Islay is one of Scotland’s most popular whisky-producing regions thanks to distilleries that include; Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Ardnahoe. Discover everything you need to know about taking an Islay whisky distillery tour in this ultimate guide.
Whisky has links to Scotland that goes far beyond the amount of money it brings into the country (almost £4 Billion in 2020) and the range on offer is every bit as diverse as the landscapes in which it’s distilled.
Head to the mountainous peaks of the Highlands and you’ll find smoky flavours that contrast against the sweet notes you’ll find in Speyside, while the smoothness of the Lowlands triple-distilling tradition mirrors that of the equally fine single malts made in Campbeltown.
Head to the west coast of Scotland though and you’ll find a completely different whisky that takes its cues from the raging seas that surround the coastline.
It’s there where you’ll find the Isle of Islay, a small island that punches well above its weight when it comes to producing spirits, and it’s a place that deserves to rank at the top of all whisky enthusiasts must-visit lists.
I’ll admit that my first taste of Islay whisky came as a bit of a shock and I probably wasn’t ready for the medicinal, carbolic soap-like taste of my first dram of Laphroaig, but by the time I’d got through my first bottle (not in the same session…) I was well and truly a fan of this remarkably complex whisky.
That first taste of Islay led me on a journey through the distilleries of Ardbeg and Lagavulin by way of Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich, with frequent diversions to Caol Ila, Kilchoman and Bowmore, and in the intervening 10 years I’ve developed a fascination with the island.
In this article I’ll give you the background of each whisky distillery and suggestions for other attractions you might like to visit, along with an overview of the island and a few tips on how to get there and where to stay. I hope it will help you plan your next visit to this remarkable island.
Now we’ve got the background out of the way, let’s move onto the main event – the distilleries.
Islay whisky distillery map
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Islay whisky distillery tours
All of Islay’s whisky tours offer more or less the same experience so which ones you visit will depend on your love for the spirit.
Expect to pay a minimum of £10 per person which can rise to £60 or more depending on the number of tastings you’ll get afterwards, with the cheaper tours offering a sample from the distillery’s core range and the upper-tier tours offering additional samples from more expensive bottlings.
Tours generally last around an hour but some distilleries like Laphroaig and Ardbeg include island walks where you’ll get to explore the surrounding landscape with a guide before grabbing a bite to eat, in addition to being shown around each stage of whisky production.
My advice here is to choose your favourite distillery and go for the most expensive tour as you’ll gain an insight into Islay that you’ll never forget. But if you’re intending to visit other distilleries afterwards either go for the cheapest tour or just stick to the shop and café.
You honestly won’t see anything new if you do a tour at every single distillery and by the 3rd or 4th you’re going to get a bit bored unless you’re a die-hard whisky fanatic.
That said, if I was pushed to say what my favourite tour was I’d have to go with Ardbeg. They’ve got a set-up that’s a little more polished than the other distilleries and the coastline is lovely in either direction so you can go for a good walk afterwards. Perfect for blowing out the cobwebs and clearing whisky-infused brains.
If you’re intending to do a whisky pilgrimage there are four parts of the island where you’ll find the distilleries:
- Port Ellen on the south-east corner of the island.
- Port Askaig on the north-east corner of the island.
- Port Charlotte on the north-west corner of the island.
- Bowmore near the centre of the island.
All of them are easy to get to but you’ll need a car to fully explore Islay which makes having a drink and driving to the next site a complete no-no (there’s a zero-tolerance drink driving policy in Scotland).
However, the three most-visited distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are located quite close to each other and as there’s a walkway from the town of Port Ellen to each distillery you can easily mix a hike along Islay’s gorgeous coastline with a selection of drams along the way.
One last thing to note with all of these tours is that although children are permitted on most of them you’ll find some have minimum-age restrictions, especially those that offer experiences like the tours at Bruichladdich where you get to create your own cocktails.
Ardbeg distillery tour
- Founded: 1815
- Pronounced: Ard-beg.
- Flavour: Heavily peated. Citrus-fruit character.
