With eight whisky distilleries and a string of stunning beaches on one wildly beautiful island Islay should be deluged under the weight of mass tourism. Such is the remoteness of this Hebridean isle, though, that the tourist hordes have yet to really discover this paradise, leaving the locals to get on with the impressively self-sufficient life that they have been savouring since the days when the legendary Lords of the Isles ruled whole swathes of the Scottish Highlands from their Islay stronghold.
It is easy to see why the Lords of the Isles chose Islay. The island is painted in vivid and dramatic colours – a collage of rolling hills, sweeping sand-strewn bays and craggy coastline, with the shadowy ‘Paps of Jura’, the lofty mountain range that dominates the neighbouring island of Jura, never far from view to the east. On a clear day the coast of Northern Ireland and Ireland is clearly visible, then the next landfall to the west is North America.
Islay’s Whisky Distilleries
This epic beauty and romance is echoed in Islay’s eight whisky distilleries, which produce single malts often laden with that pervasive aroma of peat. Combining with the fresh island water and traces of seaweed it is taste that draws in everyone from connoisseurs through to timid after dinner drinkers who normally profess to not liking the drink that is eulogised in Gaelic as Uisge Beatha, or ‘Water of Life’. Today’s eight distilleries – Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhainn, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig – may produce some of the best whisky in the world, but the distilleries themselves have not yet been invaded by the tour bus crowds.
The best time for true whisky devotees to visit is in May for the world famous Islay Whisky Festival, when the whole island is taken over by whisky even more than normal with special tastings, open days at all of the distilleries and ceilidhs. Beds are at a premium so book well ahead to secure a room for the event.
Islay Whisky Distillery Tours
All of the distilleries offer guided tours. Perhaps the best are at Bowmore in the eponymous capital. This whitewashed old dame reclines right by the waterfront. In many ways Bowmore the town is Bowmore the distillery and the local swimming pool is even heated using water from the distillery, making it surely the world’s only whisky fuelled swimming pool!
Tours of Bowmore are a bit special. They still do their own malting here (a rarity sadly in Scotland these days) so you can witness them practice the ancient art of sweeping the floors as they turn the barley by hand. If you are lucky you may even see hands on distillery manager Eddie MacAffer turning the barley himself. The standard tours take you right through this working distillery, with the perfect mix of whisky distilling detail and tall stories. If you really want to indulge then opt for one of the VIP tours where Eddie himself will not only take you through the distillery on a seriously exclusive tour, but then also lead you into the bonded warehouse for a very special tasting straight from the cask.
The award winning Bowmore Visitor Centre is a gem too. You can find all the main Bowmore expressions, such as the 12, 15, 18 and 25 year old single malts here, but also some more unusual ones that are harder to source outside Bowmore. Bowmore is much lighter on peat than some of its southern Islay brethren, which makes Bowmore ideal for those not yet sure of their whisky as well as old hands who really appreciate the myriad flavours on offer. Look out for their small batch whiskies, which are becoming a real collectors’ favourite – snap one up if you get the chance!
Bruichladdich and Weapons of Mass Destruction
Bruichladdich is a distillery who also make a real attempt to employ a range of traditional methods. Its popular tours are notable for the chance to see the traditional Victorian-era distilling equipment that the CIA are said to have studied when researching Iraqi ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’. In 2005 the distillery again made the headlines when they were involved in the ‘capture’ of a British spy submarine and its somewhat embarrassing return to the Royal Navy. They offer ‘normal’ and ‘serious’ tours depending on group requests, both usually laden with entertaining tall stories.
Kilchoman Distillery – A Step Back in Time on Islay
The smallest and newest distillery on Islay is at Kilchoman. The first distillery to be built on the island in 124 years only opened in 2005 and it is still finding its feet. In its first year this small-scale farm distillery only yielded seven casks, though production has stepped up a gear since and their café is worth visiting for the food (try the divine Islay beef with horseradish wraps!) and also the storyboards that delve back into the days when the island was awash with countless small illicit whisky stills.
The rebirth of Bruichladdich and the launch of Kilchoman is typical of the fiery and independent Islay spirit, a sprit that has kept the island prospering while other Scottish islands have struggled. Islay is no tacky tourist island, rather a real life working community where old industries like pottery, weaving and fishing remain key parts of local life. The island even has its own woollen mill, lifeboat, canoe club and a golf club that offers some of the most dramatic scenery of any course in Britain.
Islay also has the ability to continually reinvent itself. There is the annual jazz festival and numerous cultural events all year round that are a testament to a community willing to move forward. Perhaps most impressively of all Islay has embraced the need for sustainable living with a successful commercial wave power programme, which was said to have been the first of its kind in the world. It now sells surplus electricity back to the UK’s National Grid!
Superb Local Produce on Islay
Islay has also been at the forefront of the trend for ‘Modern Scottish’ cooking. Visitors can sample Islay’s culinary delights and the new breed of innovative cooking styles at cosy restaurants like the one at the Port Charlotte Hotel in the whitewashed village of the same name. The hotel’s small restaurant is low key with stone walls and candles adding atmosphere and window tables that open up views of the sea and a lighthouse blinking in the distance. The menu draws heavily on the best of local seafood with Loch Gruinart oysters, Lagavulin scallops and Portnahaven lobster popular regulars. The food is superbly cooked, often with some of the local peaty single malt whiskies finding their way into the sauces. Similarly superb local produce is on offer at the Harbour Inn in the capital of Bowmore and they boast sea views too!
Where to Stay on Islay
There is really only one place to stay on Scotland’s whisky isle and that is at the Bowmore Cottages. Adjacent to Bowmore distillery these retreat sumptuous offer a luxurious oasis awash with the aromas of whisky and sea salt and you are within metres of the distillery itself. You’ll find whisky waiting for you when you arrive, Bowmore of course! They can even get a chef in to cook you up an Islay feast of oysters, langoustines, scallops and lamb.
Getting to Islay is All Part of the Fun
Despite its remoteness and away-from-it-all ambience Islay is surprisingly easy to get to with the island’s airport only a short, spectacular Flybe flight away from Glasgow. Or just take the Cal Mac ferry and savour Islay gradually taking shape on the horizon as you approach. You can see how many of the distilleries you can spot. However you get to Islay you will soon be happily ensconced in a local bar savouring one of the world’s finest single malts. In these cosy surrounds you can toast yourself on discovering an island that grabs the imagination and refuses to let go.
Islay Information – www.islayinfo.com
Islay Blog – www.islayblog.com