A Whisky-filled week on Islay

Inside Bruichladdich Distillery: Warehouse Whisky Tasting on Islay

Earlier this year we spent one week whisky tasting on Islay. We went there with the aim to visit as many as possible of the nine whisky distilleries scattered around the island and to taste as many of the famous peaty Islay whiskies as possible. With a lot of planning and fretting over bus timetables we made it to eight of the nine in the end, and left out only the Caol Ila Distillery, mainly because we felt it was too “evil-commercial”.

Note: We did not have much prior knowledge of Islay whisky or of whiskies in general – and figured that after this week we would either hate whisky, or have become connoisseurs.

Lagavulin Whisky distillery on Islay

„Indeed, this one is very strong“ – it turns out we have tried the strongest of the Lagavulin whiskies first, a  first-fill bourbon cask special edition. The other two glasses we get to taste in our distillery tour at Lagavulin are almost mild in comparison. But only almost.

Getting around by bus is complicated

Based near the town of Port Ellen, we had a complicated schedule to follow in order to get around by public transport for the whisky tasting on Islay (no way were we going by car and missing out on all the fun of whisky tasting!). Like elsewhere in the British countryside, most buses run only two or three times daily on Islay. In addition, some of the distilleries are not even close to a bus stop. Our choice of tours and tastings in each of the distilleries thus depended mostly on the Islay bus timetable and walking distances. Nevertheless we ended up with a broad mix of standard tours, table tastings, premium and warehouse tastings.

Kildalton Celtic Cross

Our rented hut was situated right next to the Lagavulin distillery. Therefore we could fit in the introductory tour with standard tastings of three whiskies on the arrival day. The next day we hiked to the famous Kildalton Cross, a Celtic cross possibly dating from the 8th century, and on the way back we felt we had earned ourselves the premium table tasting of 5 whiskies at Ardbeg Distillery. After the first sip of the Uigadhal, it takes a moment before the peat tast hits in. But then we feel like we have had some peat for dinner.

Raking malt and sniffing peat

In the Bowmore distillery the next day, we see the peat smoke up close. Bowmore is one of very few whisky distilleries still making their own malt (the grain comes from the Scottish mainland though), and during the tour we can have a try at raking the malt and sniffle into the peat fire with the roasting malt. We also look at the old Porteus mill – the company went bankrupt many years ago after fitting most distilleries on Islay (and beyond) with mills because they wouldn’t break in time to provide more business – and into the traditional wooden washbacks.

Peat burning in a whisky distillery
Barrels at Bowmore distillery

Bowmore’s Vault No. 1 is perhaps the island’s most famous warehouse, below sea level and constantly cool. For tax reasons visitors are not easily allowed inside. The whisky tasting after the tour is quite straightforward: 12 years, 15 years, 18 years.

Later that day, we try another more complicated selection of four old and rare whiskies at the bar of the famous Laphroaig distillery. Sharing a tasting flight between the four of us enables us in the first place to try such a number of whiskies. Occasionally we can even add a glass or two of very special or single cask whiskies – a strategy we replicate at some other tastings.

Whisky tasting at Laphroaig distillery on Islay
Whisky tasting at the Laphroig distillery

The Islay bus challenge!

The next day we have a long bus ride all across Islay and a hike to Bunnahabhain, passing a not-yet-working distillery, Ardnahoe, on the way. They do have a nice shop though and we end up with lilac Ardnahoe T-Shirts and Haggis chocolate.

After a quick distillery tour of Bunnahabhain and a premium whisky tasting involving six glasses each, walking back might have been a good idea. But then we would have missed the only bus back, so someone from the distillery gave us a lift to the bus stop. We liked the Bunnahabhain distillery most – the whiskies are not too peaty (some have no peat at all) and especially their 18 year-old is great value for money. And, we were particularly smitten by their Amontillado. It is a whisky that has aged for a certain time in a former sherry barrel and taken up some of the sherry aromes.

Travellers at a whisky tasting at Bunnahabhain distillery
Premium Tasting in the Bunnahabain Whisky Distillery

The bus challenge continues on the next day. We have booked the warehouse tour at the Bruichladdich Distillery.

Barrels outside the Bruichladdich Distillery

Three well-filled glasses of different old and mostly peaty single cask whiskies in a cool storehouse. Although we get small tasting bottles to take home that part of the whisky we can’t drink, the fresh air outside is rather a shock. Thus, we need a while to brave the 2-hour walk to the Kilchoman distillery in the west of the island … By the time we arrive there, we have missed all the tours. Instead we settle for a tasting of another four whiskies in the Kilchoman bar.

 Islay Kilchoman Distillery

The effects of Whisky-tasting on Islay

After five days of intensive whisky tasting on Islay we feel that our whisky preferences veered a little bit out of our budget. But visiting distilleries, learning about whisky and whisky history on Islay, drinking more whisky in the evening and having discussions about the tours and whiskies tasting was great fun.

