For the last five years, I’ve been a huge fan of Islay scotch.
Like, the “I’m not an alcoholic, but if you look at my whiskey shelf at home you’d think I was” kind of fan.
And ever since I first fell in love with a Laphroaig 10 year old, I knew one day I would have to make the pilgrimage to the the small island of Islay off the western coast of Scotland, to experience all of the distilleries for myself.
If you have zero interest in scotch or whiskey, move on, we’ll be back to our normal content on lifestyle entrepreneurship next week, but if you like whiskey, are visiting Scotland, or even better, are planning a visit to Islay, my goal is to make this the only post you need to plan your trip and get going.
How to Pronounce Islay
Before we go any further, let’s answer the biggest question most people have: how do you pronounce Islay?
It’s actually pretty simple.
Like you know the hot red headed girl from the movie wedding crashers? Here name is Isla Fischer.
Just like that, but spelled differently.
What is Islay Scotch?
The next biggest question most people have is what is Islay scotch?
The obvious answer is it is scotch made on the island of Islay.
To officially be recognized as scotch you must have three components:
- Must be distilled in Scotland
- Must be aged for a minimum of 3 years
- Must be aged in oak barrels.
If you meet those requirements you’ve got scotch.
But generally speaking Islay scotch is known for two very distinct characteristics: peat and smoke.
Most likely if you’ve ever tasted a scotch that was more like a campfire in your mouth, it was an Islay scotch.
Maybe it goes back to some deep rooted childhood memories of mine at my grandmas cabin or camping, but I love the smell and taste of anything smoky – so Islay scotch was right up my alley from the beginning.
What are the distilleries on Islay?
On the island of Islay, Scotland there are currently 8 distilleries:
Each of these has their own characteristics, so I’ll share a few of the highlights of each, and then talk specifically about the distillery experience and what you can expect, so you can hopefully plan your trip better.
There are 4 primary areas of Islay where you’ll find distilleries:
- Port Ellen on the SE corner of the island
- Port Askaig on the NE corner of the island
- Port Charlotte on the NW corner of the island.
- Bowmore near the center of the island
Port Ellen Distilleries
Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg are arguably the most famous Islay scotches and generally speaking are the ones that have the most noticeable characteristics of smoke and peat.
They are also the three closest together in Port Ellen. They’ve actually just built a walking path between the town of Port Ellen and the distilleries, so you can park your car, and drink to your heart’s content on your day at these distilleries.
Plan to spend one day in this area, and do all three during that day.
Just about all of these can be difficult to pronounce, and I’ll be honest: even as Matt was leaving for the ferry to head back home, he was still calling the island is-luh.
How do you pronounce Laphroaig? Luh-froyg.
Key Laphroaig facts:
- Most famous whiskey: Laphroaig 10 year
- What to expect from their whiskies? Smoke. Lots and lots of smoke.
- When were they founded? 1815
What was the distillery like?
The distillery at Laphroaig is one of the most tourist friendly. They have a big beautiful museum that shows off the history of the company, and they have a few different tasting rooms for different events.
They had many of their common whiskies on tap, but my big complaint was that they didn’t have more unique and rare whiskies available for people to sample.
If I’m going to come all the way to Islay I want to try some stuff I won’t be able to taste elsewhere!
They did have a special 21 year old that was just for visitors to the distillery which was excellent), but I was hoping for a bit more.
Also if you’ve ever bought a bottle of Laphroaig you get a lifetime lease on a 1×1 plot of land, and you can actually get the GPS coordinates to go visit it.
Ardbeg has a pretty cool story, in that it was mothballed for years, and only relatively recently revived.
It’s one of the largest distillery complexes on island and does about 1.4 million liters of scotch a year.
Key Ardbeg Facts:
- Most famous whiskey: Ardbeg 10
- What to expect: Peat. Lots and lots of peat. Smoke too, but more peat.
The tours at Ardbeg are very well done, and they show you many of the historic features they left in place when they reopened things in 1997.
For instance the wooden malt bins haven’t been used since the 70s, but you can still walk through them and see them exactly how they looked decades ago.
Ardbeg is the only Port Ellen Distillery to have a cafe/restaurant. So I’d recommend making this your second stop of the day, to get some food before or after your second tasting.
They have a special tasting room where on display is an example of every single bottle they’ve produced since 1998. Not gonna lie, there’s some pretty cool stuff in there.
Next to Laphroaig, Lagavulin is the scotch that I know the best.
It’s kind of like a marriage between the peat of Ardbeg and the smoke of Laphroaig, and their standard 16 year results in one of my favorite scotches anywhere.
Unfortunately while we were there, they were just finishing up an annual 2 week maintenance period, so they weren’t doing any tours.
That said, we did get to do an excellent tasting and chocolate pairing that was one of the better tastings we did on the trip.
Key Lagavulin Facts:
- Most famous whiskey: Lagavulin 16 year
- What to expect: Peat. Subdued peat and smoke, with a bit more sweetness
- Founded: 1816
While at Lagavulin we were able to persuade the woman doing our tasting to let us try something really special, with the 200 anniversary edition 25 year scotch.
