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 tour in this complete guide.
Everything you need to know about visiting Islay’s whisky distilleries
There are so many things I like about Scotland it’s an almost impossible task to say which is my favourite, but I think if I was pushed I’d put the dramatic mountains of the Cairngorms and the stunning forests of Perthshire at a joint number one, closely followed by the single malt whisky’s.
Whisky has links to Scotland that goes far beyond the amount of money it brings into the country (almost £5 Billion in 2019) and the range on offer is as 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 here 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 every visitor to Scotland’s ‘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 second and third glasses my tastebuds were warming up and I started to appreciate the subtle underlying syrupy and peppery notes, and 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 lead 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 developed a fascination with the island even though I’d never actually stepped foot on it.
I knew that one day I’d have to make a pilgrimage to the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’ to visit the legendary places where my favourite tipples were made, so when suggestions for a holiday were being thrown around I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
In this article I’ll give you my first impressions of the island (spoiler – it’s even better than I thought it would be) along with an overview of each distillery and suggestions for other attractions you might like to visit, plus a few tips on how to get there and where to stay.
I hope it’s the only guide to Islay and Islay whisky you’ll ever need.
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 prolific 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.
To my mind, 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 stunning beaches to explore as well, 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 look at other than where the whisky is made, the islands biggest town of Bowmore has quite a few shops in addition to lovely walks along the shores of Loch Indaal.
It also has a unique round church that was reputedly built to ensure evil spirits had no corner to hide in, though the main draw for most tourists is the distillery complex and its tasting room/museum (which in my opinion is one of the best on the island).
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 long is one of the biggest 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.
An introduction to 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’s 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 an incredible 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.
I guess it’s fair to say that Islay whisky isn’t to everyone’s taste due to its characteristically heavily smoked flavour, especially Laphroaig (during the prohibition era Laphroaig managed to bypass alcohol restrictions as it was thought to be a type of medicine!), but even so a cult following has emerged around it.
The smokiness is caused by 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 by the way 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 using 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.
Now we’ve got the background out of the way, let’s move onto the main event – the distilleries.
- Caol Ila
A guide to Islay whisky distillery tours
Before we get into the list of distilleries I’ll let you know I’m not going to review any of their tours in much detail because to be honest they’re all pretty much the same.
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.
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 and being shown around each stage of the 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 cafe.
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 really nice 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.
- 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 was the first distillery I visited during my time on Islay and was the one I returned to most often, although that’s mainly due to the fact that the house I was staying in was just a few minutes drive up the road.
But to be honest, even if I wasn’t staying nearby I’d still have made frequent trips back because it has the best place to eat that I found on the island – The Old Kiln Cafe – which serves generous portions of reasonably priced food.
It’s one of the bigger distillery restaurants as well and nobody seemed to mind when I took a couple of samples back to my table to slurp on while I munched away on my bacon, brie and red onion panini. Ah, happy days…
Ardbeg also offered some of the most generous samples of any of the distilleries I visited and the guys at the bar in the visitor centre were more than happy to pour me a few drams of their most popular single malts, plus they give you money off bottles in the shop when you take the tour. These guys really have got keeping their customers happy down to a fine art.
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 really nice private garden, but at well over a grand a week it’s way more expensive than the wee cottages you’ll find elsewhere. My recommendation? Check out HomeAway.co.uk where you’ll often find bargain luxury holiday homes for a fraction of the price of an equivalent hotel stay.
Click this link to find your next Islay holiday home – UK Holiday Rentals.
- 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 or anything because ‘busiest’ is a relative term when it comes to this sleepy island where time slows down to a snails 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 there is that children and partners who are bored to tears with yet another distillery can go off an have a splash in Bowmore Leisure Centre’s 25-metre pool just up the road.
Even swimming pools have links to whisky on Islay, and this one is sited in one of the old distillery warehouses which is heated by waste energy from heat pipes siphoned off from the buildings next door.
That’s pretty clever and it sums up the innovative thinking required to keep a competitive business going on a remote island like this.
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.
This was my second favourite tour after Ardbeg as they let you get hands-on during your visit so you can help out on the malting floor, and it’s one of the few times you’ll be able to get involved in the malting process as most distilleries outsource the job to other companies.
The second-best thing about the tour was being able to sample 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.
- Founded: 1881
- Pronounced: Bru-e-clad-e
- Flavour: Lightly peated. Caramel sweetness.
- Recommended whisky: The Classic Laddie
- Address: Islay, Argyll, PA49 7UN
- Website: Bruichladdich
Bruichladdich is located pretty much opposite Bowmore across Loch Indaal and although it feels very (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 right on the roadside overlooking the sea and you’ll get great views in all directions, and there’s a bonus area out front where children can go rooting about in rockpools if you’re hoping to get a bit of peace and quiet during the all-important task of whisky tasting. But to be honest, there’s not much else to do in the immediate area.
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 though small it’s obviously been put together with a great deal of attention by the local curators.
Bruichladdich meanwhile is worth a visit for both whisky and gin drinkers as it’s here where you’ll find two of my favourite drinks – 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 gifts on the island in their shop. They’ve got a really good selection in there so if you’re looking for a memento – whether it’s a T-shirt, hoodie, backpack or jacket – you’re bound to find something that suits, but be aware it’s pretty expensive stuff.
