The Islay Experience
This part of our Scotland trip was the pinnacle of excitement for Mon Cheri. The island off the west coast of Scotland, facing the North Atlantic Ocean, is the land of smoked, pitted whiskeys, unlike any other in the world. Islay, pronounced as “eye” and “la”, added a layer of serenity and simplicity to our 3 weeks in Scotland, which was a surprise, considering all the Scotch consumed.
We made it there only after raking over 3,000 km around Scotland and on our way to complete the circle taking us back to Edinburgh.
There are only 2 conventional ways to get to the island: either jump on a municipal ferry or fly a small plane to the local airport. It made a lot of sense to us to have a car for few days on Islay, so ferry it was. The isolated Port Askaig does not offer anything to do while waiting for a check in… We had dinner in a car, watching the increasingly starry sky, and overlooking a confused deer, trying to make it across the river estuary. While in no danger of drowning or being chased by predators, the odd movements of the beast made us think that it came across some of the abundantly produced local Scotch.
Once we’d finally boarded, we found the ferry to be rather luxurious and casino-like. It did have a slot-machine section, as well as plenty of mirrors, brass, and shiny surfaces all over the interior. Although the restaurant was closed for the day, there was a bar cafe still open, and plenty to explore around the 2 passenger decks. It was dark, so we preferred a cushiony section on the top lounge with TVs, and a social vibe created by the few people on board. Bring your wine and snacks!
On the way back, we enjoyed the second floor with dining tables to gaze at the views of fjords and islands passing by. This ferry is really a pleasure ride and worth the money.
We arrived to this tiny, ghostly-quiet town late at night and it took us time to find our Bed and Breakfast, although it was only ten houses in and facing the bay. Port Ellen is very orderly and Victorian-era proper with tall houses, lining the waterfront like soldiers. There was one pub, a few restaurants, and, rather, scarce accommodation options. The prices also reflected the scarcity, but that was fair to expect from a 3,000-residents’ settlement overrun by tourists.
Throughout our touring of Scotland, we’d dreamt of a bathtub. After many hikes, it just would have had been ideal. At Askernish B&B, our dream finally came to reality. We got to enjoy both a shower and large bathtub in the grande suite. Joy, our friendly host, has a huge house with many Scottish elements. Each morning we had a lavish breakfast that came with the stay, and Joy made crafty meals of our choice from the daily menu. She definitely shook up things with the local favourites, and a few staples to enjoy prior to the mains. Her porridge was remarkable, making it properly is an overnight process, so for those looking for gluten-free options, do let her know. Breakfast was a great time to get to know our neighbours - a German couple on their annual Islay trip as well as a Japanese lady traveling alone.
Day in Islay
This tiny island is most definitely tourist oriented, the main 3 distilleries in the area - Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Artbeg are all within a short hike distance from Port Ellen. Everything is connected by a well-paved trail and there is a stunning scenery of rolling hills and the sea, as you move along the coast. Although we went for several tours, including a lengthy whiskey expert-led at Artbeg, the experience that stood out the most was Laphroaig. Since Mon Cheri enjoys their 12-yr old bottle, we had a couple of tiny leaflets that those come with. These urged us to register online and claim a square foot plot of land to collect an annual rent in a form of a `small dram`. Laphroaig is being generous with what essentially is a swamp land, they’d acquired to protect their water supply from the pesky neighbours back in the day. The new management found an ingenious way to create an experience around this ownership concept. By registering, we received a 5cl bottle of the classic 12-yr old, and were encouraged to grab a pair of their branded wellingtons to claim the plot, with a national flag of our choice. A bit of a treasure hunt adventure!
Walking fearlessly in mud and water was well worth it. The museum is also worthwhile to check out as you can learn about the industry and what transpired throughout the years. Apparently, during the US prohibition period, whiskey was miraculously discovered to have medicinal value to be freely imported, circumventing the bans.
Walking between the distilleries, you are always surrounded by great picnic spots, but do watch out for those sneaky clouds - the weather is quick to change throughout the island. Although Lagavulin was sold out for tours, we did make it to Ardbeg. With a stylish interior and restaurant inside, there were a few neat brand elements at this Louis Vuitton-owned distillery. A memorable one is their mascot - a Jack Russell terrier - a recent addition to the brand, which is weaved into the store décor, culminating in a royal painting in the private tasting room. After our comprehensive tour of the Distillery, there was a 45min tasting of all 3 expressions from Ardbeg’s main range, plus 2 of their limited editions. The unique flow was not as close to a traditional one for Scotch, but more resembling an in-depth wine tasting. We got to know the fellow German, Dutch, and Canadian enthusiasts on the tour with us over the prolonged sipping sessions, which left a unique and lasting memory.
The Whisky Industry
Finding a tiny, family-owned distillery to enjoy remained a fantasy for us. This industry isn’t like wine making, with mom-and-pop tiny shops everywhere. Every single distillery out there is owned by one of the big companies: Diageo, Pernod Ricard, LVMH, Bacardi... being an international brand is a resource-consuming undertaking, not feasible for a small enterprise.
During our 2 days on this beautiful lost-in-time island, we also visited their local pub at the Ardview Inn, with a huge selection of whiskeys to taste. That resulted in several hours of intense conversing with a surprisingly local crowd, leaving politics aside, and current affairs, while navigating their unique accents. We’d learned that locals only drink the basic, inexpensive Famous Grouse or Grants. There were simple men, who seek the essential alcohol effect, but they are somewhat bitter about the tourist-centered industry. Although, they have a healthy understanding that visitors are needed for the island to survive. Scotch going to Scotts is a tiny portion of the sales.
Curiosities on the Island
On our drive through the island, we felt the welcoming small town vibe, as every driver on the road greeted us. Driving through, we saw the peat fields (tourist can do the peat cutting for a distillery too, when the season is right). It looks fun, but also wet, as they do the cutting when it is moist outside. The entire island is covered in peat giving birth to the unique whiskey process.
One more thing to potentially check out is a local Wool Mill. This shop was a throwback to the 18th century maybe? Located closer to the middle of the island, everything was exceptionally traditional there. We got a private demo of their weaving, and almost got lost in the labyrinths of fabric, and equipment stacks. Braveheart, Rob Roy, Highlander…, movie credits on faded photos, decorating the local wall of fame to celebrate the wool that traveled from this mill to those Blockbusters in Hollywood.
There are also ruins to visit with information boards all over detailing telling the island’s history. A cool detour, if you are nearby, but probably not worth a special trip.
On our way to a large sandy beach for a sunset view, we were lucky to come in close contact with Grouse several times - quick-moving, wild chicken with a bold red comb, - a true island local. One last thing was the stunning views of Jura island (population 300 humans and maybe 10,000 sheep) on our way around the East side to visit Bunnahabhain.