Scotland is home to more than 100 distilleries. Among them, some of the world’s most prestigious producers of aged spirits. Amazingly, within this crowded landscape of legendary liquor, there exists a specific region prominent enough to distinguish itself as “whisky island.” This is Islay, a rugged, windswept terrain off the country’s southwestern coast that’s home to the boldest flavors in all of scotch-making. During the island’s 18th-century heyday, it was home to 23 distilleries. Today, that number stands at nine. (Another, Gartbreck Distillery, is in the works.) Regardless, with just 3,000 permanent residents, Islay remains, per capita, the most remarkable repository of hallowed drams in all the world. Some help weaving it all together is in order.
Ardbeg (Port Ellen)
Abutting the southern shoals of the island is this iconic 200-year-old distillery. Its maritime barrelhouses dutifully inhale ocean brine, imparting salt and seaweed into every bottle. The flagship expression, a 10-year-old malt aged in ex-bourbon casks, epitomizes what Islay whisky ought to offer. The 90-minute Full Range Tour, offered at 10 a.m. daily, Monday through Friday, culminates in a tasting of its main range, alongside two rare cask releases. Every year, at the beginning of June, the brand celebrates Ardbeg Day with the unveiling of a limited one-off release, like Kelpie, a robust and peppery dram featuring liquid aged in virgin casks from the coast of the Black Sea.
Power move: Your tour concludes around lunchtime. Lucky for you, Old Kiln Café, located on-site, serves a sensational venison lamb burger surely qualifying as best on the island. You’ve been warned.
Ardnahoe (Port Askaig)
The island’s youngest distillery, Ardnahoe’s first distillation runs began in autumn 2018. Its two large copper pot stills, manufactured in Scotland’s northeast by artisans at Speyside Copperworks, are the centerpieces of its bright, airy still room with beautiful vistas of the Sound of Islay. The distillery is the only one on Islay and among just a handful in all of Scotland to still use the traditional style of worm tub condenser, in which large copper coils submerged in tanks of cold water allow the vapor to condense gradually. The style has fallen out of favor in recent years because of its particularly long and slow distillation time, but it’s said to imbue spirits with added texture and complexity. Tours lasting 45 minutes are offered multiple times daily.
Power move: Book an in-depth tour of the distillery with its manager, Fraser Hughes. The tour ends in the warehouse for a sampling of casks, and you can take home a 20 cL bottle (about seven ounces) of your favorite dram.
Bowmore (School Street)
Gated off from the quaint seaside village that lends it its name, Bowmore feels like the Willy Wonka chocolate factory of scotch distilleries. There’s a certain mysticism emanating from this 18th-century edifice, and it’s more than the warm cereal aromas wafting from the active malting floor. The Ultimate Bowmore Experience includes a visit to its No. 1 Vaults, where a whisky thief is dipped into a cask during an enchanted tasting within Scotland’s oldest barrelhouse. The distinct liquid aged here, rich and robust, is markedly less peaty than what you find elsewhere on the island. A newly remodeled visitors center overlooks scenic Loch Indaal and features a handful of distillery-exclusive bottlings.
Power move: Book a stay one block away at Harbour Inn. The lobby doubles as an idyllic fireside bar where you’ll ward off the damp Islay air with drams of truly local malt. In the morning, wake up to a bowl of Bowmore-topped porridge, a local delicacy.
When this historic facility reopened under new ownership at the start of the 21st century, it rebranded itself as Progressive Hebridean Distillers. It’s not just marketing jargon. Bruichladdich takes a pronouncedly forward-thinking approach to a very traditional style of whisky. Its Octomore label, for example, purports to be the world’s most heavily peated malt and is among the first to identify exact phenolic concentration (which roughly correlates to smokiness) right on the bottle. True believers of local terroir, the distillery sources its malt and peat on the island and ages all of its juice on-site. An hourlong Warehouse Experience is offered multiple times each day, though operations shutter on Sundays throughout winter.
