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Issue 23 - Scotland's whisky islands

Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Scotland's whisky islands

The islands around Scotland's coastline are ruggedly beautiful and home to some of the nation's best whisky. Dominic Roskrow acts as tour guide

A couple years ago I spent a very pleasurable afternoon drinking whisky with some of the staff of Royal Mile Whiskies in Edinburgh debating which country could claim to be ‘God’s Own’ – Scotland or New Zealand.

I had argued for the open spaces of Aotearoa and the fact it divided two very different oceans, giving it the best sailing seas in the world.

My Scots friends argued New Zealand ran a close second but it came undone for two distinct reasons: the diversity of the waters on the west coast and the islands that they surround; and the fact that when compared to Scotland New Zealand just doesn’t have the whisky.

I’ve thought about that debate a great deal during the last 24 months or so, and as I’ve visited island after island I’ve reassessed my opinion. So much so that if you were to ask me how best I’d mark a 50th birthday or similar special occasion, it’d be sailing up the west coast of Scotland from Arran and right round to Orkney, picking up a favourite whisky at each stopping point.

The whisky islands are, in fact, very different to each other – and the whisky they’re famous for reflects that diversity. All of them have something to recommend them in themselves, however – and you don’t have to be a big fan of whisky to enjoy them either.

Here, then, is a guide to Scotland’s whisky islands.

Getting there: Arran can be reached by car ferry from the port of Ardrossan, south west of Glasgow.

There is also a convenient train link from Prestwick Airport, and trains arriving at Ardrossan connect with the ferry.

The island: Arran is described as ‘Scotland in miniature’ and like the mainland it has mountainous regions in the north and plainlike regions in the south. It is less rugged than some of the west coast islands further north, and more lush.

It also seems to have benefitted from more investment and is the most stylish of the islands along this coast.

The main attractions here are: Arran Aromatics, which produces hand-made products and has a shop and visitor centre on its site; Brodick Castle includes a park and beautiful gardens; there are impressive ruins at Kildonan Castle and Lochranza Castle.

Other attractions include the brewery and the Isle of Arran Heritage Musuem.

The distillery: The Isle of Arran distillery has just produced its first 10 year old and in one decade it has established itself as a worthy addition to Scotland’s malt whisky industry.

As it is so new it has been built with the visitor in mind and the distillery tour here is excellent, with a modern cinema room, an easy to follow tour, and a fine dram when visitors reach the end of it.

Isle of Arran whisky is rich and creamy, and highly distinctive.

The distillery’s been trying lots of special finishes – with the whisky being stored for its last months in a cask previously containing another drink – such as rum or port.

But the distillery’s standard single malt has been getting better and better and you could do worse than invest in a bottle of it.

Getting there: This isn’t the easiest destination but for those seeking great whisky, the most worthwhile. The ferry runs from Tarbert, in Campbeltown. This means a tortuous journey up from Glasgow and up round Loch Fyne, where you can pop into the famous oyster bar or visit Richard Joynson’s wonderful Loch Fyne Whiskies shop en route, then down through Tarbert.

The alternative is a short but expensive and often hair-raising flight from Glasgow. It often gets turned back because of the conditions.

The island: Islay is a relatively flat and windswept island shaped like a stubby-winged vulture, with five principle towns dotted about the island and linked by good roads.

There’s some good golf here and some good hotels, and the island boasts some fine birdlife.

For walkers it is something of a paradise too, with large expanses of unspoilt land and some truly stunning bays. But you can’t get past the fact that Islay is a whisky island and that’s what gives it its focus.

The distilleries: There are no less than eight of them, conveniently grouped together in three groups. In the south near Port Ellen there are the three mighty peaty distilleries of Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. North and west is the innovative Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-laddy), the pretty Bowmore, with its floor maltings, and new arrival and smallest of all, Kilchoman. In the north are two lesser known but well worth discovering distilleries – Bunnahabhain (pronounced Boona-ha-van) and Caol Ila (Cull-eela). If you think that big, peaty phenolic whiskies aren’t for you, then don’t be put off: Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain all offer variety.

You might surprise yourself though. When you try one of the others in the stunning locations they were created in, they take on a totally new meaning.

Getting there: To reach Jura you have to travel to the Islay port of Port Askaig and cross the Sound of Islay on a ferry that battles its way across the short but vicious waterway.