Islay Whiskies tasted

Lagavulin: Limited edition 8 Years, a double matured sherry cask, and natural cask strength first-fill bourbon cask

Ardbeg: 10 Years; Uigadhal; Perpetuum; 22 Years; 23 Years

Bowmore: 12 Years, 15 Years, 18 Years

Laphroaig: An Cuan Mor; 25 Years; Cairdeas Origin; 2007 Bourbon Single Cask

Bunnahabhain: 18 Years; 25 Years; Amontillado (the best of all!); Toiteach A Dhá; 14 Year old Moine PX Finish Single Cask;  14 Year old Moine PX Noe

Bruichladdich: 1992 Single Cask; 2004 Porte Charlotte single cask; Octomore 6.3, 2009

Kilchoman: 100% Islay; Machir Bay; Sauternes

Whisky tasting on Islay – How to get around without a car

There’s not quite a network of bus routes, but there are several bus routes on the island of Islay. We found the timetable at https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/sites/default/files/islay_450-451_timetable_3.pdf (and if that link is broken they should be listed here: https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/timetable/bus).

From our base in Lagavulin we could walk to 3 distilleries (Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg). There was also a direct bus to Bowmore. Three more whisky distilleries (Bunnahabhain, Ardnahoe and Caol Ila) are located within (reasonable) walking distance from Port Askaig on the other end of the line. Finally there’s another branch line passing Bruichladdich. And from there it was a two-hour walk to Kilchoman (no bus passing near the distillery). We wouldn’t have made it for the return bus and shared a taxi (50 £). There are about half a dozen taxis companies on Islay. It is wise to book ahead, not least because mobile phone coverage is patchy outside the villages.

View towards Lagavulin distillery
View from the Tin House towards Lagavulin Whisky Distillery

We stayed at the Tin House Holiday Cottage by Islay pods.

Note: We were not sponsored in any way for this trip. Also, we do not get any commissions from the above companies and distilleries. The whole trip was paid and planned by ourselves and our friends we went together with. Danke an Martina!

Interested in Whisky? See also our posts on the Japanese Whisky distilleries of Suntory and Nikka and to the Glengoyne Whisky Distillery in Scotland.

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  1. I loved your line,”After five days of intensive whisky tasting on Islay we feel that our whisky preferences veered a little bit out of our budget.” Isn’t that always the case?! 🙂

  2. Although I’m not a whiskey drinker, I would love to tour one. Maybe do a small tasting and who knows, I might be a convert yet! Hopefully I don’t fall for the most expensive ones too!

  3. Wow this is such an awesome tour for all the whiskey drinkers. I love the way you have mentioned the whiskeys tasted along with their age. I am not a whiskey drinker but my friends absolutely love them. Will let them know about the whiskey tasting tour in Islay. Even though I do not enjoy whiskey, I also wouldn’t mind visiting the distilleries and learning about it.

    1. Dear Raksha, please note that it was not a organized tour. I think there are some tour operators but theses tours are very expensive. And you cannot choose what tour you are going to do in the distilleries. In my opinion it is better to organzize everything by yourself.

  4. I have done whisky tasting in very sanitised surroundings, mostly hotels and events. But the distillery exploration is an awesome experience and you make it sound so enticing also. I wish to taste whisky in the real place. Am sure the ambience is as intoxicating as the drink itself!

    1. That was a nice post on whiskey tasting tour. I loved the way you described the whiskey aging stages over the years and the way it tasted.
      Thank you for sharing

  5. Sorry that public transportation issues made it hard to meet your itinerary, but I still would have thoroughly enjoyed the hiking and views that you had along the way. Not an alcohol drinker myself, but Islay looks to be an a quaint place to hang out!

    1. Dear Tami, actually it was more a challenge than a burden! And we knew that it was possible to get around by public tranport! And last but not least we set up the itinarary by ourselves. Islay is a nice place for hiking too – but if you are not interested in the whisky at all, there are nicer places in Scotland for hiking.

  6. I love whisky so this would be a tour for me. I don’t really know anything about how it is made so it would be very informative. Great that you included tips for how to get around them all without a car which can be difficult in the UK.

    1. I think if you love whisky, visiting some of the distilleries on Islay is a must! We met a lot of whisky fans from around the world. It was fun discussing whiskies with them. There is also a whisky festival every year.

  7. Wow this would be such an awesome tour for me being a passionate whiskey drinker. The way you have mentioned the whiskeys and their age makes it interesting and easy to understand. Would love to do this tour sometime for sure.

  8. I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard much about Islay before this, but this makes me want to do some research. I do love whisky, so I would enjoy this. That’s unfortunate that the buses aren’t great, but I suppose that’s part of it being an island.

    1. Dear Nina, if you love whisky, Islay is great. The distilleries on Islay are famous for the peaty whiskies, but they also have other very tasty ones.

  9. I don’t drink whisky, but sounds like this is a fun tour to do for whisky drinkers. I can’t imagine how you can taste the differences between one distillery to another within 5 intensive days tour. I hope they will fix the bus route though, so people can get off and get on easily at every distillery.

    1. Dear Umiko, I fear there is not much hope for improvement on the bus routes. After all, the locals will go by car and the buses DO run, although very rarely on some routes. It just takes a bit more planning….

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