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I’ve Died and Gone to Whisky Heaven – Islay, Scotland

Day 8, Scotland: A full day of touring (and tasting!) the island where the best whisky in the world is made.

Up around 6:15, we got ready and rushed out, pre-made hotel breakfast in-hand. We bid farewell to Tarbert and sped to catch our ferry to the island, Islay.

Morning view of bay from Ferry to Islay
Not a stock photo… this is real!

The Ferry to Islay
Lining up to board the ferry to Islay

Was the ferry named the Titanic? No it was the Finlaggan! But the ferry inside was pretty fancy. We explored a bit before staking our claim to a table in the breakfast area.

Sleepy Chinese family in the corner eating their prepackaged food? Yes, that was us…

The ride over seemed to last forever as I tried to decide on which of the different whisky tours that I was going to attend. In the end I settled on my favorite whisky, Laphraoig.

As soon as we docked at Port Askaig, we sped straight to the southern coast of the island. We had to catch the 11 am Distiller’s Wares tour, the only one of the day. It was 10 am.

We drove on the single-lane road zooming passed the slower tourists probably enjoying the green fields dotted with specks of fluffy white sheep. After 45 minutes, we spotted the white walled entrance… I couldn’t contain my excitement. We made it.

They seemed to scream, “Please take my fluff to make a wonderfully warm wool coat!” Don’t mind if I do!

Laphraoig

I ran toward the visitor’s entrance just in case the tour was already underway. A lady noticed me and asked why I was out of breath. I gasped I’m here for the Distiller Ware’s Tour!

Laphroaig
At my favorite distillery, Laphraoig.

The store/reception was surprisingly empty and I soon found out that I was the only one on the tour. YES! Private tour for only £45!

My guide was a cute local Islay girl who gave a wonderful tour of the distillery in her Scottish accent. She also helped me take some must-have photo-ops. It happens that I was visiting on one of the days of only 2 weeks in the year that they do the maintenance in order for everything to run shipshape for the rest of the year. This meant that I was able to visit some rooms that normally you wouldn’t be allowed into (like the room where the barley gets peat-smoked!).

Laphraoig Distillery
Laphraoig copper stills in maintenance

The distillery was founded in 1815 and was private for more than 100 years, until it was bought up by big corporations and now is owned by the US-owned Beam, Inc.. Since they also own Jim Bean, Laphroaig gets a nice supply of Bourbon casks. Laphraoig is also very proud to be the only whisky granted Royal Warrant of the Prince of Wales in 1994. The 15 year is suppose to be his favorite whisky. Good choice.

I was led through the whole process of Laphroaig whisky making and tried to understand why their taste was so unique. Was it the hand cut peat? The local fresh water source? The one-time usage of the imported bourbon casks? One will never know…

While in the filling station, my friendly guide showed me how they fill the oak barrels from the tanks. She popped out the cork from the barrel that was just filled and said This barrel was just filled so it’s a very new and strong whisky. Stick your thumb in there and have a taste!

Was her cheerful request sincere? Was this the tourist-thumb-tasting barrel? Is this how they create the award-winning Laphraoig signature taste?

Plop! In went my thumb and some strong whisky was soon in my belly. Now that I had a taste for it… I needed more.

The climax of the tour was the dunnage warehouse room, where I would taste three separate whiskies straight from the barrels. After a brief introduction of the whisky, we opened the barrels by smacking a wooden hammer on both sides till the vibrations popped the corks straight out! Then we used a large old-fashioned copper whisky thief to extract the whisky from the barrel. Its like putting a straw in a beverage, covering the hole with your thumb and lifting out the straw to drink the trapped liquid from the other end. After three separate generous tastings, I was feeling very happy and then got to choose my favorite whisky to take home with me. After contemplating a bit, I finally settled on the 1997 (15 year) whisky at 52% ABV.

Laphraoig Dunnage Warehouse
If they only let me stay here… sigh…

Barrel of my chosen whisky to take home with a strangely familiar shaped whisky thief on top.
Barrel of my chosen whisky to take home with a strangely familiar shaped whisky thief on top.

As a friend of Laphroaig I as also entitled to collect my annual “rent” on the square foot plot of land that I own as a member. This was a dram of Laphroaig, which I gladly accepted. Though a clever marketing initiative, they are quite thorough and they can even give you a map with GPS coordinates where your plot of land is located, so you can plant one of the provided flags of your choice on your plot of land. What a novel idea! I made sure not to leave without buying a rare whisky available at their guest shop.

Overall I had an excellent experience at the Laphroaig distillery, which I highly recommend to any whisky enthusiast.

Lagavulin Distillery

Right next-door is the Lagavulin distillery, another of my favorite whiskies. Founded in 1816 there was quite a history of competition with their neighbor Laphraoig. They were a bit more mainstream which you could tell by their presentation as a part of the Classic Malts group, owned by British company Diageo. We stopped in for some tastings before stocking up on more whisky from their shop.

Delivery in process at the Lagavulin Distillery.
Delivery in process at the Lagavulin Distillery.

Tasting notes at Lagavulin
Describing my tasting notes: It’s peaty yet slightly sweet. Wonderful strong woody finish and smooth after taste.

