A one day tour of Islay's distilleries. Part 1

The view from Lagavulin distillery
Islay whiskies are famous for their heavy smoky peaty island style.  The truth is that there are plenty of exceptions. Bruichladdich mostly produces unpeated whisky and Bunnahabhain’s standard output is light and delicate. Nevertheless, most distilleries on Islay do live up to this reputation.

When I visited Islay last year, one of the things I wished to achieve was to get an answer to a question which had bothered me for some time. Where does that salty seaweed sea air smell and taste come from that you experience in Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bowmore and Caol Ila?

After reading as much as I could on the subject there seemed to be two distinct opinions:

That salty, sea air, seaweed taste and smell comes from:

1. The natural Islay water they make the whisky from.

2. The sea air that penetrates and impregnates the wood of the casks with sea salt as the whisky is maturing in the warehouse.

Most people discount the first opinion. Talking about pure peaty Scottish water that comes from the stream that rolls down the mountains of the Highlands is all part of the marketing “sphill” that surrounds whisky and shifts so many bottles. I don’t have a problem with this. However,  most true whisky experts will admit today that actually the water source they use to malt the barley and produce the wort has only a minuscule influence (if that) on the final flavour of the whisky and that it has all been a very clever marketing tool aimed primary at the Americans.

I had always assumed that the second opinion was by far the most obvious. After all, who hasn’t noticed that after visiting the seaside, your clothes and skin still smell of the sea air and salt? Think what influence that would have on a wooden barrel sitting in a warehouse by the sea for 10 or more years?

Almost all Islay distilleries are to be found on the coast.


This all made perfect sense until the whole theory of the salty sea air permeating the wood of the cask was dispelled when I learned that, straight after distillation, almost all of that delicious seaweedy sea breeze Caol Ila Single Malt was poured into tankers and shipped off to the mainland where it was put into oak casks and sat in a central warehouse near Glasgow for 12 years!

So where does this sea air flavour come from so dominant in Islay whiskies?

My answer came in the form of a very special bottle of whisky I bought in the distillery shop in Caol Ila while visiting the island with my wife and daughter.

At 5:00am we set off and took the A83 and then the A816 from Oban to Kennacraig where we caught the ferry to Islay at 7:00am, arriving at Port Ellen at around 9:00am.

On the ferry, on our way to Islay. We passed many little islands. Simply breath taking!

As we were heading towards Islay we met the ferry going the other way.

Arriving at Port Ellen

For ferry Information:

Our rented VW Polo parked in Port Ellen village
It costs a fortune to bring a car on the ferry but actually costs very little to hire a car on the island so we pre-booked a Volkswagen Polo for £32 from D & N MacKenzie  for the whole day.  They met us at the port as we came off the ferry. Documentation was over within a blink of an eye and off we went to our first distillery tour at nearby Laphroaig within five minutes.
D & N MacKenzie Car Rental:

Not surprisingly, the tours at the Islay distilleries reflect the ferry arrival times. Laphroaig’s first tour is at 10:00am. Ardbeg’s tours start at 10:30am and Lagavulin’s first of the day is at 9:30am. By carefully noting the tour times of all the distilleries we were able to visit Laphroaig, Lagavulin, then Bruichladdich, Caol Ila and then dash back down to Ardbeg  and still had time to drop the car off at Port Ellen and jump on the last ferry. Whew! It was a bit of a mad rush but an absolutely superb day. Having said that, if you really want to do justice to Islay and its eight distilleries, I’d recommend booking a place over night.

For a list of Islay distilleries and tour times see here:

To be continued.... in Part 2


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