I don’t normally post on Memorial Day, but since this isn’t airline-specific, I thought I’d put it live on a day when people might have time to read this lengthy look at Islay.
After two days of traveling, I had arrived on Islay, ready to take full advantage of the short 50 hours I had on the island. The hard part was figuring out where to start. At 239 square miles, Islay is a bit smaller than Moloka’i. That may not sound like much territory to conquer, but with nine distilleries spread around the corners of the island, there was much to cover.
- A Last Minute Pilgrimage to Islay, the Home of Scotland’s Peatiest Whisky
- Air Canada Business Class Via Vancouver to London
- Heathrow’s Terminal 2 and Flybe to Edinburgh
- An Evening in Edinburgh
- Edinburgh Airport and Loganair to Islay
- 50 Hours on Islay
- Transport Potpourri: A Ferry, Bus, and Train from Islay to London
- Air New Zealand Business Class from London to Los Angeles
There is a larger, eastern part of the island and a smaller western part. It looks like they’ll eventually be severed by inlets that slice into the land from both north and south. The airport lies on the western shore of the larger, eastern part of the island between Bowmore and Port Ellen, the two largest cities there. “Large” is relative. Neither tops 1,000 people, and all of Islay is somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500. The population has actually been declining, but with the resurgence of interest in whisky and the rise of tourism, I imagine that may change.
There are few roads on the island, and most of them aren’t in great shape. Anger at government for not even being able to provide decent roads was a recurring theme with the locals I met. There is a public bus service, but it operates infrequently (though punctually) and not at all on Sunday, the day I arrived. For that reason, I had arranged with Bruichladdich Taxis to pick me up, and my driver Sheena was there waiting to whisk me away.
That brings me to a slight tangent about language. If you read the name of that taxi company, you probably choked on your tongue trying to pronounce it. Some words seem to be pronounced by squishing them all together while others don’t. There wasn’t a common theme, from what I could see. Bruichladdich is pronounced sort of like “Brook-LA-dee.” Even that isn’t clear because the first “ch” is pronounced like you’re clearing your throat while the second one is largely silent. You’ll see plenty more words that are hard to pronounce as we go through this.
My first stop was the Islay Hotel in Port Ellen. If you’re looking for a big chain hotel, you won’t find that anywhere on the island. “The Islay,” as the locals call it, is about as big as it gets with a massive 13 rooms, a bar, and as an added bonus, it even takes credit cards. It’s really just a slightly larger bed and breakfast, and I was pleased to find one of the smallest (read: cheapest) rooms left when I inquired. (Several other spots I tried were sold out.)
I had focused on Port Ellen, because it’s just a short walk to Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg, each about a mile apart on a nice walking path. But to save time, I wasn’t going to start off by walking. Instead I had Sheena briefly stop so I could drop my bags off at the hotel. She then drove me over to Lagavulin.
I found Lagavulin maddening in several ways. First, scheduling a tour or tasting was near impossible. There is no online booking, so I had emailed them but didn’t receive a response for several days. When I did, I was told to call if I wanted to book. They close at 5pm local, so just getting to call during those hours was difficult here on Pacific Time. I ended up finally making a reservation for the Sensory Tasting tour from Heathrow while on my layover.
Thanks to my flight actually getting to Islay early (a rare occurrence, as the locals tell it), I had time to kill before my tasting began, so I just went to the bar. There on the shelf was a big promo for Game of Thrones. Say what? Well, Lagavulin, like most of the distilleries, is owned by one of the big conglomerates. In this case, it’s Diageo, and Diageo signed a deal to promote Game of Thrones with a special bottle from each of its distilleries in Scotland. Um, no.
I did appreciate Chris, the friendly bartender, who was giving me some tips about the various whiskies. He said the Game of Thrones one actually was decent, but I passed.
Soon the tasting began and we relocated into a private room for about 10 of us. They gave each person a small wooden box with vials of 5 whiskies and 7 different items that represent the flavors (like sea salt or vanilla sugar). I enjoyed it, though I didn’t feel a deep connection to Lagavulin or its whisky.
Once I finished, I went for a walk over to Ardbeg. I had tried to arrange an earlier tour there, but it was full. So I slowly ambled among the sheep (so, so many sheep) and arrived in time for the 4pm Sneaky Peek tour which is abbreviated and at the end of the distillery’s day.
Ardbeg for years was nothing more than a funnel for Ballantine’s blended whisky, but a few years back it got into its own single malts. What’s the difference? A single malt is where the whisky all comes from the same distillery, and it’s 100 percent from malted barley. It doesn’t have to be (and usually isn’t) from the same cask, however. A blended whisky is where multiple single malt whiskies from multiple distilleries are brought together with grain whiskies to create the desired end product. There’s nothing wrong with a good blended whisky. It’s just different. On this trip I wanted to really enjoy the different subtleties that each distillery offers, and that meant sticking to a diet of single malts the whole way through.
