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trip to IslayI’m a very lucky boy. For my birthday this year I was treated to a a trip to Islay for my birthday by my amazing fiancé, Kirsty. I have wanted to visit this larger-than-you-think island for years but had never gotten the chance, until now. 

So much happened and I learned too much from my week on the island that there is way too much to wedge into one post, in fact I have been so inspired by the trip and was fortunate enough to experience some amazing things that the write-ups will go live on the site periodically for the next few months!

Today though, you get to read the definitive summary of a trip to Islay written as both a guide and a teaser of what’s to come on GreatDrams.com over the next few months.

In this probably-longer-than-any-summary-ever-written I will give you an overview of what we did and/or learned at each distillery and a little bit on Islay life.

Top ten tips whilst enjoying a trip to Islay

  1. The island is a lot bigger than you think, either hire a car or prepare to pay a lot for taxis
  2. The bus timetable is surprisingly tricky to understand, be prepared to get that wrong a few times
  3. You don’t need to stay in Port Ellen or Bowmore to have a great time
  4. Taxis cost a LOT so make sure you’ve got lots of cash on you if you need to get one
  5. It is highly doable to get around all eight distilleries in four days with ample time in each
  6. There is no need to do a tour of each distillery, but do get a sample of each’s range
  7. There were fewer distillery exclusive bottlings than we had thought there would be so you may not end up spending hundreds on whisky to take home with you (although I did)
  8. Don’t fret about getting bottles of Islay single malt home, there’s a courier service two miles from Port Askaig that will get it home for £40 per box, it took 5 days from drop off to delivery
  9. Make sure you try the local Islay scallops, simply incredible
  10. Take time to drink in the views, as well as the single malt, they are breathtaking

Laphroaig

The one thing not to be missed on Islay was the Laphroaig water to whisky experience that is run infrequently but is not only great fun but helps you to gain a hands on understanding of every single aspect of the whisky making process. It costs £82 per person but believe me it is worth it for all malt heads, let alone fans of Laphroaig as you even get to bottle your own Laphroaig straight from the cask.

Top five insights we learned on the distillery tour

  1. Laphroaig peats 20% of their barley themselves
  2. 95% of the casks used at Laphroaig are ex-Makers Mark bourbon casks
  3. One of the original family members drowned in one of the mash tuns
  4. Laphroaig fills 3.5 million litres of spirit per year
  5. Their spirit safe is still completely manually operated, no automation here

Ardbeg

The tour itself was fantastic, in contrast to Laphroaig it felt a lot more nimble, a lot more ‘craft’ and a more light hearted despite being a big producer and having big brand backing from Glenmorangie.

Highlights included learning the following: 

  1. 1The story starts two hundred years ago on what was a barley farm. The farmer used to make five or six jugs of spirit a year for himself, his family and his farm hands to consume.
  2. Right up until the 1970s, 95% of Islay single malt whisky was used for blending purposes.
  3. Between 1989 and 1996 the distillery, now under the control of Allied Distillers, only opened for two months per year to make enough stock to put into the market.

Bruichladdich

Here we did the Warehouse tasting session, priced at £25 per person, which I initially thought was quite steep when I learned that we would be tasting just three whiskies but then it all made sense.

These were not just any single malts, said in an alluring M&S ad-style voice, these were self-valinched straight from the cask single malts, and what’s more, they have never been commercially released, making this one of the best value visits we experienced.

We sampled three casks of magic in the form of a 1989 Bruichladdich, a 2005 Bruichladdich and the first ever Octomore cask, filled in 2002.

Kilchoman

The first Islay distillery to be built in over a hundred years filled its first casks in 2005 and is already making waves in the industry, winning awards all over the place.

The distillery is wholly family owned with the two sons, the mum and the father operating different functions around the working farm and distillery. They are riding the NAS wave at the minute, they want aged stock but in order to remain fluid they have to get product out there now.

Top learnings:

  1. They only use Buffalo Trace casks as they are a very good bourbon as well as only allowing a few distilleries to buy them, creating unique taste elements.
  2. Kilchoman is the only Islay whisky to produce a 100% Islay product from barley to bottle
  3. They are excited to be in business and are unapologetic in their desire to experiment with the process and product
  4. They are producing 110,000 litres of spirit a year, making them the smallest producer on the island
  5. They have clearly focused on design as well as product, lovely packaging with fine details and premium finishes.

Top tip: £5 for a full range tasting, great value and really interesting insight from one of the family.

Sadly we could not spend too long at these distilleries due to the amount of time spent at the first four but here is an overview:

Caol Ila

Meaning Sound of Islay, this distillery is lovely with incredibly helpful staff. We did not stay long here but did find out that they produced whisky for blends until 1972 when production stopped for two years before being woken up in 1974 to produce single malt.

Lagavulin

A really nice distillery, lots of history and ownership changes in the early days, the tasting room feels like an old family front room with a fire and very comfortable chairs. Quite a small interior but really welcoming and a couple of nice distillery exclusives in the shop.

Bunnahabhain

They are going through a huge period of change right now, adding a few visitor centre and new warehouses in to the existing buildings. This is the most remote of all the distilleries on the island although seems to be the first one that many who arrive at Port Askaig visit.

Bowmore

Located in the capital of Islay, this distillery is at the heart of the most densely populated part of the island, but still manages to fit into its surroundings and the town perfectly. The shop is extensive and the bar spacious. Be aware though that the bar is a pay for bar whereas all the others (except Kilchoman) offer free samples. The tours are rumoured to be really immersive but quite expensive with the comparable Water to Whisky tour we did at Laphroaig costing £225.

Where to stay

Thinking of making a pilgrimage to the hallowed island of malts, Islay? Then make sure you think long and hard about where your Islay accommodation, the island is bigger than you think. You’re likely looking for somewhere with a great bar, great service, run by great people and in a great setting. GreatDrams recommends the Ballygrant Inn, the quintessentially Islay guesthouse that satisfies all of the above. http://www.ballygrant-inn.com

That really was a whistle stop tour of what we did whilst enjoying a trip to Islay, LOTS more detail will be posted on the site over the following few months… so keep checking back!  

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