Scotland is lucky enough to boast hundreds of whisky distilleries. They are dotted the length and breadth of the country, from the southern climes of Dumfries and Galloway all the way up to the Northern Isles. There is one place in Scotland – or rather one island – that for me knocks the corks off the rest for whisky touring and that is Islay.
This charming Inner Hebridean oasis may be famous for its epic geese migrations, gorgeous beaches and the intoxicating history of the mystical Lords of the Isles, but for me it is the whisky isle and what whisky it produces! There are no fewer than eight distilleries on Islay and the good news is despite what some timid drinkers may imagine they are not all mighty peat-fuelled monsters.
A perfect base for exploring Islay is the Scottish Youth Hostel in Port Charlotte, fittingly housed in an old whisky warehouse, a legacy of Lochindaal Distillery, which used to sit right on the shore of Loch Indaal here. The well-equipped self-catering kitchen gazes out over the water and a little sandy beach lies below. Cosy pubs await nearby with hearty drams tempting.
Port Charlotte Youth Hostel on the right
I love Islay and have toured all of the distilleries multiple times, including one trip when I visited all eight in 48 hours! Join me now as I take you on a very special tour of the distilleries, revealing what is special about each one. Slainte!
Laphroaig - This distillery is perhaps the most famous of the two hundred year old whitewashed old dames that line the southern coast of Islay. It is the only Islay whisky that comes with a Royal warrant and it’s said to be one of Prince Charles’ favourite drams. Its signature 10-year-old expression is a fiery monster – they still peat fire some of their own malted barley here – packed with flavour that is too much for some. If you want something a little softer opt for newer Quarter Cask whiskies, as more contact with wood lessens the peatiness, as do the extra years in the cask for their older malts. My favourite tour here ends with a brilliantly fun food and whisky paired tasting.
Guided tour of Lagavulin
Lagavulin - The three southern distilleries are now handily connected via a new walkway and cycle route. Next up is this shy old lady, where the visitor experience is much more laid back. You can just slip in and recline in a comfy armchair trying a few malts for nowt. You will want to secure a bottle if you taste their lovely 16 year old and the even better 16-year-old Distiller’s Edition, which is smoothed and enriched with two extra years in Pedro Ximenez casks. Look out too for their newer new eight year old, a surprisingly refined wee stunner.
Ardbeg – Mothballed in 1981, Ardbeg was re-opened in 1997 and it’s come back with a bang. Their 10 year old is a spiky smoky upstart, but my favourite are their Supernova whiskies, now discontinued but still on sale at the distillery. They may be some of the peatiest malts known to man, but they’ve got a perfect balance too. I recommend booking in advance a tour that takes you up to Loch Uigeadail, the source of the water that helps make my favourite malt so special. I also recommend lunch in their superb café too, where the Ardbeg makes its way into some of the delicious dishes, dishes that attract locals as well as tourists.
Whisky tasting at Bowmore
Bowmore – This graceful whitewashed historic distillery rests on the shores of Loch Indaal in the island capital of Bowmore. Bowmore still does some of its own malting, with at least 25% of the barley that goes into the 11 weekly mashes fired on site. Bowmore tends to have a much softer finish than the southern whiskies. The reduced peat (phenol) levels and sherry casks help create a more mellow malt. They stock some seriously rare expressions here with the most expensive coming in a cool £100,000! Their tours culminate in as tasting room with great views out over Loch Indaal.
Bruichladdich – This famously independent distillery may have been taken over by one of the biggest players in the industry, but there is no sign that their traditional production methods are about to change. You cannot miss the distillery, as right outside is a waylaid Royal Navy minisub – ask them to tell you the story! They love a good yarn here and also a peaty malt. Their Octomore is rated Scotland’s peatiest malt. It’s great to see that they are sourcing some of the peat for its production from local land at Octomore Farm.
Kilchoman – Islay’s newest distillery (for now as two more are on the way) opened in 2005. It’s easily the smallest distillery on Islay, with a maximum of 200,000 litres produced each year. Unusually none of Kilchoman is sold off for blending at an operation that is on the farm scale of things rather than the industrial. My favourite expression is their 100% Islay – it’s got impressively low food miles using only barley grown on the island. They have a great café here and a whisky shop that tells the story of the days when every village on Islay was peppered with little whisky stills.
Caol Ila – The mighty stills at this massive distillery –which produces over 6 million litres of whisky a year – have surely the best views of any in Scotland. They gaze out of giant windows on to the Sound of Islay, or Caol Ila in Gaelic. Traditionally all of Caol Ila went into blends like Johnnie Walker, but these days around 15% is being siphoned off to conjure up first rate Caol Ila single malts. The 25 year old is a stunner, peaty yes, but with warming fruits and spices too.
Bunnahabhain – It comes as no surprise that Bunnahabhain produces a range of sweet malts as they have the tallest stills on Islay and usually opt for sherry casks over bourbon. Around 80% of Bunnahabhain still goes into blends, but they have a fine range of single malt expressions too. I’m not a huge fan of non-age statement whiskies (what the industry prefer to call ‘taste led whiskies’), but Bunnahabhain’s Toiteach wins me over, a peatier gem than I’d expect from them, which goes very well with blue cheese.
Port Charlotte Youth Hostel is open March to end of September, find out more and book your stay here: syha.org.uk/port-charlotte
Biography for Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a Scottish travel writer, broadcaster and blogger who has been covering his native land since the 1990s. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Robin is the author of a number of guidebooks, including National Geographic’s Scotland guide. He regularly contributes to a variety of newspapers and magazines across five continents, such as the Times and the Scotsman, as well as doing travel slots for BBC radio. Robin can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robinmckelvie.