The May bank holiday is behind us and many in Britain have had their first taste of Summer travel, whether it was off to Spain, the South of France or any number of classic destinations, it will surely have whetted the appetite for a summer packed with holidays away. As great as it is to spend a sunny day on the beach with a glass of rosé, some people might enjoy a more remote experience. Swapping the sand for green hills and the rose for a peaty dram; those looking for something a bit out of the ordinary should consider a more northerly heading.
Approaching your destination is like a journey to another world. It’s not mean feat getting here; after the trip to Glasgow, you take a bus along the remote Kintyre peninsula and then a ferry from the port of Kennacraig. The entire journey is beautiful once in the countryside, however the ferry passes some of the legendarily picturesque islands of the Inner Hebrides. Gigha on the port side is tiny but full of turbulent clan history, while off starboard you will see the the dramatic Paps on the Isle of Jura. A noteworthy island in it’s own right, but as the ferry makes it’s final approach into Port Askaig you arrive on the Queen of the Hebrides; Islay>.
Remote as any in these islands is the spiritual home of Single Malt Scotch Whisky. A small spit of land made up of peat bog and barley fields; Islay is a place of pilgrimage for lovers of its unique spirit and legendary reputation. Some will raise an eyebrow as I suggest a remote Scottish island for a summer getaway, but you may be surprised to learn that Islay enjoys a surprising amount of sunshine and fair weather though the summer. Add to that the fact that the sun never seems to set up here and its a wonderful place to enjoy long summer days, delicious food and of course, sublime single malt.
"A small spit of land made up of peat bog and barley fields; Islay is a place of pilgrimage for lovers of its unique spirit and legendary reputation."
The main attractions once you're here are surely the distilleries. The first stop on your tour will surely be the Port Askaig-based Caol Ila. Gaelic for the “Sound of Ila” it looks out across it’s eponymous stretch of water over to Jura. Run by Diageo it’s a well-crafted spirit known for it’s intensely phenolic and peaty style with a distinct character of olive and oilskins. North of Caol Ila is Bunnahabhain (pron. boon-a-have-in), a lightly-peated malt with more deep richness than it’s neighbour.
Travelling west towards the island’s capital of Bowmore is the well-known Bowmore Distillery which produces one of the most balanced and approachable whiskies around. A gateway whisky into the world of peaty malts, this is always a great visit as well.
If you decide to make a jaunt around the northern shore of Loch Indaal you’ll be going out of the way but you’ll be delving into the heartland of Islay’s future. The adventurous team at Bruichladdich (pron. brook-laddie) are known for their experimental, uncompromising bottlings, including the most heavily seated spirit in the world; the cultish Octomore. Strangely this distillery is more known for it’s elegant unseated malt; a more floral coastal approach to Islay. Since being taken over by Cointreau they have expanded their efforts to include a revitalised Port Charlotte distillery.
Further to the northwest is the first new distillery to be built on Islay in over 100 years. Kilchoman, on the shores of Machir Bay is an exciting place to visit. A classic farm distillery, they grow their barley, malt their barley, distill, mature and bottle all on site. Founded only in 2005, the spirit is young but incredibly fresh, vibrant and dynamic. Reminiscent of burned orange peal it is a truly unique malt.
Heading south from Bowmore to the southern shore is where the most iconic distilleries lie. Those that put Islay on the map and made it’s peat-laced style so recogniseable, line the coast to the east of the village of Port Ellen. Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg all have their passionate devotees, while a closed distillery draws arguably the most feverish adoration. Now a malting, The Port Ellen distillery closed in the 80s and the remaining barrels and bottlings are among the most collectible in the world of wine and spirits.
Basing oneself in Port Ellen, this line-up of distilleries is an ideal visit to the island in itself. Crawling from one to another, it is very feasible to even spring for a hired driver so no one in your party needs to abstain. Also, one can travel the other regions of Scotland’s whisky simply by visiting the whisky bar of the Islay Hotel, not to mention sampling the exceptional local seafood at the hotel’s restaurant. Be sure at least once on your trip to try a bit of the local oysters with a splash of Ardbeg 10.
Sadly the trip must come to an end and Port Ellen is a convenient location to take the ferry back to the mainland. Regular CalMac services run to Kennacraig and as you leave the fairytale island that is Islay, you’ll get a last look at the three southern distilleries as you make your way back to reality.