September 28, 2012

ISLAY - the wild, wonderful and welcoming whisky island

The moment I set foot on Islay, I knew that I was in love. Bumping to a halt in a  tiny Flybe plane from Glasgow, I could barely see anything for the fog outside, but the smiles of welcome in the minuscule airport at Glenegedale were anything but foggy.
Within minutes of being picked up by my brothers and hitting the A846 (don't let the "A" fool you!), the fog had dissipated and the crystal clear air produced brilliant contrasts between the choppy, blue and white waters of Laggan Bay, vibrant purple heather, mottled brown hills, emerald green ground covering and a sky of many colours. It didn't take long to figure out the driver's rule of conduct on Islay roads - a smile and a brief raise of the steering wheel hand to every passing car.
By the time we reached our wee rental house in Port Charlotte, right on the waterfront, overlooking Loch Indaal, I knew that this was going to be a great week. Later that evening, the car I had rented was delivered to my door by Maureen, with instructions to just open her door (she lived round the corner) and throw the keys in at the end of the week - a week that was to be filled with heart-warming, genuine and fascinating encounters with some of the most iconic folks in the Scotch whisky industry.
Prior to my visit, I had planned to write one article, encompassing all of Islay's distilleries. But after spending a few wonderful hours at each of the eight distilleries, and being the recipient of much generosity of time, stories and spirit of both kinds, I simply had to write a section on each of Bowmore, Lagavulin, Kilchoman, Caol Ila, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Ardbeg and Laphroaig.
As I drove around the island for the next week, often using passing places to jump out and take photos, the weather changed constantly and quickly - from pounding rain to bright sunshine, from winds that closed the airport to absolute calm, from balmy warmth (OK, perhaps not quite balmy) to finger-freezing cold. Never a dull climatic moment!
The open, rugged landscape is stunning, none more so than on the intrepid journey to Bunnahabhain, where the single track road with endless blind corners and lip-biting blind hills keeps you hoping that you won't encounter a ferry bound lorry filled with whisky. If you do, guess who's backing up to the nearest passing place!
But Islay isn't all about single track roads with sheep wandering about. To accommodate the tens of thousands of annual visitors, the island has a wide range of hotels, B and B's and rental properties, as well as some great dining options, several in the Michelin Guide. We sampled at the Harbour Inn in Bowmore, the Port Charlotte Hotel, and the Bridgend Hotel, leaving many more to explore next time. A good family friend mentioned that some rental places are already booked up for Islay whisky week in May 2013 and 2014! Feis Ile brings whisky lovers from all over the world, many of whom line up hours, even days, in advance to guarantee the purchase of a limited edition festival bottling.

The Lagavulin sponsored Islay Jazz Festival got underway on our last day on the island. We headed along to the community hall in Bruichladdich, which was filled to capacity with visitors and locals of every age, and listened to some great Bossa Nova, while nursing a complimentary glass of Lagavulin 16. Earlier that day I was delighted to secure bottle #226 of a single cask bottling, hand selected for the festival by Lagavulin's Iain MacArthur, whom I had the pleasure of meeting earlier in the week. But more on Lagavulin later.
Outside of distilleries, I spent some time with a marvellous lady and a new friend - Rachel MacNeill. Check out Rachel's websites. She knows the island like the back of her hand.

I'll definitely return to Islay - for the people, the wildlife, the wonderful whisky, the beautiful landscapes I've barely explored, the sea air....... I am in love!
If you want to visit Islay, here's a great place to start.
Next up - Bowmore.......