Power move: After tasting the core lineup, bottle your own single cask straight from the barrel inside the visitors center. The selections are constantly rotating, but you’re guaranteed to go home with liquid that rarely makes it off the island.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
Bunnahabhain (Port Askaig)
Bunnahabhain is almost criminally under-appreciated in the States. A visit to its sprawling property, toward the northern tip of Islay, will leave you wondering why. Its flagship bottling comes equipped with a 12-year age statement and an elegant balance of roasted nuts and subtle salinity. Experience its unique splendor in addition to several single-cask expressions on the one-hour Warehouse Tasting Tour. Guided by a resident whisky maker, you’ll leave with elevated expertise in addition to a belly full of marvelous malt. Because of its exclusive nature, the tour must be booked in advance. Plan accordingly, particularly during the high season (April through September).
Power move: As one of the most remote distilleries in Islay, transportation is worth careful consideration. Scottish Routes is a local outfit that can mold a prolonged day of whisky tasting to your specific desires.
Caol Ila (Port Askaig)
Caol Ila is a workhorse, producing more than double the annual output of any other distillery on Islay. Traditionally, much of that juice made its way into blended whisky on the mainland. Nowadays, the lighter single malt rolling off their lengthy, copper stills is in increasing demand—from connoisseurs and casual consumers alike. A lofty, glass-encased still-house exposes the mechanical innards, visible from the surrounding Islay Sound. The Premium Tasting & Tour is a 90-minute affair, concluding with a comprehensive sampling flight in the property’s historic cooperage.
Power move: If you’re already familiar with the workings of a distillery, skip the tour and opt instead for the Whisky & Chocolate Pairing, which features five variations of Caol Ila, lined up against artisanal confections. Each chocolate is selected to highlight the dark, roasted components of its complementing whisky.
Kilchoman (Rockside Farm, Bruichladdich)
This distillery, established in 2005, is the closest example the island has to what Americans would call a craft producer. Rather than concerning itself with output, Kilchoman is dedicated to process. A number of distinctions mark the operation as unique. It’s the only true farm distillery in the country, utilizing grain grown and malted on site, and the liquid runs off the smallest stills in all of Scotland. All of this wouldn’t be worth a damn if it didn’t result in truly exceptional whisky. Judge for yourself on the Premium Tour, which includes a tasting of the core range (the 100% Islay is estate-produced, from grain to glass), along with specialty cask maturations. Past one-offs have utilized sauternes, madeira and port barrels.
Power move: Just over a mile northeast of the distillery is Saligo Bay, home to Islay’s most stunning beaches. Bring a bottle (and a jacket) for a memorable sunset at the Sleeping Giant, a jagged rock formation jutting out like a dragon scale from the surrounding sand.
Lagavulin (Port Ellen)
Lagavulin 16-year-old is commonly regarded as the quintessential expression of Islay malt. This is, of course, a fiercely contentious claim. But the distillery’s visual splendor is never up for debate. From its trademark pear-shaped stills to the setting at the foot of its eponymous bay, Lagavulin has to be seen to be believed. To fully understand how setting impacts spirit, the Warehouse Demonstration is not to be missed. The barrelhouse manager draws samples from a series of casks, ranging successively upward in maturity, as you taste your way through the aging process in real time. The experience is offered every day at 10:30 a.m.
Power move: After the tour, hike a short distance along the mouth of Lagavulin Bay to arrive at the steps of Dunyvaig Castle, a 12th-century ruin that affords the most Instagram-worthy panorama of the distillery, dramatically framed across the water.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
Laphroaig (Port Ellen)
Laphroaig is accused of producing some of the peatiest malts on the planet—a charge the distillery wears like a badge of honor. In the parking lot, standing between the still house and the sea, there’s an exact spot where billowing vapors of new-make spirit converge with briny ocean air into seamless union. And all this magic occurs before you’ve even stepped foot into the legendary facility. Laphroaig is one of the few scotch operations with a working malthouse, so it’s worth incorporate a viewing of its malting floor into any tour here. Go with the Maltman’s Platter Lunch Experience. It’s one hour in length, ending with a leisurely meal of local meats and cheeses paired with multiple expressions from Laphroaig’s expansive arsenal.
Power move: During the high season (April through September), Laphroaig offers morning peat-cutting sessions. Rendezvous at the distillery at 9:20 a.m., get booted up and hit the peat banks for a hands-on lesson in how this whisky receives its defining essence.