- Recommended whisky: Ardbeg Ten Year Old
- Address: Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA42 7DU
- Website: Ardbeg
Ardbeg distillery is worth a visit not only for its tours but also for its café – The Old Kiln Café – which serves generous portions of reasonably priced food.
Not only that, but the distillery offers the most generous whisky samples of all the distilleries I visited on Islay, plus they give you money off gifts purchased in the shop when you take the tour. These guys really have got keeping their customers happy down to a fine art.
The location of the distillery at the southern tip of the island is stunning and there are some amazing coastal walks between Ardbeg and Ardmore, with the elevated views from Ardmore Point being one of the most memorable moments of my time on Islay.
If I had a bit more (ok, a lot more) money I’d love to go back and book a week at the distillery’s Seaview Cottage, which is a fully renovated house that used to be the managers home but is now a holiday rental.
The cottage overlooks the sea and features a lovely private garden, but at well over £1k a week it’s a lot more expensive than the wee cottages you’ll find elsewhere. My recommendation? Check out Airbnb where you’ll often find bargain luxury holiday homes for a fraction of the price of an equivalent hotel stay.
Bowmore distillery tour
- Founded: 1779
- Pronounced: Bow-mor
- Flavour: Light smokiness. Fruity character.
- Recommended whisky: Bowmore 15 Year
- Address: School St, Bowmore, Islay, PA43 7JS
- Website: Bowmore
Bowmore is the biggest and busiest town on Islay and it’s also the island’s administrative capital so there’s a bit more going on than many of the tiny hamlets you’ll find when you visit the other distilleries.
From the town centre you’ll find a few grocery shops and gift shops along with essentials like a chemist so it’s a good place to stock up on supplies before venturing elsewhere, but don’t go thinking you’re going to find an exciting nightlife because ‘busiest’ is a relative term when it comes to this sleepy island where time slows down to a snail’s pace.
You’ll find the Bowmore distillery more-or-less slap-bang in the middle of the town and what’s great about a visit is that children and partners who are bored to tears with yet another distillery tour can go and have a splash in Bowmore Leisure Centre’s 25-metre pool which is a 5-minute walk up the road.
Heading back to the visitor centre you’ll find a shop and an interesting museum, but the highlight is the tasting bar upstairs which features big comfy chairs and an enormous window that opens up to a spectacular panorama across Loch Indaal.
I splashed out a little on my visit and got myself a tasting tray flight which included four drams paired with handmade chocolates which were lip-smackingly delicious and were a great appetizer for the Bowmore tour.
Perhaps the best thing about the tour was being able to try a couple of drams straight from the cask in Bowmore’s legendary No1 warehouse, and they’ll even fill a 100ml bottle so you can take a sample home with you as a reminder of your visit.
Bruichladdich distillery tour
- Founded: 1881
- Pronounced: Bru-e-clad-e
- Flavour: Lightly peated. Caramel sweetness.
- Recommended whisky: The Classic Laddie
- Address: Islay, Argyll, PA49 7UN
- Website: Bruichladdich
The Bruichladdich distillery is located pretty much opposite Bowmore across Loch Indaal and although it feels very remote it’s actually really easy to get to as all you need to do is follow the A847 towards the village of Port Charlotte.
The distillery sits on the roadside overlooking the sea and you’ll get great views in all directions, plus there’s a small area on the shore where children can go rooting about in rock pools if you’re hoping to get a bit of peace and quiet during the all-important whisky tasting.
One suggestion for whisky-weary partners is to drive a couple of miles down the road to Port Charlotte which has a nice wee Museum of Islay Life that’s full of interesting little knick nacks and collections of objects from the islands past.
The displays chronicle island life over the course of the first human inhabitants 12,000 years ago to the present day and although small it has obviously been put together with a lot of love by the local volunteers.
Bruichladdich meanwhile is worth a visit for both whisky and gin drinkers as they produce two of Scotland’s favourite tipples – Octomore whisky and The Botanist gin.
The Botanist is absolutely delicious with a healthy dash of tonic and works incredibly well in a cocktail, but it pales into insignificance against the mighty Octomore – a whisky that’s proudly touted as being the most heavily-peated whisky on the market.
