5th May 2019

Visiting Islay: Queen of the Hebrides and Whisky’s Crown Jewels

Islay is the fifth-largest of the Scottish Isles and is the most southerly of the inner Hebrides. During the 13th to 15th centuries it acted as the seat of the Lord of the Isles before John MacDonald II had his ancestral homeland, estates, and titles seized by King James IV of Scotland.

The capital, Bowmore, is located at the heart of the island on the shore of Loch Indaal. In the 19th century the population of the island was around 18,000, in the present day that number has shrunk to a little over 3,000.


BowmoreOf course, one of the main reasons for visiting Islay is to enjoy its world-renowned whiskies – and if you’re on this site, that’s probably your intention. Islay currently boasts a total of eight distilleries, although the imminent opening of Ardnahoe and the reopening of Port Ellen (mothballed since 1983) next year will soon push that number to ten.

Each of the distilleries offer a selection of tours, from the basic walkthrough of the production process to a special warehouse tasting with samples drawn directly from the casks. Booking in advance is highly recommended as spaces are limited.

Further information (including available tours) can be found at each of the distilleries’ websites:

Getting there

By sea

There are two main ports on the island – Port Ellen and Port Askaig. Regular ferry crossings operate from Kennacraig on the Kintyre Peninsula, which is roughly a two-hour drive from Glasgow. A bus service by SCOTRAIL also connects Glasgow Central Station and the ferry terminal, although the service is rather infrequent.

Foot passenger tickets can generally be purchased at the terminal on the day of travel, however in the summer months advanced booking is recommended. Passengers wishing to travel with a vehicle will need to book in advance.

Further information can be found on the ferry service’s website – https://www.calmac.co.uk/

By air

Loganair operate flights from Glasgow directly to Islay. The flight takes only 40 minutes, giving you more time in the visitors centre of your favourite distillery. Nevertheless, proceed with caution – I have heard many stories of flights being cancelled; Islay’s airport is directly on the coast, the runway in notoriously short and the weather often unaccommodating.

Getting around

There is a frequent bus service on the island that stops at all the main points of interest. Further information and the current timetable can be found here –  https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/isle-islay-portnahavenport-askaig-bowmore-port-ellen-ardbeg.

There are also several taxi companies operating which can be useful to get to the harder to reach destinations – Kilchoman for example.

For those who prefer to be more independent in their travel plans, there is a car hire company at the airport (https://www.islaycarhire.com/). Of course, this may not be the best option if your primary objective is visiting distilleries – the tastings provided after the tours will put you over the legal limit, please do not drink and drive.

Honestly, given the size and natural beauty of the island, the best way to get around is to simply strap on your hiking boots and discover Islay on foot.

Where to stay

There are several hotels on the island, however during the busy season these fill quickly. Private rentals are usually the best way to go, with sites such as Airbnb offering anything from single rooms in a shared house to entire properties with outstanding views.

Visitors with motorhomes will find facilities behind the petrol station in Port Ellen, as well as camping spots at Kintra Farm and Port Mor. The road between Bridgend and Bruichladdich offers scenic views over Loch Indaal and can be a lovely (albeit unofficial) place to park up for the night.

Bowmore offers a central location and lies directly on the main bus route, making the rest of the island easily accessible. Amenities in the town are good, with a selection of restaurants as well as a supermarket. Alternatively, Port Ellen also offers good amenities, is easily located for the ferry and can make a good base, especially for those wishing to walk the three-distillery path. 

Things to do

3 Distilleries PathThe Three Distilleries Path

The three distilleries path runs from Port Ellen over Laphroaig, Lagavulin and finally on to Ardbeg. With 3 of the island’s most well-known distilleries along a 3-mile stretch, it is a popular route for whisky-enthusiasts looking to tick off as many distilleries as possible.

