Islay (pronounced eye-la) is whisky heaven and home to Andrew’s favourite distilleries – the perfect setting for his early 30th birthday celebrations. We set off from Edinburgh, with fellow whisky enthusiasts John & Amy, taking in some beautiful sights on the way to the ferry terminal in Kennacraig. Passing through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park I reminisced of similar scenery from New Zealand. Scotland definitely has a cool, moody feel about it – and not just because of the weather!
Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland and is home to just 3,200 residents. This small island is steeped in history and whisky forms an integral part of this. Today the island has eight active distilleries which are well known for their smoky character derived from peat. Peat = carbonised soil, it’s like a mix of mud and coal. This is considered a central characteristic of the Islay malts, and ascribed both to the water from which the whisky is made and to the peating levels of the barley. Not being a huge whisky fan myself they say Islay whisky’s aren’t the best for beginners due to their intense peaty notes – but hey I gave them all a go anyway!
The island does have a small airport with flights from Glasgow, but the majority of people, us included, choose to travel via the 2 hour car ferry to Port Ellen. Coming into Port Ellen the first of the three southern whisky distilleries are visible – the first being Ardbeg, soon followed by Lagavulin and then Laphroaig. The distinctive white buildings with large black lettering are hard to miss and I could see Andrew’s face light up with anticipation.
I found a lovely little cottage in Lagavulin Bay with views of the distillery and the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle for our 3 night stay in Islay. Our house was perfectly located for our first full day on the island – the three southern distilleries were all within walking distance.
We kicked things off at Ardbeg with a 1 hour tour, then had a dram by the seaside. Hannah, Islay born and bred, took us on her very first tour, where we discovered the production process step-by-step. These tours are great value for money at just £5 each, which included one tasting, a glass to takeaway and then a bonus dram when we ordered lunch at the cafe.
We next walked down to Laphroaig – we hadn’t booked a tour but wandered in for a tasting which happened to be a limited edition bottle from the festival held in May. We were really impressed with the staff at all the distilleries we visited on the island and many will offer you a dram on the house. We backtracked to Lagavulin for their distillery tour – this time it was free as we had signed up to become a friend of the Classic Malts. This gives you free entry into 12 distilleries around Scotland, along with a complimentary tour and tasting – winning! Definitely want to get those others ticked off the list when we return to Scotland.
On our second day we hit the road and managed to visit all of the five remaining distilleries on the island. We thought why come all this way and miss out on a couple? I (not being a huge fan of whisky) opted to be sober driver for the day and we winded out way around many of the single lane roads of Islay. Up first was Bowmore – though unfortunately we were a bit too keen and arrived about an hour too early for a tasting. So we set off to the north-east side of the island and visited Caol Ila (another distillery of the Classic Malts). From here you get stunning views across the Sound of Islay and the isle of Jura. After a few drams and a visit from the distillery cat Sushi and headed to Bunnahabhain which undeniably had the most picturesque views out of all the distilleries. The windy road to get there is a bit of a mission but well worth the visit!
For lunch visited our 7th distillery Kilchoman. Kilchoman is smallest and newest of the eight, established in 2005, and was the first distillery to be built on the island in 125 years. These guys are the only ones on the island to complete all parts of the whisky making process on site from growing the barley to bottling. We had a delicious lunch at the cafe there and I was impressed by Andrew who downed his four tasting drams in about 20 mins as we had to rush off to our next booked tour.
Our last and final distillery experience was at Bruichladdich. We were lucky enough to get a two hour VIP tour + a one hour warehouse tasting experience through a friend of John’s. Ailsa was our hostess and took us on the journey through the distillery and the amazing history behind it. Bruichladdich prides itself on doing things the old school way and still employees about 80 staff. They have an open-top mash tun, which was used by soldiers as a pool during the war and they measure the liquid in the washback using a floating piece of wood attached to a string and a ruler. While many of the other distilleries have employed the use of machinery to do the bulk of the work – Bruichladdich has rejected industrialisation in favour of authenticity.
After the tour with Ailsa, we joined on with another group and entered one of the warehouses for a special tasting. We tried three whiskys straight from the barrels – one from each of the Bruichladdich ranges – Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte and Octomore. Each whisky was distinctively unique and a great way to sample the different styles of the brand.By this point I think the team was feeling a wee tipsy after the day’s tastings! Our time at Bruichladdich was probably the highlight of the trip and we are very thankful to Ailsa and John for organising this.
We rounded off our time on Islay enjoying some more of the amazing scenery. Our trip was a truly unforgettable experience and we would be back in a heartbeat. It instilled in us a love for Scotland, so watch this space for future adventures (and no doubt more whisky stories) from this beautiful part of the world.