It was unbelievable, and was probably the most special dram of the trip.
It retained it’s smoky and peatiness more than I expected it to considering it had been aged 25 years, yet managed to be a remarkably smooth at the same time.
But you know, it better have been good, considering it was going for 800 pounds per bottle.
Make sure you: Have a dram in their big library chairs in their redone malting room. The place oozes history, and if it’s a cold and ugly day, there’s probably no better place than around their wood stove.
Next to Port Ellen, Bowmore is probably the largest town on Islay.
Keep in mind though, large is relative as the entire island is home to only 3,500 people.
You can plan for a 20-30 minute drive pretty much no matter where you go on the island.
Right smack dab in the town of Bowmore, is, you guessed it, the Bowmore Distillery.
I’m not going to lie, Bowmore was by far the biggest surprise of the trip.
One of my absolute favorite scotches is the Bowmore Tempest, but I wasn’t real familiar with many of their other whiskies.
We were treated to not only one of the best tour experiences, but also one of the best tasting as well.
If you get one of the premium Bowmore tours, you’ll get the opportunity to do a couple things that are truly unique to that distillery.
First off, they do 30% of their maltings there. There are only 7 distilleries in Scotland that still do a portion of their own malting on property.
For more on the malting process means, read this.
On our tour we got to see every step of the malting process, and even got to get hands on with the tools and help out ourselves.
Then we got to go in the kiln and see for ourselves how it got smoked.
Note: You can do something similar at Laphroaig as well.
Being able to get so hands on was a cool experience.
The second unique thing was what are known as their “hand filled” casks.
Bowmore selects one specific, special cask for each edition and they put it down in their historic #1 warehouse.
Then depending on your tour, not only do you get to see the warehouse, but you also get to use a whiskey thief and pour yourself a dram of this special whiskey straight out of the cask.
Most of the distilleries will have tours allowing you to try whiskey straight from the cask, but doing it yourself is extra cool, and to make things even cooler, for about $100 a bottle, you can bottle it yourself, give it a name, and take home your very own limited edition whiskey.
This is how the Bowmore 13 year Nomadic Rebel Single Cask came to be.
The whiskey was one of the very best we tried, and the experience was probably the coolest thing we did on Islay.
Some Quick Notes on the Other Distilleries
The four that I covered above are four of the most popular, and my favorites. But the others are:
- Bruichladdich – Located near Port Charlotte, one of the most diverse distilleries. Have both peated and unpeated scotch (including Octomore, the peatiest scotch in the world), and they also distill Botanist gin.
- Kilchoman – Also near Port Charlotte about 10-15 minutes fro Bruichladdich. The newest and smallest of the Islay distilleries.
- Caol Ila – The largest of the distilleries on Islay, but most of the whiskey is sent out for blends. Near the ferry terminal in Port Askaig
- Bunnahabhain – In between Port Ellen and Port Askaig. Feels truly remote due to the drive (see video above), spectacular views and some very good whiskey. Not quite as popular as some of the others.
Where to Stay in Islay
Your options for places to stay are relatively limited, as the island isn’t huge.
There are a handful of hotels, one youth hostel, and dozens of bed and breakfasts to choose from.
Personally, we went the B&B route, and I couldn’t recommend it more.
Not only do you get an excellent traditional breakfast, but being able to get some of the local history and get to know some of the local residents is what truly make the experience of visiting Islay so special.
Our first two nights at Persabus we stayed with Don and Rosemary, who were remarkable hosts.
Don’s family has been on the island for somewhere in the neighborhood of 550 years, which in Islay terms, is “barely a local”.
The B&B is located on the road to Bunnahabin, and is also extremely close to Caol Isla, and less than 15 minutes to Bowmore. It’s a great choice if you want to see some place local, that’s close to those distilleries. It’s also very close to Port Askaig as well.
Our second B&B Coullabus, was a little bit more remote.
While explaining where we were staying to our tour guide at Bruichladdich, she said “oh, you’re out in the sticks!”
And here I was thinking that all of Islay kind of qualified as “sticks”.
In reality, it was only about a 12 minute drive to Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte, and the views you see when you wake up were unreal.
You truly feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere, so if you want to get away, I highly recommend Coullabus.
Not to mention the owner Rae, makes some phenomenal eggs and smoked salmon for breakfast.
If you want to stay in a hotel your primary options are:
- The Islay Hotel – Right by Port Ellen ferry, quite nice, and one of the best whiskey selections on the island
- Port Charlotte Hotel – The nicest hotel on the western end of the island. This area has a beautiful coastal drive.
- Askaig Hotel – While the people were friendly, our lunch there was so so. There is nothing in Port Askaig aside from the ferry (although it’s quite close to Caol Ila), so I’d probably recommend some place else.
