islay, scotland: a travelogue.

ahhhhh, islay.  if there was one very faraway place in europe i would pick up and move all my stuff to, islay would be the place.  we were there a little less than a month before the election, and i kept saying to philip [half-jokingly] that if trump wins, islay is where we should re-settle the family.  it had everything: mountains, beach, miles of green grass, the friendliest people we encountered anywhere in europe, all of the best single malt scotch you could hope for, and almost no tourists.

seriously. hardly a tourist anywhere. we saw the same dozen [or maybe less] tourists at our hotel, on the ferry, and at the various distilleries.  i'm not sure if it was the season or just that islay isn't exactly the easiest place to get to, but that was ok with us.  we were richly rewarded with scotch and an island all to ourselves when we finally got there.  

so, i should mention.  the reason we went to islay at all is because islay is home to some of the world's finest single malt scotch distilleries.  all of philip's favorite scotches come from islay.  when we decided to go to scotland, it seemed only natural that we would go to islay.  it's a little hard to get to -- it's a 21/2 hour drive from glasgow to the ferry, and then the ferry is another two hours.  islay has a population of less than 4000 on the entire island.  i'm actually pretty sure we saw more cows and sheep there than people.  the population density is something like 0.06%.  really.   but those few people there produce the world's best scotches.  on that 240 square miles, you can visit laphroaig, lagavulin, kilchoman, bruichladdich, caol ila, bowmore, bunnahabhain, and ardbeg

we flew into glasgow from london and rented a car at the airport.  you know that scene in the secret life of walter mitty where he's renting a car in iceland and the clerk asks him which one he wants, red or blue? it was kind of like that.  from glasgow, it was a 2 1/2 hour drive to kennacraig, where the ferry to islay departs from.  it was one of the most beautiful drives i've ever taken, totally on par with our drive along the amalfi coast.  we missed our original flight out of london, so unfortunately we had to drive straight through to kennacraig without stopping.  it would have been so easy to turn that 2 1/2 hour drive into 4-5 hours with stops along the way to walk, take in the scenery, and enjoy some lunch.  we took the ferry on caledonian macbrayne to port ellen, which was a little over two hours.  our hotel was in port ellen, and most of the distilleries we wished to visit were very near there.  of course this is all relative, as the island is very small and easily drivable [as long as someone in your party isn't sampling scotch!].  we stayed at the most adorable little hotel [one of my favorite places we stayed on our trip!], the islay hotel.  one of the reasons we [actually, philip] picked the hotel because of it's extensive whiskey bar.  they serve scotch from every distillery on the island, including lots of rare and exclusive bottles.  it also had a fantastic restaurant where we had an incredible seafood dinner before turning in for the evening.  we wanted to be well rested for all that whiskey drinking the next day.

the next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel before heading out to our first distillery.  two that philip was most interested in, lagavulin and laphroaig, were very near our hotel.  we opted for those first, since we also knew they would take the most time.  

first stop was lagavulin, where we timed our arrival just right to take part in a guided tasting.  this year is lagavulin's 200th anniversary year, and they had quite a few special things they were offering visitors.  the guided tasting was the best tasting we had, hands down.  we were able to sample five different whiskeys, most of which were exclusive to the distillery -- so you could only taste them if you went all the way to islay [you bet your ass we took some of that home].  our guide, sarah, encouraged us to try each dram alone and then with something to compliment the flavor profile -- vanilla sugar, peat, lapsong souchong tea, candied figs.  it made a huge difference in the flavors of each dram, as even an unexperienced whiskey taster such as myself could notice.

after we packed up our souvenir bottles, we headed down the road just a little to laphroaig.  philip [and me too, honestly] was most looking forward to laphroaig was finding his plot of land.  through the friends of laphroaig program, when you purchase a bottle of laphroaig, you can register on their website for certain perks -- including a square foot of land on their distillery property.  you're then able to go visit the plot, collect your 'rent' [a dram of laphroaig], hike to your plot and plant your flag.  it was, by far, the best experience of all of the distilleries.  they encouraged us to hike around their property, and even gave wellies to those who didn't have them [cough philip cough].  they encourage not just for you to come and visit your plot, but a sense of community; they have hosted a wedding on the plots and had ashes scattered.  we spent a good chunk of time finding the plot first, and wandering around the hills and taking in the views, before we went into the tasting room so philip could have a few samples.  


