A trip to Islay: Part 1

As Islay remains one of the go-to spots for whisky lovers to visit when in Scotland, and for our team here at the Scotch Whisky Experience, it’s no exception. Eoin, a member of our guiding team and a recent recruit to our apprenticeship programme, has written us an epic saga of his trip to the Whisky Isle last year – including stop-offs at all eight (nearly nine) distilleries.

Here’s Part 1 of Eoin’s blog posts, including a visit to Laphroaig Distillery along the island’s southern coast.

“Islay is the fifth largest island off the west coast of Scotland and is known as “the Queen of the Inner Hebrides”. It is renowned for its fishing, tourism and more notably its smoky whiskies – boasting an impressive eight distilleries (soon to be nine later in 2018) – and has established itself as a stand-alone region. With a population of only 3,500, it’s safe to say that whisky plays an important role in the everyday lives of the Ileach people.

My itinerary included:
1 rented car
2 ½ days on Islay
8.5 Distilleries to visit
1 tiny pop-up tent
1 pair of swimming togs (you’ll find out why later)
4 tomato sandwiches

Our journey begins in Edinburgh on a fresh crisp morning at 5am the first weekend of September. A 3½ hour or 152-mile drive to the Kennacraig Ferry Terminal half way down the Kintyre peninsula awaited us. Darkness began to break as we passed through the beautiful Loch Lomond National Park, showcasing a spectacular sunrise across the lake looking back east.

The ferry port at Kennacraig gave a first glimpse into the lives of the 3,500 inhabitants of the isolated Isle of Islay with grocery trucks, cement mixers, JCB diggers and post vans among the tourists queuing for the ferry that keeps the island going.

The ferry itself was surprisingly luxurious with reasonably priced breakfast buffet to choose from. The 2 hour journey to Port Askaig located on the north east of Islay was reminiscent of an opening scene from a Jurassic Park movie with the two giant Paps of the Beinn an Oir mountain range on the Isle of Jura to the right, casting an intimidating gaze over the flatter lands of Islay. Port Askaig lies in what can only be described as a bottleneck between both Jura and Islay, as the vast Atlantic Ocean gets swallowed up and almost becomes a river between both islands. The tiny distance resembles a near car collision where Jura slammed on the brakes before crashing into mainland Scotland, and Islay came so close to rear ending its fellow isle.


Laphroaig Distillery

Laphroaig is THE most quintessential distillery on Islay, and for some is the poster boy of Islay Scotch whisky.  This was the only Distillery tour we took on our journey here, under numerous recommendations from colleagues and friends who have been before. This distillery tour at Laphroaig did not disappoint.

The staff and tour guide were fantastic and very patient. Some distilleries are very cautious about where you can and cannot take photos but not here.

Without spoiling too much of the tour itself, one of the highlights included a trip through their malting room floor: Laphroaig’s production demand is so high right now that the on-site floor maltings only contribute to about 1% of their total yield. The distillery gets its supply of malt from centralised maltings in Speyside, as it’s much more cost efficient to do so. The floor malting room remains open as a homage to the old tradition and for a greater tour experience. At the time of my visit the malting was not taking place so our tour group got to stand inside the kiln where you could examine the structural strain and damage the heat has on the wood frames holding the Pagoda rooftop in place. I have been told that if malting is taking place at the time of your tour, a lucky volunteer is picked to light the peat fire itself (what an honour!)

A taste of the Wash as it’s fermenting is also a nice touch to the tour, as it gives you a good indication of how the product evolves from this step to the final product. It also adds to the visitor experience as a volunteer is asked to collect a sample from the group (I looked most excited at the prospect and so naturally was picked to do so).

A wee glass and a choice of whiskies to choose from is the perfect ending to any tour, and if you are driving like I was then not to worry: Laphroaig offer their tastings in tiny sealed jars so you can take them home and drink at a better convenience, a clever touch.

The distillery visitor centre has a great section dedicated to Laphroaig’s extensive and colourful 200-year history, from the tragic death of its founder Donald Johnston in 1847 (drowning in a vat of partially distilled spirit – he literally died doing what he loved!) to the 60-year war with a neighboring distillery (1857-1921), all the way to receiving the Royal Warrant from Prince Charles in 1994.

The views from this little hollow by the bay are spectacular. Only 30 miles in the distance to the south you get a view of Ireland, and with a good pair of spy glasses you can make out the features of the Giant’s Causeway and further along, The Bushmills Distillery. Strange to think how close these two distilleries are, yet so far apart. You get an urge to give a little smile and wave (or another type of hand gesture, depending on your stance toward Irish whiskey) as a sign of camaraderie and respect (or lack of) to your fellow whisky maker across the sea.

Laphroaig offer a large variety of whisky tours to suit all levels of appreciation, including a visit to their water source or a trip to their bog field where you are given a peat cutting spade and put to work.

Laphroaig Bog Fields

A very unique concept Laphroaig offers its visitors is the chance to own your very own wee piece of land on Islay… and they pay you rent! …in the form of Whisky! What more could you ask for? Now the terms of the rent mean you have to come to the distillery to claim your whisky, and did I mention the size you claim is 1 square foot, and it’s paid in the amount of 1 dram per year. Still, free whisky is free whisky and road frontage always goes down well when courting a lassie. To claim your land, you simply enter your details into a computer at the visitor centre, they print you a certificate stating your claim and a map to your plot. Grab a country flag that represents you best, head out to the bog and claim your land like the proud conquering hero you are, dressed head to toe in tartan and a pair of (supplied) wellies on your feet so your shoes don’t get destroyed.”

Want to hear more of Eoin’s story? Tune in next week for another update – encompassing Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain and the soon-to-be-completed Ardnahoe Distillery.

Fancy exploring things to do on Islay? Have a read of last year’s blog post on what to do (besides a whisky tour) on this beautiful island.

Photos: Éoin Ó Murchú



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