‘Whisky Island’ history, reinvented links underscore Islay’s rich Scottish appeal

February 7, 2018

This feature, by Martin Kaufmann, first appeared in Golf Week in 2018.

“Savage, stern, uncompromising: Islay is the conscience of Scotch.” – Andrew Jefford, “Peat, Smoke and Spirit”

No sooner had the Loganair Saab 340B pierced the cloud cover heading west out of Glasgow than we were plunging back through the thick gray cumulus hovering over Islay, which sits at the southern end of the Inner Hebrides chain.

Located just 14 miles off the west coast of Scotland and 23 miles north of Ireland, Islay commonly is referred to as the Queen of the Hebrides. Others know it by a different nickname: Whisky Island, the title of a 1960’s BBC documentary.

Islay (pronounced “Eye-la”) is Scotland’s greatest Scotch destination, with eight distilleries, a ninth set to open this spring and a 10th scheduled to reopen in 2019. As Jefford noted in his authoritative book, “Islay was, in all probability, where Scotch was born.” And not just any Scotch. Islay malts commonly are infused with the smoky peat that has been Islay’s main source of fuel for centuries. The result is smouldering, muscular, in-your-face Scotches.

Every year tens of thousands of tourists arrive by ferry or plane to visit the distilleries and sample the various expressions of their favourite brands. It is to whisky enthusiasts (the Scots spell whisky without the ‘e’) what the regions of Bordeaux and Napa Valley are to oenophiles.

Plenty of blind shots

The island also is home to the historic Machrie, an 1891 Willie Campbell design long cherished by locals and regular visitors as one of links golf’s quirkiest, most cockeyed layouts, with as many as 15 blind shots.

My colleague Alistair Tait described it this way after playing The Machrie nearly 20 years ago: “Never have I faced so many blind shots. Most of the time you don’t play to fairways or greens; you aim at marker posts.”

The current owners, who bought the golf course and adjacent hotel out of bankruptcy in 2011, brought in former European Tour player David Russell to iron out some of The Machrie’s kinks while they focused on gutting and re-creating a boutique hotel behind the 18th green. The golf course reopened in May 2017, and the hotel is scheduled to open this summer.

I had followed these developments from afar for years, even had stood on the first tee at Machrihanish in 2014, looked across the channel toward Islay from Scotland’s Kintyre Peninsula, and regretted not having a couple of extra days to make the crossing. By 2017, with The Machrie reopened for play, I was obsessed with the idea of visiting Islay. So I booked a hotel during the annual Islay Festival (no small task given the lack of accommodations on the island) and plotted my visit.

Our Loganair pilot spent 25 minutes criss-crossing the island, waiting for the proper wind to land at Islay’s tiny mid-island airport, just north of The Machrie. This only heightened the anticipation because we flew low enough to see the landmarks I knew so well from books, magazines and Internet searches.

We drifted northwest, past the airport, past the town of Bowmore, across Loch Indaal and Port Charlotte, home to Bruichladdich, before banking and heading back across the loch, over The Machrie, all the way to the south side of the island, where we banked again. That’s when I saw them: the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, each emblazoned with the large, block lettering that identifies Islay’s distilleries, lining the coastline just beyond Port Ellen.

There it was: the Hogan, Nelson, Snead of Scottish whisky.

I’m not going to tell you that I remember every detail about my first sip of an Islay whisky. I’m not going to be one of those people who tells you that my first taste of an Islay whisky was like finding God or meeting my one true love.

What I will tell you is that I remember the sensation. It was warm, comforting, peaceful, yet at the same time bold and confident. It was an Ardbeg, a younger expression steeped in smoke. It was boggy and briny, redolent of peat.

I loved everything about it, including its brashness. When I pulled the cork, it jumped out of the bottle and got right up in my nose, as if to say: Maybe you’re not ready for me yet. Maybe you should just put the cork back in the bottle and walk away.

