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Kristiane Sherry

May 02, 2024

Six top tips for an Islay whisky trip

Inspired by the annual festival? Always dreamed of visiting the whisky isle? Here are six ways to get the most out of a trip to Islay.

There’s just something enchanting about Islay. The inner Hebridean island, located 139 miles to the west of the Scottish mainland, has long topped the travel itineraries of whisky lovers around the world. Home to around 3,000 people and soon to be 14 whisky distilleries, Islay is a small community that packs in a whole load of flavour. It can be easy to forget its remoteness – and small population – given the column inches it commands. Its inherent detachment adds to the appeal – but it also calls for a whole load of preparation for a successful visit.

Given that Islay holds such enduring appeal for whisky lovers, we thought we’d share our six top tips for a magical visit. Whether you’re planning an imminent trip to the Queen of the Hebrides or dreaming of one, read on and get inspired. With an appropriate dram, of course.

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1. Plan ahead

Just getting to Islay can prove a bit of a headache. There are really only two ways to get to the island: fly from Glasgow, or take the ferry from Kennacraig on the Kintyre peninsula. Both links operate a weather-dependent, limited schedule – and the ferries have been especially unreliable recently. Older ferries have been out of service receiving repairs. There should be good news come 2025 though, with two new vessels set to join operator CalMac’s fleet.

Accommodation too can be limited – and sell out quickly. There are murmurings that this might get tricker with Ardbeg parent company Ardbeg’s recent purchase of the Islay Hotel in Port Ellen. That said, accommodation, especially in B&B form, is available across the island. If you have transport, it’s worth looking outside of the main towns of Port Ellen and Bowmore. If budget is no concern or golf is on the agenda, check out The Machrie. And don’t forget dinner – make reservations well ahead of time. Pro tip: there’s a network of Co-op stores across the island. You will find them useful.

Travelling without a car? There are two bus routes that serve the island with a regular, if infrequent, service. The 450 will take you across from Bowmore to Portnahaven, while the 451 shuttles from Port Askaig in the north to Port Ellen in the south. Just be aware: there are no buses on Sundays. Be sure to check the Argyll & Bute website for the latest timetables.

And don’t forget the distilleries! While most offer tours, these may not take place all year-round. It’s always best to check online and book your place ahead of time. Also be aware that silent season – when distilleries close for annual maintenance – typically takes place over the summer. Call ahead if you particularly want to see the stills in operation.

2. Get set for all weathers

If you don’t like the weather on Islay just wait ten minutes, so the adage goes. As someone who has visited the island countless times, I would say this is true most days. What this means is that if it’s raining, it won’t be for long. Unfortunately, sunshine can be short-lived, too.

With that in mind, it is generally sensible to pack for all conditions. I’ve seen snow in winter (although it is rare!) and sustained sunburn in May. If luggage capacity permits, I suggest packing more layers than you think you’ll need. Take decent shoes with grip, and, of course, waterproofs. As the outdoorsy among us say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation.

“I’ve seen snow in winter (although it is rare!) and sustained sunburn in May. ”

3. Travel outside of the festival season

Fèis Ìle, the Islay Festival, is undoubtedly a high point in the island’s calendar. Malt and music collide in glorious fashion. Each distillery holds an open day, with an independent bottlers’ event in the spotlight one day too.

Held over nine days from late May into early June each year, it really is a spectacle. But there are huge advantages to visiting outside the festival, too. For one, it’s much easier to get transport and accommodation – which can be tricky at the best of times. Secondly, your tour group will likely be smaller, giving you more time to chat to your guide and ask questions. The vibes across the island are generally much more relaxed, too. Islay is magical in all seasons – even winter. Don’t limit yourself to just the fortnight around the festival events.

4. Watch the midges

Whether you’re prone to insect bites or not, Islay presents a challenge. Midges are notoriously vicious across Scotland’s west coast. And from experience, Islay is particularly afflicted.

Peak midge season is May to October – another reason to avoid the summer peak – and, as the residents will tell you, conventional repellent can often be ineffective. Avon Skin So Soft seems to be a favourite. Mosi-Guard, The Wee Midge, Jungle Formula and Smidge are also rumoured to be effective (if anyone finds a fail-safe midge solution, do let us know).

Other tips to beat the midges include wearing white or light clothes (they like the dark, apparently) and using smoke-emitting burners or candles if you’re sitting outside. But honestly, despite the long summer evenings, it probably is best to just stay inside from dusk.

5. Take to the sea

With most Islay distilleries perched on the coastline, it makes sense that one of the best ways to see the island is by boat. There are numerous reputable services – Islay Sea Adventures is a great one, there are others too – and many will tailor your trip to include a whisky tasting.

A boat trip also brings with it the chance to spot some incredible wildlife. Dolphins, porpoises, seals and even whales have been seen in and around the waters. If you’re setting sail from the north, the dramatic Corryvreckan whirlpool is also worth a visit.

"A boat trip also brings with it the chance to spot some incredible wildlife. Dolphins, porpoises, seals and even whales have been seen in and around the waters."

6. Go beyond whisky

It might seem ridiculous to round off the list with something other than whisky but hear me out. Islay is undoubtedly a globally renowned hotspot for the spirit – but there are so many other things to do too.

For carnivorous foodies, Islay offers an array of riches from seafood to lamb and game. It’s also home to some of Scotland’s most stunning beaches. Kilchoman Beach on Machir Bay isn’t safe for swimming but offers a breathtaking walk. If you want sand and a sea dip, look to Kilnaughton beach, Port Ellen or Ardtalla. The latter is a further afield, but well worth the trip.

As well as walking, other activities for the more adventurous include kayaking, horse riding, and off-road cycling. The more sedate might look to bird-watching or exploring the ruins at Finlaggan. Islay really does offer something for everyone.

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Feeling inspired by Islay? Sip a sense of place, whether you’re planning a visit, or just fancy a taste of the island. These are our current favourites.

Bowmore 18 Year Old

A classic for a reason, with a profound balance of sweet, smoke and cask influence. A stunning dram for all occasions, with notes of candied orange, tropical fruits, milk chocolate, and of course, a floral-like peat.

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Bowmore 18 Year Old - Milroy's of Soho - Whisky
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Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old Cask Strength 2023 - Milroy's of Soho - Scotch Whisky
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Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old Cask Strength

Reckon Islay is all about the smoke? Think again. This bottling the third annual release in the northern distillery’s cask strength collection, celebrates the intricacies of sherry cask maturation. It was matured on the island too.

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Caol Ila 2007 Wilson & Morgan Milroy's Exclusive

We partnered with independent bottler Wilson & Morgan to release this gorgeous 15-year-old Caol Ila release. The celebrated maker is known for its complex smoke – and it shines here in this refill hogshead release.

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Caol Ila 2007 Wilson & Morgan Milroy's Exclusive - Milroy's of Soho - Whisky
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