Cautionary note to readers: this post contains no hills. It also contains no Malbec, or indeed any other form of red wine. Possibly as a result, it also does not contain any transport debacles, unintentional visits to the pub, cases of man (or woman) flu or any of the other type of things that have sometimes meant that a trip North of the Border has gone less than smoothly.
We were trying something different for this trip – a trip to Islay with our friends Kat and Andrew, staying in Port Ellen. Whilst Islay does have some hills – and the neighbouring island of Jura has the rather magnificent Paps (insert innuendo of your choice here) the Islay tick list is something rather different. Distilleries! No less than 8 of them, with an additional one on Jura – and Jura just happens to be my favourite whisky. Indeed, we had far more success with completing this particular tick list than I probably ever will with completing any of the lists of hills. Islay also has some outstanding coastal scenery, and tons of wildlife plus some interesting historical stuff as well.
Out of the non-whisky related stuff, a short coastal walk we did on the Oa peninsula on a sunny but very windy day was good with excellent cliff top scenery. Machir Bay, where we paddled in the sea, was also very scenic, although the undertow means it is clearly not a place to go swimming. Near the Lagavulin distillery there is a ruined castle which has a great view to the distillery itself and where a huge seal was lying on a rock sunning itself. We saw loads of golden eagles, seals, and even otters playing in the bay at Laphroaig, though unfortunately my mobile phone was not capable of taking a decent picture of any of them! The Kidalton Cross, a Celtic cross on a headland up a minor road past the Ardbeg distillery, was also well worth a visit and would be quite eerie at dusk.
As to the distilleries the highlights and lowlights were:
Ardbeg: good café and an at your table tasting of 5 whiskies for £15 (excellent value). Good walk along the coast to get there from Port Ellen meaning no driving required (yay!). Nice coastal views and a brilliant road sign which it took us 2 visits to realise was a joke based on their various whisky expressions.
Bowmore: the chance to bottle your own cask strength plus an excellent tasting – and you can get there on the bus…
Bruichladdich: a good and very entertaining tour and whilst I’m not a fan of their standard edition whisky some of their other editions are very good e.g the Bere Barley version. I can’t see me trying the Octomore edition though which at 200 ppm (which is something to do with the peatiness factor but doesn’t mean peat parts per measure although I think it should) seems a bit nuts (most Islay whiskies are around 40 ppm, and the one at 100 which I tried I didn’t much like)
Bunnahabain: didn’t try the whisky as this was a drive down a narrow coastal road but am assured that it is nice. There were wonderful views over to Jura and seals playing in the bay.
Caol Ila: popped in for a quick tasting only (I was driving again) – seemed overpriced, at least compared to where I’ve seen their whisky before.
Jura: having spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out if there was any way to get to my favourite distillery by public transport I gave up. The drive (and tiny ferry) over there was worth it as the island is stunning. A good distillery tour and a special edition bottle of cask strength acquired. The Paps look like a very tough walk though! Maybe some other time..
Lagavulin: the best bit was the castle with the seal. The tour was disappointing – the guide seemed bored and going through the motions and again the whisky seemed to have been marked up. I liked the Distillers Edition but didn’t buy it; this was actually the only distillery where none of us bought anything.
Laphroaig: an excellent tasting of limited editions, done on our wedding anniversary with the chance to decorate a bung which will be used in a cask – sadly not one we will own. Plus the chance to claim your own patch of Laphroaig land (or patch of bog if you are unlucky).
Kilchoman: the newest distillery and the only one not located by the sea. I didn’t try the whisky (again was driving – you can’t get there by public transport) but the others were pleasantly surprised. The café was excellent and afterwards we had a nice paddle at Machir Bay.
An excellent, and rather different, Scottish holiday for us – though we had to buy an extra suitcase to get all the whisky home. Thankfully we weren’t flying this time! Maybe I need to start a whisky blog now…