Ardbeg is also owned by a big company, LVMH, which is Moet and Louis Vuitton’s parent. It doesn’t malt its own barley, so our guide Ryan began the tour with milling the barley post-malting and took us through distillation. At the end, we had one dram to taste.
I was ready to start walking the 3+ miles back to town when I started talking to someone on my tour named David. It turns out he does revenue management for Loganair, so naturally we had plenty to talk about. He and his friends joined me on the walk back to town on what was a beautiful evening.
I had a nicely-prepared fish (at least, it seemed nicely-prepared after a few drams) at the hotel myself, and then I stepped into the bar to have a little more. Who was behind the bar? Ryan, my guide from Ardbeg. Apparently it’s pretty common for people to wear several hats on the island. After a couple more drams, I went to bed.
The next morning I had a hearty Scottish breakfast of eggs, bacon, potato scones, bangers, and beans downstairs while wistfully staring out a picturesque window on a sunny day. Once finished, I set off on public transit to Bowmore. The bus showed up exactly when expected, I paid my GBP 2.75 (change provided), and we were off past the airport for the short ride into town.
I had arrived Bowmore (pronounced buh-MORE) a little early thanks to the transit schedule, but since it was the biggest town on the island, I thought I’d enjoy walking around. There wasn’t much there, though the views were more than enough.
I walked down on the water, up to the uniquely round church at the top of the hill, and then along side streets before finally going to the distillery.
Bowmore, owned by Beam Suntory, is one of the less-peated whiskies on the island. This seems like a good time to explain what that means.
When the barley is dried out on Islay, the fire is created by burning peat. That was done historically because it is in plentiful supply there, and it burns well. As a byproduct of that, it also gives the Islay whiskies their distinctive smoky flavor. Not all whiskies produced on Islay, however, are peated. Then again, not all barley used in Islay whiskies is dried on the island. Peat is no longer used for practical reasons when it comes to distilling whisky. At this point, it’s more for flavor than anything else.
Bowmore whisky is peated, but it doesn’t have that much peat that gets absorbed into the barley. Peat content is measured in phenolic parts per million (ppm) and Bowmore’s barley is down around 20. Laphroaig, by comparison, is up near 50.
As I waited for a tour, I saw the same people who had done the Lagavulin tasting with me the day before. This happened quite regularly that I’d see someone I had already met at each stop.
Bowmore is one of the few that malts its own barley, so we started the tour by going to the malting floors. To malt barley, you have to start with a little trickery. The barley is steeped in water to get the grains thinking it’s spring. Then the wet barley is spread out on the malting floors where it will start to dry out. It smells just heavenly down there, and I took a shot at turning the barley myself. This has to be done every 4 hours for just shy of a week to make sure it doesn’t actually germinate while it’s drying, and it is not an easy task at places like this where they still use older, manual techniques.
Our guide clearly had a lot of experience, and she told us plenty of stories. My personal favorite was of the 50+ year-old aged cask that they decided to bottle. There is something that’s commonly called “angel’s share” which is what the angels take from the cask before bottling. Really, it’s evaporation, but it sounds so much more romantic this way.
Bowmore had expected this would give them about 150 bottles of this old whisky, but apparently the angels were thirsty. They only were able to get 12 once they opened it up. The distillery kept two for itself and sold off the rest for over GBP 100,000 each. But did anyone drink it? Our guide did. How was it? Terrible. That’s why you don’t see many whiskies aged too long; it can turn out poorly.
After Bowmore, I had another taxi come since the bus schedule didn’t line up. I was off to the main event, my visit to Laphroaig. Sheena wasn’t working that day, so Charlie picked me up for the drive. Like many on the island, Charlie left Islay when he was young, traveled and worked elsewhere, and then came back later. I met several people who had at some point worked on oil rigs or did something more technical outside of Islay. But then when it came time to raise a family or retire, they came back home. Charlie had retired, but he was bored. So he drove taxis.
The first thing I did when I arrived at Laphroaig was go to visit my plot of land. For those who missed this in an earlier post, once you’ve bought a bottle of Laphroaig, you can join the Friends of Laphroaig where you get a lifetime lease on one square foot of land. Laphroaig pays you rent of one dram of whisky per year, but you have to claim it in person. I’ve been a member for eight years, so I was excited to finally collect rent. (And no, they don’t pay back rent.)
