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An Irishman's guide to Islay For many it is the Mecca of whisky, a place of pilgrimage which produces smokey spirit unlike any other. Fanatics flock from far and wide to visit its rocky shores and windswept peat bogs, in the hope of imbibing their favourite drams at the source, and experiencing the unique Hebridean island which gave birth to such feisty, vibrant smoky whiskies.   Fortunately for an Irish aficionado, a trek halfway across the planet is not required. The isle of Islay is literally on our doorstep. But that’s not to say it’s easy to reach or simple to navigate. The same sea breezes which give Islay malts their famous briny character are also inclined to make visiting our nearest neighbour more than a little challenging. A visit to Islay is not for the uninitiated. Many the poor friend or partner dragged across the isle by an Islay malt fanatic finds themselves grimacing in shock when the first drop hits their unsuspecting palate. The best place to commence a visit to Islay is at your nearest well-stocked bar or whisky shop, where you can sample their famous smoky spirit style and decide if it is for you. Be warned, despite the mere miles of the distance separating Islay from Ireland, this is nothing like Irish whiskey. Double-distilled and peat-smoked, Islay drams are fiery, muscular, phenolic and unforgiving. You’ll either love them or hate them. But for those who love, few alternatives will do, not the gently peated Highland malts, nor the sweet drams of Speyside. The whisky of Islay is like the island itself, challenging, sublime, stunning, changeable and underpinned by the ever-present peat.   - 'Whisky distilling on Islay has probably been going on nearly as long as it has in Ireland' -   Whisky distilling on Islay has probably been going on nearly as long as it has in Ireland. Most of the island’s distilleries on its southern shore, facing Antrim and the Bushmills distillery across the treacherous North Channel of the Irish Sea, all suspiciously were founded within weeks of each other. As with the west of Ireland, illicit distilling was forced into legality by the sudden and unwelcome appearance of excise men in the early 19th century. And as with the traditional spirit on Ireland’s west coastline, the Islay distillers used the available peat to dry their malted barley, giving their spirit its renowned smokey character. That tradition all but died out in Ireland but remains in Islay. In a sense, a trip to Islay is a trip back in time in Irish whiskey history. The Hebrides are remote and there are three main ways of getting on and off the island. The easiest is probably to fly via Glasgow to the tiny airport located halfway between Port Ellen and Bowmore. But easiest isn’t cheapest. Otherwise, there are ferry options to Port Ellen and Port Askaig from Kennacraig on West Loch Tarbert, on the Scottish mainland. Then again, Tarbert isn’t exactly convenient to get to either, but for those driving around Scotland, this may be the most convenient and scenic option. The final way there, and the most direct from Ireland if also the most challenging is via the seasonal rigid inflatable which runs between Ballycastle in Antrim and Port Ellen during Summer months only. Seasonal and challenging because of the waters are simply too dangerous for the Kintyre Express to traverse outside of a brief May to September window. When we visited in August, we found this out the hard way, as we were stranded on Islay for two days of inclement weather, when the boat could not run. Thankfully we had some distilleries to distract us from our woes, but for those on tight timetables, this may not be the ideal option For everyone else, a trip via Ballycastle allows the opportunity to pop into Bushmills distillery on the way, for the last reminder of what unpeated triple distilled Irish malt tastes like before encountering its distant relative on Islay. Suitably fortified, the 90-minute journey over choppy waters and past the original location of the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool at Rathlin Island will either be an exhilarating ride in the cheery company of skipper Gerry or else a painful revisiting of your breakfast. The Kintyre Express Rib is fully covered and centrally heated, but seats only 12, so it will book out quickly during popular weekends,  such as the Feis Ile. But with return tickets from under £100, it is affordable and exciting, if occasionally unreliable, way to get to Islay.   Port Ellen itself is no metropolis but does possess a number of shops and restaurants, including the pricey but tasty restaurant in the Islay Hotel. Visitors may find that the accommodation at 1 Charlotte Street, or a well-chosen AirBnB, is easier on the wallet, leaving more money for whisky purchasing. Port Ellen is also very handily located for three of Islay’s most famous distilleries, along the legendary Kildalton Road. A convenient walking and cycling path have been constructed alongside the narrow road to ensure that well-oiled tourists don’t wander into the path of local drivers. Laphroaig is the nearest to the town, and like many Islay distilleries, it's famous whitewashed walls sit scenically right on the shorefront. Due to the distillery’s cult following, Laphroaig offers a bewildering range of possible tours, up to a full-day event which even includes visiting their own bog to cut the peat. The basic tour includes three welcome drams and gives good access to the distillery, including their malting floors. Their comfortable sea-facing bar is also a welcome respite from what can be bracing conditions outside and offers a wide range of rare Laphroaig expressions for a reasonable £12.50 per glass.   - 'Laphroaig offers a bewildering range of possible tours, up to a full-day event which even includes visiting their own bog to cut the peat' -   Just up the Kildalton Road is Lagavulin, the smaller of the two Diageo-owned distilleries on the island, but still one of the largest whisky producers. It is exquisitely old-school, with wood panelling and comfy leather armchairs in their tiny dramming space, but like sister distillery Caol Isla, it isn’t really set up for tourists and visitors. Tours need to be booked in advance, but their exquisite little bar, perhaps the only part of the distillery to have been done up this millennium, offers drams from Laga-vulin’s small but excellent range as well as some cocktail options. Take their daily warehouse tour if you can with charismatic warehouseman Iain MacArthur. If you’re lucky, he will have you sucking 25-year-old whisky straight out of the cask, literally. At the very end of the line is cult favourite Ardbeg. Like many of Islay’s historic distilleries, Ardbeg was dead and buried at one point, but having closed in 1981 and again in 1991, it somehow defied the fate of other distilleries like Port Ellen itself and was resurrected in 1997. With their 120,000 strong ‘committee’ ensuring that every limited edition bottling sells out, there seems little likelihood of Ardbeg closing again any time soon. Famously coalsmokey, their spirit is normally only found in its 10-year-old expression. A visit to the distillery, and its popular Kiln Café (one of Islay’s top eating spots), allows fans to try the rarer (and often prohibitively expensive) expressions of this traditionally produced whisky. Their ‘wee taste’ tour is great value at £6, but you should really splash out for the full range tour at £20 which offers a sampling of five or six of their hard-to-find expressions. Ardbeg is also the terminus for Islay’s one bus route, a somewhat confusing and occasional service that runs from this corner of the island to both the west and the north via Port Ellen and Bowmore. Therefore care must be taken to ensure that the bus you catch is heading to the part of the island you want to visit. The other terminal is Port Askaig, which is convenient for visiting Caol Isla and Bunnahabhain, and Portnahaven, which is just beyond Bruichladdich. A night or two spent in Bowmore is a good plan if you want to visit the distilleries on the west of the island, and you definitely should. Bruichladdich is perhaps the most exciting and innovative of all the Islay distilleries, effectively responsible for not one but three prominent Islay brands. The eponymous whisky is unpeated and often is available in superb limited editions based on cask finishing and even terroir. Their Bere Barley expression is highly recommended. But the distillery also produces the peated Port Charlotte, again in many experimental expressions and finishes, and the infamous Octomore, the world’s peatiest whisky. Brown spirit fans may be surprised to see the hordes of gin drinkers descending on the distillery, but these are visiting the home of the highly popular Botanist gin, which is made in one of Scotland’s few remaining Lomond stills, nicknamed Ugly Betty. Islay’s smallest and newest distillery Kilchoman is not far from Bruichladdich, but isn’t on any transport links. To get there will involve either a taxi from Bruichladdich or Bowmore or else a vigorous cycle. Indeed, cycling is one of the best ways to get about the island if you are fit enough to handle the hills and bends, and cycles are available to hire on the island if you choose not to bring your own by ferry.   - 'Indeed, cycling is one of the best ways to get about the island if you are fit enough to handle the hills and bends' -   A farm distillery, Kilchoman is easily the youngest on the island and the only distillery that is family-owned. As we visited, their 12-year-old malt was just hitting the shelves, and tractors were busily preparing land for constructing some new warehouses. Their spirit is still a little young but already attracts a loyal following, and their dedication to doing everything
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