Islay: whisky galore!
Islay Whisky Tours
Islay has nine whisky distilleries – already two more than when we last visited thirty years ago, and soon to be ten when Port Ellen reopens next year. There was no way we were going to visit without sampling a few drams, and driving was therefore not an attractive option. Step forward Islay Whisky Tours, operated by Bowmore Taxis. We chose a one day tour at a cost of £260, which included the services of a driver/guide from 9am to 5pm and tours of two distilleries selected by us. We booked about 6 weeks ahead – the longer the better, the company is deservedly busy and popular – and received a detailed itinerary based around our choices well in advance of our trip. This included short visits to several other distilleries and some general sight-seeing. We had a very enjoyable day, as you will see below, and highly recommend this company.
We chose two contrasting distilleries for our tours – one small and privately owned, the other large and owned by a multi-national. Our lovely driver, Donald, appeared at our accommodation exactly at the time arranged, and we set off immediately for our first destination. Kilchoman, the small distillery we chose, began production in 2005 and is Islay’s second-newest distillery, at the time the first to be built for over 120 years. It’s the only farm distillery on the island and we saw the whole process from the barley growing in the surrounding fields to the small bottling plant. It initially felt a bit weird to be sampling whisky at 10 in the morning – but we got over it!
The distillery also has a small café which looked very good, but we didn’t have time to try it. We did have time to look at the Visitor Centre displays before our tour started and were amused to find four Sinclairs in the list of persons contravening The Excise Act, 1801, i.e. they were probably distilling illegally. Shocking, they can’t be related to me. Nor shall I claim kinship with John Sinclair who established the short-lived Mulindry Distillery in 1826. According to the local Excise Officer, he liked his own product a little too much, went bankrupt in 1831, and emigrated to America. I’m sure any Sinclairs I am related to were fine, upstanding citizens.
Our next stop was Bruichladdich Distillery, on the shore of Loch Indaal ( a sea loch) just outside the pretty village of Port Charlotte. We didn’t have a tour here, but we had a quick look around and came out with a bottle of gin! As well as whisky, Bruichladdich also produces The Botanist Islay Dry Gin, and very good it was too (note past tense).
By the way, if you are pronouncing the ch sounds in these names as in church, then that’s not right. Ch is a guttural, back-of-the-throat, Germanic sound – usually. Just to fool you, Bruichladdich has two chs. The first is pronounced as expected – the other isn’t pronounced at all, hence the name of the Laddie Shop.
Next, we had a couple of hours in Bowmore, the island’s main settlement, to have lunch, look around the distillery (no tour) and explore the unusual Kilarrow Parish Church (1767), otherwise known as the Round Church for obvious reasons. That’s it at the top of the hill, above. There was a great view over the distillery roofs from its upper windows.
We visited Bowmore Distillery, Islay’s oldest (1779) in 1989. From what I can remember, it was the only one offering commercial tours at the time. It hasn’t changed much, though I don’t remember the mermaid.
Again, it’s set right on the shore, almost directly opposite Bruichladdich on Loch Indaal. The sea was an important form of transport – Kilchoman is the exception being inland.
At 2pm we met Donald again and set off for our afternoon visits. The morning had been spent in the north of the island, now we were heading back south where three distilleries lie in close proximity to each other. The furthest away is Ardbeg which dates from 1815, though hasn’t had a continuous history. We liked its green bus, and the views along the coast to Dunyvaig Castle and the neighbouring distillery, Lagavulin.
We didn’t visit Lagavulin next – we drove past it because we had a 3pm tour booked at Laphroaig (pronounced Lafroyg, it means ‘broad hollow by the bay’). Donald and Alexander Johnston founded the distillery in 1815, and it remained in family hands for the next 139 years. These days it’s a multinational, owned by Beam Suntory. Laphroaig is arguably the best known Islay malt: it was certainly the first one I tried and is still my favourite – if you like your drink to taste of peat, smoke, and iodine then its for you (check out the marketing slogans in the gallery below). One person who certainly likes it is Prince Charles who gave the distillery his Royal Warrant in 1994 – his coat of arms (three feathers) appears on every bottle. In the gallery below it’s on the wall in one of the photographs. You can also see a cairn unveiled by the Prince in 2015 for Laphroaig’s bicentenary in 2015.
I haven’t bothered with the technical details of making whisky because I’d probably get them wrong, and you can very easily look them up anyway. As you know, it’s the human element that catches my eye and women’s history in particular. Here we have a splendid example in Bessie Williamson who arrived as a temporary shorthand typist in 1934 but remained for nearly 50 years, eventually becoming the first female distiller and distillery owner in the 20th century. Bravo Bessie!
After our tour at Laphroaig, we backtracked to Lagavulin for a quick look at its grounds. Like many distilleries, its site was originally used for illegal stills, in this case becoming licensed around 1810. It’s now part of the Diageo group. From here we could once again see Dunyvaig Castle, this time from the other side. That’s me with Donald, our driver, in the final photo below.
On our way back to our accommodation we made one last stop at Port Ellen where we spied this beautiful ship in the bay. The distillery here closed in 1983, but its owners, Diageo again, are set to re-open it next year. You can still buy its single malt whisky, though it’s becoming increasingly rare and therefore expensive. We bought a bottle at a Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting about 25 years ago, and five of us demolished it the following night. I seem to remember the tasting notes involved sailors’ pigtails …
Donald dropped us off at the end of our tour after a wonderful day during which the sun even shone for us! Many thanks to him and to Lamont who made all the arrangements so splendidly (though possibly he had nothing to do with the sunshine). Once again, a hearty (and completely unsolicited) recommendation for Islay Whisky Tours. Total stars!