An Off-Season Whisky Journey

While many a whisky fan will make the yearly pilgrimage to Islay during Feis Ile, the island’s infamous festival of music and malt during May, there is something to be said for taking a trip outside of the usual tourist seasons. Tasting team member Jim – a stalwart fan of the island and everything it has to offer – did just that…

“As a whisky enthusiast who both drinks and collects whisky, especially Islay malts, friends and colleagues alike often wonder why, as I often visit Islay Festival of Music and Malt, the Feis Ile, I try and go back to Islay outside of the Festival dates.

Why to visit Islay during off-season

Those who have been to Feis Ile during Whisky Month in May will know that it’s a week of whisky overload with the island’s population almost doubling, and little opportunity to relax and soak up the atmosphere without queuing or meeting many a campervan (an often well-recognised sign of the success of island tourism).

What many people don’t realise is the island’s off season presents many worthwhile opportunities:  not only can you book a place on quieter distillery tours, but if you’re a big fan of collecting whisky, it is often possible to find bottles and sample whiskies that simply cannot be found anywhere else but on the island (and I’m not just talking Scotland, I’m talking worldwide).

Many distilleries now release very limited single cask bottlings or bottles to celebrate special events and often these can only be obtained at the distilleries themselves, or at one of the fantastic whisky bars on the island, which due to their location are naturally Islay-centric in terms of the whiskies they stock.

Off-season on Islay is also a good time to get up to speed with what the distilleries are doing in terms of expansions and new construction: most changes tend to happen when the island is quiet, but before winter sets in.

And so, it was in mid-September that a weekend trip to Islay found me leaving to travel to Kennacraig at 0330 in the morning to catch the first ferry.

Due to an overall increase in demand, and often early start to catch the ferry does have its rewards, in the form of enjoying a full CalMac Scottish breakfast as you sail past the island of Ghiga.

Arriving on the island, the first stop was Kilchoman (currently Islay’s smallest distillery). After a tour which highlighted the distillery’s new onsite Maltings (Kilchoman distillery malts around 20-30 % of their own barley), there was the opportunity to learn about the expansion work set to introduce a new set of stills, one wash and one spirit still: an expansion that will double the distillery’s production capacity.

Kilchoman Distillery is renowned for producing distillery-only bottlings, and the opportunity to sample their latest 100% Islay Sherry Hogshead finish was fantastic.

Whilst Kilchoman may be the smallest distillery on the island, Bruichladdich has gone from strength to strength since its reopening in 2001, and has a dedicated following. Like many distilleries with visitor centres, Bruichladdich offers visitors the chance to bottle their own whisky: in the case of Bruichladdich, it truly is a cask-to-bottle experience with the purchaser having chance to choose between the “Valinches” on offer. These are single casks, usually of Port Charlotte (peated) and/or Bruichladdich (unpeated) whiskies, which are selected for their individual characteristics. Valinch whiskies by Bruichladdich are highly sought-after by “Laddie” enthusiasts, due to the need to visit the island to sample and purchase a bottle.

Distilleries also often have limited supplies of bottles that may have long-since sold out online or in shops, and this is one area where the Islay distillery shops can be a goldmine.

One other recent development on Islay is that many of the distilleries now have either a dramming bar or sell small samples of various, often limited-edition bottlings. The opportunity to sample rare or hard-to-find whiskies (such as the Kilchoman Distillery releases or Lagavulin’s Jazz Festival bottlings) are just another great reason for visiting Islay distilleries off-season, even if you’re not planning on doing a tour.

Those who know Islay will be aware that the most northern distillery on Islay is Bunnahabhain, and whilst any visit there involves a trip along the winding, single-track road, the views afforded of Jura, the Sound of Jura and (on clear days) of Mull and Colonsay are something to behold every time. Bunnahabhain is currently undergoing a major improvement programme (as of 2018/19), but once again the distillery’s onsite shop is ideal for finding single-cask bottlings. Even better, there can surely be few better places than the Bunnahabhain pier to sit and enjoy a dram of your selected bottling and contemplate what other treasures are stored in the onsite warehouses.

Heading back from Bunnahabhain to Port Askaig to once again board the Cal Mac Ferry, MV Finlaggan, it’s easy to spot the impressive sight of what recently became Islay’s ninth producing distillery: Ardnahoe. Ardnahoe, named after Loch Ardnahoe (the distillery’s water source), sits between Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila and must surely challenge both in terms of the spectacular views from its site.

My visit to Islay in September, might have been fleeting, but it brought home the fact that whisky tourism should be considered all year round, for many different reasons.

So until the next island adventure (probably also off-season): Slainte.”

Jim is part of the Scotch Whisky Experience Tasting Team, who run the many private whisky tastings we host each year in Edinburgh and further afield. To enquire about a private whisky tasting, get in touch with us via the Scotch Whisy Experience website.

Find out about other visits our team have made to Islay here.

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