Scotland: Islay Whisky

In planning our 2015 trip to Scotland, we reluctantly cut Islay from our itinerary. Friends had enthusiastically recommended a visit, but we could not make it work with our schedule. We pledged, however, to visit on a future trip, and made it a priority when planning our 2019 visit.

We allocated three days (& three nights) to Islay. This gave us time to explore the island’s beaches and visit several of our favorite distilleries for in depth tours and tastings.

In May 2019, we spent a week in Scotland. We divided our time between hiking in the northwest Highlands and tasting whisky and otherwise exploring Islay. This post covers our time on Islay; you can also read an overview of planning our week in Scotland.

Loch Maree to Islay Wednesday

We found the drive from Talladale to Kennacraig, where we would take the ferry to Islay, difficult to plan. Apple Maps predicted the drive would take 7 hours; Google Maps predicted it would take around 5 hours. The route passed many beautiful areas and potential detours, but our 5:30pm ferry check-in time limited our opportunities to explore.

We made our first stop just a few minutes after leaving the Loch Maree Hotel, at the Coille na Glas-Leitir carpark on the shore of Loch Maree. This carpark is also signed as Beinn Eighe trails, and the Mountain Trail that leaves from there looks like a particularly nice moderate hike.  We walked the shore briefly for last views of the loch. As we got back in the car, a ranger — and his adorable dog — were preparing to lead a nature walk.

From there, we drove to Strome Castle, a ruined castle on the shores of Loch Carron. The castle dates from the 14th or 15th century and was eventually besieged and blown up in 1602. While there is little left of the castle today, we enjoyed our short stop at the castle and its beautiful setting, a rocky promontory above the loch.

We then backtracked slightly, stopping briefly in the village of Lochcarron. Eventually reaching the other side of Loch Carron, we stopped at a viewpoint where we could see back to the castle and village. Our route continued down to a junction with A87. A right turn would take us to the bridge to Skye. As much as we wanted to return, that was not the plan for this trip.

Instead, we turned left. This brought us to Eilean Donan Castle. We had visited and taken a tour on our previous trip, on a grey, moody day. While we didn’t feel a need to repeat the tour, the castle looked completely different under a bright, blue sky, and so we stopped in the car park to enjoy the view and have a snack.

From there, we continued our drive through Fort William, pausing a couple of times to admire Ben Nevis and to experience a moment of jealousy over the hikers summiting on such a beautiful day. Further south, we pulled into the Castle Stalker View Café for macchiatos, a break from driving, and a view of the 14th century castle on its tidal islet.

We filled up on gas just north of Oban and passed through town, getting out briefly to stretch our legs and wax nostalgic about our previous visit. We could have taken the ferry from Oban to Port Askaig on Islay. That would have saved us about an hour and a half of driving, but it would have then been a longer drive on Islay and we would have been late to check in to our bed and breakfast.

Instead, we had booked from Kennacraig. I found the drive from Oban to Kennacraig beautiful, especially the stretch along Loch Fyne. Along the way, we stopped at Carnasserie Castle, near Kilmartin. Our visit was short and involved some light running from the ruins of the 16th century tower house back to the parking lot so that we would be sure to make our ferry. I wished we had more time to explore the area, but as it was, we reached the ferry terminal just 5 minutes before check in officially closed.

Ferry to Islay

The ferry, the M/V Finlaggan (built 2010), impressed us. When we boarded, we drove onto a ramp, which was then raised to become a mezzanine deck that more cars parked under. The interior seemed more cruise ship (I’ve never been on one) than ferry. We ate a good dinner from the ferry’s cafeteria — chicken tikka for Kyle, a burger for me — and settled in to watch the landscape.

Part way into the journey, the southern coast of Islay slid into view. So did its distilleries: first Ardbeg, then Lagavulin, and finally Laphroaig. I sent a photo to friends who had given us advice about Islay, and they responded, “let us know when you can smell Port Ellen.” Shortly after, we could both see and smell Port Ellen’s malting operation, which supplies many of the distilleries on Islay. It heightened our anticipation for the next few days.

Dunyvaig Castle

We soon docked in Port Ellen and disembarked. We didn’t get far before pulling over to take a look at the beach in Port Ellen. With limited time until our BNB check-in closed, we only stopped briefly. Just a few minutes further up the road, we reached the Lagavulin Old Excise House (Booking.com | TripAdvisor). The tax officers assigned to Lagavulin used to live here, but now it’s a beautiful bed and breakfast.

As we pulled in, more than a dozen lambs were running back and forth along a nearby rocky outcropping, playing. We watched for a moment and then checked in. Claire welcomed us and got us oriented.

