If there is one island in the world that can claim the title “Whisky Island,” it is Islay, off the southwest coast of Scotland. Measuring 600 square kilometers with a stunning 130-mile long coastline, Islay is home to roughly 3,250 inhabitants proudly calling themselves Ileachs and no less than eight working distilleries. The “Queen of the Hebrides” has a lot to offer. Let’s take a round trip.
First of all, how to get there? One option is flying from Glasgow in a small prop plane. It will take you roughly 45 minutes, but you have to be lucky with the weather. Flights will be cancelled when it appears too dangerous to land on the tiny airstrip, amidst a flock of grazing sheep.
The alternative is to take the ferry from Kennacraig, Argyll. In a good two hours Caledonia MacBrayne will transport you, with or without car, to either Port Ellen or Port Askaig.
When the skies are clear you might catch a glimpse of the famous three Kildalton distilleries from the sky. Heading there by water and mooring in Port Ellen, you can see them more elaborately from starboard. The names of these three heavily peated single malts are proudly painted on the white warehouses facing the sea.
Coming from Kennacraig the first one to spot from the water is Ardbeg, with an official founding date of 1815, where distilling is recorded as early as 1794. It is an iconic dram with a real cult following, united in the Ardbeg Committee. Recent years have seen the release of remarkable limited bottlings with intriguing names such as Corryvreckan and Uigeadail.
A few miles north of Ardbeg, along the same road, stands the eighth century Kildalton Cross, blending pagan Pictish symbols with Christian ones. Withstanding the ravages of time, it is a marvel to see and definitely not to be missed when on the island.
Ardbeg’s neighbor is Lagavulin, one of the original Classic Malts, said to be founded in 1816. The name is Gaelic for “hollow by the mill.” The distillery was once owned by Sir Peter Mackie, one of the famous whisky barons of the early 20th century. In 1908 he built a second distillery on the premises called Malt Mill. Production ceased in 1960 and the buildings now house the visitor center. In a specially designed case, the last tiny bottle of Malt Mill single malt whisky is displayed. This extremely rare malt partly inspired Ken Loach for his 2012 movie The Angels’ Share.
The third and last of the Kildalton trio is Laphroaig, closest to Port Ellen. The founding date mentioned on the bottle is 1815. Part of the barley is malted on site. Laphroaig has been running a loyalty program for over 30 years, called The Friends of Laphroaig. Visitors can sign up and receive lease of a square foot of land in the nearby peat bogs. Equipped with a GPS tracker and the exact coordinates, they are invited to go to their plot and plant a tiny flag of their country of origin. Over 900,000 whisky lovers worldwide have signed up since the introduction of the program. And don’t worry about ruining your shoes in the swampy bog — Laphroaig will happily lend you a pair of Wellies for the duration of your walk.
In Port Ellen one can find the White Hart Hotel and various B&B’s, among which is the Oyster Catcher. Another option is to stay in Glenegedale House, opposite the tiny airstrip, northwest of Port Ellen.
The main road will take you to Bowmore, the capital of Islay, famous for its round church. It was supposedly built this way to prevent the devil from hiding in a corner. When discovered, he fled into the eponymous distillery on the other side of town and escaped in an empty barrel. True or not, this legend inspired the whisky makers at Bowmore distillery to create a limited edition called The Devil’s Cask. Here the oldest warehouse in the industry stands proudly on the shores of Loch Indaal. On a clear day you can spot Bruichladdich, on the other side of this large sea loch that almost cuts the island in half.
Bowmore town has various B&Bs and hotels, among which is the Harbour Inn, with a fine restaurant that serves delicious seafood. One can even find Indian and Chinese cuisine in the tiny streets.
Slante mhath — and to be continued!
The Whisky Couple