If you’re a fan of good whisky, the island of Islay in Scotland is a premiere travel destination. With a total of nine distilleries, the island has a long history of distilling peaty whisky even before distilling whisky was legal. Getting there is a bit of a trek, but if you make it, you’ll be rewarded by a long, beautiful drunken walk to three of the country’s most popular distilleries: Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg.
Planning a trip to Islay
Before you book anything else, you should probably look at tour and tasting availability at the distilleries. Due to Covid, most whisky experiences have to be booked in advance and sell out fast. You should leave at least half an hour between each tour to allow time to get from one to the other. Of the three, Ardbeg is the most relaxed. You can have a drink at their bar or take a tasting box out to the patio. They also have a food truck, which is useful when you’re hitting up three distilleries in a row and having the equivalent of anywhere from 7-12 shots of whisky in one afternoon.
The island of Islay (pronounced ai-luh) is accessible only by ferry. If you don’t prebook the ferry for you and your car in advance, there’s a chance you may not be able to get on, especially if you’re going during the peak travel season in the summer. There are two ports of entry into Islay: Port Askaig and Port Ellen, both of which leave from the mainland at Port Kennacraig. Port Ellen ferries arrive earlier in the morning and Port Askaig ferries arrive in the afternoon. The island is small, so it’s easy to move around regardless of how you arrive. But if you’re doing the Three Distilleries Path, the closest port is Port Ellen. Ferry tickets can be booked directly through CalMac Ferries.
Port Ellen is essentially one street large, so accommodations and restaurants also get booked up in advance. I can’t stress enough how much Islay is not a place to just show up and hope for the best. You will sleep off your hangover on the beach if you do that.
Getting to Islay
The ferry from Kennacraig to Port Ellen is about 2:20, which gives you plenty of time to relax, enjoy the scenery, and even sit down for a meal. The cafe on the ferry has pretty decent food and coffee, which saves you the trouble of having to find an available restaurant when you arrive on the island. The ferry also has a couple of decks of seating, including a quiet section where you can nap if your sailing is at some ungodly hour of the morning. Just remember that check-in for the ferry closes half an hour before the ferry sets sail, and the rest of the trip should be a stress-free one.
The Three Distilleries Path
Drinking and driving in Scotland is a big no-no. There’s a zero tolerance policy and no amount of alcohol in your system is legal if you’re operating a motor vehicle. Luckily, the path to the three distilleries is walkable if you enjoy long beautiful walks along the shore that are full of peaceful farms and sheep. The other option is to drive to the distilleries and get your tasting samples bottled up to take home. But where is the fun in that?
The distance from Port Ellen to Ardbeg, which is the farthest distillery, is 3.5 miles and takes a little over an hour. Ardbeg is a good stop for lunch since it’s the only one that offers food. Even if you don’t do a tour or special tasting, you can get a tasting box from the shop which includes five of their core whiskies. You can enjoy it outside with a pulled pork sandwich or a pizza.
After Ardbeg, it takes about 20 minutes to get to Lagavulin, made more famous by Ron Swanson’s visit on Parks and Recreation. They have a variety of experiences including distillery tours and cask tastings. Their basic tasting includes four whiskies including a distillery exclusive bottling. If you didn’t have lunch before this, you may already be hopelessly drunk by the end of it.
Laphroaig is another 20-25 minute walk back toward Port Ellen. Currently they offer only an exclusive cask tasting experience, where you can pick your favorite of three whiskies and bottle it to take home. You have to fill it with a valinch, which is a long copper pipe that you put in through the top of the cask and use air to suck whisky out of it. It’s… a challenge when you’re on your third distillery visit. There’s a chance I may never be allowed back into the Laphroaig distillery after all the expensive whisky I spilled on the floor trying to fill my bottle. I recommend you make Laphroaig your first stop if this is the experience you booked.
The walk back to Port Ellen will be a beautiful drunken 30 minutes that you won’t ever remember again. If you made it back alive, it’s probably time to get to your hotel, eat something for your own survival, and pass out until morning. Good luck!