There’s an old and rather quaint BBC documentary about Islay available on Youtube called Whisky Island. It’s an interesting record of an earlier age; you should go and find it if you haven’t yet had the pleasure. Filmed in the mid-1960s, when whisky tourism was all but unheard of, one of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is not so much the differences but the similarities between then and now. Fifty years on, Islay is still as unspoiled and remote as the one you see in the film, and the Ileachs debate the same topics – transport, jobs, the protection of an old way of life. Even though the whisky is the main draw for many of us, I think that this unhurried timelessness is one of the reasons many people come back year after year.
I’d been desperate to visit Islay for a very long time and finally found an interesting way to pull it off. KWM Scotch guy (and new owner) Andrew Ferguson runs whisky-themed tours which are well-respected, and kind of infamous too, in a good way! In addition to touring every distillery on the island in five days, we’d see Arran, Springbank, Glengyle, and Auchentoshan on the way there and back again. We’d also be visiting a lot of interesting sights, one or two allegedly not even related to whisky. I had some slight misgivings at the extreme level of stamina that might be required, but we made it back with relatively few fatalities.
Alright, so there were no fatalities, but there was almost a car-sickness incident which would have been nearly as bad.
Setting off from Glasgow early on a Sunday morning we headed for a ferry, seven of us plus our guide bonding over coffee and map reading. It was early September, near the end of a spectacular British summer; we arrived at our boat in glorious sunshine and luckily for us the good weather held up for the whole of the rest of the week. Most of the other passengers appeared to belong to a large cycling group, no doubt enjoying the conditions just as much as we were. I wondered what they’d think if they knew of our full whisky-nutjob itinerary.
A quick skip over the Firth of Clyde and we were on Arran. Sometimes called “Scotland in miniature”, Arran is a gorgeous little island with everything from low plains in the south to granite mountains in the north, and sea views around every corner. Our first stop was at Machrie Moor, home to ancient standing stones dating from around 2000 BC. We were quite pushed for time as we were expected at the distillery – a recurring theme as you’ll see, but unavoidable when packing so much into a short week – but still managed to have a respectable (and respectful) look around. Surrounded by mountains and open spaces, the moor is a beautiful and fascinating place, haunting even in broad daylight.
But now it was time to meet a different kind of spirit (zing). The distillery is about half an hour away from the moor by car, in the village of Lochranza, and has to be amongst some of the most scenic surroundings of any distillery in the world. Eagles roost on the mountainsides behind the main building and the picturesque village is just a stone’s throw away, castle ruins included.
We were met inside by our guide Gerard, and right away were taken away on our first distillery visit of the trip. A brief film started the tour, covering the history of the island and the distillery itself. Arran has only been producing whisky since 1995, so there’s not a LOT of history there, but it’s great to see them become as successful as they have.
The rest of the tour was quite short, as the distillery is a pretty compact place. Almost all of the important steps in the whisky-making process take place in the same fairly small room – mashing, fermentation, and distillation with a single pair of stills. Gerard was knowledgeable and helpful, and happily answered a bunch of questions from our bunch of whisky obsessives, then took us to our tasting session. This was comprehensive with some interesting stuff – we tried the Devil’s Punchbowl III for the first time; the whisky named for the standing stones, Machrie Moor; and then finally their distillery-only Arranach single cask offering, which at the time was their only 18-year-old spirit for sale. After a fine lunch at the bright and spacious cafe in the visitor center, where I introduced everyone to the concept of the great British toastie, we all left in great spirits for our second ferry trip of the day – onward to the Kintyre peninsula and Campbeltown.
The ferry ride was pretty short, on a very small boat that only had room for a few vehicles. After a quick trip north up the coast to the imposing Skipness Castle, we headed down to Campbeltown along the winding B-roads. Driving into Campbeltown is a treat, especially with Andrew’s insights into the many old whisky barons’ mansions you pass as you make your way through the town. We were staying at the Ardshiel Hotel near the ferry terminal, which has lovely comfortable rooms and a spectacular whisky bar. After a very good meal and a couple of drams (I had something pretty special as I remember, but alas! didn’t write it down), we called it a day. We’d packed a lot in and I was pretty beat, but couldn’t wait for the next day. Tomorrow we headed to Islay!