Islay: NI’s ‘Hidden’ Whisky Island Neighbour

Longread

What if someone told you we have a relatively untalked-of, world-renowned island destination, full of stunning views, good food and A LOT of even better drinks, a stone’s throw from NI’s shores?

For our recent honeymoon, myself and the newly installed Mrs Johnston took to the globally celebrated, whisky-producing island of Islay. And if your first question is ‘where?’, you’re in for a shock. That’s because it’s just one hour from Ballycastle. One hour.

Why have I called it hidden? Because, being a Scottish island, it isn’t heavily promoted locally. Also, the further south you go from Ballycastle the fewer people are aware of the superb boat connection (possibly because the 12-seater sailing seems to book up pretty quickly as it is).

During our time on Islay (pronounced ‘Isla’) we discovered what effect the island becoming a global hotspot for rich tourists has had on the area and how the mere production of liquid is turned into a multi-million-pound visitor experience.

We found it was impossible not to draw comparisons between worldwide demand for holidays on the island and the fledgling cruise ship boom seen in our own Belfast. In fact, doing so raises some stark questions about our own direction of travel as a destination.

The trip also gave an opportunity to reflect on how a simple alcohol product can draw people from every corner of the globe to its source.

 

Day 1: Buckle Up & Whisky Galore

Whisky bar locked cabinet image for Islay blog

Unless you want to reach Islay from Scotland, own a boat or you’re a REALLY strong swimmer, you’ll use the Kintyre Express service from Ballycastle on NI’s north coast.

And why not, it’s a stunning drive to the harbour, you can also take in Rathin and the north-west, it’s only £90 return to Islay and the sailing is an experience in itself.

We’d just tied the knot in Belfast’s magnificent City Hall, with no more fuss or thrills than two witnesses and a few minutes of paperwork. We nicknamed it our ‘turbo-thran’ wedding and it cost exactly the same as our two tickets to Islay. Don’t ask about the bar bill though.

Oh, and let’s not forget that we almost had a honeymoon in Belfast: three hours before our ferry to Islay we discovered we’d no tickets for our booking. Someone at Kintyre Express HQ saved the day by answering a social media message at the uncivilised hour of 8.30pm. Thank you.

An early start in Ballycastle began with a hunt for the boat’s departure point, which was signalled by the sight of a handful of pacing Americans.

On board, the Skipper of the Kintyre Express, which offers two short rows of seats but boasts a great welcome, told us it was a “great day for it”.

He then, as if his next statement was somehow unconnected to his last, warned passengers that they might need their armrests down “to help you stay in your seat” and gunned the ignition with the casual air of someone nipping out for a pint of milk.

“Oh, and, some golfers broke the toilet door…golfers always break stuff”.

As it happened, it was a fairly smooth crossing (this time) and we arrived in Port Ellen with our breakfast, and thirst, intact.

From the very first steps into this small island town on the southern end of Islay, it doesn’t take long to see that whisky is a serious business here. Why? Islay island is home to some of the world’s finest brands – from Ardbeg and Lagavulin to Bruichladdich and Bunnahabbain – and is very proud of it.

Just minutes off the ferry, a stop in the Islay Hotel bar gave a chance to see hundreds of ‘expressions’ from the island distilleries lining the shelves as well as a symbol of just how much whisky is part of the local culture.

That symbol? Not just the fact that whisky is served in special tasting glasses, but the discovery that, when the newly installed Mrs Johnston ordered a whisky coffee, they threw a shot of Laphroaig into the coffee cup.

An expensive single malt in coffee was enough to cause flashbacks of my upbringing in canny Ballymena. And a cold sweat.

Then, another look at the whisky menu revealed shots – shots – of whisky costing over £100.

Our budget was, clearly, going to be more Ballymena than American billionaire.

Talking of US visitors, we’d passed a mobile bank-on-wheels and heard in the Islay Hotel that it can be difficult to draw cash from anything other than a UK bank card, leaving some tourists stuck.

One fantastically friendly taxi journey later, we stepped out to admire Islay House, a hotel fairly recently developed within a historic ‘great house’ a little further north on the island.

