Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Islay, Scotland whisky tour and travel tips

Beautiful waterfront views from Ardbeg
If you're reading this then you're probably a fan of the smoky whisky that this Scottish island is famous for. We'd wanted to go for years and eventually got around to it after attending a wedding in the English countryside (how we did it). Don't be fooled by all of the blue sky in our pictures - we went in August and everyone we met felt the need to tell us that they never get this many sunny days, even in the heart of summer. So definitely bring a waterproof jacket and shoes you won't mind getting a bit muddy. If you're going to come all this way, you're going to want to sink your foot into a wet and squishy peat bog at some point, right?

First of all, it's pronounced "eye-luh", not "iss lay" or "eye lay". There's a great series on YouTube about how to pronounce whisky names. I say this because we learned we'd been mispronouncing lots of them for years. Oops.

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While we're talking about delicious accents, listen to this Islay native... Sooo good.

Before you go

Islay airport (ILY) offers daily service to Glasgow on a Flybe Saab commuter plane. Some days of the week there are two flights – one arriving around 9am, the other arriving around 6pm. The flight is about 30 minutes. Flybe is partnered with several airlines, including British Airways. We used Avios points to fly in and out of London but then paid cash for a Birmingham - Glasgow - Islay - Glasgow ticket.

There's public transport and taxis on the island, but the buses are quite infrequent. Seeing the island's beautiful nature is about all there is to do beyond visiting distilleries and eating, so I'd recommend booking a car. Islay Car Hire is right at the airport and very reasonably priced (gas up at the "filling station" in Bowmore before returning it). Do NOT drink and drive! If you want to get tanked while you taste, there are organized group tours that include a driver.

There's ferry service to the island, but we didn't take one so I'll just put links here.
Flybe
The island is fairly small. There are two main towns: Bowmore and Port Ellen. It's about 20 minutes' drive on a decent, two lane road through the legendary peat bogs to go from one to the other. Midway between them is the airport. There are 10 distilleries on the Island. Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin are connected by an awesome nature trail, which will help you with the whole "not drinking and driving" thing.

We saw quite a few people cycling, but between the shoulderless roads, the trucks, the rain, and the drunk tourists driving on the wrong side of the road I don't think I would do so myself. If you're brave and you get an unexpected sunny day, you can rent a bike on the island.

Use the nature trail to walk or bike between Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg


Most of the places we saw were small hotels with a B&B feel – there's no Westins or Ritz Cartons here. In fact, the whole place was surprisingly rural and down-to-earth, not full of 3 Michelin Star restaurants and upscale boutiques like Napa Valley. The only gay-owned accomodations we could find on the island were at An Cuan. They were fully booked so we didn't stay there. We stayed at Skerrols House, in the middle of a field of barley. It was delightful and the host was the absolute best.

A tour of the basic fermentation and distillation process is fairly similar at any distillery, so look through the tour offerings and try to book a variety of experiences if you can. In the summer months, it's a good idea to call in advance and reserve a spot. Most of the distilleries do not allow photography or video. Bowmore permits photography, though, so bring your good camera when you go there. There are lots of metal grate floors, so no heels or flip flops.

We learned after arriving that most of the distilleries on the island (except Kilchoman and Bowmore) have their grain malted and peated at one large facility in Port Ellen called Port Ellen Maltings. They do tours during the Islay Whisky Festival in late spring or by special invitation. They also warn people that it's only for able-bodied people with no fear of heights.

Most distilleries offer a range of different tours
Stills at Bowmore
Port Ellen Maltings malts and peats the barley for most of the distilleries on the island
Regulations say that each distillery needs to have its own water source, and several of the rivers dry up after long periods without rain, forcing them to cease operations. most perform regular/annual maintenance during this period. If you want to see something specific, it might be a good idea to call and ask about their downtimes.


Before you leave home, it might also be a good idea to snap a few photos of the whisky selection at your favorite local shops (and at the Duty Free when you land, if possible) so you know which whiskies are worth buying and schlepping back home. Many of the whisky houses have rare back catalog items as well as special "available ONLY at the distillery" releases.

On the island

We had pretty decent cellular coverage on most of the island (AT&T/T-Mobile roaming) in and between Port Ellen and Bowmore, but it's spotty beyond Bowmore. T-mobile offers free 2G-speed international roaming within the UK, but this summer they're running a promotion where 3G/4G speeds are also free. AT&T Passport offers several options depending on how much data you use. My tips for minimizing cellular data usage are here. Most of the distilleries have free Wi-Fi, but in my experience, the text message code never arrives so just scroll down and look for the "I have no coverage" link which should give you 2 hours of free usage without the code.

Your hotel likely has a variety of food options, including the traditional Scottish "cooked breakfast". Yes, order and eat the black pudding, dammit. It's delicious! One host called it "Scottish Superfood" – I couldn't agree more. Also, if you're at a nice, modern restaurant, the Haggis is also delicious.
Breakfast...
proper Scottish "cooked breakfast" with black pudding
Most restaurants are open for lunch until 3pm, then they re-open for dinner between 6 and 9. It's a good idea to have a reservation as things can get quite busy in high tourist season. I tagged most of our restaurant visits on my Instagram account (visit my profile on your Instagram mobile, then click the map icon). Islay Hotel and Bridgend Hotel were both great. The drive out to AnTighSeinnse pub is gorgeous, but call 24 hours in advance if you want to order their stunning seafood platter. We had great venison, lamb, and seafood on the island but the langoustines and local oysters were probably our favorites.
eat ALL the langoustines! 

There's a Co-opertative Food in Bowmore that has a wide selection of groceries and liquor if you're going to self-cater. While you're there, you should try some IRN-BRU if you've never had it before.



things we learned about whisky

I decided to make a video, sorry :) There's some more great reading about women in whisky here.


The Kilchoman I mention in the video is here: "100% Islay".



Some of our pictures from the island (click for larger versions).
Islay barley

a wee river

view of the bay

ardbeg

Land Rovers everywhere!

Grainy sunset

Skerrols House

Caol Ila

Malting the grain at Bowmore

Grain turner

Mill

fermentation tanks

aging warehouse

barrels

Laphroig sells one square foot plots of peat

Airport showcasing the local goods

cows and ocean

hello there!

Caol Ila














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