From the moment I was handed my first glass of smoky whisky, its pungent and aromatic aroma rising from the glass, hitting my nostrils with a kaleidoscope of aromas, I knew I simply had to discover more about the origins of this liquid, the roots of this hooch, the lineage of this liquor if you will.
Let's face it: smoky whisky is the Marmite of the Scotch world. You either love it or you hate it. For those of us that love it, it can become something of an obsession.
I grew up in the English countryside but would holiday once a year in Norway, visiting my mother’s side of the family. One place we would regularly visit was a small island called, Fedje. Home to a sardine tinning factory, the island was also a substantial supplier of peat to pre-oil rich Norway and this aroma had been a key part of my upbringing. As a result, nosing a peated malt for the first time whisked me right back to summer holiday island life, in the misty Norwegian rain. I simply had to visit where this stuff was made.
"Make sure you get a good seat starboard side as the ferry passes Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphraoig"
As a tourist wanting to discover peated whisky, you are faced with a few options. For the less aggressive, more subtle peat tones one can head to the extreme north of Scotland, to Orkney and to Highland Park distillery. From London, two flights will get you there with Highland Park just a short jaunt from Kirkwall Airport.
Or you could choose to visit Talisker on the Isle of Skye. Ideal for those of you not keen on tiny aeroplanes operated by someone with name more akin to brand ambassador than running an airline (see: Logan Air), Skye is accessible by car if the occasionally changing weather allows the road bridge to stay open...
But there is no contest as to the real heavy-weight island when it comes to production of smoky, peated whisky: the Isle of Islay. Home to eight distilleries, these cathedrals of single malt each have an avid following of hardcore fans. When I first visited Islay it was on a cycling holiday, having chosen to bike around the island on a pilgrimage to each distillery. I hadn’t been on a saddle for about 10 years (it is still a rare sight) and the island was a lot bigger than I expected. Needless to say, I’m no Sir Chris Hoy, but it did not put me off and since then I have visited Islay countless times, both during the Feis Ile (the annual Festival of Music and Malt) and within ‘normal working hours’, and I have to say that, aside from producing some of the tastiest whiskies in Scotland, 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 malt’s marketing spiel, like a mythical place akin to Hogwarts or Narnia, but visiting is easy. Well, easy-ish. It’s still an island in the Inner Hebrides, after all...
If you want to get there quickly, there is no better way than to fly. Unlike getting to Orkney, where you can fly from Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow or Edinburgh, Islay is served by flights only from Glasgow. Be sure to book yourself on the ‘rattler’ early, as the planes are small with the flight lasting only 25 minutes or so.
Flying isn’t for everyone and Islay is also accessible by car via the Caledonian MacBrayne (‘CalMac’) ferry service from Kennacraig. As the crow flies, Kennacraig is not that far from Glasgow, but as the car drives it’s a bit of a schlep. Why?Well because there is no really easy route directly across the Firth Of Clyde to the Mull Of Kintyre. This means a drive due north from Glasgow along the western shore of Loch Lomond, through the passage known as ‘The Rest And Be Thankful’, which can be closed due to landslides and down the side of Loch Fyne, the largest sea water 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 (it has its own sea planes which you can charter if you’re feeling rich), Loch Fyne Seafoods for some tucker and, of course, a stop at Loch Fyne whiskies in Inveraray to make sure you have a bottle of smoky, Islay whisky to repatriate!
However, I think one of the finest ways to travel to Islay is on the coach from Glasgow; also undoubtedly the cheapest. The last time I did this journey, about six months ago, my ticket cost me just£6. Return. It’s easy to pick up, passing through Glasgow’s fashionable West End and has a ten minute or so stop off in Inveraray, which I’ve often found is more than enough time for Richard Joynson to sell you a bottle of something special.
Cleverly timed to meet with the arriving and departing ferries at Kennacraig, the coach continues on down to Campbeltown, where you’ll find one of the most astonishing distilleries in Scotland: Springbank. Seemingly held together by string and elastic bands, Springbank is a must-see for any whisky fan. Operating almost as much as a museum as a distillery, tours are fantastically down-at-heel for somewhere which should sport the moniker ‘the distillery which health and safety forgot’.
Campbeltown used to be home to a vast array of distilleries but now only a handful remain and their operating seasons are not all year round (some note even all week long), so it is always best to check ahead to see if they are working. The town boasts a couple of nice hotels, such as the newly renovated Ardshiel which has a fantastic selection of whiskies, not just from Campbeltown but from around Scotland. Well worth the extra day, if you’re making the journey down to Kennacraig.
Once safely on the ferry over to Islay, fill up with Mac ‘n’ Cheese or a good old Scottish Breakfast and, if docking at Port Ellen, make sure you get a good seat starboard side as the ferry passes Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. Disembarking, the island is now yours to explore; whether camping at Port Mor or living it up at the swanky new Islay Hotel in Port Ellen, you’ll sure to have an experience to remember and one which will be evoked every time you catch the wonderful aromas of an Islay whisky.
Tips and tricks for visiting Islay by public transport:
- Book online and early to get the cheap deals.
- Pack a newspaper or book for the coach and ferry, but more importantly, a camera. You’ll be sure to want photos from both.
- Make sure you have some way of getting from the ferry terminal on Islay to wherever it is you are staying. Public transport on Islay is not as frequent as on the mainland.
- You can always stick out a thumb! Hitchhiking on Islay on commonplace, especially during the extremely busy festival season.
- Always carry a bottle of something smoky in your bag to offer to others around you.