Two Wheels and a dram: Our Islay whisky trip – with a bit of cycling
While unable to travel, there’s an opportunity to recap something older that may otherwise never see the light of day. It may delight, in this case, lovers of whisky. I never wrote about my Islay whisky trip. It’s been a while, but as I occasionally savour a small glass of whisky, I have updated any practical info and present you an easy, less-crowded, independent Islay whisky trip.
And while we’re at the topic of travel… I have no idea either when we can travel again. I’m going on a business trip to Nuremberg soon, and I have rarely looked forward to a trip like that!
This post will recap four days on the Scottish Island of Islay, pronounced [ˈiːlə]. Islay is a mid-sized island of the Inner Hebrides on the West Coast of Scotland. Most know it for its whisky, but it is notable for beautiful scenery, empty beaches and lovely people. I made this trip in 2011 but I have researched and updated distillery info. Scenery and people rarely change. So hopefully this will give you a rounded picture if you are planning an Islay whisky trip.
Please note that during the COVID-19 lockdown measures in the UK, accommodation and restaurants will be closed for tourism and distilleries do not do tours and may not be open at all. Please enquire with your Foreign Office and your destination whether you will be able to legally travel and what will be open.
Arrival and Accommodation on Islay
We went on our four-day Islay whisky trip April 2011 and wanted to do a bit of cycle touring. We drove from Northern England and took our car. I recommend, as public transport is rather thin on the ground north of Glasgow. An alternative would be to leave the car on the mainland. Then seek accommodation near the port and just take luggage and bicycles across. I recommend you visit in shoulder season, accommodations are easy to find and distilleries are open.
The weather is a lucky draw in Scotland anyway. You may be limited to local restaurants (which I prefer anyway) in shoulder season. We had typical April weather. It was not bad, 60% rain, 30-40% shine. One day was a complete write-off weather wise. But they say Islay has all four season in a day, and we certainly experienced them all.
Ferries from the mainland and our accommodation in Port Ellen
Caledonian MacBrayne operates regular ferries from the port of Kennacraig to either Port Askaig or Port Ellen several times a day, and quite frequently in the summer high season.
We stayed in Port Ellen right by the Marina, in a pretty guest bouse called 40 Pier Road. It was simple but super stylish and simply wonderful – wonderful hosts, great breakfast, tons of local tips, meticulous details down to a ton of whisky books in the sitting room and whisky soap in the bath room. As soon as we dropped our bags, we learned whisky is big here. We were able to park outside the house, and there was a simple restaurant or two open. There are many natural beauty spots in walking distance of Port Ellen, such as the Kilnaughton Bay and the famous Traigh Bhan “Singing Sands” beach a little further on.
Early April is very early shoulder season in most rural places in Scotland, with season starting at Easter.
We left home in Teesside at about 3am to catch the 8am ferry. We were a bit knackered and in no way ready for a cycle ride, so off we went to take a look t the closest distilleries to our guesthouse. Other than that, we tried to visit distilleries that were historical, independent, innovative or all three!
Islay whisky trip: The “Southeastern” Distilleries Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg
These three distilleries are within 2km of each other easily accessible on the Ardbeg Road and lie next to the picturesque coastline. There is open countryside between them. Often, you see plenty of wildlife. All are known for a rather peaty Single Malt.
Ardbeg is there the road ends, and its distillery is well known for its award winning, very peaty Single Malt Whisky. Like many Islay Distilleries, it was closed vor nearly 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s. It is currently owned by Louis Vuitton. In addition to the distillery and its tours, its attraction is a really lovely cafe and restaurant, The Old Kiln Cafe with an attached whisky shop. They run approximately three tours a day all year rund at a cost of 10 GBP per person.
Lagavulin is the smallest of these three and perhaps the most dramatically situated. They make a super peaty single malt and, like most others, run tours at currently 8GBP per person. They have a really cool website that lets you go on a virtual tour of the distillery. The distillery is currently owned by Diageo PLC, a multinational alcoholic drink company headquartered in London.
