There are few fence sitters when it comes to Islay’s single malt whiskies. You either absolutely hate them (“cough mixture!”, you cry, “antiseptic — gross!”). Or you think — like me — that their typically peaty, salty and smoky qualities are sublime.
Last year I spent a fortnight on Jura — an even remoter neighbouring island. I knew that if I didn’t visit at least a few of Islay’s nine distilleries before returning home, I would forever kick myself. And, come on, even its name has something magical about it — the two syllables shimmering with a desolate, wave-lashed beauty.
And so, after the 15-minute ferry crossing, I wait at Port Askaig, which sounds big and grand but is scarcely more than a couple of jetties and a parking lot. The minutes pass and there is no sign of the taxi driver I had arranged to take me around for a few hours. My phone’s single bar of signal disappears.
I venture inside the newsagent-cum-post office and ask the lady behind the till if she could call the taxi driver. On an island home to roughly 3,500 people, they might be related. When she gets through to him, he says he mixed up his diary and promises to collect me shortly. Sure enough, 15 minutes later he arrives full of apologies.
It takes only 10 or so minutes through nondescript countryside to get to Islay’s tiny capital, Bowmore, home to the eponymous distillery — the oldest one on the island.
The tasting bar is deserted save for a bar lady who offers me a complimentary dram of the 12-year-old, an easygoing old favourite of mine — not overly peated but still oozing citrusy character. While perfectly polite, bar-lady is more interested in setting the table for a formal tasting for people soon to finish a distillery tour than in telling me about Bowmore’s range or its venerable history. And why should she, when there’s a 15-minute film to do it?
As the video explains the whisky production process — a miraculous alchemy involving just barley, yeast and water — I find myself drawn to the greys and blues beyond the window. Hills ripple above the mirror-still Loch Indaal, a scattering of cottages on their treeless slopes.
After my dram is done we leave the village, passing Kilarrow Church on its outskirts. Completed in 1769, a decade before Bowmore Distillery opened, the building is entirely round — apparently so that congregants could never get caught out by the devil lurking in a corner. We drive past the island’s Lego-sized airport and its recently refurbished golf course, which will be opening a brand-new hotel later this year.
As rain spatters against the windscreen, I gaze out at the bogs stretched out on either side of the road. Not far from here, slabs of peat (decomposed vegetation) are carved out by hand. It is used by the distilleries as fuel in fires to dry out the malt.
Malt is barley placed in water to encourage germination, which releases the sugars that, combined with yeast, become alcohol. Smoke from the peat fire permeates the malt as it dries and gives Islay whiskies their characteristic taste.
Some whiskies are peatier than others — typically it depends how long a peat fire was used. One of the peatiest of them all can be found at our next stop, Laphroaig. I have a soft spot for the 10-year-old, which was my first taste of Islay whisky and the one that made me want to try all the others.
The distillery is perched prettily at the sea’s edge. I head inside, passing through the shop (which, like Bowmore, has a twee selection of tartan-emblazoned goodies) and head to the bar where there’s no free dram on offer.
I pore over the menu, looking for something I’ve never had before. I quickly flick past the cocktails page. What a travesty! Single malts are interesting enough on their own — why mess them up with mixers and slices of lime? Eventually I ask the bar lady for advice: would I like something sweeter or something smokier? When I say I’d like the latter, she suggests a cask strength 10-year-old that has been decanted directly from the bourbon cask in which it spent a decade maturing.
Conventional whiskies like the standard 10-year-old are diluted to get an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 40 or, in some cases, 43%. At 55.7% ABV, the cask strength is a lingering blaze of warming fire and smoke which costs me a cool £12.50 (about R220 for 25ml).
Lagavulin, a couple of minutes way, is also by the sea, with what’s left of a weather-bashed castle looming over an inlet just beyond. Inside, it’s a mash-up between the Cabinet War Rooms and Downtown Abbey (the downstairs bit).
Lured by the sounds of happy garrulity, I walk past the reception area to the tasting lounge. There’s no sign of a server, so I return to reception. The receptionist reluctantly agrees to help me — it’s only her second day on the job, she warns.
She asks what I’d like, and swigs a wee bit of the Distiller’s Edition into a glass.
This ain’t no dram — it’s a dribble. A couple of sips, and my glass is empty. I return to reception and ask if I need to pay for the drink. I’m told nothing is due. I would’ve preferred to pay the £7 and get a proper taste but I’m too flustered to say that — and, anyway, the clock is ticking.
Sheep graze beyond stone walls as we zoom onwards to nearby Ardbeg. Now close to 1pm, it seems as if Islay’s entire tourist population has descended upon its tasting area, which doubles up as a café. The only available space is on the waiting list, and so the cashier suggests I go to the bar. There are no seats available so I stand by the coffee machine, watching the staff frantically pouring drinks.
I ask for a dram of the Perpetuum and one of the Corryvreckan. The wild-eyed bar lady asks me to write these down on a scrap of paper; about 10 minutes later she hands me two glasses. I ask her which one is which and she tells me but, amid the din and bustle, I quickly forget what she said.
Anyway, they’re both gorgeous — more medicinal and salty than smoky. And even better, by the time I’ve finished my liquid lunch, the café’s characterless, chaotic ambience is almost bearable too. I march through the drizzle to the taxi. We cut through the flat and featureless farmland that makes up the island’s centre, reaching our last distillery, Caol Ila, about 30 minutes later.
The distillery is right on the water, at the bottom of a steeply winding road — and thankfully far from the madding crowd. I look out a little longingly at Jura’s curvaceous mountains across the strait, before entering the tiny tasting room.
Although much of the whisky that goes into Johnnie Walker’s blends is made here, Caol Ila also has a range of its single malts. A genial Englishman lets me taste three of them — a pleasant-enough 12-year-old, the fruitier Moch and the suavely smoky Distiller’s Edition, which has been finished off in a Moscatel cask. It’s the first time on my whirlwind tour that someone has actually taken the time to conduct a proper tasting.
My taxi driver tells me that my visit to five distilleries in two hours is a record. I pay him £50 and drag my bags into the empty bar of the Port Askaig Hotel.
As she pours me a glass of water, I ask the bar lady whether she prefers her island’s whiskies to the unpeated ones from the Highlands. Her hand sweeps across the glittering array of bottles behind her — most of them made on Islay.
“A whisky without peat is like soup without salt,” she says. Enough said.
As I eat my Cullen skink (a traditional Scottish haddock and potato stew) I contemplate the difference between my Islay experience and my many visits to wine farms in the Cape.
If you pitch up unannounced at a South African wine farm for tasting (during opening hours, of course) chances are that, for a nominal fee, you’ll get an inkling of what the place is all about and a taste of its main offerings.
Don’t expect the same if you schlep all the way to Islay. Unless you’re prepared to pay an exorbitant sum for a VIP tasting, your visit is likely to be, for the most part, a bleakly impersonal one.
A caveat: the experience at the four distilleries that I didn’t get to visit — Kilchoman, Ardnahoe, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain — may well be different from what I encountered.
My advice to Islay whisky’s far-flung connoisseurs is that unless they want to spend a fortune on distillery tours and VIP tastings (and admittedly there’ll be those who do), they should rather leave the island to the imagination, where it can remain pristine, romantic and hospitable.
Rather, pay a visit to the nearest bar that has a decent selection of Islay single malts and a knowledgeable bartender. You’ll learn more, you’ll pay less and you’ll leave happy.