I picked up my dram and then went to put on my boots, grab a US flag, and hike out the five minutes across the road to the land. Unfortunately, the machine that pinpoints your exact square foot was down, so I was told casually to just go and pick a pretty spot, plant my flag, and enjoy. I did.
No doubt my flag lasted for about a day until the rain flooded it out. But hey, I’ll take it.
When I returned, I signed my name in the leaseholder book, and then I was ready for my big tour to begin. I had signed up for the GBP 110 Water to Whisky experience. This one can fill up quickly since no more than 7 can join each day, but I fortunately found a space available.
Jonathan, our guide, took six of us around the distillery first. Laphroaig also has a malting floor like Bowmore — both are owned by Beam Suntory — so this tour wasn’t much different. I did, however, really enjoy visiting the peat fire where they smoke the barley. It’s a cold smoke, so I was able to do this:
My hand smelled so good the rest of the day.
After the tour, we rode up to a spot in the hills and then hiked down toward the river from where Laphroaig gets its water. It was an idyllic spot for a picnic, so we sat down, ate our food, and had a couple of drams along the way. (As you can see in the photos, we were given lanyards to hold our glasses around our necks.) I made fast friends with a couple from Seattle. I had run into them at the bar at the Islay the night before, but this day we had nothing but time to enjoy each other’s company. The other three on the tour were from Alabama but were nearly silent the entire time. That was rather strange since we were on a five-hour tour with them.
During lunch, we learned that the “plot of land” may not just be a brilliant marketing effort. As Jonathan told it, there was a distiller who left Laphroaig and went to Lagavulin. He tried to steal the water source as well. After many court battles, Laphroaig won. As something of a poison pill to anyone else who tried, Laphroaig now leases out those square feet of land to individuals. If anyone wants to get the rights, they’ll have to get signatures from all of the leaseholders as well. Good luck. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s a great story.
Once we finished our lunch, we hiked back and rode toward the airport where Laphroaig has its peat bogs. I was expecting to be able to cut my own peat, but Laphroaig tried that, and it was a mess. People did not leave the area in good condition, so the practice was ended.
Peat, which is really just decomposed organic matter, is fascinating. The whole area where we were was on a peat bed, and it felt like walking on a spongy sport court. There was a spring in my step, and I could feel when others walked. Laphroaig cuts its full peat needs once a year, and this is what all of last year looked like (from my hand to the edge on the left):
It’s not much. Apparently Diageo did a study and said there is something like 20,000 years’ worth of peat left. And peat regenerates.
We made our way by car back to the distillery and we went into one of the warehouses where three casks were lined up for us to taste.
This put enormous pressure on us. We had to taste them all and then pick our favorite to then be bottled for us to take home. There’s no other way to get these whiskies.
We were given the opportunity to use a valinch to draw the whisky out of each cask ourselves. It’s like using a huge straw where you put your finger over the top and then let go so it will drop into your glass.
After much tasting, I settled on cask 101.
At this point, I was downright drunk. Jonathan had been generous with the number of tastings we received. (As in the rest of the UK, however, he couldn’t have a heavy hand. Pours are measured precisely with a mechanism on each bottle. He just poured often.) My new friends and I started to stumble back toward town when we ran into four Austrians on bikes. I had recognized them from the flight over, and we started talking. At one point they told us each to hop on the back of a bike and they’d give us a ride into town. That did not work at all, and we ended up just walking back to town together before going our separate ways.
I was off to have dinner at the Sea Salt in Port Ellen, but I was sad to find that they had just run out of the fresh fish. (I was told the absolute best seafood was at the Lochindaal in Port Charlotte, but that was a 45 minute and GBP 40 ride each way. I was not in the mood for that.) Instead I had a surprisingly large — and delicious — portion of fish and chips which really helped to soak up all that whisky. Meanwhile, my friends from Seattle had shown back up so I had them join me for dinner.
After dinner, we parted, and I walked over to No. 1 Charlotte Street — one of the three bars in town — to have another dram. The place was empty, so I had plenty of time to chat with the bartender. Another person stopped in later, and we all started talking politics. I found most people I met to be firmly pro-“Remain” and were just shaking their heads at the mess that Brexit had become. In fact, the closest I came to finding someone who was happy with the idea of leaving was the local who told me he voted Leave… but he meant he wanted Scotland to leave the UK. A place like Islay is highly dependent upon trade both within the EU and outside. It wasn’t a surprise to me to see the residents wanting to see open trade continue.
At this point, I headed to bed, prepared for my last day on the island.
On the last morning, I again had breakfast downstairs. I had arranged a car to take me around from 9 until the ferry left at 3:30 that afternoon. Sheena arrived right on time, and we were off.