To take advantage of the remaining light, we left our belongings in the room and went back outside. We watched the sheep for a little and then headed to Lagavulin’s grounds. Most of the property was closed off for the evening.

After a brief look around, we walked to Dunyvaig Castle, on a point at the end of Lagavulin Bay. The castle ruins mostly date from the 16th century, with smaller remnants from the 13th and 15th centuries. The ruins combined with wildflowers, the fading light, the bay, seals and herons, and the distillery to create a beautiful evening. We wandered the ruins and the shoreline before turning back to the bed and breakfast.

Lagavulin & Laphroaig Thursday

In the morning, we enjoyed a more leisurely breakfast than our previous days. It was also delicious, including the best black pudding I’ve had yet.

Lagavulin

After breakfast, we only had to cross the street to reach our first destination, Lagavulin. We started with their standard distillery tour (£8 per person). Kyle had last toured a distillery four years earlier, and I had last toured on a bit more than year earlier. By starting with a tour, we could reorient ourselves to the process.

We had a small group and a beautiful morning, which made for a good tour. The tour included a dram of our choice. Kyle and I each selected the 2017 Distillery Exclusive (16 years, double matured in Moscatel oak), something we would not be able to get elsewhere. We both liked it. It was complex and rich, as we’d expect for Lagavulin, but with some sweeter and fruiter notes than their standard 16 year old.

From Lagavulin, we walked down the road about 20 minutes to Laphroaig. For most of this stretch, the path is separated from the road by a wall.

Laphroaig Water to Whisky Tour

At Laphroaig, we checked in for our tour. We had arrived a bit early, and so they encouraged us to visit the bar for a complimentary dram (the Three Wood, good but not my favorite of theirs), coffee, tea, and biscuits.

Soon, our guide, Linda, introduced herself to the group and started the tour. We had signed up for the Water to Whisky Experience on the advice of our friends, who said it was their best day in Islay. Laphroaig is one of the only distilleries to still operate its own malting floor, so it seemed like the right place for an in-depth tour. It also helped that they produce some of our favorite whiskies.

We began with the malting floor, where the barley was laid out to be smoked. I was particularly interested in the snow plows they had repurposed to turn barley. We got to try too, but with a shovel.

From there, the tour continued to the mill and then onto the peat kiln. It’s one thing to know that peat burns cool, but another to put peat on the fire and feel how little heat the fire puts off. After that, it was on to the mash tuns and the wash backs. We got to taste at each stage, and we also got to taste some new-make at the spirit safe after visiting the stills. Along the way, we learned that a swan named Gary returns each year, perhaps drawn by Laphroaig’s waste water.

We then picked up our lunches and set out for the reservoir by van followed by a 10 minute walk. Lunch included tomato soup, a haggis bon-bon, cheese made with Laphroaig, and three delicious wraps — venison, salmon, and crab. Linda brought a pipet and encouraged us to inject a bit of whisky into our haggis bonbons. I did, but I added too much as it exploded when I bit into it.

To accompany lunch, we had a dram of the 2018 release of their 10 year at cask strength, followed by a dram of the the 2010 Càirdeas Master Edition, combining whiskies aged 11 & 19 years. The Laphroaig 10 is exactly the goodness that people who like Laphroaig would expect. The Càirdeas was a surprisingly balanced whisky, with a bit of a fruitier taste accompanied by cloves, the sea, and smoke, and a long, warm finish.

We returned to the van and drove to Laphroaig’s peat banks, near Islay’s airport. Visitors on this tour used to be able to cut peat. Apparently they did too poor of a job and so this is now a looking rather than participatory experience. With only seven or so generations of Islay peat left, I am good with not wasting any of it. At the peat banks, we had a dram of the Quarter Cask and one of the Lore. Both are good whiskies, but I don’t actually prefer either over their 10 year.

After the peat banks, we returned to the distillery for the warehouse part of the tour. Three casks had been set out for us to taste:

  • Cask 65. Matured in Warehouse 10, filled in a bourbon cask in 2004 and then further matured in a quarter cask (which speeds up the aging because of more surface area per volume) since 2012.
  • Cask 3486. Filled in a bourbon cask in 2009, matured in Dunnage Warehouse 1. This one was reminiscent of their core series 10 year.
  • Cask 101. Filled in quarter casks in 2004, then matured in Amontillado (a sherry) since 2012.

Each had fantastic character — everything we love about Laphroaig, but each with its own twist. To close the tour, we each got to fill a 250ml bottle to bring home. Kyle selected cask 65; I selected cask 101. This part of the tour emphasized the warehouse as a library, with each cask aging differently, waiting to be experienced on its own or combined with others.

