Linked Magazine recently had a sneaky little overnight trip to the beautiful island of Islay. The most southerly of the Inner Hebridean islands, it’s well worth a visit for the 130 miles of beautiful coastline and the numerous distilleries that emerge from the landscape. It’s a great place for a cheeky weekend escape.
Islay is a short hop (approx. 2.5 hrs) from the west coast by CalMac ferry. Most car, freight and passenger traffic to Islay goes by ferry using the route from Kennacraig on West Loch Tarbert to Port Ellen or Port Askaig. Kennacraig is located close to the fishing village of Tarbert on the Kintyre Peninsula. It’s a cheeky £65 return for a car, with each adult driver/passenger paying £13 (kids £6.50).
The island is steeped in history, and for comprehensive information on the island, I suggest heading to the rather fabulous Welcome to Isla Info.
Islay has a very long and rich human history. Evidence has been found to prove that the Isle of Islay was inhabited by very early settlers who came to Islay in Mesolithic times after the last Ice Age in around 7500BC as fishermen and hunters. In later Neolithic and early Bronze Age times many standing and carved stones were raised. The Cultoon stone circle dates back to this time. The Isle of Islay was once the main seat of power in the west of Scotland and became known as the home of the Lords of the Isles. The remains of their settlements are still visible at Finlaggan which is a very important archaeological site on the Isle of Islay. Remains of Islay’s religious history and carved stones are visible at several locations on the Isle of Islay. The Kildalton High Cross is the last unbroken ringed Celtic cross existing in Scotland, dates to around 800AD and a fine example of this early history. Other high crosses can be found at Kilnave and Kilchoman, and carved grave slabs can be seen at Kilchoman, Kilnaughton, Keills, Bridgend, Finlaggan and Nereabolls.
This cracking island is home to a modest population of just over 3000 people. Everyone knows one another so expect friendly folk and to be waved at – a lot – as you drive the back roads. The numbers are somewhat boosted in the summer months by the many tourists that you continuously meet while exploring every country lane. As in many places in Scotland, some visiting drivers have yet to get to grips with the idea of single-track roads and passing places.
There is no shortage of beautiful beaches to explore; Kilchoman, Kilchiaran, Lossit, Saligo, Sanaigmore and, if you want to see wildlife and crashing Atlantic rollers, try Frenchman’s Rocks. There are plenty, and those off the beaten track are virtually deserted.
However rustic Islay appears in places, it’s hard to escape the fact that this is very much an industrial, working island, with acres of peat owned and cut for use by the distilleries. And goodness, there are a lot of distilleries.
Certainly there are 11 distilleries that I could count, with more opening and others currently under construction. Broadly speaking, the distilleries are separated into the northern distilleries – Bruichladdich, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain – and the southern distilleries of Ardbeg, Laphroig and Lagavulin. With Bowmore sitting slap bang in the middle.
The peat, peaty water and briny seaspray make Islay single malt whisky unique. The flavor is strong, peaty and smoky.
Islay whiskies generally reverse the characteristics of Speysides, tending to be dry and peaty; behind the smoke, however, can be gentle mossy scents, and some spice. The southern Islay distilleries produce powerfully phenolic whiskies, with aromas redolent of tar, smoke, iodine and carbolic. Bowmore, in the middle of the island, shares these characteristics but is not quite so powerful, as does Caol Ila. Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain are lighter and much less smoky. All Islay’s Malts have a dry finish, the southern ones with quite a bite.
I’ll be honest, I’m not a whisky fan, but my forays with whisky have tended to involve spontaneous outdoor adventures; hills, loch, glens and good friends. Perhaps very little sobriety, but good times were always had. For that reason, I have a soft spot for it, and partake when adventure calls.
I am, however a gin fan, and I was delighted to see (and sample) some fine Islay gin.
FIRKIN gin – ‘On the palate, this limited edition Firkin Gin exudes a wonderful, spicy and fruity kick from those gin botanicals, combined with a silky smooth, smoky exterior from the Islay cask. There’s black pepper and lime peel, ash and vanilla, sea salt and coriander seed. Imagine eating a warming curry by a fire in a pine forest near the sea on Islay and you’ll be somewhere close to the comfort of this spirit. ‘
The Botanist gin – ‘Sweet delicate menthol, apple mint, spring woodlands, juniper, coriander with aniseed undertones, lemon and orange peel, a bouquet of summer flowers on the Machir, honey from thistle, coconut from gorse, wild mint and summer meadows. It’s a magical melody of Islay’s natural bounty from the Atlantic washed beaches to the summit of heather covered hills. Inhale and you’re there on the queen of the Hebrides!’
I do like the botanicals within the The Botanist, and the marketing chat certainly makes me smirk.
The best part of the trip for me? The drive and visit to Bunnahabhain Distillery (Boon-a-havn). Built in the 1800’s this distillery sits on the Sound of Islay, a stones throw from Jura. A somewhat magical setting – so peaceful – the whisky barrels sit on the dock exposed to the elements and seaspray. Unlike other distilleries, this place has not bowed to catering to huge coach loads of tourists the way other distilleries have. In fact, it took a bit of wandering around the old building to locate the main ‘office’ and tasting area. The lovely man chatted quietly to anyone interested, and offered samples. Be rude not to. The result was a memorable visit and a couple of purchases.