This day was going to be spent on the western part of the island. We started at Kilchoman (kil-CHO-man with a very slight gutteral “ch” sound so that it almost sounded like kil-HO-man), a rare independent distillery. This place calls itself a farm distillery, and it is relatively new, only beginning to distill in 2005. Because it’s new, it is the only one that isn’t located on the water. Back in the day, being on the water was essential for transportation. But now that nearly everything goes by road and ferry, a distillery can be anywhere.
The “farm” part of Kilchoman is something that was acquired recently. They were already growing much of their barley on the island, but now they own the farm. Not all the barley comes from the island, which isn’t a surprise because Islay is not an easy place to grow barley, but they sell a 100% Islay whisky for those who care about that sort of thing.
I tried the 100%, and I didn’t love it. The Machir Bay, however, was my favorite there. That’s one that gets wide release so it can be found in the US relatively easily. I highly recommend finding it. Even though I liked it, I only bought a small bottle. My bags were about to burst, and I wanted to purchase wisely.
Next up was Bruichladdich, a distillery owned by Rémy Cointreau, maker of cognacs and liqueurs. Bruichladdich was one of my favorite visits on the entire island. They put out three brands of whisky, the unpeated Bruichladdich in a bright turquoise blue bottle, the peated Port Charlotte, and the ultra-insane-holy-mother-of-god-peated Octomore. Remember how I said Laphroaig had 50 ppm? Octomores are triple that. It is an odd sensation to feel truly grateful that you just got punched in the face by a spirit.
I was doing a cask tasting that day, and my old friends from Seattle were there once again. Our intrepid guide Frazer took us back into the warehouse and had four casks ready for us to taste. We started with the unpeated and made our way up to the Octomore. In the meantime, he peppered us with history and facts about Bruichladdich. He was also quick with the wit, so it turned into something of a roast after we were each a couple drams in.
Having finished with the tasting, I broke down and bought myself a bottle of Octomore 8.2. It was the priciest bottle I bought while there at GBP 126, but I regret nothing. I’ve already broken it open, and it was well worth it.
It was mid-day at this point, and I’d already had a good amount of whisky, so Sheena started driving us north toward the ferry terminal in Port Askaig. (Port Ellen is also a ferry terminal, but the timing was better from Port Askaig that day.) We stopped at a small coffee shop along the way called Labels to have a sandwich and a drink. That’s where I finally tried my first Irn-Bru, a disgustingly-sweet soft drink that I hope to never have again. That being said, I’m glad I tried it once.
The woman at Labels took good care of us, and when we told her our next stop was Caol Ila, she mentioned her husband Chris was working that day. That didn’t mean anything to me, but Sheena knew her (like almost everyone on the island), so it was just the usual small talk.
We drove up to Caol Ila (pronounced cow-LEE-luh) on the shore just across from the island of Jura. Jura has a distillery of its own, but I wasn’t able to squeeze that in. That island is a mere 5 minute ferry ride across a narrow strait, and both Islay and Jura are under the same governmental unit. I was told Jura is much more wild (naturally and otherwise), and it’s where the hippies and artists go to escape civilization. I’ll have to check it out on my next trip.
Caol Ila is quite possibly the strangest distillery I visited. It, like Lagavulin, is owned by Diageo, but most of its output goes into blended whiskies. You may not think you’ve had it, but if you’ve ever had Johnnie Walker, then you’ve probably had Caol Ila whisky. It’s apparently a highly-automated place with huge capacity, but I didn’t do a tour. Instead I went into the tasting room.
As I walked in and saw his face, I instantly realized that the “Chris” who was married to the owner of Labels was the same Chris who served me at Lagavulin. I guess when you work for Diageo, they’ll put you at either distillery.
Chris remembered me, or at least my face, and started me off with a tasting of a few different whiskies. Then a giant busload of people from Sweden rolled in and he no longer had time to relax with me. I finished drinking, talked to a couple of the Swedes about what I learned was an annual visit to the island, and then went back out. It was time to go to the ferry to begin the very long journey home.
Islay is a special place if you like whisky. There are some other attractions on the island for those who don’t, like the more than one-thousand year-old Kildalton Cross, but it’s hard to imagine justifying the journey to Islay unless you like whisky. For me, it was indeed a worthy pilgrimage. I only missed visiting Bunnahabhain (because of its more remote location), Ardnahoe (because it’s brand new and has no whisky yet), and Jura (because I didn’t go across the strait).
I expect to see changes to this island in the future. As the demand for single malts skyrockets, distillers are starting to see more opportunity. Old distilleries that had closed may be reopened and new distilleries are being planned. I imagine if I return in 20 years, it will be a lot more crowded. Even if that happens, it’s hard to imagine the locals allowing it to lose its charm.