As we left, we were offered one last dram. We sat outside to drink it before leisurely walking back to the bed and breakfast.

Dinner at Katie’s Bar, Brigend Hotel

Before heading to dinner, we napped and watched sheep for while. We had made a reservation at Katie’s Bar, at the Brigend Hotel. We had langoustine tails — finally! — for a starter. To our surprise, they were smaller tails, but plentiful and delicious. For mains, Kyle had a lamb burger and I had a salmon salad; both were tasty. Service was the low point of the visit — pacing was overall slow and various items got forgotten — but they did, without prompting, take a couple of items off the bill to make up for it.

Bruichladdich, Northern & Western Coasts, and Port Charlotte Friday

After another great breakfast, we set out for Bruichladdich. Along the way, we stopped in Bowmore to walk around the distillery there. We also walked the beach and looked at Kilarrow Church.

Bruichladdich

At Bruichladdich, we checked in for our warehouse experience. The warehouse experience includes tastings of three different casks.

  • 1992 Bruichladdich cask, all bourbon-aged. This cask dates from before the six years of Bruichladdich’s closure (1994-2000). Still in its original first-fill bourbon cask, it’s now 26 years old. The whisky was good, with some extra hints of fruit and maybe a bit sweeter than the classic laddie.
  • A Port Charlotte filled in 2004. Bruichladdich’s heavily-peated Port Charlotte (40 phenol ppm), then finished in a white dessert wine cask. It was rich and smoky but the double maturation had given it floral, sweet elements. Excellent.
  • An Octomore 6.3 remnant. The Octomore 6.3 was released in 2014 (aged five years) and incredibly heavily peated (258 ppm); it’s also the first of their experimental range to be made with entirely Islay-grown barely. I’ve previously tasted the 6.3 release, and it’s phenomenal. This is that release, but put back in a bourbon cask (second use) and aged until 2019. It’s still incredibly smoky and peaty, with good tastes of salt and sea. Really, just an outstanding whisky.

Throughout the tasting, our guide told us Bruichladdich’s story and their belief in terroir: the importance of all aspects of the local environment in shaping the final result. Because of the closure, the uncertainty of what they had on reopening, and Bruichladdich’s commitment to aging the whisky on the island, this tour emphasized the library-like role of the warehouses even more than Laphroaig.

Leaving the warehouse, we returned to the shop for their complimentary tasting. We tried:

  • Port Charlotte 10 – This was a nice comparison with the 2004 we had tried in the warehouse, to better tell what the double maturation had added. It’s excellent.
  • Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2011 – Very good, but sweeter than the 10 and not our favorite.
  • Valinch of the Port Charlotte (MOC: 01 2005). At the Bruichladdich distillery, they typically have two unique casks available for you to bottle directly. (A valinch, or “whisky thief” is the device used to extract whisky from a cask).  My notes say only “like the 10, but wow.” 
  • Valinch 42 – Helen McCormick (2009). Unpeated. We decided to add the valinches to our tasting request late, and that may have been a mistake, since the Port Charlottes had pretty much wrecked our tastebuds for this one.
  • Octomore 10.  The combination of aging processes is: 37% in first-fill Port pipes; 31% first-fill Cognac barrels; 20% second-fill bourbon barrels; and 12% in first-fill American barrels (3 years), then virgin oak (2 years), and finally second-fill American whiskey barrels (6 years). That should give some hints to the complexity: an explosion of smoke, with lots of spiciness, but somehow still sweet.

We closed out with a refreshing gin and tonic of their Botanist Gin. We also bought a bottle of the Octomore 10 and Kyle filled a bottle of the Port Charlotte MOC: 01 2005 to bring home.

Our friends had cautioned us we might accidentally get day drunk at Bruichladdich, but they told us that the mini market a few doors down makes a good egg sandwich. With this warning in mind, I had used sample bottles and let Kyle finish some of my tastes in the shop. Still, I decided I needed a break before I was comfortable driving. So, off we went to the mini market, where we had espressos, snacks, and a good view of the bay.

Kilchoman & Machir Bay

I had tried Kilchoman’s Machir Bay for the first time a week earlier and enjoyed it. That made me curious to stop by their distillery and I wanted Kyle to have a chance to try it, so we made the Kilchoman Distillery our next stop.

Kyle got his taste of Machir Bay. While good, it was overshadowed by everything we had tasted at Bruichladdich. They also have a café, and we couldn’t resist a caramel espresso cupcake.

From the distillery, it was a short drive to the actual Machir Bay. We walked along the sandy coast before climbing bluffs to a view overlooking the beach and bay. The temperature and the sun were perfect, which lead to an inevitable nap.