The business boasts a whisky collection covering two walls and has the feel of a gentrified home as opposed to a modern hotel. Period rooms and spectacular attention to detail are matched by equally impressive grounds, including a vast community garden tucked behind a door nearby.

It’s also a short distance from Bowmore town, the administrative capital of Islay and home to Bowmore distillery. Here, we had our first glance at how whisky is sold to global enthusiasts with deep pockets.

The distillery bar, like most on the island, offers ‘whisky flights’ with a selection of various products (the Bowmore 15 is delicious, as it happens) to be enjoyed in slick, corporate surroundings dripping with branded merchandise. The American visitors, it seems, have a particular taste for high-end outdoor jackets carrying the name of their favourite producer.

A walk around Bowmore town continues the theme, as a small whisky shop can be found where the helpful staff will be delighted to help visitors spend on bottles way beyond the abilities of their palettes. Think of a lottery winner in a branch of Currys, in this case wobbling along after an afternoon of free distillery samples.

Many bars have a locked cabinet, where the highest-priced drams are kept, while more than one shop was selling ‘Islay Whisky Water’ which is, you guessed it, some water in a wee bottle.

Although most town centre bars seemed to be empty, the islanders themselves were packed into the buzzing Bowmore Hotel bar. If they weren’t hiding from the tourists intentionally, they’d certainly found a place to call their own.

 

Day 2: The Rugged North & The ‘Other’ Islay

Jura distillery image for Islay whisky blog

While the southern tip of Islay is home to the famous and beautifully-executed Three Distilleries Pathway between whisky giants Laphroiag, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, head north to discover the more industrial, coalface distilleries along the island’s cragged shores.

Thanks to some quick service and friendly travel tips from Islay Car Hire, we found our way to Coal Ila distillery, where the small and weather-beaten factory buildings seemed to be framed perfectly in a jaw-dropping coastal setting.

The nearby windy harbour of Port Askaig was matched by a oddly frosty hotel, complete with lukewarm coffee. It also, however, marks the gateway to something truly special: a ferry service to the unspoilt, single-tracked and wild Jura island, former home to no less than George Orwell.

There, a stop in the small but welcoming Jura Distillery, a great meal in the Jura Hotel (“Jura’s only pub”) and a walk around the shop and cafe in Craighouse village gave more time to savour some world-class views.

Back on Islay mainland and a visit to two more distilleries: the just-opened gloss, expanse and bright lights of the £12m Ardnahoe Distillery and the craggy, whitewashed buildings of the shoreline-hugging Bunnahabhain.

The latter boasts a small but impeccably friendly and helpful distillery shop where we found a whisky we’ll never forget. Why? I’ll explain later.

 

Day 3: Millionaire’s Corner & An Islay Highlight

Three Distilleries Pathway image for Islay whisky blog The only other couple in the breakfast room? A fantastically posh-sounding older English couple, with the husband happily sporting clothes so scruffy he could’ve just shot a salmon or went chasing deer through hedges or whatever really posh people do.

We experienced a different kind of posh with a visit to the newly-revamped Machrie golf resort, an opulent and remote building where visiting golfers can enjoy high-class meals and stylish lounging in the rarefied, gated village-feel confines of luxury rooms with countless flunkies.

As we drank a watery coffee, one transatlantic guest was shouting demands for a full explanation of the different types of breakfast yoghurt on offer to a passing, and visibly irritated, staff member.

From the superficial to the timeless, then, by way of that breathtaking coastal walk between the three distilleries outside Port Ellen town, where we’d stopped to visit the Co-op and wonder who on earth is going to buy the lonely bottle of impressively unpleasant Haig Club on the shelf. In fact, we dare you to buy it (but, whatever you do, don’t drink the stuff).

Back to our walk, and some of the heavily-layered visitors from across the world we very sporadically met looked on in horror at our t-shirts and jeans as the wind howled through the trees.

The Three Distilleries Pathway, aside from being spectacular in its own right, boasts one of the world’s best hands-on marketing lessons: the very different ways three of Islay’s iconic brands choose to sell their visitor experience. After all, the stakes are very, very high.

