Islay isn’t the sort of place you stumble across by chance. Neither are its whiskies, the chief attraction of this island off the west coast of Scotland, easy to fall in love with. No, a love affair with the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’ takes time. She hides her charms behind a flinty exterior of rough seas and bogs and grey clouds, just as her single malts ward off undetermined suitors with a veil of iodine, sea salt and peat.
Hardly an attractive prospect, is it? But hear me out, for like any simmering romance, once you’ve softened to Islay’s hard edges you’ll be smitten forever.
It was a bottle of Ardbeg’s Uigeadail that first did it for me. I’ve always enjoyed Scottish single malts, but the sweet and floral drams of Speyside and the Lowlands had long played their hand. For whisky-lovers, hints of vanilla, caramel and spice will get you only so far, and it was time for a change. A friend with a fine palate snuck a bottle of Uigeadail into my bag one day as I flew out of Edinburgh.
“Try this,” he said with a knowing smile.
Fast-forward three years and I find myself on the rain-spattered deck of the MV Finlaggan as the port of Kennacraig disappears into the mist. These ferries of the Calmac line are the lifeblood of Scotland’s Western Isles, and make for a fine way to explore the crenulated coastline west of Glasgow.
Fishing boats follow in our wake as sunset muscles through the clouds to light up the mountainous Paps of Jura. If you’re lucky, whales and dolphins are often spotted on these short sea crossings, but today there is just a cold wind and drizzle for company.
But then pilgrimages aren’t supposed to be comfortable. There should be an element of adventure and a hint of discovery, perhaps just a little suffering to temper the hoped-for enlightenment. For my trip to Islay – a long way from Cape Town, via London and Glasgow – was nothing if not a pilgrimage. That bottle of Uigeadail, meaning ‘dark and mysterious place’ is long gone, but its home soon looms out of the darkness. Off the MV Finlaggan at Port Askaig and, at long last, my feet step onto the sands of Islay.
It’s a long journey, no doubt, yet it’s surprisingly simple to ease into the pace of island life. From my rooms at the Distillery Cottages in the grounds of Bowmore distillery, the shriek of gulls wakes me at dawn as the local fishermen put to sea in search of herring and cod, ling and local scallops. They’ll all be on the menu down at The Harbour Inn that evening, but with a full Scottish breakfast to gird my loins there was tasting to be done.
Bowmore distillery wasn’t just my first stop. It was also the very first distillery on the island, opened in 1779 on the shores of Loch Indaal, a sea loch open to the Atlantic.
All but one of the Islay distilleries are situated right on the seafront, a link to an earlier time when boats arriving laden with barley for the malting floors would leave with barrels of aged whisky. Whiskies are matured in porous oak barrels for decades, and the evaporation of alcohol into the sea air is said to lend Islay whiskies their immediately recognisable characters of salt and iodine.
At Bowmore the place to seek out is the No. 1 Vaults: the oldest maturation warehouse in Scotland and the only one below sea level. Dark, damp and cold, it’s the perfect place to mature whisky.
If salt is one unmistakeable trait of Islay malts, the other is peat. In the process of making whisky, the barley is moistened to spark germination and then spread across the malting floor. Germination is stopped and the barley dried by burning bricks of peat from the local peat bogs: the more peat burnt to dry the barley, the smokier the final whisky.
At Bowmore the malts are generally lightly peated, offset by tones of honey, lemon zest, chocolate and hazelnut. They are, perhaps, a good way to ease into the heavily peated malts found elsewhere on the island.
From the oldest distillery on the island, I headed straight over to the youngest.
When Kilchoman opened its doors in 2005, it was the first new distillery on the island in 125 years. Set on a farm – not a quayside – it is the closest the island comes to a boutique distillery, crafting tiny volumes of malt whisky with some truly intriguing characteristics. It is also the only independent distillery on the island, where most are owned by multinational drinks companies including Diageo, Suntory and LVMH.
