Everyone who knows whisky, knows Islay. You’ve seen it on packaging, in books and online. But as with all places, only when you’re there do you get the spirit of the place, the layers beyond the marketing. I was fortunate to be able to spend a week there at the beginning of June and found out what so many had told me, but had not really sunk in: this is a special place.
I arrived in Port Askaig. Situated in a little cove on the eastern coast with steep slopes surrounding it (upon which sits a small row of houses that look vaguely like a mansion), it looks like your prototypical small port town, the way a Disney artist would draw it. A little to the north, in similar bays, you find first Caol Ila and then Bunnahabhain distilleries. The former an 80s concrete and steel monstrosity which, perhaps unexpectedly, produces one of the most elegant peated spirits on the island, the latter resembling a Victorian prison with haphazardly placed, earth-toned stills producing (for the most part) unpeated spirit, massive washbacks and a concrete pier which even the diehard anti-tourist in me couldn’t resist shooting a few pictures from. And all the time on this side of the Island, the fast-flowing Sound of Islay is all that separates you from rugged Jura and its Paps, three suggestively shaped mountains that are visible on the horizon from most of eastern Islay.
Moving inland and south, you pass some of the wide open peatbogs used by the Port Ellen maltings and those distilleries that still malt their own: Laphroaig and Bowmore (Kilchoman also does but uses mainland peat now. It is looking to start using Islay peat again). People can rent a bank for a small fee and get the right to cut peat there. Not many now cut it for heating any more, but there are still some diehards who go out into the bog each spring, and the evidence of their work can be seen in the black, oily banks and rows of peats to each side as you hurtle your car across the undulating Low Road to Port Ellen. Pretty, this central part (which includes the small airfield) is not. Past the always belching smokestack of the maltings you enter the Kildalton coast, and the landscape changes dramatically. Everything, from the hills to the little bays, seems smaller. Gone are the sweeping vistas, and in return you get a micro-landscape with tiny rocky outcroppings, treacherous bays and a distinct compressed beauty.
The three distilleries here feel like variations on a theme: white-painted complexes tucked away in their private little bays, each with its own watersource up in the hills feeding it its brownish peaty water. Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg have a distinctly different feel to the east coast distilleries, even though in passing the locations may seem similar. On a sunny day there is no harshness to the land here, and the tables situated outside the Laphroaig visitor centre fill with people just lounging, reading, sunbathing. This is the closest Islay gets to a proper, boring, holiday feel. And while that may please some people, I much prefer the isolated, faintly tragical feel of the east coast. Driving on past Ardbeg and as you pass the famous Kildalton Cross (an early example of a Christian carved cross situated in a small graveyard by a derelict chapel), the landscape lengthens once more. At the end of the road you find yourself overlooking Claggain Bay, a starkly beautiful cove (top image).
The western part of Islay is a different beast altogether again. Watch this space for part two of this blog (including Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Kilchoman).