Despite being a big whisky fan and a west coaster, 2015 marked the year that I finally made it to the whisky island of Islay. The small island – located off the Kintyre Peninsula – has whisky at its core, with eight distilleries across its rugged 25 miles. In celebration of this, each year, the island comes together to hold the Islay Whisky Festival. The Festival sees a different distillery take centre stage each day, with other events in celebration of the island’s culture dotted throughout the eight days.
Our arrival on the island wasn’t the smoothest – our boat from Oban was 45 minutes late and we ended up putting our tents up at 10:30pm in driving wind and rain. The next day though, things had calmed and we made our way to Bruichladdich for its open day. And with master distiller Jim McEwan due to retire this year, it was going to be a big one!
The distillery’s courtyard was heaving when we arrived, with the party already in full flow. Entertainment was provided by a raft of artists, from local highland dancers to Scottish rock band Skerryvore, and the range of food and drink on offer was well beyond expectation. Alongside pretty much every Bruichladdich expression you could want and the distillery’s Festival bottling (more on than later in the week), there was also a great selection of Islay Ales and Botanist cocktails courtesy of Edinburgh’s Timberyard. Despite a couple of rain showers, the day was just what I hoped the Festival would be and was a great send off from Jim.
Day two was slightly more chilled out, so we decided to lay off the whisky and head to Machir Bay on the west side of the island; close to Kilchoman Distillery. Here we found two kilometers of beautiful, sandy beaches, which looked out onto the roaring Atlantic. Mercifully, the sun even made an appearance for a couple of hours, with some minor sunburn ensuing. After a quick dinner back at camp, we hopped on a bus down to Port Ellen for a whisky tasting and ceilidh.
The tasting was paired with a nosing competition, which involved naming 11 samples of whisky – eight Islay whiskies, Jura (from across the water) and two samples of new make spirit. I gave up pretty early and starting drinking rather than nosing, but my friend Steven Kersley came second, getting nine out of eleven correct. He now has the dubious honour of owning the second-best nose in Port Ellen.
On the third and final day, we went into overdrive, visiting four distilleries, as well as popping into Port Ellen maltings (thanks to Steven for doing the driving!). We spent most of our time at Ardbeg, treating ourselves to a few bottles, before an utterly delicious lunch in the distillery’s café. This was the one thing people said I MUST do on Islay and I’m glad we found the time to grab some lunch. Working our way back, we then popped into Lagavullin, Laphroig and Bowmore, just to soak up the Festival atmosphere. That evening, we rounded off our short Islay experience with a bonfire on the beach back at the campsite.
One thing that worried me about the Festival was the fact its spread right across the island, leaving you to rely on the island’s sparse public transport network or taking a driver with you who doesn’t like whisky (the fool!). However, I came to realise that the Festival is about more than drinking whisky – it’s about catching up with folks, meeting some new faces and exploring the beautiful island of Islay. And while whisky can help ease these along, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Islay, you were great, and we’re already planning our return visit.