If booked in advance, it is possible to tour all three distilleries in one day. However, the more ‘advanced’ tours come highly recommended and include more exclusive experiences, such as warehouse tastings. If you run out of time for a full tour, each of the distilleries offers the opportunity to try a selection of their whiskies in the bar.

Islay Woolen Mill

This family owned business sits on the main Port Askaig road near Bridgend and produces wool using a traditional method on two Dobcross looms. Wools produced by the mill have been used in various Hollywood movies, including Braveheart. Although no official tour is offered, the owners are usually happy enough to show interested visitors around.

Museum of Islay Life

Located in Port Charlotte, the Museum of Islay Life houses a large and fascinating collection of artefacts, including books, clothes and photographs, all with the objective of displaying and preserving items representative of life in Islay over the past 12,000 years.


Now nothing more than a ruin, Finlaggan was the seat of the Lords of the Isles and of Clan Donald during the 13th to 15th centuries and served as the administrative centre for the Hebrides. The site is now maintained by the Finlaggan Trust and the museum, situated in a refurbished cottage next to the loch, contains a number of artefacts that depict the history of the castle and the Lords of the Isles.


Islay has some beautiful beaches to offer. Crystal blue waters and fine white sand can be found at Machir Bay on the west coast of the island. Alternatively, a walk along the beach at Port Ellen will bring you right up to the old Port Ellen distillery warehouses.



Portnahaven is a picturesque little village with white-washed houses and is located directly on a bay on the southern tip of the Rhinns (Islay’s western half). The bay itself is the perfect place for spotting grey seals which often sunbathe on the rocks and the view is the perfect backdrop for a lunchtime picnic. Alternatively, the An Tigh Seinnse Pub serves brilliant food.

Just off the coast from the village, on the small island of Orsay, is the Rhinns lighthouse. Built in 1825 by Robert Stevenson, the light was ingeniously designed to provide constant illumination with a bright flash every 12 seconds.

Sea Safari

Back in the day whisky would have left the distilleries by boat; ingredients were delivered to and casks would have been taken directly from the distillery’s pier. With a boat trip from Port Ellen it is possible to get a unique view of the distilleries and gain an idea of how intrinsic the sea was to Islay’s whisky industry.

Additionally, you will be able to visit Islay’s Special Area of Conservation which is only viewable from the sea. Here you will see grey seals, red deer, a variety of birds and occasionally dolphins.


Golf probably isn’t one of the first things that comes to mind when someone mentions Islay but it is home to one of the world’s top 100 courses, the Machrie. A 6,524-yard-long links course awaits golfers who play the Machrie and includes some breath-taking views along the coast.

Islay Festival – Feis Ile

In the last week of May, Feis Ile celebrates everything about Islay’s culture and heritage. From traditional music, ceilidhs, poetry, Gaelic lessons, golf, and whisky tasting, there is something for everyone.

Of course, the distilleries also have open days during the week and special bottlings for the festival are released.

Further information

Peat Smoke & Spirit (Andrew Jefford) – One of my favourite books. It covers the history and landscape of Islay and contains chapters on each of the island’s distilleries.

