The Isle of Islay. Photo: AFP
The Isle of Islay. Photo: AFP

Islay: The Hogwarts of whisky

If you do choose to visit Islay, make sure that you like smoky whisky, otherwise you'll wish you'd visited Speyside

From the moment I was handed my first glass of smoky whisky, with its pungent aroma welcoming me like a bonfire on a cold night, and with a galaxy of other flavours surrounding the glass, I knew I had to discover more about the origins of this liquid.

Let’s face it, smoky whisky is the five-day Test version of the Scotch; not everyone has the stomach or the stamina for it. But for those of us who love it, it can become an obsession.

Smoky whisky is made in various locations across Scotland, most commonly found on the plethora of islands off the north and west coasts. For example, Highland Park, with its delicate smoke, is found on Orkney Island, whereas the more maritime-flavoured Talisker originates on the island of Skye. An ideal place to visit for those of you not very keen on the tiny airplanes often used to access these remote locations, Skye is accessible by car from a newly built road bridge. That is, of course, if the wind allows it to stay open...

There is no contest, however, as to the real heavyweight island when it comes to smoky, peated whisky: the Isle Of Islay. Home to eight (soon to be nine) distilleries, these institutions of single malt each have an avid following of hardcore fans.

In my capacity as a drinks writer with a particular focus on whisky, I find myself visiting Islay on a regular basis, both for work as well as on personal trips, such is the beauty and the magic of the island. For me, it is also one of the most unique and beautiful places I have ever been to. Visiting never becomes a chore.

Islay might seem, if you engage with some of the marketing spiel on the back of whisky bottles, like a mythical place, the Hogwarts of whisky if you may. But visiting is easy.

If you find yourself already in the UK, in south Great Britain, the best and the fastest way to get to Islay is by air. Islay is served by flights only from Glasgow. The problem is that though flights to and from Glasgow are frequent and can be cheap, the same cannot be said for the short hop over to Islay. Be sure to book yourself on the “rattler" early, as planes for this 25-minute flight are small and so fill up fast. If you really want, you can also charter a private plane from any of Scotland’s airports.

Flying isn’t for everyone and Islay is also accessible by car via the Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferry service from Kennacraig. In a direct line, Kennacraig is not far from Glasgow...but the car journey takes a little longer due to the rugged Scottish coastline. The drive is, however, utterly stunning, taking in the western shore of Loch Lomond, through a passage known as “The Rest And Be Thankful" (which can be closed due to landslides) and down the side of Loch Fyne, the largest seawater loch in Scotland.

The whole drive will take you somewhere in the region of two-and-a-half hours, but you may want to build in additional time to stop for a coffee at Cameron House Hotel on the edge of Loch Lomond, which has its own fleet of sea planes that you can charter if you’re in the mood. Loch Fyne Seafoods is worth a visit for their local oysters, too.

The ferry takes around two hours and, if docking at Port Ellen in the south of the island, will glide past the legendary distilleries of Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. Disembarking, the island is now yours to explore. And over the past few years, as the tourist side of the whisky business has increased, Islay has become home to some fantastic premium accommodations.

In the middle of the island is the main town of Bowmore, famous for the whisky of the same name. The distillery, now owned by Japanese firm Suntory, has just purchased the main hotel, The Harbour Inn, which should, in time, provide a rival to Sea View and Islay Hotel. In the north-west of Islay, Port Charlotte Hotel is the place to stay with perhaps the best food to boot.

Staying fairly central, in Bowmore, will give you good access to the distilleries in the north (Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain) and west (Kilchoman, Bruichladdich) as well as the main hub for drinking and entertainment in the evening. But do keep in mind that this is still a remote Scottish island. Don’t expect it to be a Times Square.

If you are keen to visit the trio of distilleries on the eastern coast, I would recommend staying in Port Ellen at Islay Hotel. You will find that you can walk to Laphroaig, Lagavulin and even Ardbeg, where the Old Kiln Cafe will provide you with a warming and high-quality lunch.

Islay is a deceptively large island. You cannot walk around it and will require transport. There are, as a result, several good taxi firms that can even provide you with your own dedicated driver and vehicle for your stay, something I would highly recommend as drinking and driving is very much illegal in the UK.

If you do choose to visit Islay, you will be welcomed with open arms by some of the most hospitable people in Scotland. Just make sure that you like smoky whisky before you go, otherwise you’ll wish you’d visited the Speyside region instead.