Tips for Visiting Islay

May 16, 2018

“One day, I’d really like to visit Islay.” I hear this a lot. Admittedly, it is most often said after a few nips of Ardbeg or a long pull of Lagavulin. But it is a trip that I wish all whisky enthusiasts could experience.

My first visit to Islay was years ago, just before Fèis Ìle, Islay’s annual whisky festival; the island was empty save for a few Swedish tourists. I had approached Islay like I would if it was a bar—which is to go when almost no one is there.

However, on my trip there last year, I again attempted to visit during the “off season” and had a bit more difficulty than my maiden trip. I had to fight tooth and nail to get a room. The bars and hotels were stuffed with whisky enthusiasts from Germany, Japan and other corners of the globe. I asked one of the locals, “Why is it so busy here? I thought the season hadn’t started yet.”

She smiled and replied, “These days the season starts January 1st and ends December 31st.”

Throughout the trip, I heard stories of people buying summer homes, celebrating Christmas and even holding weddings in Islay distilleries. The fervor for the kingdom of peat is truly remarkable.

But don’t let the island’s heightened popularity discourage you from visiting. With more people on the island, the chance is greater for you to return with new stories and friends. Here are some things to keep in mind, to help you get the most out of your trip.

Be Kind and Neighborly

I know this seems like common sense but I cannot stress it enough: Islay is a closely knit community where kindness goes much further than any pound note. As soon as you land and find your ride the driver will chat you up. Don’t just shrug it off as small talk, they genuinely want to get to know you and make sure you have a great time.

Visiting Islay: Cheers at BunnahabhainCheers at Bunnahabhain / Photo Credit: Bunnahabhain

As you ride around the island you’ll notice drivers and pedestrians waving to each other as they pass. This is common practice on Islay. It is best to do the same. Not only will you seem less green but it will help you feel more comfortable asking for help.

Ask for help

No one expects you to be an expert on the ins and outs of the island, or whisky for that matter. Most of the residents have lived on the island their entire lives. Whether it’s the lady behind the bar or the guy at the petrol station, they know a lot more than it may seem.

Visiting Islay: A whisky tasting class at BowmoreA whisky tasting class at Bowmore / Photo Credit: Bowmore

For many locals, the distilleries are woven into their family history. I was asking my driver questions about Caol Ila while heading to my next stop. This launched him into recalling his younger years, as he was born in the distillery. Most of his family (including himself) had worked there many years,“I knew how to make Caol Ila 12 before I could make a cuppa’ tea!”

Schedule Wisely

It is best to pre-book a driver before arriving, as the car services are quite busy. It’s not teeming with Uber drivers either, so don’t count on your cellphone to save you. While Islay is small, it is not a place for walking everywhere. The roads that connect towns barely have enough room for two-way traffic.

Visiting Islay: A couple bikes the rough roads leaving the Kilchoman DistilleryA couple bikes the rough road to the Kilchoman Distillery / Photo Credit: Kilchoman

If you’re without a driver, make sure to have the local bus schedule on you. It makes for a peaceful, uncrowded ride and stops in many major towns: Bowmore, Port Ellen, Bridgend and Port Askaig. If you’re really in a bind remember to ask for help. My innkeeper saved the day when I couldn’t find a ride to Bruichladdich.

Don’t try to cram too many distillery visits into one day. There are only so many tours a day and too many miles in between each distillery. The best tours are the un-rushed ones. It’s also a good idea to have a bite after a tour, as you don’t want to be impaired at your next stop. Plus, what’s a great drink without a nosh?

Other Great Drinks

While you may have traveled the many miles to Islay for its whisky, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy other drinks as well. Islay has its own brewery (Islay Ales), which makes a variety of beers that are worth trying—two of which are even made from Kilchoman malt.

Visiting Islay: Islay AlesIslay Ales Angus Og Ale / Photo Credit: Islay Ales

The gin/cocktail scene has also reached the island. Many bars have a better-than-average selection of gins. Don’t be surprised if they ask what kind of tonic you’d like.

If you want to better understand their whiskies, drink Islay’s soft water. It’s more acidic and rich in potassium than what you’re used to. It even tastes a tad peaty.

Appreciate the Water

Remember, you’re on an island. Walk along the quiet beaches, dangle your feet on the docks, but perhaps resist the temptation to swim. The water around Islay drives everything. It brings in supplies, trade, and tourism. It provides the local restaurants their wonderful seafood (make sure to get yourself a bowl of whitefish soup). Of course, it chiefly provides excellent water for making whisky.

Visiting Islay: A Bruichladdich photographer shoots the waterA Bruichladdich photographer shoots the water / Photo Credit: Bruichladdich

It rains more often than not on Islay. Though much like the island’s climate, the rain is frequently mild and should not deter any of your plans throughout the day. In fact, between the rain and strong winds, a minute or two outside will wake you up better than your morning coffee.

While loading the car for the trip home, my innkeeper asked if I found the rain bothersome.

“No, I’ve gotten used to it. I think I’m even starting to like it.”

She smiled and said, “Good! Because you’ll be drinking it in ten years.”

And, of course, she’s right.

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