The tour takes you around the Victorian buildings where you’ll discover the process of making these spirits and just like all the other distilleries in this list you’ll get a history lesson and a wee tasting afterwards.
Aside from the spirits, Bruichladdich has done a brilliant job with their merchandising and you’ll find the best selection of whisky souvenirs in their shop. The collection includes T-shirts, hoodies, backpacks, coats and much more. You’re bound to find something you like, but be warned, it’s expensive stuff.
Bunnahabhain distillery tour
- Founded: 1881
- Pronounced: Bun-a-hav-an
- Flavour: Unpeated – soft and fruity. Peated – heavy smokiness.
- Recommended whisky: Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old
- Address: Port Askaig, Isle of Islay, Argyll, A46 7RP
- Website: Bunnahabhain
You’ll find Bunnahabhain at the north-west end of Islay 5 miles north of Port Askaig. It’s not the easiest distillery to find and you’ll have to navigate along a narrow single-track road to get there, but the drive is stunning and once at the end of the road you’ll find gorgeous views of the Isle of Jura from Bunnahabhainn Bay.
Its remoteness means that a visit to this distillery feels more like a pilgrimage than a visit to a tourist attraction and it certainly feels less touristy than a visit to Bowmore, which is perhaps why they’ve priced the tours a few pounds cheaper than the others in this list.
Fans of this whisky will be pleased to know you can fill your own bottle from the cask in the visitor centre and even add your own label (you can do this at Bowmore too) but for the ultimate experience you might consider the most expensive tour which gives you a taste of some of the distillery’s most exclusive drams.
I’ve heard from someone who took this tour that the whisky is nothing short of spectacular but you’ll need deep pockets as it’s currently (as of 2020) around £250 for a 90-minute session. Still, that might be a small price to pay for samples that you might never taste again, and at least they pick you up and drop you back off in their own visitor bus.
A little more wallet-friendly is the North Islay Whisky Tour which costs half what the ‘ultimate’ tour costs but includes tours, tastings, lunch and taxi rides between Bunnahanhain, Caol Ila and the Ardnahoe distillery over the course of a full day.
When you get back home you might find it difficult to find anywhere that stocks Bunnahabhain but if you join the Scotch Malt Whisky Society – see the advert below – you’ll be able to buy a bottle of Islay’s finest at a reasonable price.
Caol Ila distillery tour
- Founded: 1846
- Pronounced: cull-e-la
- Flavour: Unpeated – smooth and sweet. Peated – light smokiness.
- Recommended whisky: Caol Ila 12 Year Old
- Address: Port Askaig, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA46 7RL
- Website: Caol Ila
Caol Ila is the nearest distillery to Port Askaig and is easily reached from a single-track road off the A846, and again, just like at Bunnahabain you’ll get fantastic views of the Paps of Jura (3 mountains on the western side of the island) once you reach the shores of the Sound of Islay.
While Caol Ila still makes single malts the majority of their spirit is used by other whisky companies in their blends so they don’t have quite the same cult following that traditional whisky-makers like Ardbeg do.
Even so, their single malts are absolutely delicious – if a little on the expensive side – and you’ll get the chance to sample a couple on the Caol Ila tour where you’ll also be given a complimentary Glencairn glass at the end.
I have to say that out of all the tours I did during my visit to Islay, Caol Ila had the most enthusiastic tour guides. These guys obviously love their job and they’re fantastically passionate about the whisky they produce which adds an extra touch of fun to the whole experience.
It’s not quite as polished as some of the other tours but it’s definitely a wee bit more enjoyable, even if some of the buildings are a bit bland in that boring, grey, 1960s office-block style.
One big suggestion I’ve got for you is to combine a visit to this distillery with a ferry ride over to Jura. The journey takes less than 10-minutes and as it runs frequently throughout the day you can hop-on/hop-off at your leisure.
To get there simply head to Port Askaig and follow the signs to the ferry terminal where you’ll also find a ticket office.
Jura is a lovely wee island and quite different to Islay (it’s much more sparse) but it’s very pretty and has its own whisky distillery which you’ll find in the village of Craighouse on the island’s eastern side.
