It’s funny how quickly you get used to drinking whisky in the morning. When you’re trying to pack 13 distilleries plus other whisky-related shenanigans into a short week it’s kind of a necessity, but it doesn’t half feel weird at first.
Today’s early appointment was at Laphroaig, the first of the three famous southern distilleries we were visiting today. Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, in one day… that’s like being a motor racing fan and visiting Monaco, Spa and Monza before dinner. Speyside offers similar opportunities but other than that you’d be hard-pressed to visit as many superstar whisky brands so close to one another.
Laphroaig can be glimpsed on the approach from Port Ellen, alluringly hidden partially from view down in its famous hollow by the bay. It’s set back a couple of hundred meters from the road behind thick woods which help to give it a nice isolated feel, though it’s only a mile and a half from the town and a mile from the next distillery up the road, Lagavulin.
Arriving at the lavish visitor center we met Stevie, an animated, engaging bloke who was to be our guide. He was outspoken and hilarious, a real character. I later saw him quoted in a newspaper article about the Scottish independence vote (which was to take place just a couple of weeks after this trip) and I remember thinking that yep, he’s the guy I’d pick to give me a quote too!
The tour at Laphroaig is pretty cool. They malt a proportion of their own barley so you get to see the malting floors and look inside the peat ovens. They let you take photos anywhere, even in the still room, though I heard a rumour that that might be changing soon (if it hasn’t already). You can see their famous quarter-casks in the yard. And then at the end, assuming you paid for it, you go inside one of their dunnage warehouses (even if it is just the touristy, gated-off bit by the door) and fill a 250ml bottle from one of three casks. I’ve done this twice now and found each time that the casks are clearly carefully selected to show different characteristics of the distillery’s spirit. All three are usually fantastic and well worth the extra cost for the warehouse part of the tour.
When I revisited Laphroaig with my wife earlier this year we did an extended tour called the “Water to Whisky Experience” and as good as the warehouse tour was, this was spectacular. I’ll do a full write-up soon but if you’re going to Islay and might be on the fence about paying for this tour, listen to Shia and “just do it”!
Up the road then, to Ardbeg, and the Old Kiln Cafe for lunch. Actually, backing up slightly from the very nice toastie I had there, Ardbeg is one amazingly-situated distillery. Incredible scenery all around, and with that wonderful little hill overlooking the sea (and the famous Ardbeg warehouse wall) where you can, as Jackie Thomson put it to me when I met her this year, “have a moment”.
So yeah, a sandwich while admiring the table mats made from old Ardbeg office documents then off on the tour. My favourite part from our leisurely wander through the working distillery is that there’s still a hand-chalked dramming tally from the old days visible on one of the walls. The other thing I noticed is how on-brand the entire experience is from start to finish.
They don’t miss a trick in the gift shop – they had by far the biggest selection of branded clothing and random whisky gubbins that I’ve seen in any distillery to date. The distillery itself is painted in the colour scheme you’d expect, whitewash with Ardbeg-green highlights, and that corporate green colour is carried through all of the distillery working areas too. I don’t mean this to sound like I’m having a go at their marketing department – it’s actually pretty classy. It’s the complete opposite of a distillery like Bunnahabhain but just as loveable, for entirely different reasons.
After an eventful tasting at the end of the tour which included a couple of exciting cask samples, a lot of laughter, and a photo of Andrew which I have carefully filed away for potential future blackmail purposes, we headed down the road to Lagavulin. Another Diageo establishment, Lagavulin is in yet another stunning setting with the Dunyvaig Castle ruins at the headland of the bay that sweeps down to the distillery. If (when!) you visit I recommend walking eastwards along the road past the distillery, then climbing the hill to your right and taking in the view of the castle and the iconic whitewashed walls, all in one gorgeous vista.
Our tour here was interesting if a bit abbreviated – they couldn’t let us into the warehouse as they were setting up for the jazz festival which started the next day. Still, it was great to see the impressive setup and hear from our guide who, if I remember correctly, was a biologist by training and had some harsh words for local geese.
Lagavulin’s tasting room is amazing by the way. It looks like a sort of maritime hunting lodge, with a fireplace, bookshelves, leather armchairs, and impressive paintings hanging on the walls. Oh, and it has lots of whisky freely available for pouring. It’s so cosy I could have stayed there all night if that had been an option.
There was more to see though, so we moved on. We were done with distilleries for the day and now it was time for some culture. The first stop was the famous Kildalton cross, carved and erected in the 8th century. That makes it almost 1300 years old, a staggering thing to take in. It’s amazing to think that it was hundreds of years old at the time of the Lords of the Isles. Worked from a hard local stone, the cross has maintained much of its detail over the long centuries; it’s even still standing in its original location. It’s an incredible, priceless artifact, which I can’t imagine being allowed to stand out in the elements, exposed to an unpredictable public, anywhere else but Islay.
Our next stop was another religious site, the ruined Kilnave chapel near Loch Gruinart. This scenic place lies next to a quiet sheep pasture today, but four hundred years ago was the scene of a brutal massacre when survivors of a battle taking refuge there were burned alive by their enemies. We arrived near sunset and with the weight of its history, it’s a powerful place, like so many others on the island.
For now I’ll leave you on that somber note, but don’t worry. We’re on a whisky tour after all, and the spirits won’t stay troubled for very long. The next day was to be one of my favourites with some wonderful experiences to lighten the heart, so let that thought warm you as you walk this gloomy place with only the distant bleating sheep and wild seabirds calling from across the loch to keep you company in the gathering dark. Until next time, then.