The Hebridean Whisky Isle

The Hebridean Whisky Isle

Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides and for such a small island packs in eight distilleries and a lot more for the visitor.

Travel | 02 Dec 2016 | Issue 140 | By Laura Foster

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In a country bursting with natural beauty, the Hebridean islands are the jewel in Scotland's crown. And being a whisky lover, Islay - nicknamed the Queen of the Hebrides - is the best of all.

Islay doesn't boast the sweeping majesty of mountains such as Skye's Cuillin range, or the Caribbean-like white sands of Harris, but what it does possess - apart from a clutch of world-class distilleries - is a quiet beauty, with its gentle hills, windswept golden beaches and beautiful Loch Indaal, the sea loch that separates Bowmore from Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich.

There's an openness and expressiveness to the landscape that can inspire you to sit still for hours, watching the weather rolling across the island from the Atlantic. The best place and time to do this is on a sunny day, by the water outside the Bowmore Hotel, with a dram in hand from their collection of over 700 whiskies.

Situated where it is, however, when a storm front rolls in, Islay can offer the most extraordianary weather which can easily be matched by the island's distinctive whiskies.

While the weather can be unpredictable, what you can be sure of on a visit here is a warm welcome, removed from the hustle and bustle of modern-day living, and those delicious peaty whiskies. Being a compact island, with planning you can cover a lot of ground in a handful of days, including all the distilleries.

To the serious business of distillery visits. Be sure to book your tours in advance, especially at busy times of the year, and also note that distillery opening hours change between summer and winter.

Give yourself two days to cover the Ardbeg/Laphroaig/Lagavulin trio on the south-east coast of Islay: one day for Laphroaig, and one day to take in Ardbeg and Lagavulin.

One of the finest distillery experiences you could have in the world is the Laphroaig 'Water to Whisky' tour, which will see you try turning the barley on the maltings floor and inspecting the kilns. I'll never forget the experience of stepping into the kiln while the peat smoke was rising eerily through the grate below my feet.

You'll picnic by the water source, try and fail to dig peat from a bog (it's harder than it looks) and fill a sample bottle from a cask in a warehouse. You'll leave tipsy and satisfied from a fun, informative and inspiring day. For the second day, start early on the 9.30am distillery tour at Lagavulin before heading into the warehouse demonstration at 10.30am, where Lagavulin legend Iain MacArthur might just be holding court, pulling increasingly old samples straight from the cask to demonstrate the effects of wood ageing.

From here, take the handy, picturesque path that runs between the three distilleries in this area up in the direction of Ardbeg, which is just over a mile away.

Ardbeg is the most handsome distillery on the island, and its homely Old Kiln café is the perfect stop for lunch. Afterwards, head into 'Deconstructing the Dram', the most technical tour that Ardbeg offers, which culminates in a tasting in Warehouse 3.

If you can, try and stay at Seaview Cottage on the Ardbeg distillery grounds. Adjoining distillery manager Mickey Heads' house, it's a stylish cottage with wonderful sea views and access to the stunning headland that graces so many photos of Ardbeg.

There's nothing so satisfying as grabbing a dram and heading out there for sunset, listening to the hush fall over the distillery as the visitors leave for the day and the rabbits take over the grounds.

It's likely you won't want to move from this magical spot, so you'll need a shellfish delivery from Boo and Ishbel. Call them the day before to order, taking your pick from lobster, prawns, scallops and crab, raw or cooked, depending on what's come in on the boats.

If you've got time, head to the nearby Kildalton Cross, a 9th Century Celtic cross stood in the atmospheric roofless old parish church.

There are often tea flasks and cake left with an honesty box in the car park, so grab a slice of lemon drizzle while you have a nose around, taking in the truly intricately carved cross and medieval graves.

On day three, if you want to be closer to the action, relocate up to Bowmore, Islay's capital. With almost 1,000 residents, it's a relatively busy and thriving metropolis.

Stay at The Harbour Inn, which was taken over by Bowmore Distillery in 2014 and has undergone a recent refurbishment. Its restaurant is pricy for Islay, but the food - classic brasserie-style dishes including steaks and fish - is high quality.

Wander across the road to the distillery and join the Craftsman's Tour at 9.45am, which culminates in tasting two whiskies drawn straight from casks in the No1 Vaults.

Drive from here up to Islay House Square, a collection of buildings housing local shops and galleries, including island brewers Islay Ales, to pick up some souvenirs, then head along the coastline until you reach Bruichladdich's painted casks by the roadside.

Take a tour and marvel at the fabulous antiquated equipment, including the steampunk-style Victorian mash tun. The visitor shop has two casks, or valinches, available for visitors to fill their own bottles.

Back in the car, pass the Port Charlotte lighthouse and head to Portnahaven, a peaceful, tiny settlement enveloping a harbour at the end of the peninsula. Clamber onto the harbour rocks and you may be treated to the appearance of seals bobbing about, all sticking their heads above the water inquisitively.

Stop for a drink in the tiny An Tigh Seinnse pub, which feels a bit like you're drinking in someone's house, before heading back up the road for dinner. If it's a Wednesday or Sunday night in the spring/summer months, be sure to book into the cosy Port Charlotte Hotel's bar; local traditional bands play on these evenings, packing the space out but a most enjoyable evening.

Every other day, head to the Loch Indaal Hotel, which offers a humongous seafood platter dripping in garlic butter.

