First of all, behold the purchases:
I’ll say that was a productive trip… Anyway, first and foremost, it was my honeymoon – and both my wife and I had an amazing time there. She’s not even a whisky drinker, but by the end of the trip she was nosing glasses and sipping with me. Now every time we pass the waft of smoke she thinks of peat. I’m still not sure she’s fully converted to single malts, but the island had an effect on her – and that really sums up Islay. It has a powerful and seductive effect on people. The landscape is breathtaking. The wildlife is mesmerising. The community is immensely welcoming, too, far more so than the mainland. Even the drivers wave to you as you pass by (and it wasn’t just because of my erratic city driving).
It was curious how out of date the guidebooks all seemed to be. Islay is surprisingly vibrant. Whereas some books paint various parts of the island as backwaters, it really didn’t seem that way. There’s a lively spirit (pun intended) to be found everywhere. That probably just goes to show how rapidly the island has transformed in the past few years, and I dare say most of that is down to whisky. The spirit means something here. It’s a way of life, and a booming industry means that Islay booms too. There’s plenty else to do on the island other than visit distilleries: stacks of great wildlife; abandoned beaches; a fascinating community garden (which is huge); and the Islay Woollen Mill, which makes throws and scarfs with distillery tartans, among other things.
Each distillery had its own flavour. Each one possessed a unique vibe, which was an expression not of the whisky, but of the owners.
By far and away the best distillery, in terms of welcoming you through the door and making sure you have a great time, was Bruichladdich. But more on them later, as I’m going to do a separate write-up on that day. To be fair, even though I visited all the distilleries on Islay, I only toured half the facilities on the island (I was on my honeymoon) so I can’t give a thorough comparison of the complete experience. But the feeling as soon as you step into Bruichladdich’s vibrant distillery – part surf bar, part visitor centre – was one of energy. It got you really excited about the whisky, and it felt as if there was so much going on.
The best food by a country mile was at Ardbeg, even if the tour itself was actually rather dull. The facilities there are very classy; the shop and restaurant was dynamic and not at all kitsch. Really worth a visit. Lagavulin was a strange place to step into – it clearly didn’t care much about getting footfall in, and the shop was pretty poor. Laphraoig piped in the cliched Celtic music and very much hammed up the Scotland experience, which wasn’t to my taste. It just didn’t feel all that genuine. None of these distilleries had any interesting whiskies on sale – and you could certainly buy what they had there at most retailers. That’s disappointing, if you ask me. Why not throw in some distillery-only bottles? Something other than a polo shirt and umbrella to please the fans?
Kilchoman was a world apart, a tiny and charming little distillery, out on its own near the wonderful Machir Bay. It was amazing to see just how hands-on their production methods were – as you’d expect from a small distillery, I guess – and wonderful to watch just how much of the process they do on site. It really does pack a punch for its size, and the cafe and visitor centre were great little add-ons. Not a huge range of whiskies as they don’t make much, but there was at least an interesting limited edition single cask available.
The best location for a distillery was probably either Caol Ila or Bunnahabhain, both just superb settings that overlooked Jura. Bunnahabhain was a bit of a grim ghost town, and the shop was up a flight of stairs, well behind the warehouses. Caol Ila was huge. The shop had a couple of good bottles extra, including a rare 2013 Feis Ile bottling for £100, which was stunning. More on that when I review it (but wow).
Time for a quick rant.
I want to beat whoever does Diageo’s Caol Ila marketing around the head with a bundle of barley. Caol Ila is an incredibly underrated whisky. Most of its production gets poured into Johnnie Walker blends – 25% of a Green Label bottle is Caol Ila, for example. But the single malt is incredible, and is the best peated whisky on Islay in my opinion. The Caol Ila site is massive and industrial and fascinating – quite unlike the others. What’s more, it comes with a stunning view from the still house. The tour was brilliant, the staff there were hugely knowledgable and great to chat to. The shop, however, was tiny, and the facilities were non-existent. Now, this is a corner of the island with very few cafes, and the view is stunning. For Chrissake, build a decent visitor centre with good facilities, get behind the brand and the heritage, and you will have people gladly throwing fifty-pound notes in your direction all year round. Diageo should catch up with Bowmore, for example, who had a remarkably nice visitor centre and facilities, with an array of interesting bottlings. At Bruichladdich you can fill up your own bottle from a cask! And by getting behind the brand, I don’t mean combining it annoyingly with the ‘Classic Malts‘ range. Just let Caol Ila sing on its own, thank you very much – this is Islay!
