Flying on a small plane across the country of Scotland to the Inner Hebrides islands was a thrill. It was early in the morning but the day looked like it was going to be beautiful and we were excited to visit the isle where some of the world’s finest whisky is distilled.
Since this was to be a day trip for us we elected to take the roughly 45 minute flight rather than drive.We flew on Flybe which has direct flights from Glasgow to Islay daily. Driving would have taken close to six hours, and included a ride on the Hebridean & Clyde Ferry, if you plan to stay for a few days on Islay, driving would be a great way to see the western part of Scotland. But for our family this was a day trip so the quick flight was worth the fare.
The Island of Islay (Pronounced “Eye-la”) “Queen of the Hebrides” is an area 25 miles long and only about 15 miles wide. It has a population of about 3200 people, and lies 25 miles north of Ireland. For an excellent tool to find all things interesting on the island, I would recommend, “Welcome to Islay Info” page.
Islay is known for two things, its ancient history of Norse and Gaelic, and its Whisky. I was here for the former, the rest of the lot was here for the latter.
SIDE NOTE: It is highly recommended that you either have a designated driver or you hire a local taxi service for your whisky adventure. We elected to hire, believing that our driver would know of interesting and off the beaten trail type places on the island. We reserved with Bruichladdich Taxis, in all honesty because I liked the jaunty red vans that were pictured on their webpage. However there are multiple services on the island. The price for a full day of driving five Americans around? $200 at the time of our trip. Well worth it in my opinion.
We disembarked at the miniature Islay Airport, and met our driver for the day, Andrew. A distinguished gentlemen of a quiet nature. He was a Botanist by education and had lived most of his life on the island. Because it was too early to imbibe in the present day spirits, we settled on spirits of a different nature. Happy to indulge mom, Mike and the kids had no opposition to visiting the Kildalton Cross and Chapel, although I am sure they were starting to wonder about my desire to visit Scottish cemeteries.
The Kildalton Cross is said to date back to the 8th century and the church probably from the 12th or 13th century. A single slab of local epidiorite stone was used to create the cross and it is one of the oldest Christian crosses in Scotland. The carved images of Cain and Abel, David and the lion, and Jesus with his mother, Mary, are faint, but still distinguishable. The names of the people buried in the kirkyard have long since been lost to time, but their resilient lives live on in this mysterious place.
Wandering the grounds for awhile, we really got the feel for how ancient the history is in the British Isles. We often don’t feel that sense of antiquity in the United States where most of the American/European story doesn’t start until the 17th century, so this was a remarkable treat for a history buff like me.
A bit peckish, because we had all been up for several hours at this point, we piled back into the little red van and our driver headed toward our first distillery of the day, but not for the kind of drink you’re thinking of, we were going in for Scottish pastries and hot coffee. Along the way we enjoyed the unruly natural landscape, and waved to a few of the locals as they were passing by.
We jumped out of the van snapping pictures as we filed into the Old Kiln Cafe at the Ardbeg Distillery. This distillery was founded in 1815 and has twice been resurrected from death to become one of Scotland’s most prestigious distilleries. Besides the lovely cafe, they boast a charming Seaview Cottage that you can rent if you plan to stay on the island.
The clouds were creeping in, adding a washed out look to the sky so I absolutely loved all of the photos attached to the pristine whitewashed walls of the distillery; they added a bright touch against the backdrop of such a drab morning.
SIDE NOTE: In a bit of interesting history, it is thought that when the sisters, Margaret and Flora Macdougall co-managed the distillery in 1853 they may have become Scotland’s first female distillers.
We had invited Andrew to dine with us but he politely declined, something he would do for the rest of the day out of professionalism. We caught up with him after our short coffee break and asked him where he thought we should go next since it was still just a tad too early for whisky tasting. Knowing just the right spot, he zipped us off on a short adventure. Navigating the narrow back roads we gamely allowed Andrew to take us to a “secret” spot for iconic views of the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle.
The castle, the ruins of which are thought to be built on top of an ancient Iron Age fort (Iron Age being from 6th to 8th centuries) was once the military sentinel for the ships of the MacDonald Lords who anchored in Lagavulin Bay. In the 15th and 16th century the castle changed hands frequently as the never ending battle for control of the isles caused it to pass between the MacDonalds, the Maclans, and the Campbells. The Campbells held the castle until it was abandoned in 1677.
Taking advantage of the view from the crumbling remains of the castle we paused to take photos of the sweeping vistas around us. What we did not know until our tour of Lagavulin later in the day, was that the field that we were traipsing through was the only spot that you could get one of the most iconic photos of Islay. Thankfully, we found the setting so picturesque that we snapped quite a few photos without knowing this fact.
As the morning turned into mid-day we deemed it appropriate to start sampling whisky.
*A quick disclaimer, I will not be giving my opinion on the whisky. I am not educated on such things, and I believe everyone’s palate is unique. Of course my recommendation would be for you to purchase Scotch whisky and find your own favorites.
I did actually participate in most of the tastings, even though all whisky taste the same to me; fiery and smoky and belly warming, but I still wanted to be a part of the experience. Coming to Islay to taste Scotch is something people dream of and even I was not about to deny myself the experience.
As of this posting there are currently eight distilleries on Islay. We were not going to visit all of them but we were going to visit as many as possible. Our daughter had a “must visit” list and had her favorites ranked. Armed with this knowledge, Andrew set out toward the farthest one on her list. Bruichladdich. (Which I didn’t realize until just now is the same name as our taxi service.) As we trekked toward the other side of the island, we took in magnificent, sweeping, rugged landscape.
