A Visit To Islay: The Ultimate Scotch Whisky Drinker’s Vacation

A Visit To Islay: The Ultimate Scotch Whisky Drinker’s Vacation

Some of the most legendary Scotches come form the southwestern Scottish isle of Islay. With an impending trip to Europe but no itinerary set in stone, I decided to head that way and bring a couple of friends with me who also happened to be in the country. The largest town on the island of 3,000 people is Bowmore, but we opted for a stay in the town of Port Ellen, closer to our beloved favorites of Laphroaig and Lagavulin.

Getting There

Arriving in Islay can be quite a task, but Scottish transportation spares no comfort. If flying in tiny planes from the Glasgow airport isn’t your cup of tea, you can take a CityLink bus from the Glasgow station to the Kennacraig Ferry Terminal (they coordinate departure and arrival times, so no need to fear the boat leaving without you). A round trip ticket for walk-on passengers is only 15.00 GBP, and arrives in Port Askaig. Forget whatever traditional notions you might have about ferry systems, this felt like a luxury cruise line.

Islay

The beauty of Islay (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Lindsay Brandon)

There’s a full service café and bar on board (with an assortment of Islay microbrews and they always have a whisky of the month deal) and no shortage of views to indulge in during our two-hour journey. Conveniently, the ferry departed from Port Ellen, right outside our hotel; so do be sure to check your departure location before heading back to the mainland.

Port Ellen

There are only two small hotels in all of Port Ellen, and we stayed at the recommended one: the Hotel Islay. Greeted (once again) with exceptional friendliness, we were encouraged to make dinner reservations or risk not eating at all (there’s a “grocery” store which more resembles a convenience store). We took their advice then headed to find some bikes for rent.

The Islay Cycle Company is not marked by signage because it’s operated out of a man’s backyard. For 15 GBP each we got fitted with a brand new Raleigh for the next 24 hours. He gave us locks but said we probably wouldn’t need them – the kids might play jokes and move the bike to a different door but nobody would steal them.

Once dinnertime rolled around, there were gourmet local offerings to be had: haggis, muscles, halibut, meat pies and cheesecake. Forget whatever images you had in your head of greasy fried pub food (though you can still get it); Scotland has plenty of fresh options.

Lagavulin

The distilleries only offer certain tours at different times, and if we were going to make the most of our day, it meant breakfast whisky. We pedaled our little hearts out to the distillery that was a few miles away (they also have a dedicated walkway for tourists) and ended up being the first ones there. My friend Pat’s gun club had previously donated a beautifully carved decoy duck and placard so he wanted to see if it was still there (it was, in fireside room, front and center). Once the tour began, however, the cameras had to be put away. Unlike many distilleries I’ve been to that have an almost Disney-esque feel, this was authentic: we simply walked in the footsteps of the distillers right down to sampling the wash from one of the 12 washbacks (it is the fermenting wort that’s a little like a flat 9% beer).

Lagavulin

Drawing whisky from the casks at Lagavulin. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Lindsay Brandon)

As much as we enjoyed ourselves, a visit to Lagavulin is incomplete without a warehouse tour and tasting with the legendary Ian MacArthur. If you’ve ever dreamt of being Ron Swanson, this is about as good as it gets. We got to sample several different cask whiskies that will never be bottled (An 11YO first-use sherry cask, 13YO oak cask, 17YO second-use sherry cask, 22YO sherry cask, and a 33YO Dewars cask).

I was lucky enough to get to siphon the 33YO right out of the barrel, but truly the best part about the warehouse was its ending: a surprise 49YO refilled scotch cask from 1966. Decadent doesn’t even begin to describe the deep flavors on your tongue; you have to pinch yourself that you’re in a dingy, dark cement room surrounded by some of the best whisky in the world with a relic serving you. Before hopping back on our bikes, we took a moment to sit on the tire swings across from the distillery and admire the pasturing cows not ten feet away.

Ardbeg

Another scenic couple miles down the road is Ardbeg, which just happens to be celebrating its 200th year. With a reputation as the peatiest and smokiest malt of them all, I’d argue that Ardbeg also creates some of the most complex whisky flavors out there. If we were going to continue our tour, we needed sustenance. Luckily for us, a mandatory meal must be had at Ardbeg’s Old Kiln Café, yet another testament to the amazing food in Scotland. I had a plate of fresh Langoustines smothered in garlic butter and was ready for another flight of whisky. Though we decided to forego a tour here, we took our tasting outside to a picnic table near the old original copper still.

Ardbeg

Taking in the scene at Ardbeg. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Lindsay Brandon)

As if the travel gods hadn’t blessed our adventure enough, the head of maturing whisky stocks for the Glenmorangie Company joined us at our table as he ate lunch and personally guided us through our tasting. Of particular greatness was the Auriverdes, created for Ardbeg Day and in honor of the Brazilian World Cup. It was one of the lower ABV whiskys I tasted that day, but had the most unique flavor of coffee and toasted ends. Ardbeg’s whiskies are also much younger than most of the other offerings on Islay. After a stroll to the rocky cliffs for some photo ops and conversation with other visitors, it was time we head back out.

Laphroaig

Closest to Port Ellen, Laphraoig is the most informal tasting experience offered on that part of the island. We figured the less biking we had to do at the end of the day, the better for our (and everyone else’s) safety. It also allowed us to stop back at Lagavulin to pick up a bottle to hang on the bike handle (I picked up The Distillers Edition 1998 Double Matured Single Malt). There’s not a bad view on the entire island, but there’s an inexplicable extra something about the intimate cove the distillery sits upon. The tasting experience is as unfettered as the beautiful simplicity of their scotches: it’s free and you can taste anything additional you may want to try.

We sampled everything from their standard 10YO to the Quarter Cask (a revival of the once-defunct tradition of using smaller cask size to compliment the peatiness with a soft and velvety quality from greater contact with the oak barrel). The friendly staff behind the bar emphasized that there’s no need to feel pressured to buy, they’re just happy to see everyone enjoying their product, which made me want to purchase something that much more.

And that I did: the 15YO first bottled 30 years ago and revived for the Islay Whisky Festival to commemorate the distilleries 200th anniversary (Lagavulin apparently was a year behind in getting their paperwork in and will debut their anniversary edition next year). The gentleman behind the bar was kind enough to open a bottle and let me try it first, so I walked outside to one of three picnic benches to enjoy my last dram in the sunshine. Even if it wasn’t my favorite whisky I tried that day, I knew I needed a bottle to remind me of that very moment.

You can tell there’s a healthy (and joking) competitiveness between the distilleries on Islay. But the truth is, each knows they are making a unique quality product with distinctive flavors and characteristics. Though each distillery is painted a monochromatic white with black lettering facing the sea, their personalities are reflected in their products and the people who make them (all of whom might be the nicest people I’ve met in the entire world, and that’s not just the whisky talking).

It was hard to leave; we rode our bikes back, talked a lamb out of the road and decided to wake ourselves with a nice dip in the Atlantic before the sun went down. I thought there were rocks all over the floor of the beach, but as I walked out, a mixture of sand and mush cradled my feet. When I reached in to pull out a handful of the sediment, I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was peat. We ended our day by cracking open one of the bottles from our journey and hamming it up with local rugby players preparing for a beach tournament that we wish we’d known about before buying our tickets back to the mainland.

Alas, the ferry was waiting for us the next morning right outside our door. It truly was one of the most difficult places to leave of anywhere I’ve traveled.

If You Go: