I’m soaked to the bone, cold, and feeling slightly seasick. But I couldn’t be happier. I’m standing on the deck of one of Scotland’s many ferries, which connect the country’s scattered islands to the mainland, watching on as some of the legendary distilleries that call the Isle of Islay home heave into view.
It has been a near-three-hour drive from Glasgow to the ferry terminal, found on the west coast of the Mull of Kintyre, and another two-and-a-half hours on the boat from there, but I really don’t mind, as I’m off to my happy place: the magical island of smoky whisky.
Islay is a place where time usually stands still. The distilleries have mostly stayed the same since I first visited the island at the turn of the century. However, since my last trip back in 2019, the island has seen substantial investment, with two distilleries currently under construction, one brand new fully operational distillery, and other sites such as Ardbeg, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain either just completed or mid-expansion and developing their visitor experience to boot.
To be back on the island is to not just see shoots of new growth, but to see real fruit, too. Over the last decade it is a place that has embraced the idea of welcoming whisky fans who want to visit the home of their favourite malts, and the whisky world is all the better for it too.
Without drinkers, the world of whisky would be a dull place. It is not too distant a memory, in fact, of when Scotch fell out of favour, with many distilleries falling silent as a consequence in the early 1980s, including the fabled Port Ellen distillery on Islay. Such is the U-turn in drinking habits that this lost distillery is being resurrected – one of the two currently under construction on the island – and will surely become yet another honey pot for whisky pilgrims the world over.
The attraction of visiting Scotch whisky producers is reflected in the continued growth of Islay’s annual festival of music and malts, Fèis Ìle, which takes place across the last weekend of May and the first week of June each year. The week before, Campbeltown (the region just across the water from Islay and home to only three distilleries) hosts its own whisky festival, which has grown in fame at a slightly slower pace than the Islay version, but is now considered the place to be for hardcore Scotch fans, as an alternative to the often overly busy Fèis Ìle.
Here, standing on the deck of a lumbering barge, I may be cold, soaked and slightly seasick, but it’s hard to feel downbeat about my continuing travels through Scotland
Not to be left out, the Speyside region, home to such luminary distillers as The Macallan, Glenfarclas, The Balvenie and Tamdhu, hosts not one, but two drinks festivals. The Spirit of Speyside celebration happens earlier in the year – from the last week of April to the first week of May – and involves over 500 whisky-focused events across the region’s 51 working distilleries. Time to schedule in next year’s festivities (26 April-1 May 2023). Alongside this, the same organisation runs Distilled, an annual celebration of the region’s food and drink for two days in September.
Further signs of Scotland becoming a serious destination, not just for whisky tourism but also for flavour seekers, can be seen at the newly refurbished Glenturret distillery. Nestled into the same part of the Highlands as the famed Gleneagles hotel, The Glenturret is now part of the same group as the esteemed crystal glass producer Lalique, which has invested heavily here and is offering a super-premium experience to those who make the effort to visit.
A bijou distillery well worth a visit for both experts and novices alike, it is now home to a Michelin-Starred restaurant, the first ever at any distillery. This truly shows off how Scotland is becoming a stronger gastronomic magnet with each and every year.
And it doesn’t finish there: if you find yourself with a weekend free, do yourself a favour and go to Edinburgh. The city boasts some of the world’s finest cocktail bars and restaurants, and is now home to the excellent Johnnie Walker Experience, a brilliant way to spend a couple of hours learning about Scotch in a multi-media environment that not only whets your appetite for whisky-based drinks but will also wet your palate at the same time.
Here, standing on the deck of a lumbering barge, I may be cold, soaked and slightly seasick, but it’s hard to feel downbeat about my continuing travels through Scotland. I feel the draw to this country – either during a whisky festival or otherwise – is now one of the strongest across all drink-producing nations, and I feel proud to be exploring what other new developments might lie ahead on my travels.
What Joel has been drinking…
- I’ve been constantly impressed with the breadth of booze that comes from the Midleton Distillery in County Cork. The site predominantly focuses on Irish whiskey, making the excellent Midleton Very Rare, as well as the Redbreast and Spot ranges of whiskies. It also has an excellent experimental brand called Method and Madness, whose ‘Rye & Malt’ is an amazingly textured romp through a spice field, backed by leather and honey notes.
- My gin for the win this month is one to help you get through the long Bank Holiday ahead: it’s called ‘Quarter’ and at just 12% ABV it is legally not a gin, but carries all the flavour and unctuous notes of the spirit. It will help you out if you’re looking to meet and greet lots of people with a G&T in hand over the Platinum Jubilee weekend. Someone should suggest it to the Queen…
- I love a good, cold lager, and as the summer arrives (albeit slowly) I’m always looking around for new ones to try. It’s actually a new beer from one of the big names (never underestimate the quality from the big-name drink brands) that has me jumping with joy: Stella Artois Unfiltered uses saaz and mandarina hops for a hazy, golden lager that is both fruity and hoppy, as well as utterly refreshing.