Islay, Scotland

An opportunity arose to visit Islay, an Isle west of Glasgow for which I knew little about.  Sarah on the other hand was aware that it had eight whisky distilleries (one makes gin also) and that they are known for its’ peaty flavour.

I’ve heard ‘peaty flavour’ mentioned before and had no clue what it meant, so this was an opportunity to learn and no doubt enjoy.

We accessed Islay with Flybe from Southampton via Glasgow. This is a stress free option as we only had hand luggage and could turn up just in time for boarding as security only takes 5 minutes. Alternatively, like most people the islands are accessed by ferry.

We emerged from the cloud cover, with mainland Scotland’s rugged coastline behind us. Beneath us had a strange feel, similar to Iceland, where skinny roads broke through rough hilly landscapes. Colours varied with a mixture of creamy yellows, brown, maroon and green pastures. Rocky outcrops were dominant as were the three white washed distilleries with their names adorned in full view.

L – R: Laphroaig, Laguavalin, Ardbeg

On recommendation our friends booked four nights at Ardbeg’s Seaview Cottage. Located 3.5miles from Port Ellen and within walking distance of three distilleries made this a sensible choice. The website doesn’t do this property justice. Once the distillery manager’s home, it has been renovated and transformed into a cosy and luxurious getaway. The three bedrooms all with ensuites, firm mattresses and weighted quilts are tastefully decorated and furnished. Shorty the dog makes numerous appearances throughout the house.  An immaculate open planned living space upstairs set the tone for a relaxing time. Quality kitchen appliances made cooking stress free, whilst an eclectic mix of lounge chairs, tables and a robust wood (or peat) fire centres the back wall. My personal favourite is the window-sill lounge overlooking the coast where an otter played on our first morning.

Day One

Best sleep in ages. Upon opening the private door to the backyard a fresh breeze bit my ankles. Small waves brushing across the rocks and birds waking with chirpy chirps could be heard as the sun rose.

We took a short walk to our neighbouring distillery Laguavalin for pitstop number one for the Warehouse Experience. Iain McArthur, a warehouseman of 47years led us through five or so tastings whilst nestled amongst the casks.

Definitely value for money experience, considering we were sipping on liquor aged 35years and of which will never reach a shelf for sale. The excise already paid at £6299 per cask! McArthur’s humour alongside the whiskey kept us content despite the cool interior. Designated drivers even get takeaway packs!

Ardbeg’s Old Kiln Cafe gets recommendations from all over Islay as a lunch destination. Many good selections especially the uniquely served haggis, neeps and tatties to complement the drams and local ales.

We followed lunch with Ardbeg’s novice whiskey tour. This was a chance to learn, see, smell and taste.

So Islay peat is really old ground matter composed of mosses, seaweed, heather and other plants, decomposing over thousands of years. It is recognised as a unique flavour and now I know what the black fields were when we flew in that resembled fire patches. These are harvested plots. It’s believed that some areas are 30feet deep. Peat is then used to smoke the malt, bringing a smokey flavour to the whisky. Most of the distilleries use barley from Port Ellen’s maltings, each with a unique recipe of smokey strength. Land surveys vs peat usage indicates they won’t run out anytime in my lifetime.
Ardbeg is renown for being the peatist and have been legally producing whisky for over 200 years. Their tour provided an opportunity to see the process of barley to bottle, with tastings afterwards.
For the evening, we walked along the farm track opposite Ardbeg to a small loch. In parts it was eerie whilst passing through overhanging scrub. We were rewarded with views out over the bay and half a dozen deer scampering away.

Day Two

Morning walk to Kildalton to marvel at the most complete Christian cross carved over 1300years ago. The 4mile walk graced us with superman seals, a fallow deer and two peacocks.

And learnt the true meaning of a milestone…

Milestone indicating distance to Port Ellen

Two distillery visits for the afternoon were Bruichladdich and Kilchoman.

Bruichladdich is hard to miss with their turquoise coloured everything. They produce peated and unpeated whisky, and The Botanist, a gin made with 22 Island botanicals. Though a tour wasn’t booked they were more than happy to provide a tasting. I found some of their varieties more peaty than other distilleries.

Kilchoman Distillery is one to watch in future, being only founded in 2005. They are unique as they remain family owned and independent. They grow the barley and put it through its’ paces till it becomes bottled,  a trademark only seven other distillers in Scotland can claim. As we could visualise the whole process, this was the best tour and there are plans for a visitor centre in the future.

Bryony explaining the ‘malting floor’

We visited Machir Bay nearby to explore the sandy beach with its’ own shipwreck.

Day Three

Being the first week of March, we were blessed with pretty decent weather.  The north always had darker clouds, but we avoided any rain and instead were treated to alot of sunshine.

Therefore it was best to be outdoors and still being early in the season (or end of) there weren’t many tourists about.

We headed to Finlaggan, the site of the ancient Seat of The Lords of the Isles. Pretty scenic and the visitor centre holds artefacts to.

Overall Impressions

A superb getaway location with a mix of activities. Being out of the main season there wasn’t the tourist buzz which made driving a breeze but on the other hand some activities hadn’t started yet. A walkers and wildlife delight, access to a vehicle is a must unless you are keen to stay in one area. We spent four nights which was perfect. All the distillery tours provided at least one dram and a free glass. I now have a greater understanding of the whisky process and never felt silly for not knowing.

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