Islay is an island in the Inner Hebrides, off of the West Coast of Scotland. It is the seventh largest island around the coast of the UK, though what it’s really famous for is whisky. With just 3000 residents, there are 9 active distilleries, producing some of the best spirit in the world. If you’ve ever tasted really smokey ‘Scotch’, chances are that it’s either come from, or been influenced by Islay.
With Grace moving over from America, it struck me that it was ridiculous that somewhere held in such esteem by so many people was just a couple of hours away and I had never been. Along with Suede – who is always up for an adventure – and Keith, we booked up a few days to visit. You could always fly, but that seemed like madness, so we opted to get the ferry – which departed from literally the middle of nowhere. It was a mistake not to eat beforehand, as all that was on offer at the ‘terminal’ was some of that chicken soup that gets spat out of a vending machine. Terrible.
We had rented a ‘stormpod’ on the coast, which was like a little cabin with a mini kitchen etc. It was pretty cheap and comfortable, though it was basically camping. The less said about the shower and chemical toilet the better.
The location of the storm pod was interesting – down a secluded path on a private cove. This made it a bit tough to get around later on in the trip, as it meant we literally had to drive everywhere… though that seemed a common problem around here.
The nearest towns were Port Ellen and Bowmore – along an extremely bumpy road that was attributed to the amount of peat underneath; used to burn and dry the barley used in the distilling process, which also gives the distinctive flavour of Islay whisky.
We had a curry from an Indian takeaway in Bowmore, and it was honestly the worst I have ever tasted. It was expensive, and tasted as if they had made it days before and just heated it up from frozen. I’m not sure that we should be too surprised that Indian food would be awful on a tiny Scottish island, but coming from Glasgow it was a pretty shocking effort.
There was a huge plus to the fairly isolated location of the stormpods though… we were literally steps away from the Lagavulin distillery. Just a few more steps brought you to a fairly picturesque view as well.
You can’t get much more authentically Scottish than that.
The guy who owned the stormpod site had let us onto a special tour that they ran at Lagavulin, and we had booked in for the day after we arrived. For just £15, you got to go on the regular tour around the distillery, and then they took us down into the warehouse where we got five cask strength drams drawn directly from the barrels. The one puzzling thing was why the tour started so early in the morning…
The drams poured by Iain (who has been at Lagavulin for over 40 years) were generous, and went from spirit taken right off the still, through to some incredibly expensive whisky that would cost hundreds of pounds per glass in a pub. The ‘new make’ spirit was particularly amazing to start with; incredibly strong, raw and with a very distinct flavour.
Even Keith and Suede, who were self-professed non whisky drinkers were getting into the swing of things, though given the quality of what we were drinking it’s no real surprise. It’s probably not the best idea to jump straight into drinking the finest whisky around, as it surely just ruins you for everything else in future. Ah well, back to vodka.
Before long we had sunk a significant amount of extremely strong Lagavulin, and everybody was in a jovial mood. Iain explained that the reason the tours started so early was because often people wanted to visit more than one distillery in a day, and having the warehouse tour before lunch meant that it allowed time to go get lunch at the nearby Ardbeg cafe before proceeding. As we stumbled out of the door and down the road in the rain, this seemed like a very good idea indeed.
I dream about that day in Lagavulin often.
We arrived in Ardbeg after a bit, which is the second of the three that sit close to each other on the south side of the island – Laphroaig being the third. Ardbeg has a fairly fascinating history, having changed hands multiple times, and completely closed down at times. This means that Ardbeg is relatively rare, and they have a far more limited range available to taste. It’s something I had never even thought about before… I just always assumed that these distilleries had been operating uninterrupted for hundreds of years.
There was a whole pile of barrels sitting around in the Ardbeg grounds… sadly empty.
Some of them are the bourbon barrels imported from the US that are used to store the whisky as it is maturing. We spotted some well known names amongst them.
I’ve visited the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg before. Interestingly, they didn’t want to talk about where their used barrels ended up in Scotland, but the distilleries on Islay didn’t seem too bothered in sharing.
After Ardbeg we walked the couple of miles up to Laphroaig in the pissing rain.
It was weird arriving here, as it was somewhere I’d heard (or drank) a lot of, but never thought I would end up visiting. A bit like seeing a movie set in person.
Apparently Laphroaig is one of the only distilleries left where they dry out a portion of their own barley using the peat cut from the island. We got to see the malting floors where they turn the barley over by hand in the traditional way, which was something different, and pretty interesting. Prince Charles apparently likes Laphroaig, so there was pictures of him around the place which was pretty weird. Apparently he even managed to crash whilst landing a plane to visit at one point, causing all sorts of damage.