Laphroaig ( pronounced “la-froig”) whisky gives me headaches even when I think of it. But that’s not the fault of the excellent whisky but of me drinking too much of it on a single occasion.
The distillery does a very renowned tour, and this is the one we joined that day. They take their tour really serious. Laphroaig is one of the few distilleries that malts their own barley and as a result, you see really every step of production. After an extensive visit to the malting floor, they take you to the mash tuns, the fermentation tanks and finally, the distillery.
Every tour will finish with more or less generous tasting of their output provided you are of drinking age. If you want a really thorough tour explaining every step of the whisky making process, go to Laphroaig. Their web site doesn’t publish current prices at present. The most recent prices I could find was 6GBP for the standard tour which is excellent value.
Rainy Day Pursuits: Kilchoman and Bruichladdich
The next day was muggy, dark and very wet. It did not look like there was going to be any pause in precipitation. So, after a hearty old Scottisch breakfast, we set off for a morning tour of what was then the youngest Islay Distillery. It was founded in 2005 and had just released their first Single Malt.
Kilchoman is small and independently owned, and essentially occupies a large farm off a track close to pretty Machir Bay Beach. I don’t remember too much about the tour. This being a smaller distillery, it was somewhat less impressive than some bigger older players with their vintage stills and pretty tasting rooms. However… Kilchoman has expanded in recent years, and they now grow and process their own barley, too.
They do every step of whisky production onsite up to the bottling and labelling and pride themselves in making the only Single Farm Malt whisky on Islay. If you like smaller independent distilleries on your Islay whisky trip, I suggest you visit.
After a short trip to Portnahavan and walking through the pretty village while it stopped raining for 5 minutes, we went back to the rainy weather option – distillery touring! We were near Bruichladdich (pronounced “brook-laddie”). What really enticed me was the fact that they are one of the first producers of organic malt whisky. The distillery is a the proverbial phoenix, and one of the larger working distilleries on Islay. After closing in 1994, it was re-opened by a group of whisky enthusiasts. Within just a few years, they put out a neat line of malt whiskies and great gin, from a range of rescued Victorian stills. It was sold to Remy Martin in 2012.
The tour at Bruichladdich was enthusiastic, with much time spent in the stills room. We received long introductions to their vintage stills, and long tour of the maturation shed where they kept a fair few barrels bought from out-of-business smaller distilleries like Octomore. Bruichladdich since bought the old farms and distillery leftover and are making “modern” Octomore whisky- which is the most heavily peated commercially available Single Malt whisky.
Last not least, for those whisky lovers among you, Bruichladdich had probably the most lively and generous tasting room, more like a free-for-all pub. Comfy seating, and a fully stocked bar. When I asked to taste the gin, I was offered a classy gin and tonic. Since it was still raining, we ended up chatting to some German tourists for ages.
The Secret of the free dram (or many)
Are wondering how they can pour all these glasses for free: our landlady informed us that the distilleries are not taxed for the spirit that is consumed on site. I walked away with a bottle of organic Single Malt which is really nice for my kind of taste, quite sweet, light and barely peated.
A Pit Stop: Bowmore
The next day had a better weather forecast. We decided to finally add the “two wheels” to our Islay whisky trip. Time to get the bicycles out! We looped all across the island, first on the main island road to Bridgend. Then along the Loch Gruinart shore to Kilnave Chapel along some pretty dodgy shifty sand path. Back to Loch Indaal, and on to the island “capital ” Bowmore, before finishing off with another 12 windy miles to Port Ellen.
Apart form a cup of tea at a hotel and some vegetarian Scotch eggs, we hadn’t really eaten much. Instead of going to a cafe, I insisted we just needed a wee dram. Bowmore distillery is the centrepiece of town, close to the town pier and makes a nice pit stop. It is the oldest on Islay and one of the oldest in Scotland. It looks ship-shape and friendly. Its output is medium high, just under 2 million lites a year. The distillery is owned by Suntory.