Which allows Kilchoman’s master distiller Anthony Wills to craft malts like the ‘100% Islay’, a lightly peated malt with citrus zestiness. It is also, uniquely, the first Islay whisky for almost a century to be made from barley grown, malted and distilled on the island. With its first 10-year-old release only due next year it’s still early days for this distillery, but this is certainly a young upstart worth watching.
Bruichladdich, on the western shores of Loch Indaal, has been around a touch longer. Since 1881 to be exact, and although it was shuttered for seven years in the late-90s it has re-established itself as one of the most innovative operators on the island. The distillery produces a bewildering array of whiskies geared to appeal to novice and experienced tipplers alike. Happily, the tasting room allows you to sample them all, including the landmark Octomore. This is the world’s most heavily–peated whisky; a monster of a dram that, surprisingly, combines its peat and smoke with notes of oak, vanilla, toasted rye and walnuts. You’ll either love it or hate it. I fell head over heels.
It’s certainly no hardship to spend your days sniffing, swirling and sipping, but there is more to Islay than its distilleries of course.
To work up an appetite between lunch and dinner, the long empty sands of Machir Bay offer lonely walks and plenty of fresh Atlantic air. Twitchers flock to the northern corners of Loch Indaal, where the shallow waters are ideal for migratory waders, and do keep an eye out for the impressive white-tailed sea eagle; Scotland’s answer to the African Fish Eagle. There’s also plenty of history to explore, most notably at the ruins of Finlaggan. Once the seat of a vast medieval empire, today the stone walls and lonely islands make a haunting sight at sunset.
Bowmore, Kilchoman and Bruichladdich all offer fine malts, but I had purposefully left the best for last.
Of all the distilleries on the island, Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig are perhaps the most famous. All have rich pedigrees stretching back to the early-1800s, and produce what many would call the iconic Islay malts. They all offer illuminating tours of the distillery house, with professional tasting rooms and guided tastings, and whether you lean towards the lighter styles of Laphroaig or sturdy Lagavulin is simply down to personal taste.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I left Ardbeg for last. Licensed to make whisky since 1815, for over 140 years it was owned by a single family, the MacDougals. And happily, despite producing over 800 000 litres of whisky each year, not a single drop disappears into blended whiskies; it is all used for their own bottlings.
Like the approachable 10-year-old, the remarkable Corryvreckan or – there she was – the Uigeadail. Named, I discovered, for the peat-laden loch that supplies every drop of water in every bottle of Ardbeg, this special vatting marries Ardbeg’s iconic smoky notes with the sweeter tones from maturation in old Sherry casks.
I left the tasting room rolling the flavours of Uigeadail around my palate, and breathed in the tang of salt air at the pier. But even still I wasn’t done. The salty tang of Bunnahabhain would have to wait for another day. So too the clear peaty malts of Caol Ila. The latter may be the largest distillery on the island, yet still manages to produce some of the most enigmatic malts on Islay.
And that is perhaps just the right word; enigmatic. For this island is as perplexing and mystifying as the word suggests. It takes a stormy sea crossing to visit an island of flat peat bogs and veiled natural beauty. Its names are all but unpronounceable. Its malts seem to conspire against your palate in an assault of peat, smoke and salt. And yet, give it time. A dram here, a lonely walk there, and I guarantee that you’ll soon fall in love with all that is Islay.
Need to know
Plan your visit at www.visitscotland.com, the website of the national tourist organisation.
British Airways offers daily flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town to London, with frequent connections onwards to both Glasgow and Edinburgh. Visit www.ba.com or call +27 11 441 8600.
Visas are required by South African passport holders to visit the United Kingdom. www.visa4uk.fco.gov.uk.
Talk the talk
Don’t make the locals smile politely while you maul their beloved Gaelic. Here’s how to wrap your tongue around those names:
Islay: eye-la, not is-lay
Caol Ila: cull-eela