctive whiskeys in the world.

Names like Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig are revered by whiskey lovers from Japan to New York, from Australia to St. Petersburg. However, these three ancient distilleries are not just on the same island – Islay – they line up along a narrow two-mile coastal road off the south coast of Islay.

Nearby, 500 meters away, Jura Island also produces whiskey, a less smoky, more vegetarian drama than an almost desert landscape.

And closer to the mainland is the mountainous Arran. This island is also unique in being the only whiskey producing Highland whiskey on its north coast and the Lowland whiskey on its south.

These rugged islands, which are drenched in fog and submerged by the roar of the Atlantic, are extremely important to Scotland’s whiskey industry. Whiskey itself is vital to Scotland’s economy.

In 2019, the country exported 1.3 billion bottles to 175 markets worldwide, bringing in 4 4.9 billion ($ 6.3 billion).

Sheltered industry

Carraig Fhada Lighthouse in Islay – one of Scotland’s most important whiskey islands.

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Just as the champagne industry is not allowed to fail in the Champagne region of France, so Scotland protected its whiskey industry as best it could during the Covid lock.

So what was the effect of Covid on these islands and on the whiskey they produce?

These three major whiskey islands – Arran, Islay and Jura – were completely sealed during the British Lock. The only ferries that arrived were to deliver supplies (99% of those supported by the islanders arrive by boat).

The only people allowed outside the island were those with medical emergencies.

As a result, there were no cases of Covid-19 on the whiskey islands, although Glasgow and Cumbria on the mainland were severely affected.

This does not mean that the islands did not suffer, however. As non-core industries, all distilleries in Scotland were required to close by 29 March 2020.

The Laphroaig whiskey distillery in Islay.

The Laphroaig whiskey distillery in Islay.

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This inevitably affected the local economy. Tens of thousands of people work in Scotland’s whiskey industry, the majority – 7,000 – in remote areas such as the Highlands and islands.

“All the distillery staff were monitored during the lockout,” said John Campbell, director of the Islay’s Laphroaig Distillery. “It was very quiet on the island and it was good to be able to go for a walk and not meet anyone.”

Laphroaig, founded in 1815, typically produces over two and a half million liters of smoked, discarded whiskey each year and has the distinction of being “by appointment” with Prince Charles.

These quiet streets did not mean tourists either. With the closure of the distilleries, all the visitor centers and hotels were closed. The annual Islay (Fèis Ìle) whiskey festival, which usually boosts the island’s population from 3,000 to 10,000 in May, had to be canceled.

The doors closed

“The weather this spring was beautiful and I managed to spend a lot of time on the beach with my son,” said Jane Deakin, director of the Islay House Hotel, located on the island’s mansion. “But we had to close our doors for four months.

“Whiskey tourism is extremely important to us. In 2019, the Whiskey Association recorded more than two million visitors coming to Scottish distilleries and one tenth of that number – 200,000 – coming to stay in Islay. I estimate it will take two to three years to return what was lost during the lock. “

Linda Maclellan, who runs one of Islay’s best fish restaurants, the Bowmore Hotel, describes the current situation as “quite awful. All the distilleries make whiskey again, but in Islay only Ardnahoe offers tours to visitors.”

The island of Whiskey Jura was completely sealed during the lockdown of the coronavirus.

The island of Whiskey Jura was completely sealed during the lockdown of the coronavirus.

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The experience of visitors to the mountainous Arran is not much better. Fortunately, Arran’s whiskey lock did not last as long as Islay, as the island’s two modern distilleries, Lochranza and Lagg, were built to be operated by one person. As a result, they were given a special exemption by the Scottish Government to resume on 12 May.

In Lagg, which produces Lowland whiskey on the south coast of the island, manager Graham Omand soon set up his computer distillery. “I was in my office and there would be a socially alienated staff member at the distillery so we could start picking (mixing ground wheat with hot water to extract the sugars) again immediately on May 12th. This went on for a week and by Monday at 18 we were able to start the distillation again. “

Not all island distilleries were so lucky.

“Just lost”

The Isle of Arran whiskey closure did not last as long as Arran.

The Isle of Arran whiskey closure did not last as long as Arran.

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Back in the Islay, Laphroaig is a much older and more sophisticated distillery, meaning that manager John Campbell had to bring in three staff to restart production. “That meant we did not reopen until May 29, the day after the whole of Scotland closed,” he said.

These older distilleries did not always go well to close for so long. Many have been adapted, adapted and added over the years and are maintained only in a fine balance with continuous production. “It took six weeks for things to get back on track,” says John Campbell. “We have never been closed for this period of over 40 years. I think we have lost about a million liters of whiskey and we will never make up for it. Even working 24 hours a day. It just disappeared.”

Visitors to Islay always head straight for Port Ellen where Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig stand together on the seafront, but Ardbeg and Lagavulin are only open again for tasting – no distillery tours – and Laphroaig has not reopened to visitors at all. . Neither are Caol Ila, Bruichladdich and Bowmore.

Ardbeg distillery reopened for tasting.

Ardbeg distillery reopened for tasting.

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Similarly on Jura Island, which is less than half a mile east of Islay and houses a single distillery (also known as Jura), there are no plans to open to visitors.

So it does not seem that whiskey tourism will recover in the islands soon. Returning to Arran, Lagg reopened his store to the public on July 21 and his cafe two weeks later in a “pre-booking” system.

“Distillery trips were scheduled to resume on September 14,” says Graham Omand, “but new government directives banning more than two households from mixing and having more than six in a group have made it impossible, even though we would have done it.” only two trips a day with cleaning in between. “

Instead, Lagg offers tastings in a room that Graham says is “big enough for two groups to keep their distance while enjoying the whiskey we have to offer.”

Lack of whiskey

Whiskey exports bring in $ 6.3 billion a year to Scotland.

Whiskey exports bring in $ 6.3 billion a year to Scotland.

Danny Lawson / PA Wire / AP

Admissions to the visitor center provide only a small addition to the distillery’s main profits, but the increase can be significant.

On the north coast of Arran in 2019, 120,000 people visited the Lochranza Visitor Center, where there was an attractive modern café (which is currently closed).

The in-store four-whiskey tasting fee was £ 15 ($ 19), with a distillery tour costing an extra £ 10 and many guests buying a bottle of single malt to take with them. Until the Scottish Government lifts its restrictions, the number of visitors will continue to be low and an additional source of income will be rejected.

“We are fortunate to achieve our annual target of 500,000 liters by the end of the year, at no extra cost,” says director David Livingstone.

Lagavulin is one of the well-known whiskey producers of Islay.

Lagavulin is one of the well-known whiskey producers of Islay.

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“It is a terrible thing that we can not offer full tours of distilleries. But the safety of our customers and employees is a top priority. Once the lock is lifted, we look forward to bringing visitors to experience the magic of first-hand distillation, once again. ”

Another problem after the lock is the real shortage of whiskey on some of these islands this fall. Although all aspects of production are required by law to take place on their home island, barrels full of whiskey are always shipped to bottling plants on the mainland.

The interruption in supply chains caused by the lock means that it is currently not possible to purchase a bottle of Laphroaig in Islay.

It is not located in supermarkets and can not be purchased from the Laphroaig Visitor Center because it remains closed.

So islanders find themselves in a strange situation with millions of gallons of Laphroaig whiskey sitting in barrels in island warehouses and yet less than two miles away in Port Ellen, Isaias Fuentes Cuartero, bar manager at the Islay Hotel, complains that he was unable to find no Laphroaig on the island. “I’m really thinking about buying bottles from Amazon.”

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