A shame that Bowmore Distillery has a tasting room which basically seemed a free-for-all bar! Not quite as cosy as Bruichladdich, but eerily empty on a weekday afternoon, we had seen enough whisky production after three back-to-back tours, but we were directed to the tasting room. Cycling back? Nope. We walked back, fuelled by whisky but bloody cold and in need of a hot bath after ten miles down a windy open path.
The Dramatic Northeast Coast: Bunnahabhain
On our final day, as we packed up the bicycles and slowly made our way back to the ferry port, we had time for one more distillery as our Islay whisky trip neared its end. Islay distilleries, despite being known for their peatyy whiskies, produce very different whiskies depending on their philosophy but also on location. The Northeast of Islay is perhaps the wildest, most dramatic landscape, and is all bare hills and broody valley, but always close to the sea. From its coast you see the more mountainous, barely inhabited Jura.
The Northeast of Islay is now home to three distilleries: Caol Ila, Ardnahoe and Bunnahabhain.
Caol Ila in Port Askaig is a large distillery owned by Diageo, right by the waters edge. It is well-known as for producing extra peaty Single Malt and for producing a large amount of what makes Johnny Walker blended whisky.
The next one up the road, Ardnahoe, didn’t exist in 2011! It was only established two years ago by a Glasgow blender and bottler of whiskies. It gets really good reviews for their tours and overall experience, but they have yet to release their own Single Malt.
Halfway up to the Northern tip of the Island, Bunnahabhain is quite dramatically situated by the Sound of Islay. It has been in continuous operation since the late 1800s and its classic output, a 12-year old, is a lightly peated sweet-fruity whisky and great for people who want to try an Islay Single Malt but aren’t into peat and medicinal tastes. They also do a a lot of ageing in sherry, desert wine and brandy casks.
We didn’t have time for a tour, but if you do venture there, they have lots and lot of choices. Staring with a super bargainous 5GBP tour where you still get a dram and a vouchger of teh same value as your entry fee to premium tastings at 35GBP and then the ultimate 250GBP tour! It’s bet to check their website for details.
And that, dear friends, concluded our little Islay whisky trip! Our boot rattling with a few bottles, we made the long windy drive back to Glasgow and on to Teesside! Western Scotland has a special place in my heart, and I hope that soon, this place is open for us to visit again.
Good books for your Islay whisky trip
If you want know more about Islay, its distilleries and their Single Malt Whisky, I highly recommend “Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and Its Whiskies” by Andrew Jefford. It was in our B&B and I started reading it there, then bought it to finish at home.
For a more “guided” book on Scottish Single Malts and their tasting similar to a wine guide, I bought Charles Maclean’s “Whiskypedia” and Michael Jackson’s “Complete Guide to Malt Whiskies”. Both are good, although the Charles Maclean focueses more on history and some technical data, the Jackson is more about Whisky editions and tasting notes. If you want a cheaper and more portable “introduction” I recommend “Whiskey: Instant Expert” by John Lamond or his “Whisky File”. The latter is older and does not have the newer editions but is often quite cheaply available.
Good Whisky Shops in Scotland
If you don’t make it to Islay: Don’t worry! I have visited Scotland several times, focusing on the Glasgow area, Argyll and Bute and the Inner Hebrides, and there are some good shops where you can buy whisky.
Please note that I am no specialist on whisky. If only, I know single malt whisky a bit, because I like drinking it. I drink the softer less peaty whisky, and my favourite is a 1992 vintage 14 year old Scapa. if that resonates with you, feel free to take my advice, if not, taste your way through the amazing world of Scottish whiskies. The best and reasonably priced selection in Glasgow was in the Airport Duty Free. In Edinburgh you find several good shops on and near the Royal Mile – but none of them struck me as amazing.
Loch Fyne Whiskies in Inveraray
If you are going to the West Coast of Scotland, chances are you pass through Inveraray. Turn off the main road and into town and about 100m on you find this fine little shop. There is minimal tasting, but a good range of Single Malt whiskies from all over Scotland if you know what you want. There used to be a wonderful kilt maker and fabric shop about 1km on on Loch Fyne, where you could buy great Harris Tweed at reasonable prices but I can no longer find it!
