Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Scotland, Islay and Whisky. Lots of Whisky.

Last September my brother spent time in London for work and suggested we meet him in Scotland for a stay on the Isle of Islay and visits to some of his favorite whisky distilleries. Matt and I like whisky (although neither of us were knowledgeable enough to know Islay), so we said, "Sure!" And began planning one of my favorite trips to date. Here's how we did Scotland.

Laphroaig Distillery at sunset, Islay, Scotland
Laphroaig Distillery, Islay
Matt & I flew in and out of Edinburgh from Basel, Switzerland on EasyJet - easy and inexpensive. Joe met us there. While there is public transport in the major cities,  renting a car from Edinburgh airport was the easiest way for us to get around the Scottish countryside. We stayed the first night in Glasgow, drove to the Islay, stayed three nights on the Island then drove back for a final night in Edinburgh before flights home.

Port Ellen, Islay, Scotlant
Port Ellen, Islay

Glasgow was charming - more so than we anticipated. Research indicated the city to be a letdown for some tourist. Good news: low expectations are easily exceeded! We strolled around town for a bit, stumbling on the Glasgow Cathedral, a sprawling hilltop victorian graveyard (Glasgow Necropolis) and a really nice microbrewery. For dinner we had a tasty traditional Scottish meal and more delicious micro-brewed beers at the National Piping Centre, conveniently located near our hotel. A night cap at a local pub included the fantastic company of several Scotsmen who were stunned by Joe's knowledge of Scottish whisky. One challenged Matt to a competition to see who could name the most United States capital cities correctly. Clearly he had stumped a number of American tourists with his extensive knowledge of US geography. But he met his match with Matt, a fellow geography buff! I had a Ginger Grouse, ginger beer with a shot of Famous Grouse whisky, at one of their recommendations. Yum.

Sites of Glasgow, Scotland
Glasgow - Cathedrals, Graveyards, Fountains and Beers

Isle of Islay
From Glasgow, a three hour drive and two hour ferry brought us (and our car) to the Isle of Islay, where we stocked up on groceries, checked in to our self-service apartment near Port Ellen and got down to the true business of our trip: drinking whisky.

Peat fields, Laphroaig Distillery, Islay, Scotland
Peat fields, Laphroaig Distillery, Islay

The Distilleries
There are eight whisky distilleries on Islay: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin & Laphroaig. We managed to visit six for tours and/or tastings and I was quite suprised by how different each one was. I think I expected one distillery tour or tasting to be similar to the next, but each had their own personality, style and history. And, of course, the whiskies taste a bit different. Guides highlighted different bits of the process and bartenders shared their personal favorites during tastings. Here's a bit about each we visited.

Ardbeg Distillery, Islay, Scotland
Ardbeg is owned by Louis Vuitton & Mo√ęt Hennessy and you can tell when you walk into their beautifully styled and well-branded tasting room, restaurant and gift shop. It exudes old money and good taste. We missed a morning tour, but enjoyed a free tasting of three Ardbeg whiskies each in the tasting room. Afterward we had a picnic lunch with a stunning view of the water just behind the distillery. The onsite restaurant, Old Kiln Cafe, looked quite tasty and reasonably priced. I was a bit disappointed we missed out on trying it by packing our own lunch (although glad to save the pennies).

Whisky tasting at Ardbeg Distillery, Islay, Scotland

Ardbeg Distillery, Islay, Scotland

Whisky tasting, Bruichladdich, Islay, Scotland
Although this distillery wasn't high enough on Joe's list for a tour (and he was guiding our whisky exploration), Bruichladdich was probably my favorite distillery. We popped in to their tasting room late afternoon, just after arriving on the island and after their last tour of the day was well underway. A staff member led us through a private tasting at the bar. We received a generous pour of five whiskies to share among the three of us. And when I noticed they also distill gin, I received my own pour of it as well. The whisky was great, but the gin was my winner! The Botonist is the first gin I've ever wanted to drink straight up. We bought a bottle. In addition to great gin and solid whiskies, Bruichladdich has my favorite branding. Their signature color is a bright aqua and their label designs are modern and cool. The Classic Laddie would look fantastic on any bar, and it's tasty to! (Yes, I pick my alcohol based on how pretty the bottle is - just check out my wine rack.)

Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay, Scotland

Isle of Islay, Scotland
Joe & Matt taking photos from Bruichladdich

If each distillery has a personality, Bunnahabhain is a notorious bachelor great-uncle, living in Scotland and wearing a moth-eaten old kilt. The tasting room was a mishmash of furniture, dated art and tartan plaids. The gift shop was in a poky little room of a very old building. We went on the last basic tour and tasting of the day, and we were the only customers. Our own private tour and guide gave us liberty to ask questions, have real conversation about how the whisky is made and check out several very old pieces of distilling equipment still in use today.

Bunnahabhain, Isle of Islay, Scotland

Caol Ila
Most whisky made by Caol Ila is used in blended whiskies, specifically Johnnie Walker. I had no idea that major labels founded distilleries for this purpose. Caol Ila does bottle a few whiskies under their own brand. Although we missed the tour we were hoping to catch (long winding drive), we were treated to a (free!) tasting in their sparsely furnished gift shop and tasting room. The Caol Ila Distillers Edition was one of my trip favorites. It's finished in moscatel wine casks, making it sweeter and smoother than most Islay whiskies. Yum.

Caol Ila, Isle of Islay, Scotland

Lagavulin, Isle of Islay, Scotland
DIY Whisky tasting... I clearly forgot to photograph anything else.
Ron Swanson's whisky of choice. Matt and I let my brother go on Lagavulin's higher-end tour on his own in favor of a bit of island site-seeing. When we arrived to pick him up, we found the tour running a bit late. This was no problem, as the tasting room, a cozy library/den of a room behind the gift shop, was open. We were left there with three open bottles of whisky. Seriously, they poured our tasting and then left us alone to enjoy it! And top off as-needed?! And it's free. Since we were heading straight to premium tasting at Laphroaig, we did not take full advantage, but we did enjoy the warm & smoky 16 year, which we bought a small bottle of.

But back to that tasting at Laphroaig... my brother's Lagavulin tour was running late and we were definitely going to miss the start of the already booked and paid-for premium tasting at Laphroaig. Apparently so were most the others on the Lagavulin tour. This is a common (daily?) problem with these two distilleries and their regular tour schedule. To accommodate us, two Lagavulin staff members stuffed eight of us in their cars and drove us to Laphroaig themselves. So accommodating!

Laphroaig, Isle of Islay, Scotland
Matt & I mid-tour, pre-tasting

Laphroaig was the the highlight of our trip. We booked both a distillery tour with tasting one day and a premium tasting for another. Additionally, as Friends of Laphroaig, we were each granted lifetime lease of our own square foot of the island, complete with yearly rent payable in whisky. The distillery tour was the first of our trip and a very good primer for those who know little about Islay or how whisky is made. Laphroaig (uniquely) malts a portion of its own barley and during the tour we tasted nutty, smokey kernels straight from the malting floor. We also learned about how temperature, humidity, salty sea air, etc. all impact the taste of whisky as it ages, adding to the unique taste of Islay whiskies. We tried four exclusive, high end whiskies at the premium tasting, one of which was a single cask whisky that will never be bottled for sale. Each premium tasting is individually curated with different whiskies - a truly unique experience. Afterwards we hiked through peat fields, using our GPS coordinates to track down our bit of Laphroaig land. Planting American flags in the middle of Islay was definitely a highlight of our trip!

Laphroaig, Isle of Islay, Scotland
Aging whisky barrels, malting barley, stills and four whiskies from the Premium Tasting at Laphroaig

Friends of Laphroaig, our leased land on Isle of Islay
Hiked through peat fields to find our plots of land at Laphroaig!

The Rest of Islay
Between whisky tastings we managed to take gorgeous scenic drives (with a designated driver or taxis, which were easy to get and reasonably priced) around the island, stopping at small towns and stormy beaches. We spent a cold, damp, blustery hour exploring Finlaggan, the centre of the Lordship of the Isles (ruins of the estate). There were so many gorgeous photo ops. We stopped the car for as many as possible. In addition to picnics and cooking in our apartment, we also had excellent dinners at The Islay Hotel in Port Ellen and the Lochside Hotel in Bowmore.

Finlaggan, Isle of Islay, Scotland
Finlaggan, Isle of Islay, Scotland
Unfortunately, dealing with a flat tire on the island and a terrible experience with Alamo left us with very little time to explore Edinburgh at the end of out trip. We had a quick walk through the Old Town and Castle Hill as the evening faded into night. The highlight of our evening was a very tasty dinner at The Devil's Advocate with fantastic cocktails and microbrew beers. After another round of drinks at a bar near our hotel, we called it a night.... with so much left to explore! We'll be going back to Edinburgh.

