Isle of Islay - Scotland's Whisky Island
The Isle of Islay was one of our top highlights from Scotland – if not one of our favourite parts of our whole trip so far. We booked this leg of our trip as a treat, and were looking forward to spoiling ourselves for a few days!
Unfortunately our journey to the Isle of Islay began with a rocky start to say the least. We had booked our accommodations for Islay but we had yet to book ferry tickets to the island. We had checked the ferry website about a week before our Isle trip and saw that there were multiple ferries running throughout the day. With it being low season, we figured there would be no problem getting a ticket, so we weren’t in a rush to purchase one. While in Oban we decided to pop into the ferry terminal to purchase our ticket to Islay for the next day. The friendly customer service representative tried to set us up with tickets, but there was an issue with their system so we had to call a customer service number to get more information. We didn’t really think anything of it until that night, the night before we were leaving for Islay.
Sharleen called the number and as it turned out all ferries for next day were cancelled except the very first one in the morning (and it was sold out). The cancelations were due to a bad weather system that was moving in. Sharleen asked if there was any way we could get on the early ferry, and fortunately they made room for us. The departure time of the first ferry was 6am, and we had to drive 1.5 hours to get to the ferry terminal. We were happy to get a spot of the ferry, but the 6:00am departure meant that we would have to leave our Airbnb at 3:15am to drive to the ferry port to make it. We ended up waking up and getting to the ferry terminal on time, but we didn’t breath a sigh of relief until the car was parked on the ferry! The ferry left port right at 6am and we were on our way to Islay.
Since the ferry left so early in the morning, we arrived on Islay at 8:00am. We were both tired and a little concerned with what we were going to do until we could check into our hotel at 3:00pm. Islay isn’t very big, everything is about 30-45 minutes away, even if you are travelling across the whole Isle. We made our way up one stretch of the coast, but neither one of us really felt like sight seeing. We decided we would head to our hotel to see if they could accommodate an early check in – even something like 12:00 or 1:00 would be awesome!
As we drove up the driveway to the Islay House, we couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was! To us it looked like something right out of Downton Abbey. We made our way to the reception to see if we could get into our room early. The office manager was so friendly and was so sympathetic to how tired we felt after taking the early ferry. She not only let us into our room right away, but she upgraded us to a gorgeous room! We were so excited. We had booked the smallest room in the hotel, as it still cost roughly $150 Canadian a night, and that was significantly higher than our average accommodation costs. However, our time on Islay was a special treat, so we wanted to give ourselves a great experience. The room we were upgraded to was the second largest room in the hotel called the Thatcher room. It has this name as Margaret Thatcher stayed in the room during one of her visits to Islay! The room had gorgeous loch views, a huge claw foot tub, large king sized bed, and a beautiful bathroom. The upgraded room was over double the nightly rate for the room we originally booked, and we were over the moon excited to be able to stay there!
This was the first of many special experiences we had on Islay. The culture on Islay seems slightly different from other places we had visited in Scotland. Everyone in Scotland has been very welcoming, friendly, and generous, however on Islay they seem to take it to another level. For example, while driving on Islay we noticed that everyone waves to everyone. Every time you pass a car (on any road) the drivers wave at each other. This is a common practice in Scotland on narrow roads where one car needs to yield in a passing lane pull out, however, on Islay people wave even if there are two clear lanes. It’s such a friendly and warm gesture!
Our three days on Islay were amazing. We absolutely loved our time here, and we already know we will return again sometime soon. There is so much to see there!
Islay Distillery Visits
Islay is probably best known as a whisky region. Islay whiskies are some of the peatiest whiskies in Scotland, although you will find non-peated whiskies at a few distilleries as well. Islay currently has 8 active distilleries and 1 new distillery that is set to open in early 2019. We visited all of them on our trip to Islay, which made for a busy few days!
We had a wonderful tasting experience at Bunnahabhain, and the location of their distillery is absolutely gorgeous right on the water. It was a clear day when we visited, so we had great views out to the Isle of Jura. We visited on a slow quiet day, which meant we were able to take our time and learn about their whisky varieties. They were very generous with their samples, and we were able to try any whisky we wanted to. They also packaged up very generous samples for both of us to take home and try later. We both loved many of their whiskies and purchased two limited edition distillery exclusive bottles.
The Caol Ila distillery is near Bunnahabhain and also has great views of Jura. They are building a new visitor centre, which will be amazing once it’s completed! Caol Ila might not be the most well known single malt, but it is one of the main whiskies that makes up the Johnnie Walker and it gives the blend its smoky notes. Even though its single malts are less well known, it is one of Darrell’s favourite.
This is the only family run farm distillery on Islay and it is the newest of the 8 active distilleries on the Isle. Kilchoman is really unique because they try to keep as much of their process on Islay as possible. They have a 100% Islay whisky that has peat and barley all grown on Islay. This is the only whisky of its kind, and super delicious! We really enjoyed all of the Kilochman whiskies, and really liked their family operation.
We found Bruichladdich offered the largest variety of whiskies – everything from unpeated to the highest recorded PPM (Phenol Parts per Million) of any scotch anywhere! We didn’t do a tour, but we enjoyed a few tastings in their gift shop, and really enjoyed their unpeated single malts. This is also the home of The Botanist Gin, which we are big fans of!
This was the first Islay distillery we visited, and it was also the first time we were able to see the malting process at a distillery. They are one of only a handful of distilleries in Scotland who do their own malting, and it was really neat to see the process and get to touch the barley as it starts to germinate.