Instead, I poured. I haven’t stopped pouring.

Happy 203rd Anniversary

When our plane finally landed, I loaded up my rental car and drove down to Laphroaig, which was celebrating its festival day. During the Islay Festival, held in late spring, each of the distilleries welcomes visitors for a day of free samples, tours, tasting seminars and live music.

Laphroaig this year is celebrating its 203rd anniversary, most of that under family ownership, which included a resourceful executive named Ian Hunter, who managed to expand Laphroaig’s U.S. sales during Prohibition by convincing Customs officials that the spirit’s seaweed and iodine nose were evidence of its medicinal properties.

As the Islay distilleries have gained a following, larger spirits companies have taken notice. Laphroaig, like Bowmore, which is located in the center of the island, is owned now by Beam Suntory, whose brand ambassador, Marcio Ramos, led a tasting seminar featuring 18-, 21- and 25-year-old expressions. His students that day were true believers, but he understands that they’re in the minority among spirits drinkers.

“We know it’s a divisive whisky,” Ramos told me. “But once you love it, there’s no turning back.”

He drew an analogy between Islay whiskies and golf in that both are “aspirational.” Think of it this way: The world’s largest blended whisky, Johnnie Walker, gets its smoky backbone from Caol Ila, which is distilled on Islay’s northeast coast. You might enjoy the derivative blend, but wouldn’t you rather step up to the Caol Ila single malt?

The Islay Festival is the biggest week of the year, with restaurants and hotels booked solid. That’s why many tourists drive off the ferry in campers; there’s nowhere else for them to stay.

“We think it’s great,” said Georgie Crawford, who manages Lagavulin. “And then we think, ‘What are we going to do with all of these people when they come here?’ ”

Gavyn Davies and Sue Nye have at least a partial answer to Crawford’s question. Davies is a former Goldman Sachs partner and BBC chairman. Nye, his wife, used to be director of government relations for former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

They bought The Machrie hotel and golf course in 2011. They hired Russell to renovate the course.  Recently they hired Fraser Mann, the longtime Musselburgh pro who was teaching at Carnoustie, to be the director of golf.

The hotel, which will be managed by Campbell Gray Hotels, is scheduled to be completed this summer. The main building will have 39 rooms, with four two-bedroom lodges scattered on the exterior. That all but assures that The Machrie will be Islay’s largest employer when it reopens.

While the hotel will provide much-needed accommodations for visitors, Nye is cognizant of the fact that The Machrie has long been central to the island, both geographically and culturally. She and her husband want to attract more visitors – golfers and all of those visiting spirits company executives are natural targets – and are installing amenities such as business facilities, a theatre. But she also wants it to remain a social hub for islanders.

“The Machrie plays an important role in the life of the island,” Nye said. “The Machrie was always a place where people had weddings, people went for celebrations. The island residents want to support us. So we don’t want to make it the social place where local people don’t feel able to come and enjoy the facilities.”

‘No in-between’ on legendary course

Islanders have been a little chillier about the changes to the golf course, reflecting their provincial pride in the old Machrie.

“You either loved it or you hated it,” Russell said of Campbell’s layout. “There was no in-between.”

In that sense, it was not unlike Islay’s whiskies. Locals who had grown up with The Machrie loved its blind shots, its oddities. Even some visitors found it not just charming, but compelling.

“It’s the wildest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Australian course architect Bob Harrison, who used to visit The Machrie annually with buddies. “It was in my top five in Britain. Some parts of it had to be seen to be believed. It was so much fun.”

It’s still great fun, but a little less mysterious. As Muir and I neared the end of a round, he noted that the dogleg 17th used to play over a large dune.

“You would hit your ball over the mound and that would be the last you’d ever see of it,” Muir said.

You think he’s kidding?

“The first time I played here, I lost 12 balls,” Russell said. “And I played quite well. I played on the European Tour and the Seniors Tour for 40 years. It was that sort of a golf course.”