First up, Laphroiag is a lesson in community-building so slick it would bring a tear to a marketer’s eyes. You’ll find a plot of land where members of ‘Friends of Laphroiag’ from around the world can plant a flag, a peerless museum area, a special Friends of Laphroaig clothing range sold at a sensible price and an overall experience more akin to a luxury members-only airport lounge than a wind-swept island factory.

They didn’t have a flag for NI so we made our own, thankfully no one asked why or we might still be there explaining.

Lagavulin, then, comes as a shock thanks to its beautiful, understated and historic visitor building which feels a lot like a vintage train station and has a wonderful, homely bar to match.

There was, however, no sign of Ron Swanson. We checked.

Then, Ardbeg distillery welcomes you with the slogan ‘rest and be thankful, for you have arrived’. And it’s here you’ll discover just how many people do arrive on the island, as a huge courtyard area has clearly been set aside from the throngs of people who’ll come to Islay for the annual Whisky Festival. Apparently they have their own pier for boaty types too.

Ardbeg’s other claim to fame? Aside from the most confusing bus timetable in the world posted nearby, probably the best reputation for consistently good, reasonably-priced food on the island. Oh, and Mrs Johnston found a small card inviting her to ‘join a party’ in the bathrooms.

It turned out it was from the SNP.

We then, back in our hire car, visited Bruichladdich –  the “Progressive Hebridean Distillers” – to enjoy an incredibly stylish, interesting and wallet-tempting visitor area. With a modern feel and a cool twist, in my humble opinion Bruichladdich is one of the world’s most visually effective brands.

We also stopped at the fairly new Kilchoman distillery, where a Kilchoman liqueur on offer makes for an interesting change (Bruichladdich, as it happens, has a superb gin too).

Since it was my turn to be passenger, and the tastings had now been flowing for most if the day, my notes make little sense from here.

I do remember going over on my ankle and a proposal that I self-medicate with more free samples being vetoed by Mrs Johnston.

Another memory from the mist: a tourist stopping us to tell us he’d been crossing paths with us constantly for two days.

I’d never seen the person before in my life.

Back at the hotel, we asked the bar steward – a professional whisky specialist – to recommend a very special whisky to mark the near-end of our visit.

Our chat about the dram we settled on, an Octomore, was cut short by an American guest keen to add some views.

 

Day 4: Islay Time &  Final Stops

Portnahaven image for Slugger O'Toole Islay travel piece

A quick drive to Portnahaven village, tucked away along single track roads to the south-west, revealed a magnificent coastal community; a kind-of storm-battered, remote Portballintrae except with seals and fewer Audis.

Back to Ardbeg distillery for lunch and someone was complaining in the distillery cafe about slow food:

“Have you somewhere to be?”

“No.”

“Well, give it five minutes.”

“A real five minutes?”

“No, an Islay five minutes. Have a seat and relax.”

Our boat back to Ballycastle was, it turned out, more eventful than the crossing north. Lashed by waves and bouncing from side to side, the Skipper’s colleague was kind enough to check everyone “was feeling OK” and, presumably, still in their seats.

While we admired the view of Ballycastle’s beautiful lighthouse on the east of the island, the Skipper was treated to an hour-long oratory from an American passenger beside his seat, covering everything from his “huge whisky collection” to how “the waves are a hundred times bigger back home”. In hindsight, we should’ve checked if the two-man crew needed a drink.

 

Lessons for Belfast & A Tricky Subject

SNP card image for Islay whisky travel article

It’s hard to ignore the contrast between island life and the huge wealth of both the whisky business and the trade in hustling groups of high-spending tourists around. The numbers are mind-boggling: a planned redevelopment at Caol Ila distillery will cost £150m.

Many visitors fly into Islay and are shepherded from luxury hotel to multinational-owned distillery and back by air-conditioned coach. In comparison, we’d had the Three Distilleries Pathway almost to ourselves the day before.

The same visitor trade has begun to far outgrow the road and transport networks while prices for food, drink and taxis are often so high they can’t possibly be a match for working, island life. The annual rate of residents leaving is 2.3% and rising.

The island population is only a little bigger than Antrim town, 3,200 at the last count. But Islay has no chippy, cinema, tattoo parlour or bookie and has far fewer pubs than you’d expect (not to mention even less night-life).