Laphroaig was probably our favourite distillery visit/experience on Islay. We treated ourselves to a Warehouse Tasting, which gave us a tour of the distillery and whisky making process, but also gave us the opportunity to try three limited edition single casks. After our tasting we were able to pick our favourite and fill a bottle to take home with us. The whole tour and tasting was really fun, however one of our favourite parts was becoming a “Friend of Laphroaig”. Friends of Laphroaig is a free membership type program. All “Friends” receive an honorary square foot plot of land in their peat fields. After our tasting we headed out to the fields to search for our plot of land. It was an extra special experience for us because it was Remembrance Day and as we held our little Canadian flags and headed to find our plot, we reflected upon how lucky we are to be Canadian. We are so fortunate to come from a country that is safe, free from war, and provides so many opportunities. Having been to so many countries that have extensive history of war, it really made us appreciate the sacrifices that were made for us so that we can call Canada home.
We are huge Parks and Recreation fans, so we couldn’t resist doing our best Ron Swanson impression when we visited Lagavulin. We enjoyed a lovely tasting in their cosy tasting bar, walked around the facility and explored their small shop museum, and took a walk over to Dunyvaig Castle. There we had fantastic views of the distillery and watched the colourful sky as the sun set over the water. It was awesome!
Of all of the distilleries on Islay, Ardbeg was the only one we didn’t visit inside. Unfortunately it was closed on the weekend, and we were not able to make it there on the Monday. We did stop by to look at the beautiful location and buildings. Ardbeg is one of the most picturesque distilleries on the Isle, and we really enjoyed walking around and exploring the beautiful location.
This will be the ninth and newest distillery to open on Islay, and it is estimated to open in late 2018/early 2019. We were able to visit their visitor centre and enjoyed a range of tastings. Since the distillery has not opened yet, they do not produce their own whisky. They have limited edition casks from all over Scotland, from a range of distilleries. They also had a great range of rum casks that we were able to try. It was fun to visit the visitor centre and see the plans for the new distillery. We can’t wait to visit it on our next trip to Islay!
Islay Woollen Mill
Another example of Islay’s friendly and welcoming residents was our visit to the Islay Woollen Mill. It was located a quick 5 min drive from Islay house, so we popped in to see the shop. As we were making our way towards the front door a man was approaching the entrance as well. He asked if this was our first time visiting the Mill and after we responded “yes” he told us to follow him. We went through the shop past the two looms and other machinery that were working away creating tweeds. We then followed him upstairs to a warehouse area that had hundreds of rolls of tweed and tartans.
The gentleman’s name was Gordon, and him and his wife own the Islay Woollen Mill. It is the only mill on Islay and is famous for creating the tweeds used in Braveheart, Forrest Gump, and many other blockbusters. Gordon toured us around the whole shop and gave us a great overview of the history of the Woollen Mill. The mill dates back to 1883, and Gordon and his wife purchased it in the 1981 and have been running it as a family business ever since.
The Islay Woollen Mill is considered the best-preserved mill in Scotland, as well as a significant monument in Scotland due to the well-preserved machinery that dates back to the Victorian era. The mill has the only machines of their kind left in the United Kingdom. We had such a wonderful visit to the mill, we would recommend you make time to visit as you make your way around the Isle.
Islay House Square
Right behind the Islay House is Islay House Square. The square was built in the 1700’s and was used as housing for the servants working at Islay House. Today it is home to a handful of small businesses – everything from a homemade marmalade shop, photographers, quilters, small craft brewery, visitor centre for Ardnahoe Distillery, and a carpenter shop. We stopped in to visit the Ardnahoe visitor centre and the Islay Ales brewery. By the time we got to the brewery they were only open for another ten minutes. However, that didn’t stop the friendly staff from inviting us in and taking their time to explain their various beers, give us some history of the brewery, and provide us with a bunch of tastings. We were big fans of their darker beers!
A huge reason we loved Islay so much was due to our wonderful time at the Islay House. It started with our awesome check in experience, and our amazing room, but there were so many other special things about this hotel. Built in the 1600’s, Islay House is a Category A historic home and only became a hotel in 2016. They have done a great job restoring the hotel to add modern touches, but kept a bunch of the original charm. While siting in the bar one night the Food and Bar Manager offered to take us for a behind the scenes tour of the hotel. We got to see the old servant quarters and see what areas of the hotel were historically for the servants and which ones were for the Lord and his family. We walked by the old bell board that connects bells from each room of the house to a massive row of bells. When it was in use the servants would know who was ringing a bell based on the sound the bell made because each one had a unique shape and sound. We also got a tour of the old kitchen, which isn’t currently used by the hotel at this time but will be part of the next phase of their renovation. The kitchen was huge and gorgeous, and had so many old cooking instruments like agas and a peat-burning stove.
The Islay House also has a restaurant with a Michelin starred chef. We treated ourselves to two dinners while staying there, and each one was amazing! The food was so tasty and focused on locally sourced ingredients. Most of the vegetables come from the community garden that was donated to the community by the Islay House and is open to everyone on the Isle. It is located in Islay House Square and definitely worth a visit! The Islay House also includes breakfast with each nights stay, and everything we tried was delicious and fresh. It is a mix of continental and made to order dishes. We particularly loved the Full Scottish Breakfast, as it was the perfect way to prepare your stomach for a day of whisky tastings!
We were so happy we visited Islay during the low season. In many ways it felt like we had the whole Isle to ourselves! It was such a special place, and we’d say it is worth a visit for anyone who loves whisky! There are also a bunch of lovely walks and bird watching opportunities – for those who want to get outside and explore the nature on the Isle. Even though we had three full days on Islay, we were really busy the whole time and missed a bunch of activities. It gives us a great reason to return back again!