WARNING: Reading this blog may make you want to (1) immediately book a trip to Islay with Scottish Routes (2) crack open a bottle of Scotch (3) both of the above!
Whisky, Uisge Beatha, Amber Nectar, Liquid Gold
Whatever you call it, every variety of this Scottish aqua vitae all derives from three main ingredients, malted barley, yeast and water. So simple yet so complicated as any whisky lover will tell you.
There are many subtle factors that contribute to the unique character of each bottling and regional differences in Scotch Whisky are obvious even to the untrained palate with the peaty notes of Islay drams among the most revered. This little west coast island is home to 8 distilleries, famed around the world for the quality of their product and responsible for countless whisky pilgrims descending on it’s shores.
My own love affair with Scotland's national drink started with a seasonal job in a Highland whisky shop where, despite being a whisky virgin, i was given responsibility of selling a very fine range of malts and blends to aficionados and novices alike. My first few weeks involved being thrown in at the deep end of an amber tinted pool and reading my way through a pile of books with daily knowledge quizzes. My education was more than just theoretical though and involved ALOT of sampling and after hours drinking, oops I mean training sessions!
One thing that I didn't get to do was visit the distilleries that produced the hundreds of bottles that I became an expert at drinking and selling, so when Scottish Routes invited me to experience their 4 Day Islay Whisky Tour I immediately dropped all other plans and packed my bags!
There are 8 distilleries on Islay and the tour takes you on very different experiences around 6 of them, namely Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman and Bruichladdich. If that doesn't sound enough of a dream come true, then a bonus visit to Deanston Distillery en-route will ensure that the mood is set before you even have time to toast your fellow whisky devotees!
DAY 1 - Highlights
The tour normally starts from Edinburgh although Glasgow pickups can be arranged if required and this is where I boarded and began my journey into the fascinating world of Scotch a short time later at Deanston Distillery in the village of Doune. Joining up with the rest of my international group we dipped our first toe into the malted world of whisky production during a tour of this former cotton mill. I quickly learned that being on a whisky tour in Scotland means that drinking Scotch at any time of day is not only considered sociable but compulsory and certainly no-one on the trip was complaining when we were offered our first drams at what others may still consider 'breakfast' time.
Although Day 1 is essentially a travelling day, the first port of call at Deanston Distillery is followed by several scenic stops to break up the journey with a relaxed lunch at Oban, famed for it's seafood and with enough time to pop in to Oban distillery if you would like to sample the local dram.
For me, a chance to stretch the legs at arguably one of the most historically rich sites in Scotland was a real treat. Kilmartin Glen is home to over 350 ancient monuments within a 6 mile radius and we had the opportunity to explore a few of them before boarding the bus for the evening ferry.
The ferry journey is a relaxing 2 hours and with a malt of the month being served on board in double measure at a bargain price your Islay whisky journey officially starts as you cross the water!
Day 2 - Highlights
After the recommended 'BIG' breakfast which didn't disappoint in quality or quantity we were transported through the Islay mist to the chilly but atmospheric setting of the Lagavulin distillery warehouse. We were soon warming up when the contents from several special casks were set free into our tasting glasses and duly consumed as we learned about the effects that the type of cask and maturation period have on the taste of the end product. Our tutor Iain, a 45 year veteran of the distillery and a proper Islay character, led us through the samplings in his own unique way and provided the sage advice that the proper way to drink whisky is whatever way you enjoy it!
Although this is not a sightseeing tour there are a couple of welcome stops added in to allow a stretch of the legs, some fresh air to clear the head and provide a reminder that there is more to Islay then whisky! Before our next stop at Ardbeg we made a short detour to The Kildalton Cross, the finest intact high cross in Scotland carved in the late 8th Century which still stands where it was erected over 1,200 years ago. It was interesting to learn some of the history of the island and explore the intriguing carved stones in the churchyard.
A pleasant lunch at Ardbeg distillery was followed by a tour which I thought was pretty standard compared to the other distilleries we visited and was also the only one that disappointingly didn't allow photographs. If you are a fan of Ardbeg then I’m sure you will enjoy seeing behind the scenes and sampling a range of their amber nectar at the end, but for me this was the least memorable and most commercial feeling of the distillery visits.
Our final stop at Laphroaig was a real breath of fresh malted air after Ardbeg as we were encouraged to get interactive with the whisky making process, playing in the barley, getting our hands dirty with peat and sticking our heads in the kiln (yes, it was off at the time!).
