A quest for Scotland’s best Scotch whisky might bring you to the island of Islay, but its rugged landscape, rare wildlife, and rich history will keep you there for days. Located off the west coast of Scotland and home to just over 3,000 people, Islay is the home of nine distilleries. The first-ever distillery here was Bowmore, founded in 1779, while the most recent was founded in 2018. You could easily spend a week touring not only the island’s various distilleries but also its remote beaches, ancient ruins, and seeing wildlife like dolphins and sea eagles.
If you’re looking for somewhere to start, the Ardbeg distillery is among the island’s most popular. Ardbeg has been producing whiskey since 1815 and makes over a dozen scotches known for their aromas of spice, malt, vanilla, and chocolate. It was once the largest distillery on the island and supported an entire community, and it remains a cherished piece of Islay’s whisky culture.
To get a true sense of Islay and how to best explore the island, we spoke to Colin Gordon, the distillery manager at Ardbeg Distillery. Gordon became the 21st distillery manager at Ardbeg in 2020 and is responsible for helming the distilling and warehousing operations on site. Before joining Ardbeg, Gordon had worked in the whisky industry since 2012. He trained with Diageo as a trainee manager before taking control at Islay’s Port Ellen Maltings in 2015. From 2018 to 2020, Colin was distillery manager at Lagavulin Distillery—also on the island of Islay.
This is everything you need to know about Islay, according to a local whiskey pro.
Matador Network: Favorite way to get to Islay?
Colin Gordon: It has to be the ferry. Traveling to Islay is a special experience, you know there is a reward at the end of the journey. Coming into Port Ellen on the ferry, passing the iconic South Islay distilleries is an amazing moment the first time you come to Islay.
Favorite Islay hotels or places to stay?
We are lucky to have some great hotels on the island. The Machrie Hotel is beautiful and sits beside a world-class golf course. It was recently upgraded and is a top-class hotel. In Port Ellen, you cannot go wrong with the Islay Hotel. It is in the heart of the village, has a great bar, and the seafood is superb.
Favorite distillery experiences?
The best way to really get an understanding of any of the Islay distilleries is to take part in a warehouse tasting. Our Ardbeg warehouse tasting allows you to try special, one-off cask samples in the dunnage warehouse no.3. Nothing beats drinking Islay’s greatest whiskies in the place where they have been maturing.
Favorite places to eat in Islay that also have great whisky?
In Port Ellen, head for the Islay Hotel. Great atmosphere in the bar with outstanding seafood. You could head for the Bowmore Hotel, they have an enormous collection of Islay whiskies and really good food. If you get a chance to go to the Ballygrant Inn as well, they have a world-class whisky selection and the curries are brilliant.
What makes Islay a bucket list destination for anyone who loves whisky?
There is nowhere on Earth like it. The most beautiful and welcoming island, steeped in history and a whisky heritage like no other. There are nine iconic distilleries here, some of the most famous names in the whisky world. All on an island of 3,000 people.
Favorite things to do in Islay that aren’t whisky related?
Explore! We have the most fantastic beaches and wildlife here. Machir Bay and Saligo Bay on the west side of Islay are golden sands and crystal clear water. There is an amazing history on the island so visit some of the ruins at Finlaggan which was the meeting place for the clan Macdonald, lords of the Isles. You can take a boat trip with Islay Sea Adventures, which is a great way to go round the coast of Islay spotting dolphins and sea eagles.
What’s the best time to visit and why?
May/June. Weather tends to be good, flowers are out, spring is here, and no midgies!
Lastly, how do you pronounce the Isle of Islay?
Just say Island without the ‘nd’ and you are there!!