On A Whisky-Swigging Trail In Scotland

For aficionados of the dark tipple, the isle of Islay is the ultimate tour stop.  
On Scotland's Whisky Trail 2
White-washed distilleries crane out of romantic landscapes in Islay, offering a double lift of spirits. Photo by: lucentius/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images

Standing in a peat bog, feet in rubber rain boots, you stifle a laugh. Your guide on the craggy Scottish isle of Islay has just revealed that the peat bricks in front of you, stacked up in two-feet-high towers, have been left out to dry so they can be used to spruce up some of the world’s best-loved whisky. Snared by the chilly Scottish rain, the thought of the bricks drying up is almost comical. Then again, the goal is not to rid them of the moisture entirely, but for their phenolics to impart smokiness to the famed malt whisky produced in Islay’s nine distilleries.

The peat banks, from which locals cut the bricks are found all over the island, often in spots of heart-stopping natural beauty. Since your arrival on the island two days ago, you have spied hills green as cat’s eyes, angry Atlantic waves, and a lighthouse straight out of story books. But Islay is the holy grail of whisky aficionados wordwide, and you are here on a mission.

Your guide, who doesn’t seem too perturbed by the still lashing rains, explains how the fossil fuel is the reason Islay is one of five whisky producing regions protected by law—the only island on the list. Peat, or highly-compressed, decayed vegetation, gives local whisky the knock-out punch that is as popular as polarising. You learn that while the island’s bigger names—Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg—are internationally cherished, younger upstarts like Kilchoman and Ardnahoe are amping up Islay’s alcoholic arsenal.

On Scotland's Whisky Trail

Salty cliffs manned by lighthouses (right), grazing sheep and ponies (top left) and chance encounters with seagulls and seals on ocean cruises (bottom left) are typical to Islay. Photos by: WoolyPhotos/shutterstock (lighthouse), rgb fotografie/imageBROKER/Dinodia Photo Library (pony), Aatish Nath (cruise)

Connected to the mainland by ferry and flight, Islay, the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands off the west coast of Scotland, is best explored by car. You do just fine because you have a designated driver among your motley group of travellers. But for those looking to take advantage of the bars attached to each distillery, it might be best to hire a taxi. With about 3,500 residents, there is no Uber, so each day requires some planning and a schedule that you stick to. You love it.

The island has two ports, Port Ellen to the south and Port Askaig to the north, where ferries from the mainland dock. Most hotels, however, are clustered around Port Ellen, The Islay Hotel and The Machrie Hotel and Golf Links strike you as the popular options. No matter where on the island you put up or start from, your trip will very likely take you to a road lined with three distilleries, the last of which is Ardbeg. Known for its smoky, almost spicy concoction, the distillery has its cult following. The tour you take around its sprawling seaside grounds might be extra special for a whisky enthusiast like yourself, but a saunter around the building’s giant copper stills and malting room would capture just anyone’s interest. Like many of the other distilleries, Ardbeg has a specially-bottled distillery edition, available only for those who have made the pilgrimage to see, drink and learn at ground zero.

Driving through the Three Distilleries Pathway, which runs from the Port Ellen connecting the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, you are thankful for the views. Watercolour greens fringe houses with backyards, crimpy cotton-like sheep graze under jean blue skies. On a clear day, the whole island might resemble a Windows screensaver, you think. The journey is made livelier at the thought of the white-washed walls of distilleries that await on the other end, woozy stories unfolding one whisky tour at a time.

On Scotland's Whisky Trail 1

The island houses nine distilleries (top and bottom), each adding its secret kick to some of the world’s best-loved whisky. Photos by: Tyler W. Stipp/shutterstock (barrels), 13threephotography/iStock Editorial/Getty Images (container)

For you though, it is the island’s ancient ruins, strewn across rolling highlands that hold the gaze. You have marvelled at the Cultoon Stone Circle on the Rinns of Islay, dating roughly back to 1055 B.C., shrouded in eons of wilderness and mystery about their origin. Only three of the 15 megaliths are still standing, the rest can be found recumbent among soft highland grass. Archaeological reports suggest that the formation, the earth around which has more socket holes than there are stones, never saw completion. But to see the site amid the abandon of nature, investigated by the Islay Historical Works Group in 1974-1975, is a delight in itself. There’s also the historic site of Finlaggan on the edge of the Loch Finlaggan. Lake-water beating against reeds, spruce trees growing amid ruins, and skies tangled up in cobweb-like mist—you wonder if you’ve stepped into a movie set. In the midst of it all, on the island of Eilean Mòr, stand the ruins of a chapel and a grave site. Finlaggan was once home to the Lordship of the Isles, a Celtic kingdom that ruled Islay, parts of present-day Northern Ireland and even the west coast of mainland Scotland. You break away from the group to amble through the ruins and spend a solitary moment by the lake, which in its stillness appears to have been in an enchanted sleep for a 100 years. Lucky that you’re wearing those rainboots, for now you can wade into the waters and take a very ‘Scottish’ loch photo for your Instagram.

It turns out that a cruise with Islay Sea Adventures is equally alluring for your lens. The montage of rugged coastlines and seasonal wildlife-in-the-distance—seals, seagulls and deer on land—leaves you agape. It’s a shame that you don’t have enough time to squeeze in a visit to Coryvreckan, a whirlpool to the north of the island that has also inspired an amber Ardbeg variant.

You return, laden with distiller’s editions from the island’s nine Scotches, each pour reminding you of the island, its meditative beauty and quiet. You hadn’t quite had your fill of Islay when the days ran out, so you settled for hoarding up on boozy sweet treats from home-based confectioners An Gleann Cottage. Their tablet, made with sugar, milk, salted butter and vanilla is enhanced with a generous glug of local whisky from Islay or neighbouring Jura, offering you the chance to sneak home more scotch than India’s two-litre limit, albeit in the form of candies. Fingers laced around that souvenir you picked up last minute from The Celtic House, you find yourself planning your next tipsy trail through Islay.

Essentials

Flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Glasgow—the closest city to Islay—involve a layover at gateway cities such as Dubai or London. Kennacraig Ferry Terminal is a 3-hr drive away from Glasgow in a rented car. There are regular ferries from Kennacraig to Islay.

Indian travellers need a U.K. visa to travel to Islay. A six-month visa usually takes about two weeks to process and costs around Rs8,000 (vfsglobal.co.uk). 

Tip

In the last week of May, Islay comes alive with the annual celebration of Fèis Ìle. Travellers compare notes on which distillery did the best job of celebrating music and malt—think whisky tastings and pop-up food stalls. Some distilleries even dole out limited editions for travellers looking to stock up.

  • Aatish Nath is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. He has written for Time Out Mumbai, Mumbai Mirror, and GQ India.

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