- Bridgend Hotel – Very close to Bowmore, and right at the junction for where you can take the road to Port Charlotte, head up towards Askaig, or down to Port Ellen. Food was very good, and hotel itself seemed nice. A bit on it’s own, but only a few km to Bowmore
- Port Charlotte Youth Hostel – A Hostelling International facility, walking by it, it seemed quite dead. My guess is it’s very seasonal, and probably reasonably priced accomodations.
Should You Rent a Car on Islay?
This one is easy: yes.
You should rent a car when you come to Islay.
Here is the contact info for the two rental companies (No Enterprise here…)
Everything is very easily accessible, but to go anywhere you can expect at least a 15 minute drive, and probably 30 minutes or so to get from one end of the island to the other.
We did meet one couple who was doing everything by bus, and they seemed to be regretting their choice a bit.
The busses stop early, there are cabs, but you should plan to book them a bit ahead of time if you want to go that route.
Realistically, a car is definitely your best bet. And if you’re American, there is no better place to learn how to drive on the other side of the road. While narrow in spots, traffic is very light, and everyone is friendly.
No seriously. Pretty much everyone waves as they drive past you going the opposite direction. At first I could have sworn there must have been something wrong with my car and they were trying to flag me down to tell me.
Nope, just very friendly.
How to Get to Islay, Scotland
When trying to figure out how to get to Islay, Scotland you have two options:
The primary flight coming into the island is on the airline Flybe – or as the locals call it “Fly Maybe”.
We had no issue with our flight into the island, but with winds gusting upwards of 35 mph, you could definitely feel it on the approach, and it’s no surprise many flights can get canceled here.
The other option are the ferries that leave multiple times a day from Port Askaig and Port Ellen. If you rented a car on the mainland, you can take it over to Islay by ferry, but just make sure you book ahead of time.
Ferry schedules are here.
If you’re just a passenger on foot, then you shouldn’t have any trouble getting a ticket at the port.
Where to eat in Islay
As a rule, Scotland is not a place generally known for it’s high quality cuisine – with that in mind I’ve been pretty impressed by the quality of food I’ve found on Islay.
Without a doubt the best meal I had on Islay and one of the best seafood meals I’ve had anywhere was at the Lochindaal Inn.
Good lord, was this thing good.
Scallops, crab, lobster, scampi – it was all incredible, and all extremely fresh and caught off the coast of Islay.
The place doesn’t necessarily look like much, but the food was really good.
We went back to the bar side of the restaurant the following night (mostly because they had solid wifi) and I had a burger that was quite nice, but nowhere near the quality of the seafood platter.
Aside from that, any of the hotels mentioned above generally had food that was pretty good.
Yan’s Kitchen in Port Charlotte was also recommended, but when we tried to go it was full up.
Which brings up an important point, always try and call ahead of dinner reservations. I was surprised how busy every place seemed to be in early October.
The reason we ended up back at the Lochindaal (since we didn’t quite want to splurge on a second seafood platter), was because both Yan’s and the Port Charlotte Hotel restaurants were full.
Some Favorites from Our Islay Trip
My Favorite Islay Distillery Tour
- Lagavulin (As there was no tours while we were there)
My Favorite Islay Tasting Experience
- Bowmore – Had more old bottles open to allow you try a couple variations of 23 and 25 year varieties.
- Bruichladdich – Lots of bottles open, so you could try a really wide range of whiskies.
- Ardbeg – If you take a private tour, you get to visit their private room that has every single bottle distilled since they reopened in 1997 (obviously most not available to drink, though).
- Lagavulin – A few bottles from specific festivals that you’ll never see Stateside were included.
- Bunnahabin – Great variety of unique whiskies including an extremely rare rum cask variety. I generally just prefer peatier tastings.
- Laphroaig – I was a bit disappointed simply because they didn’t have nearly as many unique bottles open to taste. We got the 21 year distillery only which was great, and a beautiful 17 year out of the cask, but I was hoping to be able to sample even more.
- Kilchoman – Being the youngest distillery, they basically just had their most recent bottlings available.
Favorite Islay Scotches We Tasted
- Lagavulin 25 year Anniversary Edition
- Bowmore Hand Filled 13 year Cask
- Laphroaig 17 year Cask
- Ardbeg 2009 Festival Single Cask
- Bruichladdich 2003 Sherry Cask
Should You Visit Islay, Scotland?
This one is pretty obvious, if you’re a big fan of Islay Scotch then it’s absolutely worth the visit to the island.
The people are incredibly friendly, the scenery is quite spectacular, and the tours and tastings are excellent.
There’s nothing quite like pulling your own whiskey straight from the cask, and drinking it in the warehouse.
If you aren’t a big whiskey drinker, then you may be better served heading to another island or region of Scotland.
There are a handful of historical sites, some good hiking and a surprisingly good golf course, but it’s very clear the draw here is the whiskey.
In the end Matt and I had a phenomenal trip to Islay. We tasted somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 dozen different whiskies, some of which were so rare there’s no chance I’ll ever see them again.
And that is what makes the journey truly worth it 🙂