For those that don’t know much about Islay, this is a small but beautiful island to the west of Scotland renouned for their production of single malt scotch whisky. There are currently 8 distilleries on the island, which I’m sure are all worth visiting, but in order to do so, you need to plan for about a week on Islay.
Myself being already a big fan of scottish whiskey, and very appreciative towards the smokey / peaty flavor of the Islay malts, this was really a dream come true, to actually go there, feel the earth and the sea, meet the people that are behind the whole whisky making process, and ultimately taste from the many flavors of whisky of my favorite distilleries, some of which one can definitely only have when in Islay.
We flew in to Glasgow, a good three hour flight from mainland Europe, but we were lucky enough to catch a direct flight. Glasgow as a city is a gem, and will definitely make it for a visit to itself, as this time we barely saw any of it. Just a short drive through to pick up our tiny siblings from a hotel down centre.
The Glasgow airport, is conveniently positioned very Goldie Locksy. Not too far not too close to the city. There is accommodation right in its near vicinity in case you need a night before / after your flight. Choice is not awesome but decent.
There is also plenty choice with car rentals, but please be aware that they do not operate 24/7. We went with Europcar, which though closed when we had to leave, have a convenient drop box for the car keys, right next to their return parking, which made it easy to simply return the vehicle once the trip ended. There’s a gas station right over the corner, so it’s quite convenient to top your tank as you kiss your ride goodbye.
RIGHT HAND DRiVING
Now this was fun. Eventually. Don’t get me wrong, this was the first time I’ve ever put up with it. And initially I’ve been terrified. Oh, those roundabouts. Remember my little sister I had to pick up from Centre Glasgow? She went like: “Oh we’ve got a really nice hotel, super central, really close the the main square. Could you come pick us up?” While I though I’d have trouble exiting the parking lot, it wasn’t actually that bad. Manual gearbox and all. For the beginning you just have to remember one rule. Drive slow, and stick to the left. Not too far left though, as you might just bite the sidewalk though. Rear view mirrors? The right hand one is your guardian angel. The middle one, forget about it: in more than 500 miles of driving, I could not get used to look up left. Oh, and yes, miles 🙂
THE FERRY TO ISLAY
Apart from being freaking expensive, the ferry was well worth it and an experience in itself. Oh, and please do yourself a favour and book in advance. As if we hand’t known, we though that by just showing up, they must find us room on the ferry – I mean how many tourists can go to Islay in Feb? But remember it’s an island and their only way to get stuff in and out is by ferry. So expect it full of lorries and tanker trucks.
Anyways, after getting onto the deck, we were quite surprised of the real nice condition of this otherwise new ship, Finlaggan by its name, I must recall. If it weren’t for the central plastic imitation of Superman’s memory crystals, I could say it was almost luxurious. Oh and not to mention the overly warm and welcoming guy at the bar, always ready to serve you with some drinks. Apart from not getting a word he was saying – and you better get used to it as it’s such a brave accent – he’s been a real good sport. Aside from drinks you can cal also get proper food on the ferry which may come in handy after a longer trip, so keep this in mind while planning your stops.
ACCOMMODATION ON THE ISLAND
We used booking.com, and to be honest there weren’t so many options available. Let’s remember it’s a 3000 population island where you’re lucky to find anyone roaming the streets, except for tourists. And Carol. Roughly, there were like 3 hotels we could find, with the Islay Hotel which we checked in too, being quite representative to the island, right down centre of Port Ellen. I’d say the hotel has been a good value, except for the included breakfast which was a joke. Dining there, on the other hand was nice and cozy, albeit quite pricey.
FOOD & DRINKS IN PORT ELLEN
Just like with hotels, there really aren’t so many options available. During our 3-day stay, we’ve explored 3 places, all kind of aligned in terms of pricing and all serving decent to really good food. First evening we just sat down and ate dinner at our hotel, a rewarding experience after a day traveling (taxi, plane, car ride, ferry, more car ride). Second day we’ve explored both the Ardbeg restaurant for lunch, a really good value IMO, and “Salt & Pepper” bistro in the evening for a change. Also in Port Ellen. Most of these places you can find on Trip Advisor with fair ratings, so on a longer stay, you ought to try them all. Don’t miss your breakfast however, as it appears nobody serves food until noon.
