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.
„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, and 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, but we ended up with a broad mix of standard tours, table tastings, premium and warehouse tastings.
Our rented hut was situated right next to the Lagavulin distillery, and 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 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.
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 adding a glass or two of very special or single cask whiskies – a strategy we replicate at some other tastings.
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 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.
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 and 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 and settle for a tasting of another four whiskies in the Kilchoman bar.
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) and take 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 and it is wise to book ahead, not least because mobile phone coverage is patchy outside the villages.
We stayed at the Tin House Holiday Cottage by Islay pods.
Note: We were not sponsored in any way for this trip and 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!