You can learn more about Jura in my Complete Guide to Visiting the Isle of Jura.
Kilchoman distillery tour
- Founded: 2005
- Pronounced: kil-ho-man
- Flavour: Rich and fruity smokiness.
- Recommended whisky: Kilchoman Machir Bay
- Address: Rockside Farm, Bruichladdich, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA49 7UT
- Website: Kilchoman
You’ll find Kilchoman inland on the western peninsula of Islay, mid-way between Machir Bay and Loch Gorm which makes for a nice change from the usual sea-battered warehouses you’ll find elsewhere.
Although there’s not a huge amount of activities in the Parish of Kilchoman it’s an in an area that’s begging to be explored thanks to a mixture of rugged coastline, unspoilt grassland and fertile farmland and I totally recommend a walk from Saligo Bay and along the coastline before heading back inland towards the loch and distillery.
Kilchoman is the only farm distillery on Islay which means they perform the entire whisky-making process on-site, from growing the barley to malting it, fermenting it, distilling it and bottling it.
It’s a whisky-making style that became a lost art once commercialization took over Scotch whisky in the 1800s so it’s inspiring to see a team dedicated to reviving these traditional methods.
Because Kilchoman is a new distillery you don’t get quite the same sense of history that you do when taking tours at places like Ardbeg and Bowmore, but it’s just as interesting due to the fact you get to see the entire process – from grain to bottle – in one visit.
The tour is pretty good and the staff are ultra-enthusiastic but I think due to the fact Kilchoman was only established in 2005 it has more of small-business feel to it.
That extends to the shop which is small but has good quality gifts, and the café which is also small but has a great selection of food. The Cullen Skink in particular is excellent (the best I’ve tasted outside of Cullen) and the coffee is delicious – plus you can get a drop of Kilchoman whisky stirred in for good measure.
Lagavulin distillery tour
- Founded: 1816
- Pronounced: lag-a-voo-lin
- Flavour: Seaside smokiness.
- Recommended whisky: Lagavulin 16 Year Old
- Address: Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA42 7DZ
- Website: Lagavulin
Lagavulin distillery is located just down the road from Ardbeg in Lagavulin Bay, and it’s impossible to miss as it’s sited right on the side of the A846, and I mean that literally – the main building sits inches from the roadside.
It’s not the biggest distillery on Islay by any means but it oozes character and history. As soon as you walk through the entrance you’re hit with a wood-panelled corridor that looks like those 1920s-style train stations you sometimes see in the Highlands and you can easily imagine what it must have been like 100 years ago.
From the entrance – which houses the gift shop and ticket desk – you head to a tasting room which basically looks like an old-fashioned living room with big comfy chairs, bookcases and an old coal burner. On a cold and miserable day I can’t think of a better place to sit with a warming dram in hand.
There are a few samples to try but you won’t go far wrong with a Lagavulin tasting kit which will give you samples that you won’t find in shops and is a great introduction to this historic distillery.
The tour is pretty good but is no different from any of the others on the island, but you do at least get a complimentary nosing glass as a keepsake as well as a discount in the shop.
There’s no café at Lagavulin which is a bit of a shame but then you can combine a visit with nearby Ardbeg which has a great café, or you can drive down the road in the opposite direction to Port Ellen which has a decent food store.
At the end of a tour you might like to explore the bay which is a haven for wildlife and there’s a small ruined castle on the northern side which looks out across the sea towards the small islands of Texa in the near distance and Gigha near Jura, or you could just as easily drive to The Oa which is a wild promontory that’s home to a windswept RSPB nature reserve.
Laphroaig distillery tour
- Founded: 1815
- Pronounced: La-froyg
- Flavour: Heavy medicinal tang.
- Recommended whisky: Laphroaig Quarter Cask
- Address: Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA42 7DU
- Website: Laphroaig
Laphroaig hardly needs an introduction as it’s one of the most famous single malts in the world that’s easily up there with Glenmorangie and Macallan for cult status.
Accordingly, the distillery runs some of the best tours on Islay and you can choose from general overviews that take less than an hour to four-and-a-half-hour excursions that take you on a journey into the surrounding landscape as well as giving you an in-depth look inside the distillery and warehouses.