at this point it was lunch, so we opted to drive about five minutes back to our hotel and have some fish and chips.  our hotel was the only place we at on the island and i do not regret it a bit.  everything was wonderful, from softshell crab to fish and chips to desserts and soups.  it was just perfect.

after lunch, we headed towards port charlotte, where bruichladdich is.  it was about a 45 minute drive, diagonally across the island and then along the water.  the views were just breathtaking.  bruichladdich definitely had the most distinct look of all the distilleries we visited.  almost all of the buildings on islay are whitewashed, or they are made of stone.  all of the buildings at the different distilleries looked identical, which was pretty cool.  but at bruichladdich, they had the trim and windows on their buildings painted their trademark teal blue, which made everything pop vividly.  the tasting wasn't anything special, though they did have a selection of drams only available at the distillery.  and since they are located right on the water, we were able to take a nice walk along the beach after we finished our samples.  bruichladdich also sells a gin distilled on islay, which we bought for me to have when we got back home. 

from bruichladdich, we drove inland on a tiny one-lane road, over rolling hills and so many sheep i couldn't count to kilchoman, our last stop of the day.  kilchoman had a private back room for their tasting, and we were the only ones there for the daily tasting so it was a pretty small group.  philip sampled a few and then we wandered around their shop and hung around in their cafe for a while.  kilchoman is one of the few breweries that serves food and drinks [little sandwiches and teas, mostly], in case you need something in your belly besides scotch.

most distillers wrap up for the day around 5, so we called it quits after kilchoman and slowly made our way back to the inn.  we made a few stops for the views and photo ops, and about two hours later we were enjoying another fantastic meal at our hotel restaurant, sipping a few more local scotches.  the bar at the hotel has live music on saturday nights, but we decided we'd get up early the next day before the ferry.

there were a few different ferry options to get back to kennacraig.  we decided to drive across the island to take the ferry from port askaig since we had the whole day before our flight to dublin left glasgow.  we could have left from port ellen, where we were staying, but there was one last distillery we thought we might be able to stop by before we got on the ferry.  it was another 45 minute drive to port askaig, but we had breakfast delivered up to our room while we packed up.   

we headed on the winding, one-lane-both-direction roads, enjoying our last views of islay before our ferry.  we had a little less than an hour to kill when we arrived at port askaig, and thought we could walk around there for a bit.  wrong.  there was literally nothing there but a dock where the ferry would arrive, and it hadn't arrived yet.  luckily, bunnahaibhain wasn't too far behind us, so we backtracked about ten minutes and drove over the hills.  it was definitely the most difficult distillery to get to.  we drove about twenty minutes on a windy, bumpy, not-at-all paved road, convinced we'd past it somehow or taken a wrong turn [as if there was actually a turn anywhere].  but since there was nowhere safe to turn around, we just kept going.  and finally, we arrived at bunnahaibhain.  it looked totally deserted, and we wondered if it was actually closed for a minute since it was sunday.  we parked the car and wandered onto the grounds.  

of all the distilleries we visited, bunnahaibhain was the most awe-inspiring.  located on a cliff perched over the oceanside, barrels upon barrels stacked up everywhere around us, aging the barrels with the salty sea breeze.  we wandered in and out of old out buildings, grain houses, and warehouses until we found stairs leading up to a tiny door a story up, with the word office etched onto the glass.  figuring we had nothing to lose, we climbed the stairs up to the office and found a little office and shop [it was all one room] inside, with a kind man willing to talk about the distillery and pour us a few samples.  it was unbelievable.  though hard to get to, i can't recommend bunnahaibhain enough if only for the views and experience alone.  we picked up a few bottles that you can only get at the distillery [and, really, who goes there?!] and got back into our rental to head to the ferry.  

we took the caledonian macbrayne ferry back to kennacraig, and once again made the two-and-a-half hour drive back to glasgow.  this time we were able to drive a little slower and make a few stops along the way.  one memorable pitstop was in inveraray, where we saw the gorgeous inveraray lake and took lunch at brambles bistro.  if we only had more time we would have stopped at the inveraray castle -- i only saw it from the outside but it was absolutely jaw-dropping.  maybe next time?

and oh, islay, there will definitely be a next time.  definitely.