Islay Info – Tourist information website – https://www.islayinfo.com/

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Whisky is made by distilling beer. As such, we first need to produce a beer before we can distil it. This article covers the brewing process for whisky. Having converted the starch in the barley to fermentable sugars by malting, we now want to extract the sugar. The yeast can then be added in order to produce the alcoholic liquid that will later become whisky. Brewing is separated into two distinct stages: Once the malt has been milled, it is mixed with hot water to extract the sugars and any remaining starch. This stage is known as mashing. The milled malt is initially mixed with water at a temperature of around 64°C. During mashing the grist absorbs water and the sugars begin to dissolve. The remaining starch gelatinises in the hot water, making it easier for the enzymes to hydrolyse it further into fermentable sugars. The first water is then drained off and a second water is added at a temperature of around 70°C. The higher temperature of the second water dissolves further sugars, increasing the extract efficiency. This water is again drained off and a third water is added at temperatures between 80°C and 90°C. The third water ensures that as much sugar as possible is extracted from the mash. The sugar content in the third water is so low however, that it is not used in fermentation but instead recycled and used as the first water for the next mash. Depending on the distillery, occasionally a fourth water is also used. There are three types of vessels in which mashing can take place: mash, lauter and semi-lauter tuns. Traditional mash tuns use large paddles to mix the grain whereas lauter tuns use a series of revolving rakes. Lauter tuns are thereby able to agitate and apply pressure to the mash to a higher degree, increasing extraction efficiency. All other designs between mash and lauter tuns are categorised as semi-lauter tuns. All three have slots in the floor to filter off the sugary liquid, now called wort. Once mashing is completed, the remaining grain (called spent grains or draff) is removed from the mash tun. It is often sold on to farmers to be used as cattle feed due to its nutritional value. The wort now moves to the fermentation tanks, or washbacks, for the next stage: fermentation. The yeast is added to the wort in a large vessel (up to 30,000 litres) known as a washback. These were traditionally made from Oregon pine, although steel is becoming more popular for its ease of cleaning. Many people within the industry swear that the wooden washbacks lend a flavour to the whisky that steel cannot replicate. Distilleries that use steel claim however that tests on both types of washbacks show no significant difference in flavour. After pitching there is an initial lag phase when the yeast acclimatises to its new environment. During this time the yeast begin absorbing nutrients from the wort and producing the enzymes necessary for growth. The yeast then begin to consume sugar and produce alcohol, growing exponentially. As already mentioned the yeast also produce carbon dioxide. This causes the wort to foam and can lead to the washbacks overflowing. Many washbacks have rotating blades above the wort to cut the foam and prevent this from happening. The process also produces heat, raising the temperature of the wort from about 20°C to roughly 32°C. This heat increase must be kept in check as excessive temperatures can exert stress on the yeast and negatively affect the fermentation. Once the nutrients and sugars in the wort have been exhausted, the yeast activity begins to decline. The length of the fermentation process varies between distilleries but is commonly between 48 and 100 hours. The alcoholic liquid, now called wash and very similar to an un-hopped beer, is transferred to the stillhouse for the next stage in whisky production: Distillation. Take a look at the next step in the production process: Distillation
After distillation the spirit is not yet whisky. It must first be matured in oak casks for at least 3 years before bottling. Whisky was originally consumed straight after distillation, without the mandatory wood maturation. Nobody knows for sure how this practice of oak maturation began. It has been suggested that because whisky was traditionally a seasonal product, it would be stored in containers for consumption throughout the year.   What these early whisky drinkers will have noticed is that after some time in contact with wood the spirit became much mellower. This is attributable to the reaction of the spirit with the wood and is one of the major contributing factors to today’s mandatory maturation period. Compounds within the wood, such as lactone, eugenol, and vanillin (responsible for the typical vanilla flavours), are pulled into the maturing spirit, contributing a variety of flavours and aromas. Additionally, the sharp aromas within the new make spirit are lost over time, resulting in a smoother whisky. It is not only flavour that the wood contributes. The new make spirit, as it comes off the stills, is almost completely clear in colour. Whisky’s typical, golden colour is a direct result of the tannins from the wooden casks. What the cask was previously filled with can also have a large impact on the final product. Due to laws governing its production, new barrels must be used for aging bourbon whiskey. This leaves an abundance of barrels that can’t be reused for bourbon maturation. Since there is no such law demanding Scotch whisky be matured in new barrels, many of the bourbon casks end up in Scotland. These casks