You can get an idea of the range from their online shop and I have to say after buying myself a shirt and hoodie, the quality is really good.
- 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, Ardnahoe and Caol Ila over the course of a full day.
Alas, I never managed to do it myself but it sounds amazing so I’m hoping to book a seat the next time I’m on Islay.
- 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 and will even 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 island and quite different to Islay (much more sparse) but it’s pretty enough in its own way and has its own whisky (called Jura, surprise surprise) which you’ll find in the quaint wee 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.
- 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
I’ve got a wee admission to make. Kilchoman Machir Bay is my favourite whisky. It’s fantastic stuff and in my opinion it beats all other Islay whiskies for taste hands down. So it’s surprising that Kilchoman is actually the youngest distillery (bar Ardnahoe) on the island.
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 traditional whisky-making style that became a lost art once commercialisation took over Scotch whisky in the 1800s so it’s inspiring to see a team dedicated to reviving this once-widespread art.
Because it’s such 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’s just not up to the same standard as the bigger distilleries on the island, but you can see they’re putting 100% effort into it everywhere you go.
That extends to the shop (which is small but has good quality gifts) and the cafe which is also small but has a good selection of food. The Cullen Skink in particular is excellent (the best I’ve tasted outside of Cullen) and the coffee is really good – plus you can get a drop of Kilchoman whisky stirred in for good measure.
- 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 just down the road from Ardbeg in Lagavulin Bay and it’s impossible to miss as it’s sited slap-bang 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 the island 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 a bit 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 the shops and is a great introduction to this historic distillery.
In fact I was so impressed with the tasting kit that immediately after I’d finished I hauled my wallet out of my pocket (a rare sight) and purchased a bottle of Lagavulin 16-year-old from their core range. I didn’t even do that at Kilchoman which is the home of my favourite spirit.
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 cafe at Lagavulin which is a bit of a shame but then you can combine a visit with nearby Ardbeg which has a great cafe, or you can drive down the road in the opposite direction to Port Ellen which has a decent grocery 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.
- 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 and set in the middle of a 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 with the peat used to dry the barley 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.
From the visitor centre you can grab a pair of wellies and go stomping through the bog trying to find your plot which is one of the few times I’ve seen children actually enjoying a visit to a distillery.
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.
Another nice touch is they’ll 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 ones in this list. All-in-all I’d say a visit to Laphroaig is highly recommended if you’re travelling with family.
One recommendation I have is to visit the distillery 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.
Oh, and finally, I have to say that Laphroaig is by far the most generous with their samples out of all the distilleries I visited on Islay.
I got a free small 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 3 tasters after. At just £10 for the tour I reckon that’s remarkable value for money.
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 (I haven’t visited it so I can’t comment on it) and there are several tours to sign up for, with the basic ‘Spirit of Ardnahoe’ tour coming highly recommended on Tripadvisor.
Islay is acclaimed for three things – whisky, wildlife and the landscape – so I’ll now cover a few of the latter as we’ve already had a good look at the former.
I mentioned this peninsula earlier but I’ll repeat myself here as it really is a stunning place to visit. This is a wild expanse of open moorland, lochs and coastline with a few hills on the southern side which rise up to around 200 metres.
Most of the shoreline is sheer cliffs although there are a few sandy beaches which are fantastic because they’re almost completely tourist-free. Well, they were when I visited anyway.
You’ll find a really nice beach on the Port Ellen side at Kilnaughton and another called the Singing Sands just behind the Carraig Fhada lighthouse. The Singing Sands gets its name from the tiny silica grains on the beach that supposedly sing when walked on, though when I visted it was quite wet so it sounded just like any other beach. Still, get there when it’s warm and dry and I’m sure you’ll hear it.
Head to Lower Killeyan and you’ll discover another nice beach with a large cave that’s completely sheltered, or walk towards Loch Indaal to find the 7-mile-long beach known as The Big Strand.
My favourite area of the Oa though is the RSPB nature reserve near the American Monument on the south-west tip of the peninsula.
The monument was built to commemorate the loss of American lives when two troop ships sunk off the coast of Islay during WWI and it’s worth visiting for no other reason than the walk there is so nice, especially considering there’s so much wildlife in the area.
You’ll see loads of different bird species throughout the year from chough’s to golden eagles and there are huge flocks of seabirds like fulmars, razorbills and kittiwakes who make their homes in the steep cliffs, and while you’re walking along the clifftops keep your eyes open for otters who can often be seen hunting for food along the tide line.
This is a site that’s famed more for its history than its scenery but it’s a great place to visit nonetheless. You’ll find Loch Finlaggan a few miles south-west of Port Askaig on the north-east part of the island in an area that’s mostly grassland and farmland but is no less attractive for it.
This is the ancient power base of the Lords of the Isles – nordic-born kings who ruled over Scotland’s western islands for hundreds of years and who almost conquered mainland Scotland during the time they were in power.
There are two islands on the loch where you can see ruins from those days though most of your time will be spent on the largest island – Eilean na Comhairle – which features several ruined buildings and medieval gravestones.