SIDE NOTE: You may have noticed that I am spelling “whiskey” without the “E.” Because I am discussing Scottish whisky in this blog post I will use the Scottish spelling of the word vs the Irish and American spelling of the word which adds the “E”.
Also, people often wonder about the term “Scotch,” It is whisky, but only whisky distilled in Scotland can be called “Scotch.”
Prior to arriving at Bruichladdich I did a little internet search about the history of this particular distillery. It helped me to understand why my daughter wanted to visit. The distillers here seem to be a bit rogue, proudly claiming that they are, “Non conformist,” their website reads poetically and I found myself drawn into the romance of their product and innovation. According to their website when the distillery was built in 1881 it did not dry it’s malt using peat. Peat, that rich loamy bog dirt most synonymous with the British Isles, being what most Scotch whisky connoisseurs believe to be the secret ingredient to great Scotch. If you prefer a peated whisky choose wisely at Bruichladdich, some of their whisky is peated but their signature Bruichladdich whisky is not.
TIP: Samples at the distilleries were free, yes Americans I did say FREE, and the pours are generous. The knowledge of the hosts serving the whisky was boundless. Do take advantage of their vast knowledge and ask questions as you sample, especially if you do not plan to take a tour of their operation, or plan to purchase. This is often their life’s work and they are immensely proud of their products.
We sampled the different varieties of Bruichladdich Scotch and poked around their store for a bit but we decided against a tour of the distillery. We had a lot of ground to cover and needed to stay focused. Satisfied with the first stop, the family jumped back into the van excited for the next stop. However, just a short distance down the road I begged Andrew to pull over so that we could take a few pictures of the dramatic scenery and a sweet little village.
Stomping around in the salty air and heathered landscape makes one work up an appetite, so during the short scenic stop we realised that we were all a wee bit famished. The decision was made that we would break for lunch prior to visiting any more distilleries. Nipping “tangry” (Tipsy-angry-hungry) in the bud before anyone melted down became priority number one since our family has quite the reputation for hungry-tired meltdowns.
Andrew, not the sort to ruffle easily it would appear, didn’t mind the change in itinerary and exclaimed that he knew the perfect place for lunch; and so off we travelled to the scenic seaside town of Bowmore in the heart of Islay.
We dined at a local restaurant called The Harbour Inn, which overlooked the calm shallow waters of Loch Indaal. Enjoying our lunch of fresh caught fish, burgers and sandwiches we were well fortified for the rest of the day.
Fending off yet another offer to feed him, Andrew told us he would have his lunch in the van. Wanting to allow him a short respite, we spent a little time walking around this capital city of Islay.
We did not visit the Bowmore Distillery, established in 1779 and is the “World’s oldest Scotch maturation warehouse.”
But there is a very pretty harbour here and an amazing round church, made round, “So that the Devil has no place to hide“.
You could easily spend a few days here; and there appeared to be many quaint bed and breakfast operations as well as a few small charming hotels to accommodate if you do.
Bolstered up with hearty food, we met Andrew at the van and off we journeyed to the next distillery on our daughter’s agenda, Laphroaig on the southern part of the island.
I have to say, I adored this distillery. Snugged up on the point of Loch Laphroaig, it was tranquil and charming. While Mike and the kids waited their turn to taste the whisky, we all educated ourselves on the history of Laphroaig in their in house museum and visitor’s center. Built in 1815, and owned by one family for 139 of its 201 years; they had just celebrated their 200th anniversary the year before. A celebration which was highlighted by a visit from HRH Prince Charles (Known as the Duke of Rothesay in Scotland). A visit he has actually made two times in the past.
This distillery bills itself as having the “World’s richest single malt Scotch” but I wouldn’t know the difference and so did not partake in the tasting here. Instead I availed myself of the well maintained grounds for a little quiet. It was a sweet place to relax and reflect, but while thoughts of calm waters, light breezes, and floral smells intoxicated me, others had much different reactions to their particular intoxications.
At Laphroaig they have the most hilarious opinion wall that is covered in tiles and has incredibly inventive descriptives from whisky soaked visitors from across the globe. When the rest of the family filed out they found me laughing out loud at some of the more creative opinions on the wall.
Just like a fine whisky, a whisky tour takes time and as the day was quickly progressing and we only had time for one final stop.
Lagavulin (Pronounced: La-ga-voo-lin) was the pinnacle of the tour for our daughter. Built in 1816 on the coast of the bay with the same name, it is arguably one of the most famous distilleries on Islay, as any Ron Swanson fan will ken.
The weather had turned for the better and it was magical as we pulled up to the bonny distillery with its distinctive red smokestack. The origins of this distillery are a bit convoluted. With illicit distilling taking place on the site as far back as 1742. Apparently there were as many as four distilleries clustered together on this site during the 1800’s before Lagavulin took control in 1816.
We spent a considerable amount of time here, touring the distillery (We complied with the “No photos” rule during our tour, however there are plenty of pictures online from others that did not) and mulling the different flavors of the unique whisky.
I enjoyed this blog for detailed information on the distilling process at Lagavulin. The cost of the tour was 6£ and took about an hour. We were shown the distilling process from start to finish and the tour included a commemorative glass. After the tour we spent a little time walking around the grounds and staring wistfully out onto the pretty bay. However, the day was slowly slipping away.
Warmed by the Scottish sun and the Islay whisky, we took a few last photos of our tranquil surroundings and with one last look around, we realized we had experienced just about the most perfect day.
With kind regards and well wishes for a safe journey, Andrew returned us to the airport with plenty of time to catch our plane back to Glasgow. Peering out of the plane’s windows as the island receded below, we knew we had captured a moment in time that none of us would soon forget.