Islay: Wart, Washbacks & Whisky

Islay (pronounced eeye-laa) is a beautiful place that I’ve wanted to visit for some time now, purely to sample the deliciously peated single malt whisky that they are world renowned for creating and to see some of the wonderful wildlife. We decided to take bicycles for the trip so we would be free to sample as many of these golden droplets of paradise we could, and this we did!

I’ve decided to blog about this trip and to discuss each distillery individually as they all have their own characteristics and deserve to be mentioned separately.

Day One
We arrived in Port Askaig (the only port in operation due to ongoing work at Port Ellen) aboard the Calmac ship “Lord of the Isles”. It was a peaceful 2 hour crossing from Kennacraig where we abandoned the car and took the fully loaded mountain bikes armed with bulldozia‘s panniers and camping equipment.

It was a few hours cycle to Kintra Farm / Port Ellen where we planned to eat and camp for the night, we stopped briefly in Bridgend to enjoy a beautiful pint of summer cider on such a scorching sunny day. This was proving to be a great trip already as we were ushered into a country garden by the helpful staff at the Bridgend Hotel.

Arriving at Kintra Farm was a hilarious experience, we stopped at the Machrie Golf Course (currently in administration) and Ian (manager) advised us to cross the golf course on the bikes and head along the length of the white sandy beach to the farm. This we did – feeling the whole ordeal was completely wrong and very difficult cycling, particularly the part crossing the stream pouring into the sea. However we spent the first (sleepless & windy) night on the farm site and had dinner in the White Hart Hotel in Port Ellen.

Day Two
Woke up, tired and hungry. We had to make our way to our first of the whisky tours which happened to be Lagavulin which lies on the far south coast of the Island, and is pleasantly situated between Ardbeg & Laphroiag. This was quite a difficult cycle as it was straight into an oncoming wind and was quite hilly at parts. Though stopping only for a quick roll and coffee on route we made it.

A beautiful looking distillery with ornate pagodas and a running stream / waterfall by the entrance. The shop is surprisingly small with only a few products and selected whiskies. A well designed lounge area for sampling the after-tour dram with antique furniture and low lighting.

Paul, our guide was exceptional. He had a passion for not only whisky & Islay but was very fun, informative and clearly loved Lagavulin and everything it stood for. He was honest about his favourite dram and was happy to tell us about his family who were always a part of the Lagavulin way of life through their working lives.

We toured the distillery and enjoyed a very fine selection of whiskies on return to the visitor centre, I really enjoyed the Distillery only expression which was very strong and just what I needed at 11:00am in the morning to get my legs up the next hill to Ardbeg.

Iconic pagodas with an amazing sea view over rocky shores. The visitor centre in Ardbeg houses probably the best food on the Island, even if you don’t like the whisky in Ardbeg, you will love the food they serve, I had some Salmon Chowder that was quite honestly mind-blowing, although that could also be said about the whisky I was about to enjoy too. We had a great tour round Ardbeg, it was a touching story with quite a difficult history which our guide was very good at telling the heart-felt story of the closure of the distillery and the resurgence and re-opening. It was encouraging to hear the words “You are the future of modern whisky making – its up to you to drink more of it”.

After the tour we made our way into the shop area to sample the Ardbeg Supernova – which was positively the most lethal thing that has passed my lips in my 29 years. I could feel my brain burning just nosing it. Also we sampled the lighter malt called Blasda which was very tame for an Ardbeg whisky.

It was time for dinner, so we cycled (mostly downhill this time) back to Port Ellen where we spent the night in the garden area which was pretty much a car park made of grass in front of the White Hart Hotel – A huge thank you for Ian (the hotel / bar manager) for allowing us to throw the tent up there for the night.

Day Three
I was pretty excited as today we were going to see some floor maltings – a process where the malt is dried on a large floor in 7 ton batches using peat smoke and this process is pretty much what defines each malt (well among other important things such as cask, water, peat, time, temperature, mould, superstition, camera flash. . and on and on…)

So we made our way to Laphroaig.

