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Whisky distillation arrived in Scotland in the 14th century in the hands of Irish monks. Our modern word “whisky” comes from the Scottish Gaelic name they bestowed on it, uisge beatha, a translation of the older Latin aqua vitae, or “water of life.” They believed, as their predecessors had, in liquor’s revitalizing, therapeutic powers.
Centuries later, whisky lovers still attribute a tonic effect to it, a feeling of robustness it gives them. Those who are passionate about whisky, or even just adventurously curious, find the island of Islay a sort of pilgrimage site where they can indulge their taste for the spirit and learn about the intricate production process at the island’s eight distilleries.
Setting the Scene
Islay (pronounced eye-luh), dubbed the “Queen of the Hebrides,” is the second-largest island of this archipelago just off the west coast of Scotland. Covering 239 square miles and encircled by 130 miles of rugged and smooth coast, it is a place where one may still find that pastoral, almost fairy-tale beauty for which the British Isles are beloved. With a population of only 3,400, of which about half speak Gaelic, it is a haven where the heritage of Scotland remains tranquilly intact.
For those who love Scotch and want either to learn more about distillation or to indulge an already-cultivated appreciation for the process, Islay is a destination not to be missed. The island’s brown water and abundant peat, sprayed with seawater by winter gales, make for some of the strongest whiskies produced in Scotland. The southern distilleries (of which Lagavulin is a name well known in the U.S.) produce especially peaty whiskies, whereas those produced by the northern distilleries are less peaty for drinkers who find such a smoky flavor overpowering. All eight distilleries offer guided tours and tastings.
Complementing the pastoral loveliness of the island’s scenery is a host of small hotels, guesthouses and bed-and-breakfasts, of which both the Kilmeny Country Guest House [www.kilmeny.co.uk] and Harbour Inn Hotel have been Gold Star-rated by VisitScotland. Resting on 300 acres of farmland four miles from the Askaig ferry terminal, the Kilmeny house offers cozy and endearingly named accommodations including the Apricot Room. The house also offers a three-room suite with a private entrance.
Although most of Islay’s visitors are attracted by its distilleries, there is also more to experience on the island than whisky production. Bird-watching is a serious pursuit on Islay, as several hundred species can be spotted there (about 100 perennially). In autumn, geese migrating south from Greenland arrive at Loch Gruinhart by the thousands. Visitors also should not miss the Kildalton Cross, a Celtic cross believed to have been carved in the late eighth century and widely considered the finest, best-preserved piece of its kind surviving from that period.
Travelers who prefer packaged travel may want to consider Go Scotland Tours [www.goscotlandtours.com]. The Islay Whisky Adventure, a four-day, three-night expedition, begins in Edinburgh and stop en route in Glasgow. Running April through September, the journey affords not only a tour of Islay’s distilleries but views of the mainland’s scenic pleasures as well.