The fertile, largely treeless island of ISLAY is famous for one thing – single malt whisky. The smoky, peaty, pungent quality of Islay whisky is unique, recognizable even to the untutored palate, and most of the island’s distilleries offer fascinating guided tours, ending with the customary complimentary dram.
In medieval times, Islay was the political centre of the Hebrides, with Finlaggan, near Port Askaig, the seat of the MacDonalds, lords of the Isles. The picturesque, whitewashed villages you see on Islay today, however, date from the planned settlements founded by the Campbells in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Apart from whisky and solitude, the other great draw is the bird life – there’s a real possibility of spotting a golden eagle, or the rare, crow-like chough, and no possibility at all of missing the scores of white-fronted and barnacle geese who winter here in their thousands.
Islay has woken up to the fact that its whisky distilleries are a major tourist attraction. Nowadays, just about every distillery offers guided tours, traditionally ending with a generous dram, and a refund (or discount) for your entrance fee if you buy a bottle in the shop. Phone ahead to make sure there’s a tour running, as times do change.
Ardbeg is traditionally considered the saltiest, peatiest malt on Islay (and that’s saying something). The distillery has been thoroughly restored, yet it still has bags of character inside. The Old Kiln Café is excellent. Guided tours regularly.
Bowmore is the most touristy of the Islay distilleries, and by far the most central (with unrivalled disabled access). Daily guided tours.
Rescued in 2001 by a group of whisky fanatics, this independent distillery is building a new distillery in Port Charlotte. Guided tours.
A visit to Bunnahabhain (pronounced “Bunna-have-in”) is really only for whisky obsessives. The whisky is the least characteristically Islay and the distillery is only in production for a few months each year. Guided tours.
Established in 2005, Kilchoman is a very welcoming, tiny, farm-based enterprise that grows its own barley, as well as distilling, maturing and bottling its whisky on site. The café serves good coffee, plus home-made soup and baking. Guided tours.
Lagavulin is the classic, all-round Islay malt, with lots of smoke and peat and the distillery enjoys a fabulous setting. Guided tours.
Another classic smoky, peaty Islay malt, and another great setting – you also get to see the malting and see and smell the peat kilns. Guided tours.
If you’re visiting Islay between mid-September and the third week of April, it’s impossible to miss the island’s staggeringly large wintering population of barnacle and white-fronted geese. During this period, the geese dominate the landscape, feeding incessantly off the rich pasture, strolling by the shores, and flying in formation across the winter skies. You can see the geese just about anywhere on the island – there are an estimated 15,000 white-fronted and 40,000 barnacles here (and rising) – though in the evening, they tend to congregate in the tidal mud flats and fields around Loch Gruinart.