Words: Mikaela MacKinnon | Photos: Janice Johnston
The Queen of the Hebrides – home to eight whisky distilleries, over 3,000 residents and, for two nights, a team of press eager to turn their hands from publications to peat cutting.
Bowmore’s celebrated single malt has been crafted on Islay since 1779, and is indeed the island’s oldest distillery. The ‘water of life’, alongside fishing and agriculture, dominated the economy of the most southerly island of the Inner Hebrides for centuries, but tourism has since overtaken fishing and agriculture – and it’s easy to see why.
The idyllic beaches of Islay and Jura once provided novelist George Orwell with inspiration to finish writing ‘1984’, and nowadays furnishes countless artists and photographers with creative backdrops for their work. Dominated inland by moor and bog from which peat is cut for fuel and whisky flavouring, Islay lays true claim to world-famous ‘smoky’ whiskies including Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Bowmore. The island’s rich natural heritage also produces an abundance of fresh seafood, which goes a significant way to explaining Islay’s new partnership with Visit Scotland to promote 2015 The Year of Food and Drink. It was the island’s growing reputation for culinary delights – and their corresponding whiskies – which I was particularly looking forward to sampling on my trip.
Difficult though it was to wave goodbye to a room containing £1million worth of whisky at Clydebank’s Auchentoshan Distillery, our 40 minute flight to Islay was an enjoyable distraction – efficiently operated by Flybe.
Upon landing, we were warmly welcomed by Visitor Centre Manager Anne Kinnes with drinks in the Old Bakery and, after enjoying dinner in the Harbour Inn restaurant with beautiful views across the water, a roaring log fire in the lounge and whisky aplenty, it was time to retire to one of the seven luxury bedrooms to prepare for a full day of sampling the best of the island.
The Harbour Inn’s culinary excellence, I realised the following morning, does not just extend to the à la carte; after starting off with a hearty Scottish breakfast, we embarked on the Master Distillers Tour at the nearby Bowmore Distillery.
Our group started off with a bracing walk across the historic Bowmore lade to visit the water source from which the iconic whisky is created. With breakfast walked off, it was back to the distillery and into the malt barns. Bowmore is one of only eight distilleries in Scotland where this key stage in the distillation process can be experienced by visitors, and one of a declining few to still turn the malt floors by hand. We were then guided through Bowmore’s fermentation and distillation process by Distillery Manager David Turner, in order to fully appreciate how each drop of whisky transitions from grain to glass.
Afterwards, it was time to get our wellies on for a session of peat cutting! Out on the peat bogs, we were guided through this truly historic Hebridean activity by William MacNeill, who made it all look as simple as cutting through butter. When it came to my own turn to pick up the tairsgear, I found it to be more akin to trying to break a large bar of Dairy Milk which had been in the fridge for too long.
With a newfound appreciation for how much extra labour goes into producing Islay malts, we took a break for a two-course whisky pairing lunch in Bowmore’s flagship bistro before taking some time out to explore more of the island, including a trip to the Islay Woolen Mill and a walk along one of the breathtaking beaches.
Stunning scenery aside, the truly stand-out moment of my trip came in the form of what is perhaps Islay’s best-kept secret: Bowmore’s No. 1 Vaults, the oldest maturation warehouse in Scotland. After pre-dinner drinks served in the five-star Bowmore visitor centre overlooking Loch Indaal, we retreated down into the Vaults themselves to enjoy dinner prepared by executive chef David Kinnes. This wonderful experience of the freshest food paired with the perfect whisky – right where it all began – really does cement Islay’s position as a must-visit destination for food-lovers in 2015.
With enough to satisfy the adventurer, the whisky connoisseur, the artist, the foodie and the wordsmith, Islay presents a truly authentic taste of the Hebrides, marrying the island’s rich heritage with a contemporary twist. Just remember to pack your wellies!
Auchentoshan, by Dalmuir, is derived from the Gaelic Achadh an Oisein and translates as “the field of the corner”. Known as “the breakfast whisky” due to its sweet and delicate nature, Auchentoshan’s source is located at the foot of the Kilpatrick hills on the outskirts of Clydebank. The distillery is one of six in the Lowlands region, along with Bladnoch, Glenkinchie, Daftmill, Annandale and Ailsa Bay.
Bowmore Distillery has stood on the shores of Loch Indaal, a sea loch that opens out into the Atlantic ocean, since 1779. The distillery’s proximity to the sea plays a vital role in shaping the final character of the whisky, which breathes in the salty sea air all the while it’s maturing.
The Harbour Inn
With seven spacious bedrooms and an award-winning restaurant using the finest, locally-sourced produce, The Harbour Inn is situated in the heart of the village of Bowmore with views across Loch Indaal towards Jura.
Islay House Community Garden
Built in the late 17th century, Islay House is located a few hundred metres from the village of Bridgend and owned by Captain Tom Friedrich, a US Navy pilot. Although the house is not open to the public, except for concerts during the annually held Cantilena Chamber Music Festival, the Community Garden has been transformed into a thriving hub of activity by the Bridgend Community Centre Committee. Seasonal produce from the garden can be bought in the on-site shop, with fresh salad vegetables also available to hand-pick.