In our fourth and final installment of SWE team member Eoin’s blog post series on exploring Islay, he visits the southern peninsula of the island, heading to the distilleries of Lagavulin and Ardbeg. For those eagle-eyed readers noticing the distillery missing from this list – you can find Eoin’s blog post on visiting Laphroaig distillery here!
Read on for what to expect when visiting these famous distilleries on Islay, plus a few final tips for what to do when you’re getting distillery withdrawal on your way home!
Lagavulin 16 year old is my absolute favourite whisky. Parks and Recreation is my absolute favourite TV show. So to say that visiting Lagavulin Distillery is a dream come true is an understatement. Now for those of you who have never experienced a Lagavulin 16 year old, it is arguably the whisky that defines Islay. Its smoky uniqueness is something that cannot be comprehended without trying it yourself (much like our tours at the SWE)
And for those who haven’t heard of Parks and Rec, this American comedy features Ron Swanson, played by Nick Offerman, who throughout the six seasons of the show constantly endorses Lagavulin as “nectar of the gods”, and Nick Offerman himself has become an ambassador for Lagavulin, featuring in commercials for the brand (including a 2017 New Year’s Eve promo where Nick just sits outside the distillery at 11pm new year’s eve and sips his Lagavulin in silence FOR AN ENTIRE HOUR, while the distillery staff are celebrating in the background counting down to the new year).
It was late in the evening when I arrived and having not booked ahead for the following day, I was unable to do a tour. Nonetheless, the distillery staff were very accommodating and offered a tasting of all four expressions – including the distillery-only 12 year old.
The Lagavulin visitor centre décor transports you back to the 1950s, with its old industrial union office layout to the gentleman’s club tasting room. A very authentic example of a distillery lost in time.
A five minute walk up and around the bay’s tiny peninsula, towards the Dunyvaig Castle ruin, you will be rewarded with probably the most iconic view of any whisky distillery in the world. It is absolutely beautiful scenery and you can’t help but empathise with Ron in the TV Show episode where he visits the Lagavulin Distillery, shedding a tear reading aloud the poem O were my Love yon Lilack fair by Robert Burns as he sits by the castle ruin.
Lagavulin 16 year old – PPM (35-40)
Ardbeg is a newly rejuvenated distillery on Islay, which until recently held question marks over its future. Glenmorangie (Moet Hennessey) stepped in and acquired Ardbeg in 1997. Now under the guidance of Glenmorangie’s Head of Distilling and Whisky Creation, the brilliant Dr Bill Lumsden, Ardbeg has flourished, and has seen a complete makeover with a gorgeous new state-of-the-art Visitor Centre and Restaurant.
And the work has paid off: you can certainly see why some now view Ardbeg as the most beautiful distillery on Islay. A large, now-retired, copper pot still overlooks the majestic courtyard, decorated with a fine floor mosaic of the Ardbeg Celtic logo, and the freshly painted warehouse walls have throne room seats placed in front for epic Lordship-style photo opportunities.
Dr. Bill Lumsden is instrumental in the success of Ardbeg’s new releases: An Oa, Uigeadail and the Kelpie limited edition single malt whiskies. All these new expressions demonstrate “Dr Bill’s” signature attention to detail and dedication to research into oak casks. From the Kelpie’s unusual Black Sea oak casks to the complex variety of casks used to mature An Oa before being married in Ardbeg distillery’s bespoke ‘gathering vat’.
Ardbeg 10 year old – PPM (45-50)
Some final tips
Islay is a small and isolated island but still offers so much for its visitors, and as I discovered, two and a half days is not nearly enough time to fully enjoy the adventure.
Islay isn’t just a whisky haven; it also has some amazing beaches, breathtaking sunsets and an array of wildlife along with lighthouses and castle ruins to explore. Other activities include horseback riding, surfing and golfing. Islay also has its own airport, hospital, museum, police station and three fire stations.
With an extra few days I’d recommend grabbing a short boat trip to explore Jura. Or perhaps when you arrive back on the mainland use that extra time to head south and explore Campbeltown just like our Tour Manager Jim Allan’s guide in a previous blog post about this tiny, but nevertheless iconic whisky region on the Kintyre peninsula.
And, if you’re still distillery-mad and want more after your trip, you can always stop into the Auchentoshan Distillery on your way back to Glasgow.
And there you have it! Your complete guide to exploring the island of Islay. Check out the first, second and third installments from Eoin, or why not get inspired with a whisky tour at the Scotch Whisky Experience in the meantime?
Photos: Éoin Ó Murchú, Gillian Beaton