From there you drive down the one road on the island, avoiding the cattle, who own the island and have an attitude problem.

The island: Jura is a haven for deer, adders and birds of prey. It is a dream for serious walkers and the Paps of Jura are a challenging climb for the serious outdoor enthusiast but must be handled with care as the weather has a habit of turning nasty quickly. But there’s not much else on Jura beyond the distillery and the Jura Hotel. When people talk about getting away from it all, then Jura is what they should have in mind.

The distillery: Isle of Jura distillery is small, compact and friendly, and if you spend any time at all there you can’t help but be affected by how unique and special it is. Just think of the physical costs of transporting grain here and trucking the whisky away.

And then there are the waste products that have to be removed. Jura is a wonderful beacon of individualism in an increasingly globalised world.

The whisky itself is something of a mixed bag.

Most of it does not try and reproduce the peaty styles of its whisky neighbour, although some smoky whisky from the distillery does exist. The better Jura whiskies though, are very underrated and set for greater fame in the years ahead.

Getting there: Mull is best reached by car ferry from the bustling town of Oban, which is worth stopping off at in its own right. Oban distillery is right in the centre of the town.

The island: Tobermory, with its brightly coloured buildings, is the home to children’s television show Balamory and it is the obvious destination for the visitor. To get there you have to travel from Craignure through truly startling mountainous terrain. There are stunning bays and inlets dotted around the island too, and it’s known for its outstanding wildlife. If you’re keen to see the rare sea eagle, this is your best opportunity.

The distillery: Tobermory distillery sits on the edge of the town by the bay as you approach from Craignuire. It is small and compact and makes two distinct brands – Tobermory itself, and the peaty and relatively rare and unknown Ledaig.

Tobermory whisky is branching out and the owners have been making some rare and special aged whisky available of late, and there will be products to buy on the island that you won’t find elsewhere.

Getting there: Ferries still run from the mainland on to Skye but the famous bridge has made it much more accessible than in the past.

The island: What needs to be said about Skye? Wild and untamed terrain, backdropped by the Cuillin mountains, it is a law unto itself, soaked in history and culture, and unprepared to give up its independence.

The museums and heritage centres here give an insight into how life used to be on the island, and at Dunvegan Castle you can tap directly in to history.

Here a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair is preserved.

Skye also claims one or two of Scotland’s finest restaurants and nature has one of its best stage shows up its sleeve: the Northern Lights stir the soul and question mortality as much as any phenomenon in Europe.

The distillery: Talisker belongs part to the land and part to the sea. It’s a classic, truly great whisky that reflects its environment more completely than any other malt, with the possible exception of Highland Park (see below). Talisker is a fiery, peppery and smoky malt, the chosen tipple of James Bond in the original Ian Fleming novels, its weightiness reflecting the machismo of 007’s world.

Don’t be put off, though – it’s perfect for when the wind is whipping down the coast and the rain is arriving in squalls. And the more recent 18 year old expression is smoother and sweeter while retaining fire from the island.

Getting there:You can catch a ferry from Scrabster to Stromness but it can be a rough and wild journey. Alternatively you can fly from Aberdeen or Wick.

The island: I have written long and often about Orkney and its qualities. It is a place that would be high up on my list of the most essential places on the planet to visit, mixing ancient and modern history, stunning culture, and spiritualism.

It’s the most unforgiving of environments – there are few trees and 100 mile an hour winds are possible – but it’s littered with examples of human endurance and achievement, from the prehistoric village of Skara Brae to the Italian chapel built by prisoners in the Second World War.

The sea is a constant part of the scenery here, and Scapa Flow, where an entire navy and the bodies of hundreds of sailors lie at rest, is an emotional rollercoaster all on its own. Astrange mix of Scandinavian and Scottish influences give the islands a distinctive appeal, and you’ll find a warm welcome wherever you go.

The distilleries: Orkney boasts two distilleries, both excellent.

Scapa has recently started production again and is unusual for an island malt in so much that it is not aggressive. It is an easy to drink but subtle whisky that sits alongside the likes of Longmorn and Aberlour as a good starting point if you’re new to whisky.

The island’s other whisky is Highland Park and it’s a world beater. If you want to find a whisky that balances peat, oak, spice and fruit perfectly then look no further than the Highland Park 18 year old. The new 30 year old isn’t cheap but is a worthy addition to the roster.