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Anyone who knows anything about whisky has heard of Islay, even if all you have seen of Islay whisky is in airport shops. There are nine Islay single malts, all but two distilled on the coast, going anticlockwise: Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhainn. An inland operation started distilling at Kilchoman in 2005, the first Islay distillery to be built for 125 years, and then Ardnahoe in 2018. To find out all there is to know about Scottish whisky try here. For myself I just don’t like the peaty taste of Islay malts, but there is a low peat Bruichladdich called Rocks which is more my style – luckily for Islay there are a lot of people who completely disagree with my taste in whisky.
But far fewer people know where Islay is, and even fewer have actually been there. It is quite different from the other Hebridean islands, and not at all like the Highlands except in a few corners, having a character of its own – more rural, farmland, more whitewashed houses, more money around judging by the size of some of the houses, more birds although they are mostly on the land and not so much at sea, and few castles. And at a bit over 3000 or so, the biggest island population. The rich farming land on Islay is not a new observation, in the late 18th century Pennant wrote: "Perhaps it may seem trifling to mention, that some excellent new potatoes were served up at dinner; but this circumstance, with the forwardness of the hay harvest, shows what can be effected by culture in this island..." Even earlier, in the 16th century Dean Monro described Islay as "fertil, fruitful, and full of natural grassing, with maney grate diere, maney woods, faire games of hunting beside everey toune...".
Click on a name to go to the anchorage
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What Islay is famous for
Like Colonsay, Islay now has its own brewery with eight ales ranging from a tolerable 3.7% to a head splitting 5.0%. This is particularly good news for Englishmen like myself brought up on proper beer, not caring at all for the more mass produced Scottish version (there are exceptions like Caledonian IPA). Indeed, after more than 25 years living in Scotland the only things I really miss about England are the pubs with their real ales. Certainly not the over inspected and measured school system, or the increasingly outsourced NHS.
Although the yachtsman can anchor off every coastal distillery except Laphroaig, the best anchorage has got to be Lagavulin – the entrance is challenging and requires you to keep the ‘ulin.’ of Lagavulin in sight as you approach. You end up right by the distillery and maybe on one of their moorings, the smell is good, and you can easily walk to Ardbeg and get two distilleries for the price of one, as it were.