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

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(CNN) – Off the southwest coast of Scotland is a collection of small islands that produce 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 old distilleries are not all on the same island – Islay – they are lined up on a narrow two-mile stretch of coastal road on Islay’s south coast.

Nearby, on a 500-meter-long expanse of water, the island of Jura also produces whiskey, a less smoky, more herbal drama from an almost deserted landscape.

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

These rugged islands, soaked in mist and ravaged by the roar of the Atlantic, are of enormous importance to the Scottish whiskey industry. And whiskey itself is vital to the Scottish economy.

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

Protected industry

The Carraig Fhada lighthouse on Islay – one of the most important whiskey islands in Scotland.

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Just as the champagne industry must not fail in the French champagne region, Scotland has protected its whiskey industry as much as possible during the Covid lockdown.

What impact has Covid had on these islands and the whiskey they produce?

These three important whiskey islands – Arran, Islay and Jura – were completely cordoned off during the British lockdown. The only ferries that arrived were deliveries (99% of the islanders’ supplies are by boat).

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

As a result, there have been no cases of Covid-19 in the Whiskey Islands, although Glasgow and Cumbria have been hard hit on the nearby mainland.

However, that doesn’t mean the islands haven’t suffered. As non-essential industries, all distilleries in Scotland had to close by March 29, 2020.

The Laphroaig whiskey distillery on Islay.

The Laphroaig whiskey distillery on Islay.

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This inevitably had an impact on the local economy. Ten thousand people work in the Scottish whiskey industry, most of them – 7,000 – in remote areas like the Highlands and the Isles.

“All of the distillery’s employees were on leave during the lockdown,” says John Campbell, manager at Islays Laphroaig Distillery. “It was very quiet on the island and good to go for a walk and not meet anyone.”

Laphroaig was founded in 1815 and typically produces over two and a half million liters of smoke-soaked peat whiskey each year. He is considered “by appointment” with Prince Charles.

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

Doors closed

“The weather this spring was beautiful and I was able to spend a lot of time with my son on the beach,” says Jane Deakin, manager of the Islay House Hotel, which is located in the grandest villa on the island. “But we had to close our doors for four months.

“Whiskey tourism is incredibly important to us. In 2019 the Whiskey Association had over two million visitors to Scottish distilleries, and a tenth of that number – 200,000 – are coming to stay on Islay. I guess it will be two take up to three years for us to do back what was lost during the lockdown. “

Linda Maclellan, who runs one of Islay’s best seafood restaurants, the Bowmore Hotel, describes the current situation as “pretty dire. All distilleries are making whiskey again, but Islay only offers Ardnahoe tours for visitors.”

The whiskey island of Jura was completely cordoned off during a coronavirus lockdown.

The whiskey island of Jura was completely cordoned off during a coronavirus lockdown.

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The visitor experience on mountainous Arran isn’t much better either. Fortunately, Arran’s whiskey lockdown didn’t last as long as Islay’s, as the island’s two modern distilleries, Lochranza and Lagg, were built to be operated by one person. As such, they had a special ruling from the Scottish Government to start again on May 12th.

In Lagg, which produces Lowland whiskey on the south coast of the island, manager Graham Omand soon had his computer-controlled distillery operational again. “I was in my office and there was a socially distant worker at the distillery, so we could immediately start mashing again (mixing ground grain with hot water to extract the sugar) on May 12th. It continued one week and on Monday the 18th we could start the distillation again. “

Not all island distilleries have been so lucky.

“It’s just lost”

The Isle of Arran's whiskey ban didn't last as long as Arran's.

The Isle of Arran’s whiskey ban didn’t last as long as Arran’s.

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Back on Islay, Laphroaig is a much older and more complex distillery, which means manager John Campbell had to hire three people to resume production. “This meant we didn’t reopen until May 29th, the day after all of Scotland was phased out,” he says.

These older distilleries weren’t always good because they’d been out of business for so long. Many have been adapted, adapted and supplemented over the years and are only kept in a delicate balance through constant production. “It took six weeks for things to get back to normal,” says John Campbell. “We’ve never been closed that long in over 40 years. I guess we’ve lost about a million liters of whiskey and we’ll never make it up. Even if we work around the clock. It’s just lost.”

Visitors to Islay always head straight to Port Ellen, where Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig stand together on the coastal road, but Ardbeg and Lagavulin only reopen for tastings – with no distillery tours – while Laphroaig is not open to visitors at all. Neither do Caol Ila, Bruichladdich, and Bowmore.

The Ardbeg distillery has reopened for tastings.

The Ardbeg distillery has reopened for tastings.

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Likewise, on the island of Jura, less than half a kilometer east of Islay and home to a single distillery (also known as Jura), there are no plans to open to visitors.

So it doesn’t look like whiskey tourism on the islands is going to get back on its feet anytime soon. Back on Arran, Lagg reopened his shop to the public on July 21st and two weeks later opened his café as part of a “pre-booking only system”.

“The distillery tours should start again on September 14,” says Graham Omand, “but new government guidelines prohibiting mixing more than two households and having more than six households in a group have made this impossible, though we only wanted to do two tours. ” a day of cleanup in between. “

Instead, Lagg offers tutoring tastings in a room that, according to Graham, “is big enough for two groups to keep their distance while they enjoy the whiskey we sell.”

Whiskey shortage

Whiskey exports bring Scotland in at $ 6.3 billion annually.

Whiskey exports bring Scotland in at $ 6.3 billion annually.

Danny Lawson / PA Wire / AP

Admission to the visitor center is only a small addition to a distillery’s jackpot, but visitor footfall can still be significant.

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

The in-store fee to taste four whiskeys was £ 15 ($ 19), with an additional £ 10 for a tour of the distillery and many visitors buying a bottle of single malt to take away. Until the Scottish government lifts its restrictions, the number of visitors will remain small and an additional source of income will be denied.

“We are fortunate that we can achieve our annual target of 500,000 liters by the end of the year at no additional cost,” says manager David Livingstone.

Lagavulin is one of the most famous Islay whiskey makers.

Lagavulin is one of the most famous Islay whiskey makers.

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“It’s a terrible thing that we can’t offer full distillery tours. However, the safety of our customers and employees is our top priority. Once the lockdown is fully lifted, we look forward to bringing visitors through to experience the magic of distillation once again firsthand. ”

Another problem after the lockdown is the actual shortage of whiskey on some of these islands this fall. Although all aspects of production are required by law on the home island, the filled whiskey casks are always sent to bottling plants on the mainland.

Due to the disruption in supply chains caused by the lockdown, it is currently not possible to buy a bottle of Laphroaig on Islay.

It is not in the supermarkets and cannot be bought in the Laphroaig visitor center as it remains closed.

Isaias Fuentes Cuartero, bar manager at the Islay Hotel, complains that he is in the bizarre situation of having millions of liters of Laphroaig whiskey in barrels in island warehouses and yet less than three kilometers away in Port Ellen, there is no Laphroaig on the island procure. “I’m actually thinking of buying bottles on Amazon.”

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