In Food + Drink

For A Hands-On Whisky Education, Head To Islay

Head to Scotland’s Islay – the rambunctious heartland of whisky – for a crash course.

It may be centuries old, but whisky is having a moment. Recent statistics reveal an increase in the value of single malt Scotch whisky exports, but a drop in the total volume exported. Translation: more people are choosing premium whisky over more wallet-friendly bottles. And that’s a very good thing. Because whisky is an enigmatic drop and to experience its myriad complexities, you kind of do have to spend more.

The number of travellers heading to Scotland’s Islay – the rambunctious heartland of whisky – are up, too. Some are Parks & Rec fans looking to retrace the steps of Ron Swanson (whose love of Lagavulin was well-chronicled throughout the show’s seven seasons). Others worship at the altar of whisky. I fall into a different category entirely – the I’ll-go-anywhere-once, whisky-curious girlfriend of a long-time single malt fan. Naturally, during the planning stages of a Scottish holiday, the idea of spending a few days in Islay came up; I was game.

If you’re serious about getting your whisky education on Islay, you’ll need at least three full days on the island. Life is slow and the population is small, but base yourself out of Bowmore or Port Ellen if you want easy access to the essentials (namely, a pub meal and a decent bar). To get to Islay, you’ll take a two-hour car ferry from Kennacraig on the mainland. Arriving at Port Askaig, you can kick off the whisky tasting upon arrival… assuming some willing friend – or, ahem, girlfriend – has volunteered to be designated driver.

It’s less than five minutes drive to reach Lagavulin’s sister distillery, Caol Ila. The pot stills (huge kettle-like copper apparatus which distill whisky) look out ceiling-high glass windows to The Paps of Jura – three snow-capped mountains on the nearby Inner Hebridean island of Jura. They might just be the luckiest pot stills on the planet. A few more minutes down the single track road, you’ll reach Bunnahabhain Distillery, where a sweet, fruitier whisky is on the menu; the 18-year-old whisky has flavours of sherry and toffee. It’s here I learned that whisky is never aged in new barrels, but instead is stored in used sherry or bourbon casks, which gives the liquor it’s colour and some of it’s flavour.

Despite failing to appreciate whisky until this trip, I could rattle off the names of more than a few major distilleries (thanks, perpetually overstuffed bar cart). Lagavulin was the bottle I knew to buy my significant other on important occasions, so it had to be a stop on our tour. Their no-bullshit approach to making whisky – and giving tours – is fun, interesting and unintimidating. The distillery sits between Laphroaig and Ardbeg on the South coast of Islay (in nice weather, you can cycle from one to the next).

Right in front of you, fresh water flows down from the mountains and meets the Atlantic sea water which crashes against the shoreline, dragging seaweed up into the channel running in front of the distillery. All three are important elements in making the whisky and developing its flavour; it’s a nice touch, though to the Lagavulin crew, it’s purely practical. In the distance, the bogs which provide the island’s peat supply can be seen. Islay single malt is famous for being knock-your-socks-off peaty, which results in a rich smoky flavour. A visit in December brings cold wind, lashes of rain and grey clouds; it felt appropriate to warm up in the distillery tasting lounge with a dram of 16-year-old Lagavulin in hand.

Not far down the road at Laphroaig, the experience is a less rough-and-ready, and a little more curated. There’s a museum and extensive gift shop in the main building, which is also where you can taste their whiskies. Laphroaig is one of the only distilleries that does some of their peating on-site; most of Islay’s other distilleries get theirs done at the centralised facility in Port Ellen. Situated in a quiet, scenic cove, the view out of the tasting room windows only adds to the magic.

We made plans to stop at Ardbeg for a dram over lunch at the Old Kiln Cafe, which serves up homemade Scottish favourites like steak pie and haggis, neeps and tatties (translation: haggis, turnips and potatoes). Of course, it helps to call ahead, or do a little Googling before you set off for the day, because we arrived to find a desolate car park and a ‘Closed’ sign. The upside? As a newly-minted whisky lover, I now have a reason to return to Islay – to taste the bold, hearty Ardbeg whisky, one of Islay’s most heavily peated, on home soil.

Published 27 February, 2018