A Day At Islay Rum Distillery
I recently spent a few days with Ben Ingles and his wonderful family on Islay, the island of peat and Scotch whisky......and rum! I had never been, so there was much exploring to do. Islay is very relaxing and gorgeous with its hills, cliffs, sea views and sheep. I was taking photos everywhere. There is a lot of history to be found with ruins of old buildings, churches and a very impressive 1600 year old cross. It was humbling to stand next to something that old and beautiful.
Naturally, I toured a few whisky distilleries. I only drink Scotch on occasion, so my knowledge is very limited. Ben had booked a tour at Ardbeg, which was very educational. We were joined by a group of American tourists who were clearly experienced whisky drinkers. They spent a lot of time and effort making sure everyone understood this. After the first round of samples, one of them shouted:"these are too weak!". I was laughing within myself, while feeling slightly embarrassed for them. What was eye opening to me was how unimpressed I was with most of the whisky I tasted, in comparison to rum. A lot of it thin, not very complex or expressive. That changed somewhat when trying a few straight from the cask samples at Ardbeg. An Oloroso was especially wonderful. I asked if I could buy this, but the tour guide said: "no, we are going to marry this". My first thought was: "what a waste!".
I talked about this a bit more at Bowmore, where I had an amazing one on one tour....which was a definite highlight. My super knowledgeable guide also mentioned the marrying of casks. To which I said they are blending everything. She said:"Oh no!!! You can't use the word blend......we marry the whisky". Turns out "blend" is a dirty word, since blended whisky is somewhat synonymous to cheap whisky. It's like the Harry Potter phrase "the one that shall not be named". However, they do employ a master blender who does all the marrying. Lol. Ah, marketing. We had a good laugh about it. In the end, I learned a lot at Bowmore, as she showed the whole process from barley, to peat burning, smoking, stills and barrels. Absolutely mind blowing. She also gave me one of the best tasting samples I had on the entire trip. Bowmore straight from the still! I really enjoyed it. I'd buy that over their standard 15 year PX.
Anyhow, since this is a rum website, I should start talking rum. Ben Ingles is part owner of Islay Rum Distillery. He's an incredibly nice, knowledgeable and skillful gentleman. From welding, to forging, to changing windows and bathrooms in his house, to distilling rum in his garage with home made equipment. He does it all! Coupled with years of doing his own research on rum distilling, he laid a solid foundation for a commercial distilling endeavour. The distillery is small but impressive. I love looking at copper stills....and this one is a beauty. A double retort pot still. Looking at it takes me right to the Caribbean, while being in windy, rainy Islay. What an interesting combination of thoughts and emotions. The shiny spirit safe is another beauty I can stare at for much longer than the average human!
So far, they have one tasty white rum on the market. Next to that, Ben is experimenting with different types of fermentation and there is more and more rum ageing in barrels. There is lots to come!
Ben was nice enough to answer some of my questions and I created a short video tour of the distillery, which you'll find under the interview.
What’s your role at the distillery?
With only two employees at the distillery, I wear a few hats but my title would be distillery manager/head distiller.
What did you do over the years to gather the knowledge to become a head distiller?
I joined forums, networked with other like minded people to discuss rum production, read massive amounts of information through books and the internet and went and asked questions to local distillers about general brewing and distilling practices. I later completed a basic brewing and distilling course with IBD. I plan on going into some more advanced courses at some point, but it's very time consuming.
Who are the owners?
Myself, Caroline James of the Vintage Malt Whisky Company and Andrew Crook of the Vintage Malt Whisky Company.
When did Islay Rum start its operation?
Production started at the end of January 2022.
Why was Islay chosen as its location?
Islay has been my home for over 25 years now so it was the perfect place in my mind to build the distillery, I couldn’t pack up my family and move elsewhere and I wouldn’t have wanted to.
Where are the molasses coming from?
Our molasses come form a variety of places, from south America to India and Asia.
How much rum is produced each year?
As we are still only in our first year it's difficult for me to give an exact amount at this time, that question would be better answered later in our rum making career.
How many casks are ageing rum currently?
We have no more than about 20 casks now, although, as we speak there is spirit for another 20 or so casks to be filled after Christmas. Going forward the majority of our production will be for filling casks.
Which types of casks are used?
Right now we have some sherry, bourbon, Islay whisky and Sauternes wine casks filled. There will be more varied casks filled as we progress. For now it's just oak species.
Where is the still from?
The still was built for us by two companies working together, they are Speyside copper works and LH Stainless.
How long is fermentation?
Our fermentations vary form a minimum of 4 days through to about 5 weeks for some of the experimental runs we have been doing.
Is a special yeast being used?
We use a strain of yeast developed for rum production by Lallemand, we have tried various other strains and find this one works well for now. We will experiment with other strains in the future though.
Which are the rums that are currently produced and where are they sold?
Currently we only have one product for sale being the unaged rum called Geal. You can find it at the whisky exchange, royal mile whiskies and on Islay of course. We have recently sold to some distributors in Taiwan, Denmark and a couple of other countries too.
What are some future plans?
We’ll continue to fill a variety of casks to see what works best for us, having an aged rum in our core range would be good, but of course takes time. I would like to bring an overproof rum to market and also release some of the experimental batches as smaller limited releases. We’ve had some really interesting results recently and I think we can build on that foundation in the future. Wild yeast and different bacteria in fermentation can be fantastic tools to play around with.
Thanks Ben! Here's the virtual tour of the distillery: