After a fantastic night of sleep in Kennacraig, we caught the 7AM ferry to Islay. It was rainy and cold as we set out to cross West Loch Tarbert, but in a two hour ferry ride the weather can change a lot. As we approached Islay, the rain stopped and the sun came out giving us a fresh boost of energy as we drove ashore and straight across the island to the south shore. We had a little bit of time to kill so we stopped and dipped our feet into the cold North Atlantic. I had booked distillery tours for every day we were on the island; two per day the first two days and then three the last day. We had a reason for coming all this way after all, and this reason would evolve into something even more special by the end of our time here.
The first distillery we would visit was one I had seen around but never tried before: Ardbeg. It sits farthest down on the south shore neighboring famous Laphroaig and Lagavulin. One thing I really liked at this particular distillery was how relaxed and welcoming it felt. It felt like it was a family making whisky and they were happy to have us out to their farm as a guest. They allowed people to walk around most of the grounds without a guide and just asked that you stay out of the warehouses and to watch out for equipment.
As our first distillery tour began it was fascinating to see the way the malt was peated and then ground, mixed, and fermented. All the sights, sounds, and smells were incredible and I found a new appreciation for whisky forming. As we moved into the still house to see where the wash is turned into spirit, we were wowed by the giant beautiful copper kettles. One thing I liked at Ardbeg’s stills that I didn’t see anywhere else was a small window into the still neck so that you could see the distillation bubbling and somewhat decipher what stage of the process it was in, with the help of our guide of course. At the end of the tour we were taken into the Ardbeg Vault for a tasting. There were three options for the tasting and since there were three of us we each got one of the choices and we were all able to try all three. After completing the tour we knew exactly where we were having lunch as we had done a little research and planning prior to our visit. I had seen the menu for the restaurant in Ardbeg’s Distillery and they had a mac’n cheese with bacon and leeks which I had to try. It was even more amazing than it sounds somehow. You know how a lot of the time you hear something is great, then when it finally comes it is completely underwhelming? This was the exact opposite. Complete satisfaction!
Our next stop on Day 1 of our whisky adventure was Lagavulin. Now my first exposure to Lagavulin was a bottle of the Lagavulin 16 year I picked up at Costco for around $60 (which sadly has jumped to $80 over the past year). The first taste I had of it was a little rougher than I had expected, my friend described it as tasting like the water wrung out of a mossy decomposing log and I could see her point. However after the 3rd or fourth sip I could really start to taste the different notes in it and appreciate the caramel, sea air, and salt behind the peat. Lagavulin came out with a “Sensory Tasting Package” for their 200 year anniversary (2016) and since we were already doing many other distillery tours, for the sake of variety I went for this package as I thought it would be something different and it sounded really interesting. It was advertised as a tour followed by a nosing and tasting with an experienced guide.
Maybe it was just a bad day for the guide, who I really liked, but the experience seemed all forced and not very informative at all. They had made a cute box with five little dram samples and put some stuff in other bottles for us to sniff, taste, and look at. The guidance we got was that they did not want to skew our senses so she told us what sensory items went with what whiskys, but from there it was free to our interpretation. We did get to sample the distillers edition in the tasting which was fantastic, but honestly if I could go back, I would not do the Sensory Experience again nor would I recommend it to anyone else. The tour was an interesting concept, but it just didn’t seem very well thought out and was poorly executed. Our guide however was very kind and after the experience she took us down to the pier to see where the barrels were offloaded from the ships and to get a better view of the distillery. We had built rapport with her and asked nicely and she was more than happy to take a group of us down. This seems to be the running theme on all my travels, our favorite memories usually involve the people we meet along the way. Find the best in people, be friendly and genuinely interested, and be kind. That’s the key. With this attitude, I think you can be welcome anywhere. As for Lagavulin, I will continue to drink it and would recommend going to the distillery for the regular tour.
After our tour at Lagavulin it was still relatively early which was part of our plan because down at the south end of Islay is the Kildalton Cross. Down a long one lane road, through bogs, marshes, and sheep fields, is a small peaceful graveyard. Here among other beautiful graves sits the Kildalton cross.
This cross is said to have been carved most probably in the second half of the 8th century AD. It is an outstanding representation of a Celtic cross and well worth the effort to see if on the island. It has retained it’s details very well and you can make out the various scenes and motifs with the help of an interpretive sign placed on the wall beside it. Plus if you are lucky you may get their early enough to sample some of the treats and coffee a local family sells, unattended and on the honor system, from a card table outside the cemetery. We missed out on their chocolate ginger cake, so if you have tried it let us know!
From here we made a long drive back crossing the island along a long straight road, the longest on Islay, that was built after WWI in an effort to give the men work and something to do while settling back into life after the war. On Islay they call this road “the Low Road”. It’s quite impressive as it’s technically a floating road over the bogs. When we finally got back to Port Charlotte we were starving. We weren’t sure where to eat as our hotel had great reviews for there fish plate but we hadn’t heard of it for anything else. So we set out walking and looking. We came to a place named Yan’s Kitchen and we were a little skeptical of it. So we hunted around a little more, but could not find anything else. We returned to Yan’s and came inside. It came off as a bit up scale and we certainly were the most under dressed in the place. We perused the menu and found the catch of the day at $15 to be our best bet. When it came out we were all stunned. It was the best cooked fish I have ever been served and it sat beautifully over a bet of perfectly cooked vegetables in a delicious tomato sauce. My mouth is watering even now as I recall it. We loved our meal and when we returned to the hotel we decided to stop in to the bar for a night cap dram. Here the bar tender told us that there would be live music down the street at another hotel. Erik was sick so he went to bed and Sera and I walked down to check it out for a bit. The place was packed and with our affinity (really lack there of) of crowded places we decided to stand outside in the cold and listen to the band. We got to here a few lovely songs then wandered back exhausted and ready for bed.