Initially, Russell planned minor changes to The Machrie. He was cognizant of its history and islanders’ attachment to their eccentric course, and was reluctant to make wholesale changes. Architect Donald Steel had tinkered with The Machrie four decades ago, but otherwise it had changed little since Campbell established the original layout.

But the project kept mushrooming. A few “tweaks” to the course to eliminate some blind shots became a full-blown renovation. Russell kept seven of the original greens, but altered the paths to reach them and widened fairway corridors.

“If you play a links course on a perfect day, it should play quite easy because you have to build it for those days when you have difficult winds,” he said.

Russell wanted the layout to flow through the dunes rather than over them. Don’t fight the landscape; embrace it. There still are some blind shots if you’re out of position, but Russell knew he didn’t need to manufacture new challenges. He shifted holes to take advantage of natural fairway corridors, which improved playability. It also had the effect of moving holes closer to Laggan Bay, which is visible throughout the round.

“Subtle” is an adjective Russell likes to use to describe the reconfigured Machrie, and by extension, other great links.

Before the renovation, he said, “the history was in your face.” Now, he said, the quirkiness remains, but “it’s more subtle.” It’s still the home course for locals familiar with the original Machrie – there’s nowhere else for them to play on the island – but more of a classic Scottish links to appeal to visitors.

“I love golf so much that I want everyone to enjoy the golf course,” Russell said after we had toured the links. “I love the subtlety of a golf course. The first time you play it and think, ‘That’s all right.’ And then you play it over and over and you love it. It’s a little like a great song in that regard.”

Russell didn’t stop with the Machrie

Russell didn’t stop with his overhaul of The Machrie. The project grew to include a six-hole short course, a 300-yard range with a sheltered teaching center, and an extensive short-game area that winds around the hotel. When the lodging is completed, guests will be able enjoy views of the bay as they watch players make their way up the par-5 18th, which culminates at the foot of the hotel.

Now it’s just a matter of letting tourists know that The Machrie is open and a lovely boutique hotel is nearing completion. Russell’s work on the golf course has been praised in U.K. golf publications, and there’s excitement on the island about the hotel. But for all of Islay’s prominence in the world of whisky, it remains a bit of an enigma even in its homeland. Like its famous whiskies, it has a niche following.

“If you mention Islay to Scottish people, they don’t know where it is,” Muir said.

It’s important to remember that the people of Islay are still trying get a handle on this whole tourism thing. The island’s tourism office, for example, wasn’t able to provide annual tourism figures. (“I’m afraid that’s a bit of a mystery, as nobody keeps statistics,” an official said.) What we do know is that there aren’t enough rooms to accommodate the visitors, even during the 51 weeks when there is no whisky festival.

Until recently, islanders didn’t fully grasp the appeal of the island, its whiskies and The Machrie. As Ardbeg’s Emma McGeachy led us through a “Peaty Path” tasting of young Scotches – the sort that first stirred my soul – she told us of a childhood spent cutting peat to stay warm in the winter, queuing up at red telephone boxes to call off island and never leaving her village.

“I grew up in Port Ellen, and I would never have thought to go into Ardbeg,” she said. Ardbeg is 3 miles east of Port Ellen.

It was only a quarter century ago that some of the other distilleries, including Ardbeg, were shuttered. Then enthusiasts discovered the bold, peaty personalities of Islay’s Scotches, much like the ones I was enjoying in the Ardbeg courtyard.

Now visitors come from around the world to visit Islay. (There was a particularly strong German contingent during the 2017 Islay Festival.) The number of visiting whisky enthusiasts will only grow, and the same likely is true of golfers with an inexhaustible desire for great links experiences.

Nye foresees a potential market among golfers visiting Scotland or Northern Ireland, which is only 90 minutes by sea.

“This is an accessible remote place,” she said. “We can be an epicenter for possibly playing a lot of courses.” Gwk