Love it or loathe it, you’re missing out if you visit Scotland without trying a wee dram of Scotch whisky. Sure, you might get a taste in a pub, but why not cut out the middle man and get right to the source of Scotland’s favourite drink?
Islay is the perfect place to get your palette around the peatier, smokier single malt variety, and even if you’re not a fan then it’s still a great place for a weekend break with plenty of beautiful walks, ancient history and seafood shacks to tempt you.
But, before you pack your hip-flask and head to the hills, here are a few tips about planning your perfect weekend of whisky.
When’s the best time to visit Islay?
I went in January this year – I know, January, the Hebrides, what was I thinking?! It was an entirely self-less decision, a trip planned as a surprise birthday weekend away for a whisky fan I’m a fan of, and actually, it was perfectly timed. While it wasn’t the warmest (average temperature 5°C) it was certainly quiet and that was a big bonus! Although some of the distilleries are not in full swing at this time of year, you are often the only people on tours so you get to ask all the info you want and enjoy, what are essentially, private tasting sessions. Peak season is April through to October. This is when most people visit as the distilleries run more tours and are open longer hours; the weather is also better, which is quite an important factor when you’re relying on the ferry to get you across from the mainland to Islay. But this is also when the island is busier and accommodation pricier. There are pros and cons on both sides, but for me – wanting a leisurely weekend away without much organising beforehand – I was happy not having to deal with the crowds and so January was the perfect time.
How to get to Islay?
It’s not as quick and easy to get to Islay as you might think. Living in Edinburgh, I thought we could hop up there for the weekend no bother, but it actually takes a bit more planning than that. Firstly, because a the A83, the road you need to take to get to Kennacraig (where you get the ferry from) is notorious for being closed – usually due to adverse weather conditions – so always plan an alternative route. If you’re heading from Edinburgh or Glasgow then the M8 or the M9 will take you out towards the west coast of Scotland and from there you jump on the CalMac ferry from Kennacraig to Islay, arriving in either Port Ellen or Port Askaig. Make sure you leave plenty of time before you’re ferry is due to depart – if you’re taking the car then you’ll need to check-in half an hour before sailing time. Pre-book your ferry and choose from up to five crossing times per day, seven days a week during high season. Check CalMac’s timetable for more details.
Where to stay?
We stayed at Kentraw Farmhouse, a gorgeous b&b overlooking Loch Indaal, set in sloping fields scattered with sheep. Tip: watch out for the four-legged neighbours on your drive across Islay if arriving late like we did – driving through the pitch black only to be met by dozens of gleaming eyes, sheep caught in the headlights, roaming all across the road was a surprise! Isabel and her husband were the perfect hosts, lighting the wood-burning stove in the living room for us to warm up beside after long days walking and whisky drinking. Isabel’s Scottish breakfast is also the perfect remedy in case you spend too long in the pub. We stayed in ‘Room 1’ which had a king sized bed and the best views over the loch. It was the personal touches that really made our stay so special: they were more than happy to arrange distillery tours and book restaurants for us before we arrived and, because we were celebrating a birthday, they’d left a card as well as a little cake for us is our room. Another perk to going during low season was that we had the whole place to ourselves and this meant complete run of the dining room in the morning and the living room of an evening.
Now down to business…why bother visiting Islay? The whisky of course! Here are three top distilleries I would recommend:
This is probably the most famous single malt Islay produces – you’ve undoubtedly seen bottles of the stuff gleaming on the shelves of the local supermarket – and for that reason alone it should definitely be on your weekend of whisky itinerary. The visitor centre and tasting room overlooks Loch Indaal. We didn’t do a tour here because we felt that their 20 minute intro video gave us plenty of information about how Bowmore is produced and the history behind this impressive place. Tip: don’t try and cram too many tours in, unless you’re a serious buff then it’s kind of ‘once you’ve seen one…’ in my opinion, plus you get just as good a feel for the distillery from their visitor centre. Tour or not, take the opportunity to sit beside their wood-burning fire and sip a wee dram of Bowmore as you watch the waves crash against the cellar walls of the distillery. In fact, it’s Bowmore’s location on the shore of Loch Indaal that make it so special; its no.1 vaults are the oldest maturation warehouse in Scotland and the only one below sea level. Open at various times throughout the year, depending on the season, check with their website for full details; tours £7.
I loved this place – and not just because Lagavulin is one of my favourite peated whiskies. It was just us and the tour guide on this one, which helped give us a very personal perspective, plus Lagavulin is a pretty unique distillery. Although, like many of the distilleries on Islay these days, the malting of the barley used to make Lagavulin takes place at a bigger, Diageo owned distillery in Port Ellen, it still feels like a small, traditional operation here. Set in Lagavulin Bay, our guide (who’s family had worked at the distillery for generations) was extremely knowledgeable. Once you’re done here there’s the option to walk to Ardbeg, about half an hour along a newly opening coastal path. However, it was closed when we were there, plus it was pouring down in true Scottish style. Opening times vary so check Lagavulin’s website: tours £6.
The only distillery to use 100% barley grown on Islay and work with local farmers, Bruichladdich is proud to be independent and is always coming up with new and interesting product lines. The fact that they use barley from Islay means that a lot of their whiskies have a unique, salty falvour. Of course, being in island, Islay’s crop is constantly whipped by sea air and water, and you can really taste that in their whisky. Not a whisky fan? Then it’s worth a trip to ‘Laddie for the gin, The Botanist, a sweet, floral concoction that’s tasty enough to drink straight or on the rocks. We didn’t do a tour here, but the bar are very generous with their tastings and will give you some history behind the making of Bruichladdich. Opening times depend on the season; tours £5.
There are over a dozen distilleries on Islay, with more springing up every year, but these were just the ones we managed to fit in over the one full day we had on the island. Again, you’ll have greater choice if you go during peak seasons, but then you’ve got to be much more organised in terms of booking tours and tastings. Tip: if you can’t make it to all the distilleries then don’t fret, the local pubs have all of Islay’s whiskies on their shelves. Make a night of it, like we did, and try to taste all the ones you didn’t get to visit, but be prepared for the hangover!
We had a great weekend on Islay, learning about and tasting the whiskies, wandering through ancient burial sites and checking out local pottery shops – oh yeah, I forgot, there are other awesome reasons why you should go to Islay, until next time… For most, Islay whisky is the main draw, and I hope now you can see why!