And there’s a tricky elephant in the room: in our experience the island isn’t universally welcoming. It can, at times, be incredibly friendly. But it can just as easily offer a cold-shoulder.

For example: in a near-empty hotel bar near Bruichladdich we were rebuked – and rebuked isn’t too strong a word by a long shot – for ordering a whisky wrongly and told we couldn’t drink a coffee at the bar. Meanwhile, a single regular looked on and shot us an apologetic raise of his eyes.

Is the, at times, frosty welcome because of the conduct of the visitors? Or is it because some locals feel they’ve been placed in a fish-bowl for wealthy visitors (up to 20,000 during May despite roads barely fit for the locals) and that these guests leave rising prices and creaking infrastructure in their wake?

Like a Paris waiter dealing with a table of noisy visitors speaking in another tongue, the temptation to make the transaction as functional as possible must be overwhelming as, after all, there’s a near-endless supply of customers to take their place.

The question for NI? If our own tourism began to outgrow – say – Belfast city centre and pushed prices beyond the reach of local salaries; if visitor numbers put a strain on our transport network and if a plastic, rarefied version of Belfast for tourists was to overpower the city, could we trust any of our local representatives to step in before local vs guest relations turn icy? Or, like De Niro’s Sam Rothstein in ‘Casino’, will public representatives be kept well-fed, watered and entertained to dampen any tricky questions?

Back to Islay: we were reliably told that the island was, on paper, busy with tour group tourists but extremely quiet out and about “as if they just aren’t going out and spending their money”.

Something appeared to be out of step, and we’d do well to find and understand the lessons from tourist wealth on our doorstep – after all, I don’t presume to know what islanders themselves think – before NI’s (very welcome) tourism trade grows any larger.

As an aside, as far as we could tell very, very few Islay locals made a habit of visiting NI despite the superb ferry service. The closest we found? One local who takes his own boat to Ballycastle every Sunday for chips.

Another side note: pubs in Islay are usually stocked with dozens, or hundreds, of variations of local whisky. A short distance away in NI you’re likely – with some exceptions – to find a few varieties of Jameson and a bottle of Bush on a pub shelf. If you we don’t show our love for Irish whisky, in all its guises, how can we expect visitors to want to explore our home-grown brands?

 

A Reflection: Why We Drink Whisky/ Whiskey

Bunnahabhain bottle image for Islay whisky travel review

The sight of far-travelled visitors making what is a pilgrimage, a holiday of a lifetime, to this epicentre of whisky production makes pausing for thought, to try to process the perennial draw of this ancient liquid, unavoidable.

After all, the best bottle of whisky we’ve ever found (our favourite Irish whiskey is a whole new subject) was found on Islay. It was only a small bottle and was surrounded on the shelves by alternatives costing hundreds more.

That bottle was a wee cask-filled special edition at the Bunnahabhain distillery.

And why? The hand-written label told us that the bottle had been filled a few days earlier on our wedding day. It was also an incredibly good whisky.

It even had the name of the distillery employee who brought our bottle to existence.

So, like the rings of a tree this bottle contains the history of its cask, the life of the people who made it and grows its roots into the final owners who savour the sense of people and place in its swirling flavours.

The taste, bearing in mind I’m not a seasoned aficionado, recalls wooden ships and tarry decks and the treacly, salty genius behind its manufacture. A rich, chewy, earthy taste opus you’ll struggle to take in without closed eyes and an ‘aahhh’ing sigh.

For me? I drink whisky to celebrate those I toast, those whose roots in my own life are as deep as the bond between cask and spirit over so many years. I also raise a glass to the people, the grandparents and valued friends, who brought my most precious family members to this moment.

In this way, we’re back to those ‘rings’: rings on a tree reminding us of the creation of the whisky over many years, circles on liquid recalling a family tree and – of course – wedding rings representing the most important circle of those closest to our hearts.

That’s why this article is dedicated to the newly installed Mrs Johnston.

So here’s to you, Mrs Johnston. 

And to everyone reading this; a toast to everyone you hold close as you savour a uisge beatha / uisce beatha too.

 

The Sgurr, Islay” by Odd Wellies is licensed under CC BY