Ardbeg Distillery

Further down the coast is Ardbeg, another delicious whisky. Founded in 1815, its now owned by a subsidiary of LVMH (merger of Moët Hennessy and Louis Vuitton). They claim to produce the peatiest of all Islay whiskies.

Ardbeg
Plenty of people at Ardbeg for lunch!

We had lunch in the restaurant here with more whisky tastings. The Alligator, 51.2% ABV went well with my haggis, so I bought a bottle to take home.

With every tasting I was enjoying the Island even more.

Mull of Oa

All that heavy Scottish food and whisky was making me tired, so to wake up a bit we went for an hour plus hike in the nature reserve, the Mull of Oa. The path was not very well marked and very muddy in many parts, but once we reached the cliffs the views were well worth the trip.

Mull of Oa hike
Hiking to the point. That black dot is my dear mother a bit behind!

Mull of Oa point
At the Mull of Oa with Ireland visible behind me!

Mull of Oa Cliffs
Beautiful cliff views…

Mom at Mull of Oa
My brave mom living on the edge!

At the southern tip is the American Monument, a small tower built by the American Red Cross to remember the sinking of two ships off the coast during WWI. HMS Otranto a passenger ship turned troopship sank when hitting another British ship due to poor visibility. 431 people died, mostly Americans. The US SS Tuscania, ferrying US troops to Europe was sunk by a German U-boat resulting in the loss of 210 lives.
American Memorial
American Monument standing tall for those that lost their lives off this coast.

On our hike, we only ran into one lady walking two dogs (one three-legged dog that hopped like a rabbit). On the way back we followed the indicators that eventually we found behind a fence. Besides the indicator were many cows with very sharp horns. The especially fierce looking-one running up to the fence as we approached made us wary of going over the fence to follow the indicators, so we walked along the enclosure until we ran into that same lady who happened to live right on a nearby plot of land. She was very friendly and showed us through her property and pointed us in the right direction. She said the cows are harmless and don’t attack, unless you get to close to their young. So my idea of petting one of the calves was not the best one.
Fence at Mull of Oa
Fence blocking the hiking path… where to now?

Mull of Oa Cows
Friend or Foe? Jump over and sprint through to find out.

We got back to the car and continued to the beach at Kintra.
Kintra Beach
Islay is not ALL cliffs. At the quiet beach of Kintra

Islay Airport
Passing by the airport of Islay, I noticed that besides the planes, the sheep were also flying everywhere!

Bowmore Distillery

Bowmore Distillery is very prominent in the sleepy town of Bowmore. One of the oldest distilleries of Scotland it was founded in 1779, now owned by Suntory. During WWII it was used as the RAF coastal command to fight those dastardly submarines!

Bowmore Distillery
The awkward Japanese flag is for Suntory!

Caol Ila Distillery

We stopped by Caol Ila on our way back to Port Askaig. Founded in 1846, it was a later distillery now also owned by Diageo.

Caol Ila
Bold black lettering to guide incoming ships

Bunnahabhainn Distillery

The last distillery stop was located north of the port on Bunnahabhainn Bay. The single lane dirt road was a bit difficult to navigate at times especially with huge delivery trucks using the same route. Founded in 1881, it employed much of the village that it started in. This was one of the most beautiful distilleries that we saw.

Bunnahabhainn
Not a bad place to work…

Docks of Bunnahabhainn
My mom and aunt smiling because they’re happy! I’m slightly tipsy! At the docks of the distillery.

Port Askaig

We had a few minutes before our ferry arrived, so we stopped for a whisky at the Port Askaig Hotel. They had quite a selection as expected on a whisky island.

A drink at Askaig Hotel
One last whisky with my uncle, before heading off the island.

Ferry in sight
CANNONBALL!

Back on the ferry, I sat on the top deck to watch the sunset. I’ve concluded that Islay is the best island in the world for a whisky lover. I’m sure I’ll be back one day to drink some more fine whisky and restock! Sliante!
Pensive while Islay disappears in the distance...
Pensive while Islay disappears in the distance…

Arrived back on the mainland, we drove straight to our hotel near Stirling. Arriving around 12:30 am, we had a hard time waking up the reception to let us in. As we contemplated sleeping in the car, the light finally turned on and they showed up to let us in and show us our rooms.

With a slight headache most likely from the whisky replacing the water in my body, I soon fell into a deep sleep. Stirling is on for tomorrow!

David De Clercq

About David De Clercq

Founder and writer at World-Adventurer.com, David is on a mission to travel to every country in the world and has less than 10 countries left! He loves new adventures, unique cultures, historic landmarks, and luxurious hotels. Follow along as David shares a journey of a lifetime!

  • Telihana

    Mom and I read this together. She filled me in on a few little details:

    ‘See those sheep near the airport? They’re running because Dave’s chasing them! Like a little kids with ducks! That’s why they’re running!’
    ‘The ground was soft and squishy and full of cow poo. That’s probably why the whisky tastes like that.”David took many many photos of the cows. I’m surprised he only posted one.’LOL
    Fun article 🙂

  • Buck

    Wow, intense trip! You really managed to make the most of your time on that island, and dragging the family along with you! How much whiskey did you end up bringing back with you? Making my mouth water thinking about it.

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