TRANSPORTATION ON THE ISLAND OF ISLAY
We came by car, and apart from the inbound and outbound trips, we’ve had a couple of sightseeing rides. However, let’s not forget the reason why you’re probably here on the island, which is very likely whisky tasting. And yes, it’s whisky not whiskey. Remember Carol? She’s a small cab company owner there on the island (I’m actually tempted to say it’s her only) just as well as a handful of other guys, so getting from here to there is quite easy by cab. Distances are quite short, so expect anywhere between 6 to 10 pounds a ride. You could also walk, as Port Ellen is a mile away to Laphroaig, which is a mile away from Lagavulin, which in turn is roughly a mile away from Ardbeg. However, given the very unpredictable weather you should pack warm and soft clothes, an umbrella AND a raincoat. We also did it, just to take the time to admire the scenery. But rain tends to become kind of buggy. Especially if you wear glasses.
THE DISTILLERIES IN ISLAY
I consider myself fortunate enough to have been there. Unfortunately though, as we spent only 2 days on the island, we’ve had to chose out of the 10 total Islay distilleries, and we’ve went with the two most prominent ones, Laphroaig and Lagavulin – both being truly amazing experiences, especially for the whisky lover. Planning everything was not easy, as not all sorts of events happen each day, and some are not open during the weekend. So please do some research in advance and plan ahead. Also calling or emailing them beforehand confirms you with a reservation and assures your seat.
We started off with a warehouse demonstration at Lagavulin, which took place with their own Iain McArthur. Took about one hour where we literally explored a piece of history: from younger 12 year old whiskys taken straight out of the cask to a very unique dram out of a 1982 barrel, which I actually got to draw myself. Now that’s something you don’t get to do every day. And I can’t help but remember Iain’s introductory question, “Which is the best whisky”, and also the answer that he gave us himself: “the whisky you get for nothing”. And it was nothing indeed compared to what we’ve got our tastebuds delighted with. Overall, mr. Iain is clearly an iconic figure of the Lagavulin distillery, and undoubtedly has been a remarkable encounter for myself.
Laphroaig on the other hand was a very different experience. A little more modern, it feels a bit more industrialised than Lagavulin. They also do their own malting (but only 20% of the malt they need is produced in house), as opposed to Lagavulin which rely entirely on Port Ellen malt. The distillery tour was a show indeed, getting to see absolutely all the steps in the process, and being able to taste the ingredients in all their shapes: from barley to malt, from brew to the finished product. It only then makes sense when you sip a whisky from one of the local distilleries, that you feel the taste of the malt, the smell of the peat, and the breath of the sea which leaves is deep mark into the taste of the decade aged barrels in the so nicely white painted warehouses on the shore.
Ardbeg was the third distillery that we visited, however we’ve only had lunch there, so no distillery tour, not whisky tasting here. Regardless, the food was great, I was quite impressed with their store. A real nice array of bottles, just as well as swag available to visitors to take home with them. For a price of course.
THE ISLAY JAZZ FESTIVAL
This is only something that I could tell you about by hearing and reading about it. It looks like there have been a few editions to date, and that it’s pretty big deal for Islay, both in terms of music and whisky, marrying culture with history nicely into an event that draws visitor’s attention. I think it happens around September, and tickets are made available April May, so watch out if you want to get your hands on one. But even if you don’t the island is welcoming visitors all year round. What’s more to it, is that Lagavulin has a special bottle on the festival occasion, in a limited series and only available for purchase at the distillery. Mine is no 1331 of 3500 total bottles from 2015, and it’s a 55.4% cask strength whisky. This year though should be something special as Lagavulin is celebrating 200 years since their foundation.
SCENERY BUT THE WEATHER IN ISLAY
Like I said, the weather is pretty difficult to cope with, or even predict, as you likely get the four seasons within one day, but I think this is exactly what makes those views so spectacular. Dramatic clouds everywhere backlit by a setting sun, which only shows for a minute or two, or enormous ocean waves breaking against a lighthouse, all make for great sightseeing scenarios, or even superb photography set-ups. Overall Islay is a precious island with breathtaking views, which I relive each time I pour another glass of my favourite drams.