When it comes to whisky, Islay is an island paradise
It was the moment I finally thought I’d converted my wife to the delights of whisky.
“Wow, that aroma is amazing. Can you smell it?,” Marie said basking in the whisky-laden breeze as we ventured out of our Islay B&B and strolled towards the Lagavulin distillery.
But an hour or so later it was situation normal (that stuff reeks), but one that would advantage me. “You’d better have mine,” Marie says pushing her Lagavulin tasting glass towards me. “I’ll have a wine tonight”.
Islay (pronounced Eye-la) is a spectacular Scottish island, wild and crazily green in parts, dubbed the island of rainbows by my adult daughter Erin, and having a grand history that dates back to mediaeval times. But for most visitors it is simply, the Isle of Whisky.
Whisky in the Gaelic language is uisge-beatha, the water of life, and it is the lifeblood of Islay. There are eight distilleries on the island and together they produce some of the most famous whiskies in the world, including my personal favourite - Lagavulin 16-year-old Islay Single Malt Whisky (the go-to gift for my birthday/Father’s Day/Christmas).
So, what makes Islay so perfect for producing its distinct brew? Answer: The freshest sea air, bounteous spring water and, of course, peat. It is the peaty smokiness (or is it smoky peatiness?) of Islay whiskies that gives them their uniqueness and fame.
The peat, formed over eons by decaying heather and other plant life, is burned to dry the malted barley used in the distillation process, which, as fascinating as it is, is best left to the experts in Islay to explain to you (or Google it).
SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW
We journeyed to Islay by ferry (though you can fly), taking our rental car on board the Hebridean Isles at Kennacraig, following a scenic 2½-hour drive from Glasgow. Two hours later we were in Port Askaig and heading to our digs for the next few days at Lagavulin Excise House B&B, a fabulous location on the island’s south-east, perfect for the whisky enthusiast as it is walking distance to the three distilleries that make my favourite whiskies – Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg.
With several hours before dark, we arm ourselves with rain jackets and head off to familiarise ourselves with the Lagavulin Bay area, witnessing the first of many spectacular Islay rainbows. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was the sweet, ripe brambles (wild blackberries) growing on the side of the walking path. Talk about delicious.
Our walk takes us to the rear of the Lagavulin distillery and a view of the rugged bay beyond, including Dunyvaig castle. The next day, we walk out to the castle, and although it is too dangerous to enter the ruins it evokes an eerie otherworldliness … plus you get the best view possible of the stark white Lagavulin distillery complete with its name spelt in giant black letters.
A HOT CHOCOLATE CHASER
Our first “official” distillery visit is, naturally, Lagavullin. Partly tempted by the whisky aroma outside, my wife joins Erin and I, on the distillery’s Core Range Tasting tour … a 30 to 40-minute sweep through the distillery and its processes, followed by the important bit … a tasting that includes three top Lagavulin whiskies - an 8-year-old, a 12-year-old and the classic 16-year-old. All this for just £15. Plus you get to keep your tasting glass as a memento.
The bonus was my wife was satisfied with just one sip of her first whisky then the rest were put in wee takeaway jars and kept for later consumption (by me).
A hot chocolate with a dash of Lagavulin was needed after the tour, as we waited for a sudden shower to clear. A great way to end a pretty rich experience.
SNACK AND A DRAM
After Lagavulin, it was along the road to Ardbeg and a bite to eat at its Old Kiln Café, picking and eating a few brambles on the way.
Of course, I had to accompany the food with a tasting platter of five glorious whiskies (shared with Erin). Ardbeg’s selection is quite exotically named, once you get past the “10 year old". There was Uigeadail (meaning dark and mysterious), An Oa (an Islay location), Corryvreckan (cauldron of the speckled seas) and Perpetuum (forever, in Latin). All were wonderfully full-flavoured and complex whiskies.
That was more than enough whisky for one day (though I might have snuck a wee dram of my wife’s leftovers before bed that night).
TAKE A BOW
The second morning of our three-night Islay stay, we headed out to see the island’s capital, Bowmore, a town of around 1000 residents. Coincidentally, it is also the location of the oldest whisky distillery operating on the island – Bowmore.
Of course, we had to pop in, but with some driving planned, and an afternoon tour at Laphroaig booked I needed to avoid the demon drink.
So, I settled on the distillery tour light - a stroll around the grounds, some selfies by the shore with the plant in the background, a visit to the Bowmore shop and the purchase of a four-sampler pack for later consumption.
That was followed up by a wander through Bowmore town, visiting its famous Round Church, arts, crafts and souvenir shops and the Celtic House café where we enjoyed some rather nice tea and cake.
Next was a trek to the American Monument, erected on the Mull of Oa at the extreme south of the island, to commemorate the lives lost in the shipwreck of two American troopships in 1918, the Tuscania and the Otranto.
The memorial tower is set atop a 130m-high cliff which overlooks the seas in which the Tuscania sank.
The hike to the monument - up hill, down dale and past iconic hairy highland cattle (heelan coos to the locals) - and the breathtaking views when you reach it are well worth the effort.
But, after a day of temperance, whisky inevitably found its way back on to the agenda. Our final distillery visit (to make four out of eight operating on Islay), was Laphroaig (pronounced la-froyg).
Our guide for the plant tour and tasting was Craig – a funny guy with a great pride in his distillery’s product. As well as showing how Laphroaig’s whisky is made (and how it differs from its Islay rivals) he boasted about Laphroaig’s Royal Warrant and how its 15-year-old expression is Prince Charles’ favourite drop. The prince has visited Laphroaig three times and, Craig says, is expected again … after he is crowned king!
Our £10 tour started with a dram and ended with a tasting of up to three whiskies. If you wanted the more expensive drops you had just one or two whiskies. I went for two, believing, at this stage in our Islay adventure, it was better to go for “quality” over quantity. It felt like the right choice.
The author’s trip was self-funded
He flew British Airways from Sydney to London - britishairways.com
Hired a car through Hertz - hertz.com.au
Travelled to Islay from Kennacraig on a pre-booked Caledonian MacBrayne car ferry - calmac.co.uk
Stayed at Lagavulin Excise House B&B which was reserved through booking.com
SCOTCH ON A ROCK
There are eight Islay distilleries. Between them they produce more than 20 million litres of whisky each year. The distilleries are:
ISLAY WHISKY HISTORY
14th Century: Monks from Ireland bring the art of whisky making to Islay
1644: An excise tax is levied on whisky forcing Islay’s multitude of distillers to hide out in remote valleys and caves
1779: The oldest distillery still in operation today, Bowmore, is opened.
1795: A national ban on distilling during a crop failure sees at least 90 Islay stills confiscated
1815: Ardbeg is founded, Laphroaig commences production
1816: Lagavulin opens
A SHORTER VERSION OF THIS STORY WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN AUSTRALIA'S FABULOUS ESCAPE MAGAZINE IN JANUARY 2020. Visit the magazine's website at: escape.com.au