An island guide to Islay, affectionately known as 'the Queen of the Hebrides'
- Claire Sawers
- 22 May 2014
Or, as it's even more affectionately known to whisky fans, 'the one with all the distilleries on it'
For anyone who enjoys a good single malt, this island in the Scottish inner Hebrides (the most southerly one, just west of the Mull of Kintyre, and south of Jura) is essentially a very picturesque whisky theme park. There are eight working whisky distilleries on Islay – with more planned to open soon – which make the place a Mecca for whisky lovers, or just a very beautiful, peat-scented island to unplug and relax on for everyone else.
For whisky fans
There's no denying the biggest draw here – it's potent, amber-coloured and generally within arms' reach at all times on Islay (pronounced eye-lah). Expect restaurants to pair meals with matching whiskies, distilleries to recommend 'good breakfast whiskies' or 'hipflaskers', and coffee to come served as 'Gaelic coffee'.
An obvious starting point is a distillery tour, to better understand the fine tuning and deep science (or magic) involved in turning barley, yeast and water into something that can sell for £20,000 a dram, and turn, with terrifying ease, into a lifetime obsession.
If you have enough time (a long weekend with a car should do it – although finding a non-whisky fan to do the designated driving may prove tough), tick off all the distilleries on Islay's list, building up a series of photos of the impressive facades at the same time; starkly whitewashed, with beautiful black 1950s and 60s fonts beaming each whisky's name out to sea.
Bunnahabhain, meaning 'river mouth', is the most northerly, sitting in a bay. The distillery has a seafaring theme, a nod to the various shipwrecks lying on rocks beneath the perilous waters of the Sound of Islay. The drive down from Bunnahabhain to Port Askaig offers good views of the Paps of Jura, three mountains which roll into view out the left hand window, just before reaching Caol Ila, the island's largest distillery. Owned by drinks giant Diageo, the distillery is a slick factory operation, responsible for producing over 6 million litres per year. There's a definite feeling though that what it gains in efficiency it loses in charm, with limited visitor facilities and a slightly corporate mouth-feel tainting the otherwise delicious Caol Ila single malt. The views coming down the hillside are excellent though, and there's a haughty red deer often posing helpfully for tourists in the area.
Kilchoman, located on the opposite coast, is a tiddler in comparison, taking a year to produce what Caol Ila makes in a week. It's one of Scotland's smallest distilleries, and the most recent to open on Islay, in 2005. Along with Laphroaig and Bowmore, Kilchoman is one of the few remaining distilleries on Islay that still do their own floor maltings, so visitors can see (and taste) the damp barley as it gets spread out on the floor, before it starts to sprout.
Laphroaig also lets visitors see the peat smoking process that gives the whisky its unique (read Magic Markers) smell and huge, intoxicating flavour. For a very reasonable £6, you get a guided distillery tour, with a souvenir miniature and glass thrown in, but for no charge at all, you can drop in and sign up to be a 'landowner' – which means buying a tiny plot on the grounds, and earning the status of a 'Friend of Laphroaig'. As marketing gimmicks go, it's a fairly transparent one, but also one that comes with genuinely good rewards: online discounts, updates about new malts, and a free dram (your 'rent') every time you drop in to visit 'your land'. (Wellies and umbrellas are provided, along with map coordinates and a tape measure.)
Lagavulin is a short walk around the coast from Laphroaig, along a narrow single road heading north, which has probably seen its fair share of boozy ramblers over the years. Lagavulin produces another strong, peaty flavour, with an iodine twist that divides opinion – while Ardbeg, further down the same road, produces a smoky and peaty whisky like its neighbours, with an added sweetness. (Inventing personal tasting notes is all part of the process – the flavours of caramelised onion sausages, hospital corridors, burnt gym shoes, Cif cleaner and Jaffa cakes can all be found on the island, amongst others.)
The village of Ardbeg is well worth the detour, and feels like a weirdly welcoming ghost town – whitewashed houses lead down to the sea, whose surface is dotted with lobster creels, and rows of empty whisky barrels gather rainwater and glint peacefully in the sun. The Ardbeg distillery is endearingly lo-fi – with no computers in sight, just chalk boards and old ledgers that are updated with scribbles throughout the day. Visitors can get their head right into vats for a sniff, and stare at a clunky control station of dials and flashing buttons, which looks like a Doctor Who prop, or a proto-synthesiser from the 1970s.
The last on the list is Bruichladdich – 'progessive Hebridean distillers' whose 'proudly non-conformist' branding aims it squarely at a younger market, with playful marketing (not always well received by purists) and regular special edition malts for sale. The turquoise shade of the label is inspired by the colour of the sea water in front of the distillery, and they're not making it up; on a good day, the sea is the palest shade of aquamarine, and the white sand looks like seaweed-covered snow.
For non whisky fans
It might have become famous as 'the isle of malts' but Islay also makes beer. Three friends (Paul, Paul and Walter) opened the Islay Ales craft beer brewery just outside Bridgend, and they welcome passing drop-ins for a taste. Bruichladdich make their own Botanist gin too.
The Islay Festival of Music and Malt runs from Fri 23–Sat 31 May; an annual knees-up involving folk sessions, ceilidhs and whisky nosings. (Unsurprisingly, even teetotaller activities still revolve in one way or another around whisky.)
During the rest of the year there are a run of festivals and events too – usually taking place around Port Ellen and its marina. There's a classical music fest in July, a half-marathon and a 100-mile island bike ride in August, a jazz festival in September, a book festival in October, the Islay sessions music festival in November and loads more besides.
Cashmere fans can stock up on socks and scarves at the Islay Woollen Mill, as well as locally made tartans. There are two working Victorian looms in the back of the shop too, which visitors can wander through to look at. Remember to cast your eyes skyward in the shop too, the ceiling is lined with taxidermied stoats and birds of prey.
Get a guided tour
What Christine Logan doesn't know about whisky – or distilling, Japanese malts, geese migratory habits, wind energy conflicts, local seafood, or pretty much anything to do with Islay life – could be written on the back of a postage stamp. And she'd probably have a story about the stamp too.
For example, Christine, aka the Lady of the Isles, made sure our tour included a trip to the post office – which, with the local Islay accent, she pronounced as 'pstOFFice'. As far as these things go, the Bridgend post office is worthy of a quick look-in. As well as stocking the local paper, and everything from kids' toys to medical supplies and food, there are also shotguns for sale, displayed just above the rolls of gift wrap.
Born and bred on the island, Christine worked at Bowmore distillery for 25 years, but has branched out more recently into bespoke car tours around the island. She can tailor your tour to the amount of time you have, or perhaps how drunk you want to get. A very memorable and highly recommended tourist attraction.
There are several places on the island where seals sometimes bask, but one of the more beautiful spots is the gorgeous fishing village of Porthnahaven. While up that end of the island, visit the church that's shared between Portnahaven and next-door-neighbour village, Port Wemyss – thanks to a generations-old village rivalry, the congregation enters the church by two separate paths.
For those without a car, Bowmore is a good option for a base, sitting in the middle of the island in the village of Bowmore, and within walking distance of pubs and shops. Email them for off season special rates on distillery cottages.
Locals pack out Yan's Kitchen, a newly opened tapas restaurant with seaviews at Port Charlotte.
The Port Charlotte hotel offers a cosy pub fire and well stocked bar to dry out in, or get well watered in, depending on your priorities.
Seaview Cottage is a luxury self-catering cottage on the grounds of Ardbeg distillery. The house sleeps 6, and rates start at £225 per night.