Old Town, Edinburgh, Scotland
Castle Hill & Old Town, Edinburgh, Scotland
Logistics of Visiting Scotland

EasyJet Flights roundtrip Basel to Edinburgh were 175 CHF (202 USD) per person. We took SBB train from Zurich to Basel and EasyJet flights from Euroairport to Edinburgh, which added another 40 CHF (45 USD) per person.

Car Rental/Transportation
We made the epic mistake of renting from Alamo whose European operations are run in partnership with Europcar. Europcar has a reputation for terrible customer service, which they lived up to during our trip. The car was given to us with bits of garbage hidden in every pocket. Gross. On our third day, we blew a tire on Islay.  We managed to get a donut tire on the vehicle thanks to kind gentleman who stopped to help (tools left in our car by Alamo were broken and useless). This allowed us to drive (on a DONUT, through hairpin turns on back country roads) for two days while Alamo customer service gave us the runaround about replacing the tire. After lots of wasted time driving under the speed limit trying to track down non-existent tires and not veer into roadside ditches, we ended up at a packed small-town mechanic which was thankfully open on a Sunday. It was a mess that we've never received proper compensation for from Alamo, despite many, many emails. Needless to say, we will be avoiding Alamo and Europcar at all costs in the future, so as not to waste precious vacation time trying desperately to find help.

From the mainland, we took a ferry from Port Kennacraig to Port Askaig (£13/$20 per person, roundtrip and £64/$100 for the car).

Hotels/Self Service
For three nights on Islay, we stayed at Ballivicar Farm, an adorable working farm, centrally located on the island, near Port Ellen. The Chougherie is one of three self-service apartments available at Ballivicar. It has two bedrooms and a spacious living area with full kitchen. It was more than enough space for the three of us (and could have easily slept 6+). Having our own kitchen, making our own breakfast and packing picnic lunches for the road saved us money and time. The apartment was perfect for our stay - if a bit damp and dated. And the price was truly a deal at £60/night! We would definitely stay here again.

Ballivicar Farms, Isle of Islay, Scotland
Ballivicar Farms cottage (top left), horses that greeted us each morning (top right) and a view from the farm (bottom).

We stayed one night at the Holiday Inn Express - Glasgow Theatreland (£120/$154) and one night at the Holiday Inn Express - Edinburgh City Center (£99/$120). While I usually avoid large chains in favor of locally-owned hotels, Holiday Inn Express allowed us to have three adults in one room, saving us a bit of money. And both were well located with great staff and easy parking.

Isle of Islay, Scotland

Sleachmour Travel Tips: 

Isle of Islay, Scotland
  • Book distillery tours and tastings early. Our original agenda went out the window when we found out one of the more important tours was already fully booked. 
  • Don't book too many tours/tastings per day or schedule them too close together. Tours run long, which could run into your next scheduled event. Also, pours are generous. The key to remembering each is ample time for sobering up between :)
  • Hire a taxi! They're inexpensive and allow everyone to participate. 
  • When in doubt, pop in for an impromptu tasting. They're usually free!
Competition is fierce, but Scotland is definitely a close second to Barcelona for our favorite travel destinations to date. We'll be back soon for more exploration - and whisky.

Isle of Islay, Scotland


  1. Hi, Becky. We'd like to look into your experience with our services further. Please contact us at with your contact information, reservation and/or rental agreement numbers, exact rental location, and any other details you would like to provide. When emailing please include reference number 150129-001594 in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Collin P.
    Social Monitoring Coordinator

    1. Collin-
      I would be glad to forward you all the emails we exchanged with You forwarded our complaint to the European service office, which never again responded. We received an email stating that the issues was closed and a final bill was issued with no compensation for our lost vacation time. It was a joke.

  2. I can't believe I have lived in Scotland for my whole life and still haven't been on a distillery tour like this! Would love to go some time, I love whisky and I have just started to enjoy gin more so your tour looks awesome. Glad you had a good time over here!

    I didn't see if you had mentioned it but if you're ever back, try a fish supper; we have good fresh fish and although it isn't the healthiest, it is definitely a part of our culture! Best to get them from a fish and chip shop rather than a pub, though they are often good there too.

    1. Thanks for the tip, Rosalind! I believe we had fish and chips from a pub one night and they were pretty tasty. But you're right, we definitely need to try them from a proper fish a chip shop! We plan to return to Edinburg again in the future. If you know a good spot to recommend there, please let me know.