A Venture into the land of the Lord of the Isles.

Mr Charlie Graham from Edinburgh, takes us on an insightful tour of Islay. Watch out for Ginger Willies . . .

There’s not many things that will make me get out of bed at midnight at the crossover of Monday and Tuesday. Fire, nuclear war and a collapsing bed (it has happened before) but to drive for four and a half hours into the depths of Argyll to catch a ferry, not one I thought I could add to the list.

So there it was, a half asleep me behind the wheel of a relatively new Volkswagen Polo tearing across the country mumbling down a walkie-talkie and swigging Red Bull. Islay well within our crosshairs.

Islay is a strange and mystical place, it’s very spiritual and near impossible to get to easily. In a perfect world there would be a ferry from Edinburgh, you can fly but I think it takes away a little of the romance of sailing into the island looking at the distilleries from the coast, their names ablaze on the sea-facing side. The ferry left at 7am and after a rocky crossing we pulled out of the ferry car park at 9am (ish).

It doesn’t take long to realise you are in a particularly special place for the discerning whisky drinker, the first signpost you see tells you that Ardbeg is a mere three miles to the right and Bowmore is slightly further away to the left.

With two hours to kill it was off to Lagavulin to look around the shop.  Now with no disrespect to the actual distillery meant here it looked and felt a lot like the Talisker Distillery on Skye, no surprise as they are both owned by the colossus of the drinks industry DIAGEO.

We then decided to go for a wander up the coast.  This is one of my favourite pastimes, to drive along roads that you know nothing about, in a direction that you know not where and watching the roads get smaller and smaller. Eventually this one decided it was sick of being a road right in the middle of a sheep field. Tentatively turning around in what seemed like a designated car trap we headed back to Ardbeg stopping to visit the Kildalton Cross – purely by accident – on the way back.

After you’ve been to a few distilleries you could be forgiven for thinking they are all the same. In some ways they are, they do after all serve the same purpose, to make whisky. But this one had a very different friendly feel to it from the off, a lot of that was due to our host for the day, Jackie.

Jackie took us on one of the most in-depth tours of a distillery I have ever heard of let alone been on.  She didn’t fill it with the same usual guff that you experience on your usual “We make whisky by fermenting……” and so on and so forth.  The first part of this tour was a cup of coffee.  The second was a dram of a 26 year old Ardbeg that they’d recently found lying about in one of the old offices.

After lunch and another 2 hour long whisky tasting – never be the designated driver when on Islay it just leads to a whole lot of frustration – we vacated Ardbeg with supplies for a camp fire and some lovely crab chowder that had somehow come into our possession.

Now, finding a camp site on a barren island in the southern Hebrides is not as easy as it may seem.  I agree with all this wild camping nonsense that goes on, back to nature and shitting in bushes but shitting in bushes with a 75 mile an hour wind blowing in from behind you is less than ideal, so is any part of camping when the wind is so strong that it can uproot the barley and send it across the road in a form of vegetative blizzard.  We opted for a guest house and cooked the chowder in the bathroom, but that is another story for another time.

The sun was high in the sky – as high as it gets in the Scottish winter – the next morning and we took off reasonably quick sharp heading for the Bruichladdich Distillery, we stopped off at Caol Isla on the way to take a couple of pictures, a quick look around another DIAGEO visitor shop and outta there…

Bruichladdich is out of all the Islay distilleries the most forward thinking (they classify themselves as the progressive distillery) different casks, funky bottles and with a really nice kind of aquamarine theme, it is all very easy on the eye.

A whizz around again, none of the tourist crap you would get with other companies here plain and simple this is our ‘Mash Tun’, this our warehouse and finally this is our shop.  If you were to die and go to heaven and your idea of heaven was a whisky-filled nirvana then I’ve found the place. Bruichladdich on Islay has the most extensive range of whiskies I’ve ever seen.  The most annoying part of being the designated driver is the fact that you can try any whisky (almost) that you can see.  It is at this point that I cherished my bottle of Strathmore water.

From Bruichladdich to Bowmore, not a sentence you will ever get to repeat unless you’ve been there. Crab chowder as lovely as it was failed on the sustenance level.  Bowmore doesn’t have a fish and chip shop. It does however have a cafe, which is basically a fish and chip shop full of school children. We chose lunch time to dive head first into the cafe and we were greeted with the same look you get on any island from a mass gathering of anybody “Where are they from?”.  Bear in mind that when you are driving around Islay everyone waves to each other, it is customary to reply and if you don’t someone will feel like you’re having a bad day, even if they don’t have a clue who you are, wave at them.

Bowmore distillery is situated in Bowmore, right in the centre.  It claims to be the oldest of all the Islay distilleries but it certainly has the most modern approach to welcoming guests, they sit you in front of a DVD.  Strange.  We then got a whistle stop tour of the entire place, whilst spotting people we knew from the DVD, such characters and Ginger Willie (an employee of the distillery with a great name) wander the distillery whilst you are looking around.  Then onto a tasting with a very picturesque view over the water towards Ireland, again don’t be the designated driver on Islay.

With this we were done, a manic 32 hours on an amazing island.  Thank you Islay, and Ginger Willie we saw you on the way out of Bowmore.  Yes we are that group of people that simutaneously pointed at you from the car.

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