You’ll find Laphroaig midway between Port Ellen and Lagavulin on the southern edge of Islay, overlooking a small bay that’s backed by woodland.
This is one of the biggest distilleries on Islay and it’s unusual in that it has its very own water supply at the Kilbride Reservoir as well as its own peat bog. These two elements – peat and spring water – are what give Laphroaig whisky its medicinal taste due to the peat having a very high ratio of Sphagnum moss.
You’ll see these multi-coloured living carpets of moss all over Islay and there’s a giant plot of it on the opposite side of the road from the distillery where you can go and stake out your very own honorary square foot of land at the end of your visit.
It’s a nice touch and it means you’ll own a piece of the distillery for years to come, plus they’ll give you a complimentary dram if you ever return to see it.
In addition, they hand out free tea and coffee to anyone who doesn’t want a taste of whisky and the museum is the most interesting out of all the distilleries on the island.
One recommendation I have is to visit between Monday and Thursday as that’s when they have the peat fires on to smoke the malt. The smells are amazing.
There’s no restaurant at Laphroaig but then just like at Lagavulin you can easily head in either direction up the A846 to Ardbeg or Port Ellen if you’re after a bite to eat, and The Oa is just a few miles away if you’re looking for a nice walk.
The icing on the cake is that they’re very generous with their free samples. I got a free 5cl bottle when I arrived as I’d previously joined their Friends of Laphroaig club, another free welcome whisky in the lounge area before the tour, and another 3 tasters after!
Ardnahoe distillery tour
I didn’t visit Ardnahoe so I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but it looks like it could become a very interesting distillery.
This is a family-run business that only started operations in 2016 with the first runs of distillation in late 2018. But even though it’s such a new distillery from what I’ve heard they’re already making some very exciting spirit from their brand-new purpose-built buildings a few miles north of Port Askaig on Islay’s eastern side.
The location of the distillery is pretty much perfect as they have their own water supply at Ardnahoe Loch across the road and I have to say that stretch of coastline offers stunning views across the Sound Of Islay towards Jura.
To take advantage of this they’ve just opened a restaurant with panoramic windows providing uninterrupted views of the surrounding landscape, as well as an adjoining balcony for enjoying a dram or two in the great outdoors.
There’s a shop on-site and there are several tours to sign up for, with the basic ‘Spirit of Ardnahoe’ tour coming highly recommended on Tripadvisor.
An introduction to Islay
At 239 square miles it’s quite a big island when compared to other west-coast tourist destinations like the Isle of Tiree, but it pales in comparison to Scotland’s most-visited island – Skye – which weighs in at 639 square miles with a population of over 10,000 people.
Islay has a much smaller 3,200(ish) residents so it’s surprising that it has such a large whisky industry with nine currently operational distilleries and another planned to open in the coming years.
But there’s more to this island than whisky and most of the workforce is actually employed in the fishing, agriculture and tourism industries, with the latter exploding in size in recent years (admittedly driven by the popularity of the island’s distillery tours).
Unlike the barren, windswept islands of the Outer Hebrides, Islay is home to large areas of forest and there’s a surprising amount of wildlife to see inland, while the beautiful golden beaches along the coastline and the quaint picture-postcard villages dotted about add to the feeling that it really is Scotland in miniature.
Islay is very much like the Isle of Mull, perhaps not quite as pretty but certainly with as many attractions, and during a visit you’ll find that not only are there hill ranges to climb (Beinn Bheigier rises to a point 456 metres along an undulating ridge on the east side) but there are lots of stunning beaches to explore, like those on the impossibly scenic Machir and Saligo bays.
The majority of the islanders live in the villages from which the distilleries take their name, and although the majority of settlements don’t have much to offer tourists other than the distilleries, the islands largest town, Bowmore, has quite a few shops in addition to lovely walks along the shores of Loch Indaal.
If you’re not too bothered about whisky there are plenty of other things to see and do on Islay so you needn’t even set foot in a distillery to have a great time, but two highlights that I absolutely have to recommend are The Oa Peninsula which features gob-smackingly beautiful clifftop walks and The Big Strand which at 7 miles is one of the longest stretches of golden sand in Scotland.