By this point we had collected a fair number of bottles… some of which were only available on Islay and could fetch hundreds of pounds in profit at auction back in Glasgow. Suede successfully sold his on later, and errr… well, we drank the ones we got. Getting married is as good an excuse as any, right? I spent more on whisky in those few days than I think I have so far in my lifetime.
Worth it though.
Onwards and upwards… to explore a bit more of the island.
There are some beautifully picturesque wee villages strewn around the Western coast of Islay.
They would definitely make for a nice, relaxing week away from it all. Though having to drive forty odd minutes to get to a tiny Co-Op for food would do my head in.
We stopped by the Bruichladdich distillery on the way, and sampled a couple of their whiskies – but didn’t take the tour. These guys are famous for making the ‘most heavily peated whisky in the world’ – Octamore. On the flip side, they are also pretty unusual for Islay as they use un-peated barley for their standard malts.
On the final day, we still had a few distilleries to go, and tried to hit up as many as possible before our ferry was due.
We were all pretty tired by the time we rolled into the tiny Bunnahabhain distillery, down a single track road – ready to go back to our real houses with proper plumbing. However, this place was pretty amazing.
It turned out that one of the girls working there used to work in the Cathouse, just proving that I can never escape its influence, no matter where I go. She let us know about a shipwreck that was around the coast a little bit, and involved scrambling over some rocks. It’s something I had seen a picture of once before, but had no idea where it was – so it was a nice surprise to stumble upon it by chance.
It was a bit of a pain to get to, and I was convinced either me or Grace was going to deck it and break our ankle or something… causing an incident involving an air ambulance from the mainland, but luckily that was not to be the case.
The tattered, rusty remains of the ship lie askew on the rocks by the water. Just along from here is a place where some currents meet, and the crew lost control. Apparently the ‘Sound of Islay’ as its known has proven treacherous for a significant number of ships in its time… only adding to the myth of the place really.
We headed back over for the tour, which turned out to be one of the best – adding in bits and pieces that we hadn’t heard from anybody else.
I can’t remember the exact numbers, but there was something like 13 staff members that ran the entire place. That seemed like an incredibly low number, and the tour guide explained that they didn’t put a whole lot of effort into sprucing the place up for visitors like others on the island. The pot stills weren’t polished, and everything had the feel of a real working distillery… which was a refreshing change from the previous days.
Despite making lovely whisky, Bunnahabhain also has the honour of being one of the most difficult whiskies to spell. If you want to confuse some Americans, give them this one.
We had hoped to go to Caol Ila (pronounced Cull-Ee-la), which was the next one up, and one of the few we had yet to visit. However,our ferry was set to leave from the complete opposite side of the island, and there wouldn’t be time.
As luck would have it (and I mean luck), I got a text as we were driving away to say that due to bad weather, the ferry would now leave from a different port – right next to the Caol Ila distillery. Score! It was a bit of a miracle that I got the text in the first place, as mobile reception on Islay is not exactly stellar. Either way, we had time to visit, so we did.
Caol Ila is a whisky that I had never heard of before this trip, despite being one of the largest producers on the whole island. This seemed a bit weird, but it turns out that the overwhelming majority of their whisky gets used to make blends, rather than being sold on as single malt. It’s something of a shame, as their own stuff is actually really tasty.
The view from the distillery is pretty great.
But eh, sadly… the distillery itself is not that bonnie.
Set up more like a factory focussed on production rather than a charming distillery, the old building was demolished some time ago, and replaced by a purpose built one by that spirit maker that everyone knows and loves… Diageo. I understand the need to upgrade the facilities, but am not sure why they couldn’t have taken a bit of time to make the exterior appealing, and fit the character of the island as well. Then again, it is Diageo we are talking about.
The inside was cool though, and our tour guide was great. She had an interesting accent that could either have been from way up in the North of Scotland somewhere, or an adopted Scot from one of the former Soviet states. She even gets extra marks for letting us taste the beer that is made as part of the distilling process, though I’m sure health and safety wouldn’t be too impressed by that.
The view from the pot and stills room was pretty spectacular, with the sun shining in over the polished copper from the sea… though since they were in production at the time, we couldn’t take pictures. You’ll just need to see for yourself.
I have to admit that when we first arrived, I wasn’t too impressed with Islay. The landscape was pretty rugged, and it was nowhere as near as pretty as other islands in Scotland. However, by the end of the few days there I was hooked. There’s something special about the myth and legend of the place, and you can feel the historical ties to the land that people have. I came away with a renewed love and new appreciation for good whisky, and would love to go back again at some point for the annual whisky festival. Maybe next year.
If you’re a whisky lover, or just curious, Islay is a great place to go.
Just don’t eat the curry.