then lend flavours of vanilla and caramel to the maturing Scotch whisky, typical characteristics of bourbon whiskey. Ex-sherry butts are also a popular choice, although the decline in the sherry industry over the past years makes them rarer and therefore more expensive. Sherry casks generally lend sweet, fruity flavours to the whisky. Temperature changes in the warehouse cause the pores in the wood to expand and contract, allowing the spirit to flow in and out of the staves. This leads to the extraction of flavour compounds as mentioned above. Additionally, many of the casks are charred on the inside, providing a layer of carbon that acts as a filter, cleansing the spirit of unwanted compounds. As oak is porous, the whisky is also able to breath. Over time, some of the alcohol will evaporate from the cask, known as the angels’ share, leading to a change in flavours as the concentrations of alcohol, water and other compounds changes. Once the spirit has spent at least three years maturing, it is legally allowed to be called whisky and can be bottled. The flavour development doesn’t stop after only 3 years however, and the majority of whiskies will be matured for much longer, with periods of 10 or 20 years not being uncommon. As mentioned at the beginning of this series about whisky production (“What is Whisky Made From?”), a single malt does not have to come from a single barrel. The bottled whisky is commonly a mix of several casks from the distillery, allowing the manufacturers to achieve a higher level of consistency in their product despite small variations between batches and casks. It is the role of the blender to design these recipes and manage the inventories in such a way to ensure brand consistency in the future. Of course, distilleries also release single cask expressions, which as the name suggests do come from a single cask and therefore do not require blending. Prior to filtration it is also common that the whisky is reduced in strength. Depending on how long the whisky has been maturing, the strength could be anywhere between 40% and 70%, as a result the whisky is mixed with water to bring it down to a reasonable drinking strength, a minimum of 40% but commonly also 43% or 46%. Of course, it is also possible to purchase cask strength whiskies, which are not diluted at all. Additionally, it is common for the producer to add caramel colouring prior to filtration in order to ensure that the colour is consistent over multiple batches. After filtration the whisky is stored in a whisky vat ready for bottling. Due to the difference in size between individual distilleries, there is no one size fits all approach when it comes to bottling. In the industry everything is observable from hand-filling of bottles, through semi-automatic bottling lines where the bottles are hand fed onto the line at one end and retrieved at the other, all the way to fully-automatic systems where even this step is processed by machines. It is important to note that whisky maturation is dependent on the wooden casks. Once the whisky has been bottled, maturation no longer occurs and the whisky will not improve in flavour over time (in fact, once opened oxidation can quickly degrade the quality of the whisky). That is to say that a 20 year old single malt kept on a shelf for 10 years (unopened or otherwise) is not a 30 year old whisky but a 20 year old whisky that has been kept on a shelf for 10 years.
Beer. At least that’s the short answer. Much like brandy is made by distilling wine, whisky is made by distilling beer, or at least something very close to beer – I wouldn’t recommend drinking a pint of it. The longer answer, which is still fairly short is that whisky is made from cereals (grains such as barley, corn and rye – not Cornflakes). These grains are combined with water to produce a sugary mixture known as wort, which is then fermented to produce an alcoholic liquid (similar to beer) called wash. The wash is distilled to increase the alcohol content, while reducing unwanted and concentrating desired aromas before being aged, or matured, in wooden casks. A single malt whisky is a malt whisky produced by a single distillery, i.e. not a blend of several distilleries’ malts. A single malt however does not have to come from a single barrel (which would be a single cask malt whisky) but is commonly a mix of several casks from the distillery, allowing the manufacturers to achieve a higher level of consistency in their product despite small variations between batches and casks. Not quite. Each whisky style or whisky producing region has their own set of regulations dictating when the distilled spirit is allowed to be labelled as whisky. For example, the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 set forth that “Scotch Whisky” means a whisky:
  • produced entirely in Scotland;
  • that has been distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8 per cent so that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used in its production;
  • that has been matured entirely in an excise warehouse or a permitted place in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres for a period of not less than three years;
  • to which no substance has been added except water and/or plain caramel colouring; and
  • that is bottled at a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40%.
We will cover the regulations of each style/region (Bourbon Whiskey, Rye Whisky, Japanese Whisky) when we look at each of these whiskies in more detail in future articles. Take a look at the first step in the production process: Malting barley

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