After the nap, we returned to the car to continue our explorations. These brought us to the Old Kilchoman Parish Church, Saligo Bay and bunkers that were part of the Chain Home radar site, Sanaigmore & its monument to the 241 victims of the Exmouth sinking. We also visited the Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve and the 14th or 15th century Kilnave Chapel and Cross.

Along the drive, I encountered an oncoming car on a hilly, windy single-track section. Even though I knew better, I immediately reacted by pulling onto the grass. This immediately got the car stuck. The driver of the other car — after reminding me that this is why you never drive on the grass — kindly offered to get her husband’s truck to pull me out. Fortunately, I was able to get out  — renting a manual helped — on my own.

Dinner at Port Charlotte Hotel

We returned to Port Charlotte for dinner, where we had a reservation at the Port Charlotte Hotel’s restaurant. They first led us to their lounge to review the menu and for drinks.

For our starter, we shared a trio of Loch Gruinart oysters, with cucumber & mint dressing. For his main, Kyle had a filet of beef, fondant potato, kale, wild mushroom purée, watercress, charred shallot, and beef jus. This was a great combination of flavors, and one of the best prepared filets we’ve had.  I ordered a saddle of rabbit ballotine, with pistachio mousse, violet potatoes, roast parsnips, and rabbit jus. This was also delicious.

As much as we enjoyed dinner, we enjoyed the desserts that followed more. Kyle had an excellent creme brûlée with strawberry sorbet. I had their passion fruit soufflé, with dark chocolate sauce and passion fruit sorbet; it may have been the best thing I ate the entire vacation.

After dinner, we went next door to their bar for a nightcap. They sometimes have live music, but unfortunately not this night. After reviewing the options, we decided on Bruichladdich’s Black Art — one that was too expensive for us to try in their shop. We asked the price and were told 25£, to which a man at the bar exclaimed “and every bit worth it!” We came to terms with the price and ordered a dram to share.

In short, it was every bit worth it. I’ve never tasted a whisky like this, where each small was an experience with layered flavors and a long, evolving finish. Even sharing a dram, it lasted us a memorable hour.

Ardbeg and Kildalton Cross Saturday

In the morning, we had one last, tasty breakfast at the Lagavulin Old Excise House, packed up, and checked out.

Ardbeg

We made the short drive to Ardbeg. While we like Ardbeg, its not our favorite Islay whisky, but the distillery is in a beautiful location and they offered a tour and tasting that fit with our schedule for the day.

The tour was well done, a bit more thorough than our similar tour at Lagavulin. Our timing meant that we got to see new stills they were installing as part of their expansion. A tasting of their core range followed the tour: their 10, An Oa, Uigeadail, Corryvreckan, and Perpetuum (their 200th anniversary release). These were all good whiskies, as we’d expect from Ardbeg. The Corryvreckan — complex and intense as its namesake, a whirlpool of Jura, might imply — was my favorite, followed by the Uigeadail.

We did our tasting in a room adorned with bottles of most of Ardbeg’s releases. I enjoyed this as much as the tastings; one thing Ardbeg does really well is the art and naming of each of their releases.

Following the tasting, we went to Arbeg’s Old Kiln Cafe for lunch. Kyle had their soup and an enormous platter of different preparations of salmon. I had a special, halibut with mussels and bacon. This made for a great final meal in Islay, and the portions were so plentiful that we skipped dinner.

With some time left before our ferry, we drove further along the coast, stopping at a beach to watch seals and then at Kildalton Cross. Located in the yard of the ruined Kildalton Parish Church, the Kildalton cross is a monolithic Celtic Cross from the 8th century.

Leaving Islay, Leaving Scotland

After our stop at Kildalton, we had just enough time for another brief stop at Laphroaig to collect our rent — a 10ml bottle of their 10 year — which I had forgotten to do the day of our tour. From there, we continued around and across the island to Port Askaig and our ferry.

After docking in Kennacraig, we still had a two and a half hour drive to the Glasgow airport. We only made a couple of stops. Not far from the ferry, we stopped briefly in Tarbert to see the port and Royal Castle. Further along, we stopped to stretch our legs on the shore of Loch Lomond, where we had left for a hike of Ben Lomond on a previous trip.

Arriving in Glasgow, we filled the gas in our rental car and checked in at our hotel, the Courtyard by Marriot (Hotels.com | TripAdvisor) at the airport. To save on parking and to reduce our morning tasks, we returned the car and made the short walk back to the hotel to finish packing and get a good night’s sleep before flying out in the morning.

Read on to details on planning this trip, or see notes about our earlier 2015 circuit of Scotland.

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