But of course, the majority of visitors will travel to Islay for the whisky (who can blame them?), so in the next section I’ll delve into the background of why Islay whisky is so revered worldwide.
Facts about Islay whisky
First things first – not all whisky’s are created equally. Scotch is unique in that it can only be called whisky (not whiskey – note the lack of the letter e) if it has been distilled in Scotland and matured in an oak barrel for at least three years, and it can only be called a single malt if it’s produced in one distillery.
This might seem a little snobby, but for purists it’s essential to the character of what makes Scotch, Scotch.
That’s understandable when you consider that this spirit has been made in Scotland for over 500 years and is now one of the country’s biggest earners, accounting for 70% of all food and drink exports.
While the exact origins of Scotch whisky are unknown it’s believed that it all started on Islay when Irish monks travelled there sometime in the 13th-century, but whether or not they were the first people to use peat to dry the grain (which gives Islay whisky it’s unmistakable smokiness) is unknown.
What is known is that the first recorded distillery was Bowmore which was founded all the way back in 1779, followed a few years later by Laphroaig and Lagavulin which were founded in 1815 and 1816. That’s amazing when you think these distilleries are still going strong today and show no sign of losing their popularity.
The smokiness in Islay whisky comes from using peat in the malting process, and the distilleries on Islay are some of the few in Scotland that still carry out this labour-intensive task in-house.
As the barley grains are spread onto grids inside hot kilns, locally sourced dried peat is added to the fire which creates plumes of thick smoke that infuse with the grains (think along the lines of cooking food over a wood-burning barbeque).
The grains are then milled into a coarse flour before being mixed in hot water, with the resulting liquid distilled in giant copper pots to produce whisky.
That’s a very brief overview so see my guide to the Scotch whisky regions for a better explanation of the process.
There are a lot of other variables that make Islay whisky so distinct including the water source and the type of barrels used during maturation (usually American ex-bourbon casks or Spanish ex-Sherry casks), but even the shape of the still can make a difference to the final taste.
In fact, so exact is the process of making Islay whisky that if a still has to be replaced, the exact same dings and dents are knocked into the new one! I guess it’s this attention to detail that makes Islay whisky so difficult to copy.
Related posts about Islay and whisky
I’ve listed a few related posts below that you may find useful when choosing your next Islay adventure. You’ll learn a few good tips about whisky as well, so you needn’t feel like a complete novice when you arrive on the island.
- The complete guide to visiting Islay.
- The complete guide to visiting Finlaggan.
- The complete guide to the single malt Scotch whisky regions.
- The complete guide to visiting Jura.
- The complete guide to Scotland’s airports.
- 10 easy and delicious recipes that use Scotch whisky.
Now that you know a wee bit more about Scottish whisky you might be interested to learn about Scottish beer. If you are, check out my Guide to Scottish Beer and Beer Festivals.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where is the Isle of Islay?
Islay is the southernmost island in the Southern Hebrides on Scotland’s west coast, lying close to the Isle of Jura and to the west of the Campbeltown peninsula.
What are the whisky distilleries on Islay?
Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardnahoe.
How much do the whisky distillery tours on Islay cost?
Expect to pay a minimum of £10 per person which will go up to £60 or more depending on the number of tastings you’ll get afterwards, with the cheaper tours offering a sample from the distillery’s core range and the upper-tier tours offering additional samples from more expensive bottlings.
Where are the whisky distilleries on Islay?
Ardbeg: Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA42 7DU
Bowmore: School St, Bowmore, Islay, PA43 7JS
Bruichladdich: Islay, Argyll, PA49 7UN
Bunnahabhain: Port Askaig, Isle of Islay, Argyll, A46 7RP
Caol Ila: Port Askaig, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA46 7RL
Kilchoman: Rockside Farm, Bruichladdich, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA49 7UT
Lagavulin: Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA42 7DZ
Laphroaig: Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA42 7DU
Ardnahoe: Port Askaig, Isle of Islay PA46 7RN
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