There’s a visitor centre in the car park which depicts the story of the Lords of the Isles and well as explaining the significance of this part of the island. It’s all quite interesting and it certainly makes a nice change of pace from the whisky distilleries.
This is my favourite nature reserve on Islay and it’s a place that I highly recommend you visit. It’s a little tricky to get to if you’ve booked accommodation in the Port Ellen area as it’s located all the way up at the northern tip of the island, but it’s an absolutely stunning place.
Loch Gruinart is a sea loch that extends inland several miles to border the RSPB Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve – a 1,600-hectare reserve that’s home to some of the largest bird flocks in Scotland.
Visit in October and you’ll see the spectacle of barnacle and white-fronted geese fly in from Greenland to spend the winter on Islay. All 18,000 of them!
The flocks are so vast the fields surrounding the loch turn black and white as the geese get their strength back after their long flight and it’s an amazing thing to sit in the bird hides in the reserve and watch this wildlife event unfold in front of you.
Equally amazing is the sight of Loch Gruinart when the tide’s out as it’s absolutely enormous and has to be, without doubt, the biggest stretch of sand I’ve ever seen in my life. Drive the winding road to Ardnave and walk across the dunes to see what I mean. It’s just stunning. There’s no other word for it.
How to get to Islay
The Isle of Islay lies in Argyll just south-west of Jura, and only 25 miles north of the Irish Coast. The island can be visited by air and by sea but you might be best off catching the ferry when the weather picks up (i.e. all winter) as flights get frequently cancelled without much notice.
That being said there’s usually no problem with flying to Islay from early Spring to late Autumn. To book flights check the Skyscanner website.
Ferries sail into Port Askaig and Port Ellen on a regular basis and are much more dependable as the sea between the mainland and Islay is fairly sheltered by Jura and Campbeltown on either side.
You can hire transport on Islay if you like but the ferry takes cars so I’d suggest getting a cheaper rental from the mainland and driving over instead, just be advised to book your ferry ticket well in advance, especially if it’s the peak tourist season in summer.
If you’re a foot passenger on the other hand, you can normally just turn up and book your ticket on the day. Sailings depart from either Oban or Kennacraig on the mainland.
For ferry prices and times contact Caledonian MacBrayne:
How to get around Islay
This is an easy one – car, with a sat nav.
Most of the island is accessible by road and on foot so you can pretty much decide on anywhere and find a road that’ll at least lead close to it, after which you can walk to the final destination.
The only thing I’d suggest is to get yourself a decent waterproof pair of walking boots – even in summer – because all that peat the island is famous for is made from Sphagnum moss which retains water like a sponge.
That means it’s almost always damp and boggy underfoot so no matter the time of year you risk going ankle-deep in bog water in most parts of the island.
As far as driving is concerned the roads are really good, mostly single track, but in great condition. To put it in perspective, if you’ve ever been to Mull I’d say Islay has better roads but they’re still not as good as the roads on Skye.
But the big bonus I found is the locals are incredibly courteous and they’re very tolerant of slow tourists driving on unfamiliar roads, and they’ll almost always wave to you as you drive past them. I have to admit it was a bit of a culture shock at first but I found myself missing these friendly people on my return to Edinburgh.
One last thing – I haven’t done this but I reckon if you can hire an electric bike to take with you to Islay you’ll have the best of all worlds. Cheap transport, no problems on narrow roads and the chance to explore large parts of the island while experiencing the great outdoors. Just a suggestion.
Where to stay on Islay
Islay is a reasonably sized island (for the Scottish west coast) but you might find it difficult to source a place to stay, especially if you’re heading there in summer. There’s a youth hostel in Port Charlotte if that’s your thing and there are a handful of hotels spread across the towns but I always prefer to stay in AirBnB-type places as you get so much more for your money.
I usually use HomeAway.co.uk as they tend to have better quality homes than AirBnB and their prices are just that little bit more reasonable, but their selection is also more limited so they’ve both got their pros and cons.
Follow this link for HomeAway: UK Holiday Rentals.
You’ll find BnB’s dotted all over the island but as I never stay in them I can’t offer any reviews, but I do suggest you search through them on Booking.com which offers reviews from previous guests. Search Islay Bed and Breakfasts here.
For hotels take a look at this selection which vary in price and location but all have decent reviews:
- The Islay Hotel – Located in Port Ellen. Features live music events, an A La Carte menu and a whisky bar.
- Port Charlotte Hotel – Small hotel in Port Charlotte with just 10 rooms but with an on-site restaurant, bar and whisky tours.
- Askaig Hotel – Port Askaig is the place to go if you want to catch the ferry to Jura so a stay in this hotel makes sense if that’s your intention.
- Bridgend Hotel – Close to Bowmore and very friendly, with a lounge, bar and restaurant. It’s in the sticks a bit, but then that’s a bonus in my opinion.
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 too so you needn’t feel like a complete novice when you arrive.
- 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 (and who wouldn’t be?) read my Guide to Scottish Beer and Beer Festivals.
Frequently Asked Questions
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.
Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardnahoe.
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.
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