A visit to whisky HQ, the Isle of Islay

Scottish Routes Islay Whisky Tour

Oh I do love a dram. Over these long winter months I’ve pretty much perfected the image of the old timer hibernating through the winter with my slippers, my fire and my glass of something amber firmly affixed to my grip. But with spring now finally upon us, it’s time for me to get out there and have myself a pilgrimage to pay my respects to a true whisky heartland, the Isle of Islay.

I have been invited to join Scottish Routes’ 4 day Islay whisky tour which, aside from meaning no concerns with drink driving need apply, provides me with an opportunity to gauge the quality of this specialised tour. Our excursion takes in detailed visits to 6 of Islay’s 8 distilleries and includes some of Scotland’s most impressive natural scenery along the way.

Day 1

Departing the Central Belt, the first stop on the whisky voyage is the impressive Deanston Distillery. Within a stone’s throw of one of my favourite destinations of late, Doune Castle, this particular whisky house breaks us in nicely for what is certain to be a dreamy few days. Deanston’s top attraction for me is their huge cellar space used to store their vast reserves. Arched ceilings, chilly temperatures, no natural light and an eerie silence make for the perfect spot for the all-important maturation stage of the distillation process. This is where the magic happens. More comparable to the smooth and sweet tasting notes found in the Speyside distilleries further north, Deanston makes for a nice comparison to the peaty big-hitters about to come in Islay.

scottish routes islay whisky tour.

on the road deanston scottish routes islay whisky tour.

Having now met all of our fellow whisky enthusiasts including our trusty guide, James, it’s off on the beautiful drive to Oban for a fish lunch before a jolly journey into the Kintyre peninsula for the ferry crossing between Kennacraig and Port Askaig on Islay. The tour mini-bus holds a little over a dozen guests of international travellers, all foaming at the mouth for what is about to befall us.

Our accommodation for the duration of the 3 night visit is the Bowmore House. Excellent in every way, Andrew and Alison could not have been more accommodating and their skills in the kitchen even led to a seafood extravaganza for dinner on our final night. Lobster, crab, oysters, scallops….Personal touches like this are something that makes an accommodation provider stand out and it was a fantastic treat for all of the group.

Day 2

Today is all about the Big Three. The Holy Trinity. The peatiest of peaty. The smokiest of smoky. Oh yes. Laphroaig, Lagavulin and my personal favourite dram, Ardbeg. These guys are powerful malts that can be loved or loathed, but that all boast huge worldwide followings. All three also enjoy gorgeous locations on the southern shores of Islay and are within a stone’s throw of each other.

scottish routes islay whisky tour.

scottish routes islay whisky tour.

laphroaig scottish routes islay whisky tour.

Lagavulin kicks us off with an introduction to their long-standing custodian, Ian. Huddled as we all are within a freezing cellar at 10am, we could not possibly prepare for his antics as glass after glass is thrust towards us. Vintages going as far back as 1966 pass my lips this morning and sobriety takes its leave well before 11am for all participants.

Ardbeg and Laphroaig follow in a similar vein as each sense is given a proper workout and a whole new level of knowledge is gathered. As with all the distillery tours, visitors are given some education into the process that starts with simple grains of barley and ends with bottles of liquid gold that can be worth thousands of pounds. It is truly awesome to think that it all begins here.

scottish routes islay whisky tour barley at laphroaig.

piles of peat scottish routes islay whisky tour.

whisky barrel scottish routes islay whisky tour.

Day 3

Today starts with a visit to Bruichladdich. Fear not, you are not the first to struggle. It is pronounced Brook-lad-dee. It is the Islay whisky that isn’t peated, making it something of a novelty. Bruichladdich has suffered in decades gone by and lay more or less abandoned before the industry picked up significantly in recent years. Today, it is a real treat and is painted throughout in an appealing turquoise, the colour of the Islay water on the first day of its resurgence. Also housed in this distillery are Port Charlotte which is more distinctively Islay-tasting and also Octomore which is deliciously lethal. Just about as peaty as it’s possible to get, this stuff could singe the eyebrows right off you!

Next up is little Kilchoman. A tiny distillery located on the western side of the island, it has a very personal charm that is a nice change from the more obvious appeal of the massive brands visited yesterday. The Loch Gorm came out trumps within the Kilchoman range for me here. Fruity, smoky and sweet, there’s a hell of a lot going on in a glass of this stuff.

kilchoman scottish routes islay whisky tour.

bunnahabhin scottish routes islay whisky tour review.

In another great testament to the organisation of the trip, Bunnahabhain is the last distillery on the tour. On first inspection, the place looks pretty grim in appearance. It was for me the most delightful surprise of the trip however as there is very little that should be changed about this particular treasure. Another magnificent water’s edge location and a proud and knowledgeable guide put all my initial conclusions to shame. The interior seems to have been changed very little, if at all, in recent decades. Functionality and tradition have prevailed emphatically over shiny new methods and equipment. There is a personality and charm about Bunahabbin that made it a very fitting end to a great tour.

bunnahabhain scottish routes islay whisky tour.

whisky tasting scottish routes islay whisky tour.

The two distilleries that we did not properly visit as part of Scottish Routes’ tour were Bowmore and Caol Isla but both have been on their schedules in the past and can be again, I would encourage you to ask in advance if there are any you simply must see.

Day 4

All that remains is the return journey to Glasgow. Stops along the way include the pretty towns of Tarbert and Inveraray, both being tailor made for an ice cream on a sunny day. I must concede that anything that is not whisky hitting my tastebuds is truly joyous news at this moment in time!

inveraray scottish routes islay whisky tour.

bowmore house islay scottish routes

Closing thoughts

This is a first class tour. It is very much aimed at whisky lovers and if you are a fanatical fan of the water of life, this is going to be an experience you will never forget. Brilliantly marshalled and educated by James throughout and with the personal touches that come with experience and a genuine desire to deliver truly indestructible memories, I can’t talk highly enough of Scottish Routes as a company.

Regular followers of my ramblings will know I’m first and foremost an independent traveller but this trip highlights some of the key advantages of sharing such an adventure with others. The experience of James and Will of Scottish Routes consistently ensured that we got only the best treatment and I was very glad (for once) to leave the planning in the safe hands of others. From sourcing top drawer accommodation to ensuring that our itinerary took in the most appealing features of each distillery, they’ve got the balance of this tour spot on. Speaking of perfect balance, where is that Ardbeg Perpetuum hiding?

I was kindly invited along as a guest for Scottish Routes’ first Islay whisky tour of 2015 but this is an honest account of my experience and I would not rave about these guys if I did not believe they are very much worth considering if you are looking for a whisky extravaganza of your own.

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