Whisky aficionados can spend a day (or many days) wandering around Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides chain of Scottish islands off Ireland’s northern coast that is known as "The Queen of the Hebrides." The 20-mile-wide and 25-mile-long island lends itself to renting a bike to peddle along winding roads populated with Highland cattle replete with shaggy bangs and menacing horns and grazing sheep meandering about on the way to Islay’s eight single malt whisky distilleries.
The essence of peat smoke seems to cling to the air and be as much a part of Islay as its 3,000 residents. It's no wonder, since it is this peat smoke that lends that unique terroir to Scotch whisky and sets it apart from other whiskies. Whisky connoisseurs can tour the local distilleries, which include Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin to learn first-hand how whisky is made, from the harvesting of the barley to the final product.
A view of the casks inside the No.1 Vault at Bowmore Distillery. Photo credit: Heather Schmitt-González
Each whisky tour lets visitors experience the malting process, see how the pot stills work, and learn how whisky matures. Visitors can sample from a few casks and taste the differences and complexities. Many places, like Ardbeg and Laphroaig, offer trips to their water source. Less technical tours that are mainly tasting experiences are also on offer at each whisky distillery. You can still take in the sights, the sounds, and the smells, but have more time to appreciate the whisky drinking experience.
After a day of whisky tasting, try a meal at the Port Charlotte Hotel and Bar, a popular choice particularly if you are staying at the hotel, since most bars, restaurants, and shops close in the early evening in Islay and most are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Even the Port Charlotte Hotel has a curfew, so double-check what time the inn closes its doors before heading out.
The Port Charlotte Hotel Bar's white-washed exterior matches the white of the surf crashing in the loch behind it. Photo credit: Heather Schmitt-González
Located prominently on Main Street overlooking Loch Indaal, the Port Charlotte Hotel may be small, housing a mere 10 rooms inside its whitewashed stone walls, but it is steeped in beauty and local culture. From the art that lines the walls of the cozy resident’s lounge to the restaurant serving local seafood and game to a bar that serves 149 different whiskies and comes alive nightly with Scottish and Irish music, the atmosphere is charming. If you’re lucky, Grahame will be behind the bar. Ask nicely and he will sing hauntingly beautiful Gaelic songs while pouring glasses of whisky. Sipping whisky at the bar is itself a destination.