This is the perfect distillery for big kids and they also have an interesting little museum to explore. If you thought drinking whisky was the fun part then wait until you are let loose in Laphroaig distillery!
Day 3 - Highlights
Another 'BIG' breakfast and a morning visit to the working museum that is Bruichladdich Distillery. On the surface the tour is a standard one of whisky production, however as you step behind the scenes of the contemporary marketing facade you literally step back in time to a bygone era. The contrast of the quirky modern branding of Bruichladdich and the historical working machinery was fascinating to witness and quite possibly made this my favourite distillery to visit. They are not shy at dishing out the samples either and this is where I discovered my personal dram of the trip, all in all a good start to the day!
With the consumption of a generous amount of drams so early in the day, a walk on Machir Bay certainly blew the cobwebs away. It didn't matter that the sea fog obscured what would normally be one of the finest sweeping beaches you might find, the group was in high spirits (quite literally) and embraced the sea air with enthusiastic abandonment. Everyone was fascinated by the shipwreck protruding eerily from the sand through the mist and the group was soon refreshed and ready for lunch.
Kilchoman Distillery is the most recent on Islay and sitting in a working farm setting it is also one of the smallest in Scotland. After a tasty lunch at the cafe we were shown around the bijou production where every part of the whisky making process is carried out onsite, from barley growing to bottling. Despite only starting up in 2005 they have already succeeded in producing some fine drams as we all agreed during the tasting and it was a pleasant change to explore a more bespoke operation on the island.
From bespoke to one of the biggest, Bunnahabhain lies on the NE of the island and the drive there is a stunning one. The prison like buildings would certainly never be classed as bonnie but the location is without doubt the most impressive, although to be fair most of the distillery locations are quite photogenic! Our excellent guide really added a touch of fun to our tour and the quiz at the end to win a special dram brought out some competitive streaks. All that whisky was definitely having a strange affect on me as I found myself admiring the unpolished stills for longer than any normal person should!
Although we had planned a quick visit to Caol Ila, we had run a little over schedule which meant it was closed before we arrived although everyone was happy to stop for a few photos and a peek in the windows at their ginormous stills.
That evening we enjoyed what was quickly dubbed a 'seafood extravaganza' with obligatory jazz hand waving every time it was mentioned during our trip. Cooked by Andrew and Alison, the owners of our accommodation, this was an amazing feast of the freshest fruits de mer caught locally that day. Although this was an optional meal at extra cost, all of the group elected to indulge and I seriously doubt you could have enjoyed a better, more plentiful or fresher meal anywhere else on the island.
Day 4 is all about the journey home and as we departed Islay in the same thick sea fog that had shrouded us for days we soon lost sight of the island all together. Arriving on the mainland a couple of hours later we were welcomed with clear blue skies and a perfect view. There was some speculation as we travelled in the Scottish spring sunshine that perhaps Islay is a magical whisky island that appears and disappears at will and once you leave you may never find it again. I am confident that Scottish Routes know the secret to it's location and will continue to transport whisky adventurers through the supernatural mist for a long time to come, but I don't think anyone could dispute that it is indeed magical!
Scottish Routes seem to have found the perfect balance of keeping to a schedule whilst not making you feel rushed and running group tours that feel totally personal. While some tours serve the purpose of taking you from A to C with some good stories and a quick photo stop at B along the way, this tour creates a unique experience and the feeling that you want to do it all over again as you reluctantly depart the bus with a bag full of memories (and in this case whisky!).
When I set out to do this blog my intention was to find the best experiences Scotland has to offer and this trip delivered above and beyond my expectations. If you are a whisky lover then this is a real bucket list trip and I can't recommend Scottish Routes as a tour company highly enough. If Speyside malts are more your thing (like me!) then they run similar whisky tours in that area and if you would prefer a private tour of Scotland then they can arrange that too.
Two real highlights of my trip that deserve an extra special mention are our guide James Donaldson, a truly exceptional fountain of factual and random knowledge with superb comedy timing, there is no doubt that this tour would not have been the same without him and our accommodation at The Bowmore House which was excellent in every way thanks to the proprietors Andrew and Alison. I was so impressed with the high standards that I will be doing a separate post with a review of my stay.
I was invited on this tour as a guest of Scottish Routes, however the integrity of my blog is important to me and I only ever write about and recommend great experiences that I have personally enjoyed
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