The Green Welly Stop at Tyndrum
If you like your petrol with aside of whisky, stop here. This place is allegedly a national institution and won the 2019 “Loo of the Year”. There’s a filling station, cafe, restaurant, farm shop, and, yes, local whisky! The place is a very friendly local one-stop shop, but maybe not for expert advice. However, if you know what you want, the choice of whisky is huge. When we visited, they had lots of half bottles, nice if you want to try, though not as ridiculous a small portion as a miniature.
Gordon and MacPhail
Gordon and MacPhail is an independent distiller/maturation expert/bottler/wholesaler with headquarters in Elgin. Their quality and reasonable prices of their own bottlings have won them many fans. And I have managed to buy several bottles of my favourite long after the distillery bottlings had sold out. They also own Benromach Distillery in Speyside (who make a really nice organic Single Malt).
My favourite whiskies to try
Well. First of all, whisky really is a matter of taste. My taste is for whiskies that are, plainly said “lighter and sweeter”. A pricey bottle of ancient whisky is probably wasted on me. I never mix whisky but drink it neat in small 2-4cl portions. After I stashed away a few bottles of my favourite Scapa I have a humongous backlog. I tend to buy one new bottle a year, depending on my budget, so these recommendations do not just include Islay whisky but others of the “light and sweet” variety that I have come across the years. Islay provides excellent scenery and lots of whisky experience, but for the light, fruity taste you might want to favour whisky of a different provenance, although there are exceptions even with Islay whisky.
An easy drinking, well priced one: Monkey Shoulder
Not strictly a single malt, but composed from several Speyside single malts, this sweet, peat-free whisky is great quality for under 25 Euro. A phantastic one to start with. Every time I have people around who want to “try” Single Malt I pull this one out. Also good if you need whisky for a cocktail but honestly, that’d be a fancy cocktail as it’s really high quality.
Cheap but good: Glen Grant Major’s Reserve and Speyburn Bradan Orach
The whiskies that accompanied us the last two years on our “shall we have a little whisky?” weekend evenings. I picked up one at Aldi after Christmas when it cost something silly like 15 Euros and both come in well under 20 Euros online, but provide excellent quality for the price. Both are light with fruit and vanilla notes and no peat. They often feature on “Best affordable Single Malt” lists, and having tried them both, I can only confirm this.
Arran 10-year old Single Malt
From the only distillery on the western Scottish Island or Arran, A lovely-sounding place I hope to visit one day, comes this relatively little known gem of citrus and lightness. Arran whiskies are known as citrus note whiskies, with a hint of cinnamon and a lot of vanilla, and this classic output is a prime example that is relatively easily bought for around 30Euro.
A quality, complex yet very smooth one. It’s 8 years old and tasting notes include citrus, organe liqeur, caramel, salt and citrus. Another well-liked organic Single Malt is Benromach, a Speyside whisky whose production is now overseen by Gordon and MacPhail.
Scapa 1992 14 year old bottling – or its more recent incarnations
The first one that got me hooked on single malt whisky, and still my favourite. I remember first trying it in a bar in Scotland about 2005 or so. It’s sweet but complex. You can currently get a 2017 Gordon and MacPhail (see above) bottling of a 2005 whisky which is similar in character. You can buy it from the distillers or in several online drinks shops.
Where to buy whisky online
This really depends where you live! I sometimes buy mine from sellers on German Amazon or UK Amazon unless I travel to the UK – in which case you find a decent selection at Duty Free. I was extremely impressed with the selection of Glasgow Airport.
More posts on food and drink?
You may like my self-guided tour of organic wineries of Gaillac. I appreciate this might be a bit special. But you can hardly beat Southwest France for a leisurely food and drink-laden holiday. I’ve also written another Scotland post on sailing in the Hebrides.
The Small Print
We visited Islay in April 2011 and wrote this Islay whisky trip post in May 2020. I updated prices at the time of writing. I organised and paid for the trip myself. More details are in my website Terms and Conditions. Please consider that alcohol may damage your health especially if consumed in larger quantities. Please enjoy alcohol in moderation and never drink and drive.