The king of malts and now my favourite distillery. The tour was fantastic, we could take photographs, it was informative and light-hearted and also the floor maltings were every bit as good as I thought they would be. It was 10am that the tour began which meant we were drinking the cask strength 10 yr old by 11am – If you have tried Laphroaig you will know what I mean by this being relatively early to be having this without watering it down (even slightly).

We also had the chance in Laphroaig to try the raw spirit without going though the process of maturation, it was as strong as you’d expect. Its amazing what 10 years will do in a cool, dark and mouldy warehouse will do to a barrel of spirit.

We were faced with quite a journey now up to the second of our floor malting tours for the day, and this proved to be the most difficult cycle of all. Even though the sun was shining, the westerly wind that crossed the trip up the high road from Port Ellen to Bowmore was terrifying. We were blowing across the road on the way up and the only thing holding up to the road and upright was simply the weight of the gear on our bikes. Had we been without any panniers or weight we would have fallen off the bikes quite a few times. The decent into Bowmore past the round Church on the top of the hill was a delight.

Our 3pm tour of Bowmore was another great trip. A more expensive looking distillery with a more executive feel about it, difficult to explain but it felt more modern and more ‘posh’. A great tour with a view into the process and a sneak view through the glass into one of the warehouses. My favourite sampling bar was the Bowmore, it was laid out perfectly with generous measures of whisky and an exceptional view over the water to Bruichladdich.

We camped around the corner from the distillery on the edge of the beach, had a great little fire and enjoyed some laphroaig watching the sun die into the sea, bliss!

Day Four
This was to be a day off for us, no distilleries, little amount of cycling and hopefully some nice views. We headed to Port Charlotte (passing Bruichladdich). It was a great cycle along the coast of a wonderful beach and relatively flat and easy for us both. Arriving at Port Mór campsite was delightful, the people and amenities were great and we pitched up and went out for a walk past the light house to Bruichladdich village. We were out most of the day and managed to sample the coffee in Debbies’ that everyone talks about, I never saw the appeal to be honest but I was glad she did cash back so we could eat!

We had dinner in the amazing “Croft Kitchen” where the staff deserve a medal, for the apple crumble along but especially for their service and eagerness to please customers and deliver great food.

Had a dram in a nearby (crazy) bar called the Loch Indaal Inn and went to bed.

Day Five
Our final day on Islay. We had two tours booked and the first was at 11:30 in Bruichladdich, so off we went.

After reading the beautiful resurrection story about this distillery in “Peat, Smoke and Spirit” I was keen to visit, if you haven’t read this book or even this story, I strongly suggest that you do. The colour and branding of this whisky is the strongest on Islay. The eye-catching turquoise and white wash that is painted everywhere in the same way as many mediterrainian villages reminds you that you are near the sea.

Sean, our guide was great. He was young but had a good enough knowledge to take you through the process. We managed to see the mill working in this distillery which we hadn’t seen yet, it was also a manual mill so it was especially exciting to hear the wall shaking noise that it produces. We also got a tour of the warehouse in Bruichladdich which was the first on the Island to allow us this exceptional pleasure, and a pleasure it was. We loved the distillery at Bruichladdich and the visitor centre / shop was very well stocked and beautifully laid out. Bruichladdich is also the only distillery on the Island that bottles its own whisky on the premises.

We were on our way home now but we had one more place to visit and it was near the ferry at Port Askaig. It was the second of the Diageo distilleries.

Caol Ila
This distillery was everything I expected, its the sister distillery of Lagavulin but had less character. It was run like a factory and really only works to provide whisky for blended whisky (predominatly Johnnie Walker) 95% of the spirit created here goes to blends which leaves only 5% for single malt. The single malt was good, we tried the cask strength malt after the tour and it was good with a dash of water. The shop was tiny and to be honest the tour felt much ‘colder & formal’ than the rest.

We left and pushed our now heavy bikes (containing a nice bottle of Laphroaig 10 year old cask strength (batch 002) & Bruichladdich Waves) up the hill and down to the ferry.

Lastly, the photographs you can see here are all taken with an apple iphone 4 and processed using the free app “Instagram” however there are more photographs of the trip here

Here is our route:

If you haven’t been to Islay, DO IT!