The Scottish isle all whisky drinkers need to visit

September 12, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

While Scotland is undoubtedly a must-visit location for whisk(e)y lovers, the Scottish isles are the true heart of the industry. True Scotch aficionados might already know this, but some of the most well-known and beloved producers are based on and source their ingredients from the isle of Islay (pronounced “eye-la”) in the Inner Hebrides.

With a population of more than 3,000 full-time residents, the island—just a 30 minute flight from Glasgow—most frequently attracts tourists from the rest of the U.K. as well as Germany, Sweden, and the United States. With nine distilleries (and another one expected to break ground soon), Islay is particularly known for its peaty, smoky whiskies, and the producers use peat cut from the bogs here, resulting in a distinct single malt flavor.

A view of the coast on the Isle of Islay, Scotland.
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Getting there

The fastest way to get to Islay is by air from Glasgow. There are only two flights per day in and out of the airfield at Islay via Loganair, Scotland’s national airline. Beware, though, that weather conditions—notably heavy fog—can cause significant delays and cancellations, so give yourself some extra time in your itinerary for making connections. (Pre-pandemic, there was a direct flight to and from Edinburgh, although it was discontinued during lockdown, and it is unknown if the carrier will bring the route back.)

The alternative is the car ferry from Caledonian MacBrayne. The crossing itself runs between two and three hours, depending on conditions, and runs at least three times per day. Fares start at £7.50 ($11) one-way.

Travelers who wish to bring a car can, of course, bring their own or rent one on the mainland. For those who board the ferry without a car or arrive by air, you can pre-book both airport shuttles and full-day tour guides via Islay Taxis. Their friendly drivers can provide plenty of information about all of the sights on the island and also safely transport you between the distilleries (there are nearly a dozen on the island, including Bowmore, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig.)

The Caledonian MacBrayne vessel MV Finlaggan at Kennacraig harbour in the west coast of Scotland. The ferry takes passengers, cars and lorries on the voyage between Kennacraig on the mainland, Port Askaig and Port Ellen on Islay, the island of Colonsay, and the town of Oban.
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Where to stay

The Machrie Hotel: While whisky might be one of the biggest draws to Islay (and Scotland, at large), the other would be golf. Opened in late summer 2018 after a complete renovation and expansion, The Machrie Hotel hosts 47 modern rooms, suites, and lodges—some with their own outdoor terraces—with stunning views across golf links, one of the top twenty golf courses in Scotland by Golf Digest. The hotel also has a posh restaurant full service breakfast as well as a gym, a spa, a movie screening room, and a terrace ideal for a pint outdoors when the weather permits. (And, crucially, for guests able to travel with pets, the hotel is pet-friendly.)

The Machrie Hotel & Golf Links, Islay, Argyll, Scotland.
Phil Inglis

Islay House: For those looking for more Scottish charm, this is the closest you’ll get to living like a proper laird for a night. After an extensive renovation, Islay House opened in 2016. Every room has a view of the sea or the grounds, while the furniture is more traditional, all of the amenities are as modern as could be. Along with a full restaurant onsite, guests should schedule in time for afternoon tea as well as a dram in the hotel bar, The Peat Cutter. Whilst The Peat Cutter is primarily a whisky bar, it also stocks a range of local beers, Hebredian gins, and a selection of fine wines.

Founded in 1828, Port Charlotte is a village on the island of Islay. A cluster of traditional white houses nestle at the water’s edge alongside a small beach with a green meadow in the foreground. Islay is the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands, off the west coast of Scotland.
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Where to go

Ardbeg Distillery: Among one of the most popular brands with Scotch drinkers worldwide, Ardbeg‘s expressions have won a number of prestigious titles over the years, including World Whisky of the Year, Scotch Whisky of the Year, and World’s Best Single Malt. The sister brand of Glenmorangie in the Scottish Highlands, Ardbeg just started using four brand new copper stills this March, which will help the brand continue to meet rising demand. Along with tastings and a gift shop, visitors can enjoy lunch outdoors on the patio with meals from a food truck based out of an airstream, playfully named “Ardstream.”

A close-up of a man’s hands holding a taster dram of Ardbeg whisky, with a distillery building in the background. Ardbeg has produced whisky on Islay since 1798.
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Bunnahabhain Distillery: Pronounced ‘Bunn-na-ha-venn” (translating to “mouth of the river” in Scots Gaelic), Bunnahabhain Distillery produces a signature style of whisky that is unpeated, which is unusual for an Islay malt. The distillery also sits right on the water overlooking the Isle of Jura, offering a dramatic and breathtaking backdrop to tastings in the site’s new visitor center that opened this year.

Ardnahoe Distillery: The newest distillery on the island at only a few years old, Ardnahoe Distillery also boasts the most state-of-the-art facilities. Along with the distillery tours and tastings, there’s also a massive gift shop and a welcoming café and restaurant with stunning views overlooking the Isle of Jura on a clear day. This is the perfect spot for an afternoon coffee with a slice of peanut butter and jelly cake.

Ardnahoe Distillery
Courtesy of Ardnahoe Distillery

Islay Woollen Mill: For the most authentic and utile of souvenirs, the family-owned Islay Woollen Mill produces high-quality, sophisticated (it’s also available via Savile Row) wool products from capes to coats to blazers to scarves to even dog collars. All of the fabric is produced in house, and has been a popular source for Hollywood costumes, with its work being used in a number of blockbusters, including Braveheart, Rob Roy, and even Forrest Gump.

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