February 23, 2021

A Day Trip to Whisky Heaven. Islay

When I left home and moved to London at 18 I tasted Whisky for the first time at a party. It was a blended mix, the rather cheap (and it turns out, really nasty) Cutty Sark, and I foolishly drank over half the bottle. I was so sick I remained in bed for 2 days and the very smell of Whisky made me want to vomit.

Luckily an Irish friend, who clearly was not that loyal to his own countries blends, introduced me to Laphroaig many years later in the Pacific islands of Vanuatu. He warned me I might not like it, as it was a bit "overpowering" in taste, but I loved it, the peaty nose, the taste of seaweed, and the burning of the alcohol. What a drink! I was converted and began a love affair with Islay malts.

I was in Glasgow for 24 hours due to some super cheap tickets to Tunis being available via Prestwick. I love the city and I was tempted to spend the day walking the streets, visiting some of the impressive art galleries and museums, especially the Burrel Collection, which I had last seen as a child, as well as popping into a pub or two to sample the local brews.

LoganAir Saab aircraft at the tiny Islay Airport

A crazy idea crept into my head, checking the Loganair timetable I saw I could catch the first flight out to Islay at 8:30 and return at 16:45. A perfect day trip, Glasgow could wait for another time. 

There was no point hiring a car, as I was going to go Whisky tasting, but there was little public transport, except for a (very) occasional minibus which helpfully left the Islay terminal 5 minutes before my flight arrived. I would have to wing it.

The only drawback was the weather forecast, wet and windy. Ah well, this is the West Coast of Scotland and the weather can be seen as part of its attraction, and the wetness is also required to help the development of the Islay peat bogs so vital in the process of Whisky making there.

An old Saab aircraft took me on the 45-minute flight into the tiny terminal building on the island. No bus, no Taxi's and the few passengers all melted away upon arrival into the pouring rain.

Luckily a delivery driver for the Islands Gin Distillery, the highly awarded Botanist drove into the car park as I was pondering my next move. He was picking up some freight from the flight and had a few places to deliver on the island, one of which was the Ardbeg Distillery about eight miles from the airport.

The Ardberg Distillery with the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop

So I ended up having a free tour of Islay, dropping off a case of gin in Bowmore, with the Distillery dominating the tiny village (sadly no time to pop in for a taste), picking up more boxes at Port Ellen, the main town on the island (home to 3,000 people and the ferry port arrival point for those staying longer) before reaching the end of the road at the Ardbeg Distillery.

This was perfect, for this was the start of the 'Three Distilleries Path' an iconic walk linking three of the best Islay distilleries. Even better, the rain had stopped as I walked into my first Islay Whisky Distillery.

At 10:00 it was a bit early for a wee dram, but when in Islay...

The Walk even has information boards in case you get lost after a few drams

I joined a tour with a couple of other Ardbeg fans. It was out of season and tourists were few and far between. The tour was £8 and included a tasting of three Ardbeg's of various ages at the end. The tour was something I knew off by heart by the end of the day. 

The process of 'Mashing' where hot water is added to local barley, before the distilling and the ageing in barrels. Distinct, and enticing, smells wafted around in each of the process rooms we were taken too, and all too soon we ended up at the small bar to taste the end result.

The rain had started to absolutely pour down and it was carried by winds straight off the Atlantic Ocean as I set off for Lagavulin, somewhat jealous of the tourists jumping into their warm, dry cars to do the same.

Driving not only misses out on the weather, which is part of the Islay experience but the countryside, bedraggled-looking sheep, and a chance encounter in the tiny village of Lagavulin with a man who recycles the used barrel tops of local Whisky distilleries into a rather unusual souvenir of an Islay visit.

For the rest of the walk, and later throughout Tunisia, including into the middle of the Sahara desert, and to much bemusement of various border officials, I was carrying an increasingly heavy inscribed Laphroaig barrel top.

The Lagavulin Distillery was the least touristy of the ones I visited. The buildings and decor did not seem to have been updated for a century and it had the charm of a place that wasn't just chasing the tourist dollar. 

Its tours were equally different, offering exclusive tastings of old barrels, hand-filling your own favourite drop, or an in-depth three hour tour. All these need to be booked in advance, which I had not, and I was also the only person there, so no tour. 

The wonderful old Lagavulin Distillery

However one of the staff kindly took me to the distillery room so that I could get a photo of the huge copper stills. And then back into a real torrential downpour that soaked through my rain jacket as I headed off towards my favourite Islay distillery, Laphroaig.

It took about thirty minutes to walk there and I wondered if, like Lagavulin, I would be out of luck as I had not booked a tour. The Laphroaig site is by far the most impressive of the three. It includes both a museum and a large tasting area. With the weather as bad as it had been all day it was not surprising that again, there were no visitors. There seemed to be no staff either.

The Whisky Stills at Lagavulin

I removed my soaked jacket and shoes and wished I had a spare pair of trousers, as mine were clinging to my legs in their wet state. A member of staff walked in and smiled at my state, and without asking went to the bar and poured me a small glass of 10-Year-Old and brought it to me saying "I think you need this!"

Now that is the sort of welcome I like. He told me that they also had no bookings for tours today so that would not be an option. However, I could look through the museum and dry my clothes next to the fire. The museum was full of Laphroaig facts and ephemera. 

It had some interesting history, including how the owners persuaded the US government during prohibition that the Whisky was purely for medicinal purposes, allowing it to remain on sale, unlike most other alcohol at this time.

Those with deep pockets will find much to like at the Laphroaig shop

I had been there over an hour, my clothes were starting to dry out, and I was thinking of making my way to Port Ellen. No one else had come in during this time. The same staff member re-appeared and seemed surprised I was still there. 

Walking over to the fire he said: "I am actually making the Whisky here and I have to go and do some work. It ain't going to be a tour, but it will give you a good idea of what we do here and you can follow if you want?"

A private tour, bloody hell. It seemed I really had saved the best to last. So off we went, feeding the wet fresh peat onto a fire to roast the barley and impart that smokey flavour. The hints of seaweed come from the location of the peat bogs, close to the seaweed encrusted shore. I helped out loading the fire with the logs of peat. I will need to buy the resulting Whisky in ten years to taste the fruits of my efforts.

Fresh peat burning under the barley at Laphroaig

We went into the mashing rooms to check on the temperatures and progress of the mashed barley before checking on the stills. We had to pop into an office for a short time before returning to the main tasting area where I was offered any of the Whisky's to try. I chose a twenty-year-old drop to finish off the memorable visit. 

With now only a few hours before my return flight, and with my jacket now mostly dry I said my goodbyes and grateful thanks before heading off to complete my short walk to Port Ellen. Within ten minutes of getting there, the minibus arrived at the lonely bus stop and deposited me at the airport just in time for check-in and my flight back to Glasgow.

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