Hopefully you're not nursing too sore a head the next day, but if you are, head to Machir Bay on the west coast to blow those cobwebs away. Work up a thirst along the two kilometre long expanse of golden sand before stopping into Kilchoman Distillery, the smallest on the island. This farm distillery does everything on site, with the team even turning the barley on the floor of the maltings by hand.

Have an early lunch in the café there before crossing to the north-east of the island to visit Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain distilleries.

While Caol Ila isn't the most attractive site, the view across the Sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura certainly is. It's the biggest distillery on the island, and does feel more industrial, but it's worth a visit if you're a fan. Take the Premium Tasting tour at 2pm, which ends with a tasting of five samples in the old cooperage area.

Your final stop is situated in an exceedingly pretty spot. Bunnahabhain offers direct access to distillery manager Andrew Brown with its Manager's Tour and the full benefit of his 27 years working on site. Contact the distillery beforehand to see if he's available while you're on Islay - he'll run the tour for a minimum of two people, and will usually pull out some special whiskies to try.

After four packed days you'll have visited all the distilleries, experiencing the best they have to offer, and will no doubt have a suitcase full of bottles. But if you can, spend more time on Islay to take in the other attractions, from the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte, to Loch Finlaggan near Port Askaig. If time, take in during the summer months the Islay House Community Garden which dates back to the 1700s.

One of the beauties of a place like this is slowing down to the local pace of life and truly entering 'Islay time'.

Key Events

Feis Ile

Starting from the second May bank holiday and lasting a week, the island's whisky distilleries throw open their doors. Each distillery has a day to put on special events, and there's whisky, ceilidhs and culture galore:

Islay half marathon

13 punishing miles up and down hill, but Ardbeg 10 Years Old never tastes as delicious as the dram you're handed in Bowmore village hall afterwards:

Lagavulin Islay jazz festival

Whisky and jazz? Nice. Gigs are held in different venues, including a few of the distilleries, over a weekend in September:

For more information Call the Bowmore iCentre: Tel: +44 (0) 1496 810 254

Five Islay Drams to Try

Ardbeg Corryvreckan 57.1% ABV

Nose: The peat influence is medicinal here, with TCP and seaweed both coming into play. There's a green, hoppy, beer-brewing note somewhere in the background too.

Palate: Candied orange up front, before a roaring fire rushes over your palate, and someone throws a shovel full of salt in to put it out.

Finish: Like licking a lump of salty coal and chasing it with a juicy orange wine gum. Trust me, this is a good thing.

Port Ellen 37 Years Old 55.2% ABV (Diageo Special Releases 2016)

Nose: Relatively fresh, with sea breeze, apricots and a sappy pine character. Some charred wood sits in the fire grate while a treacle sponge bakes and you heat the vanilla custard to go with it.

Palate: That sweet treacle sponge is quickly taken over by beef jerky sprinkled with dried chilli flakes and smouldering charcoal.

Finish: Leather, lemon, vanilla, pine and anise. Incredible complexity.

Caol Ila 17 Years Old Unpeated 55.9% ABV (Diageo Special Releases 2015)

Nose: Stem ginger cookies and Victoria sponge cake while a fresh wind carrying a tangy sea grass note wafts in. A touch of lemon oils lifts it all.

Palate: With a light waxy texture, there's a distinct pear and cinnamon character and more of those ginger biscuits before a fresh sea spray whacks you in the mouth.

Finish: Cereal and that smoky hint linger on.

Lagavulin 8 Years Old 48% ABV

Nose: Comforting. Dying embers of a coal fire initially mask a peach and apricot heart, all wrapped in bandages.

Palate: Sweet, sweet smoke. Dried grass and heather, honey and sea salt. Fresh and light-bodied yet full of flavour.

Finish: Long and lingering, salty yet sweet.

Laphroaig Lore 48% ABV

Nose: Hello, Mr Creosote. Warm oatmeal and bright pink grapefruit give way to funky banana and pineapple.

Palate: There's an initial silkiness to the texture that becomes chewy. A beguiling mix of juicy oranges, tar and coal, vanilla fudge and granola bars, along with a sea-shell minerality.

Finish: Freshly laid tar sprinkled with vanilla.

Getting There

By air: Flybe offers direct flights from Glasgow International Airport to Islay. The 45 minute flight costs from £44.48 outbound, and from £50.50 on the return:

By ferry: Caledonian MacBrayne ferries service the Hebrides. From mainland Scotland, either get the boat from Oban to Port Askaig (less frequent service, 3 hours 45 minutes) or Kennacraig to Port Ellen (2 hours 20 minutes). Both routes cost from £6.50 per person one way. Vehicles under six metres cost £32.50 one way. Note: There is a winter and summer service:

Getting Around

Car hire: There are two companies: D&N Mackenzie ( and Islay Car Hire (

Buses: A bus runs on the island, but services are few and far between, and don't run on Sunday. Find the timetable here:

Taxis: This is the best way to get around if you're drinking, but be sure to book as far in advance as possible, as services are limited and in demand (and often do the school runs too). Find a rundown of services here:

When to go: The warmer months see more clement weather, but also longer opening hours and more services/tours available.

Where to Stay

Harbour Inn, Bowmore

Seaview Cottage

Where to Eat and Drink

Boo and Ishbel

Tel: +44 (0) 7766 996 360 (Boo)

Tel: +44 (0) 7795 231 826 (Ishbel)

Lochindaal Hotel

Port Charlotte Hotel

Bowmore Hotel
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