Rant over. So, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman and Ardbeg were my top three sites for visitor experiences, closely followed by Bowmore. Laphroaig might have been better if it didn’t seem so consciously touristy. Oh, and a shout out to the Islay Whisky Shop in Bowmore, which has a fantastic array of independent bottlings – most definitely worth popping in for a bargain or two. Either way, if you’re a fan of whisky, you really ought to get to this island. It’s a way of life here and will change the way you think about the humble dram. It’s an important part of the economy and the community – of people’s lives. And you really start to understand what that means.
Finally, check out this gallery – and click on the images to see the full shot. There’s some photos of various distilleries, either inside or out, and a nice picture or two of the landscape. The green shed, by the way, is the source of the Octomore spring, where Bruichladdich gets its water. As I say, more on that later in the week…
Great article. Thanks. One question – I am going to Islay at the end of this month and wonder if it is necessary to book tours at the distilleries?
Thanks – yeah, it’s probably best to book in advance. I saw a couple of people turn up on the day only for a tour to be fully booked (that said, the distilleries were more than accommodating to show folk around). But it’s worth ringing them up just to secure your spot, which you could probably do from the island when you’re there – I think I called a couple the day before.
Fun read – brings back memories of my visit to Islay last year. Yeah, best to book up to avoid disappointment as you’ll see the same people taking the tours as you journey across Islay. And if they are travelling in numbers that’s most of your planned visits gone. Also consider if you are doing a couple of tours which order is best. If there is one tour worth doing then it is upgrading to the Bowmore Craftmans’ Tour. For £45 it is a personal experience and very hands on. Plus going beyond the normal viewing area into the No.1 vaults to sample a couple of casks is magical stuff, with the sound of the waves smashing against the wall.
Caol Ila is a great malt in a stunning location. Shame the distillery was demolished and in its place a very bland souless hanger was built. Most of the whisky is shipped off the island as well to mature. The tour I had was very bland and disappointing whereas the Ardbeg special was great fun.
Good call on the upgraded tour. I kind of wish I’d done that for a couple of them actually, though I pretty much got a deluxe tour at Bruichladdich – more on that soon!
Agree about Caol Ila. Though the view from the still house is pretty neat, it’s better to be inside looking out, than outside looking in… I guess with the tours it depends who’s doing it as much as the place itself. I think what I liked about Caol Ila though is just how HUGE it all was! Quite the contrast to Kilchoman. 🙂
Having just been to Islay myself in July (together with my brother) I can second your experiences. However, do take the time to do the extended Ardbeg tasting tour – just wow, both the tour and the tasting. The Bruichladdich warehouse tasting tour was also extremely fun and interesting – the spirit of the place really comes across. Kilchoman is a class of its own, very highly recommended, very hands-on. I was also surprised to find a bottle of the Feis Ile from Caol Ila, didn’t take the tour due to timing issues, but I can only second on the beauty of the location – more could be done there.
Didn’t visit Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin or Bowmore because we were only there for 2,5 days, but we’ll be back.
Commenting on your Laphroaig experience: We didn’t take the tour, but visited the shop to find directions to our plot of land. We were immediately greeted with a fine dram (and got another one extra) and the people there were extremely helpful and friendly. We got there late in the day (straight from the ferry), the shop was about to close, no problems at all, they just told us to leave the Wellies in the courtyard upon our return from visiting the plot of land should the shop already be closed by that time. Oh, and Laphroaig does indeed have a distillery-only bottling! Their cask-strength 10 year old can only be bought at the distillery (or via the internet from the distillery), but nowhere else. Quite good value for the money, too.