Islay Rewind: A Look Back and the Week of Bests

by Keith Savage · 11 comments

The Seaside Town of Portnahaven

My week on Islay this past September was full of picture-perfect scenery, extended explorations of local distilleries replete with copious drams, and austere moments of introspection. While you will surely read the occasional post about Islay here in the future, this post is intended to collect the bulk of my writings on Islay and serve as a convenient jumping off point. To add a little something extra, something fun, I’ve included a series of the “best” moments during the week. Read on good Ileach!

I kicked off my time in Islay by writing my so-called “vignettes” during the trip. The Kildalton Cross had a magical air in the southeast of Islay where there’s little more than sea coast and trees. A couple of days later, when I met the the mastermind behind Bruichladdich, Jim McEwan, I was inspired to write about his work “bottling the sun.”

Upon returning home, I resumed the Islay writing with the lowdown on Islay, an informational post that will help any visitor prepare for and orient himself on the island. I also reviewed my nice accommodations at Ballivicar Farm with its secluded position on the Oa Peninsula. And what a beautiful position it was, as several of my Picture This posts detailed the Mull of Oa with the towering American Monument, an epic highland cow guarding the passage there, and the glittering Kilnaughton Bay separating Port Ellen from the Singing Sands. Islay captivated me in several other places, including the ancient site of Finlaggan, the gorgeous beach at Machir Bay, and the ever-present Paps of Jura hanging in the sky.

It should come as no surprise that most of my activities revolved around whisky – it is, after all, Islay’s primary industry. It would have been unconscionable to give it short shrift, so I gave it my full attention instead. I started my investigation by visiting the much-loved yet still divisive Laphroaig and tried my hand at peat cutting. The following day was a doubleheader at Bowmore and Bruichladdich that will go down as the best day of whisky drinking and learning thus far in my short life. Next I ventured into Islay’s quiet northeast for a stop at the under-appreciated Bunnahabhain distillery. No trip to Islay would be complete without a visit to the boisterous Ardbeg distillery and a taste of their incredible range. Last but not least, I visited Islay’s newest distillery, Kilchoman, out on the farm. Finally, I detailed the lost drams at Caol Ila and Lagavulin. It was an epic week.

The Week of Bests

When Sarah and I travel, we always ask each other what the best moment each day was. It’s a way of appreciating and remembering the incredible experience that is traveling. Here are some fun bests from my time on Islay.

Best Night

Ballivicar Farm was cozy and just the right size for me, but it was also lonely. Add to this the fact that Islay isn’t exactly brimming with great pubs and it can be challenging for a solo traveler. Luckily, the Port Charlotte Hotel exists. I stopped there several times during my week on Islay, but I made a special point to be there on Wednesday night when they have local trad music in the bar. The bar is loaded with whiskies from all over Islay, serves tasty food, and was absolutely packed as the musicians played. I struck up several conversations with locals and travelers alike, and I remember the night as one of those magic travel moments.

Best Dram

This is hard. Like really, really hard. I was treated to some of the best drams Islay has to offer and all were exceptionally good. One dram does stand out however, and it’s the handiwork of Jim McEwan over at Bruichladdich: his Black Art 2. This particular whisky comes in a Satanic black bottle bedecked with pentagrams, and Jim won’t illuminate the nature of the whiskies that go into his black art. To be honest, I could care less. This dram is ruby red and bursting with rich, complex flavors. I had the opportunity to try it again, this time with my brother at WhiskyFest in San Francisco, and it reminded me what upper echelon whisky can taste like. If you see it, buy it.

Best Island Custom

On Islay you will be waved at. When you cross paths with other drivers, they will wave at you and expect a wave in return. Sometimes it’s a full hand wave, sometimes half a hand peels off the steering wheel, sometimes just a finger. They won’t know you, but the Ileachs still wave. A form of this neighborliness exists in small communities around where I’m from here in Wisconsin, but nothing quite so consistent as on Islay. I loved it, and I’d often respond with a full-on arm wave. I got a lot of smiles.

Best Awkward Situation

The morning I needed to get to Bowmore at 10am, my alarm didn’t go off. Typical. I rushed around my cottage and flew out the door to get going on the 30-minute drive. Not five minutes later, I came across a sideways car completely blocking the single-track road. It wasn’t moving. I pulled up slowly and waited as a group of Japanese tourists struggled with moving the car. Eventually I walked over to them and asked if I could help. They were having trouble driving stick and had managed to completely block the road and get the back of the car stuck in a ditch. I can’t drive stick either and time was running out. We decided to put the car in neutral and push it to one side of the road. I gave them several phone numbers of people in Bowmore who might be able to help and then sped off to my meeting. I still feel like crap about the whole thing. Awkward.

Best Worst Experience

There aren’t many food options on Islay. After my visit to Bowmore I stopped at a little kitchen in Port Charlotte and ordered the fish and chips. The fish was fresh from Loch Indaal and sounded good. Local fish! I received the fish and chips and tucked into it. It was nothing special and largely flavorless, but food is food. Unfortunately, this food had something I like to call worm in the fish. Yes, a parasitic worm about half an inch long was nestled in the flaky white fish. I dropped the fork on my plate, spit my mouthful into a napkin, and paid my tab. My stomach roiled in hysteria. I quickly sped to Bruichladdich where I showered my innards with dram after dram of whisky. Ugh, fish fail.

Best Gauge of Drunkenness

I woke up the morning after my night at the Port Charlotte hotel and began working on a new post. I use my iPhone 4 as a voice recorder when I’m meeting with folks I plan to write about, and on this morning I found a new audio file I didn’t remember recording. It’s roughly six minutes of me, alone, talking nonsensically into my phone with a horrible Scottish accent. I cringed through the stupidity of it all and marveled that whisky could, in fact, make me drunk. I will not be sharing this audio with anyone. Ever.

Heather StearnsNo Gravatar December 4, 2011 at 6:32 PM

It’s fantastic that people wave at each other consistently on Islay. This seems like an excellent way to create a sense of community and more cities could benefit from doing something so simple!
I can’t wait to check out WhiskyFest in San Francisco! What an awesome event for 2012. Do you go annually?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 4, 2011 at 8:12 PM

No, it just happened to be on while I was in SF so we decided to go. To be fair, it’s pretty expensive for what you get, but fun nonetheless.

Heather StearnsNo Gravatar December 8, 2011 at 6:10 PM

Good to know! Thank you.

Holiday scotlandNo Gravatar November 24, 2011 at 6:14 AM

I have enjoyed reading about your trip to islay, i most seek out the Black Art 2. and i do hope you share that audio file sometime : ) shame about the fish……. i must make sure not to eat there.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 25, 2011 at 9:01 AM

Cheers Greg…no dice on the audio though! 🙂

GrayNo Gravatar November 23, 2011 at 9:32 PM

OMG. The Fish. I am fairly certain that would put me off fish forever. In fact, I think I’ll be avoiding fish for a while now. On another note…I love the folks who wave at everyone, It reminds me of motorcyclists. They all have this secret wave thing they do when they pass each other on the road that basically says “We’re all part of the same community.” Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all did that?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 25, 2011 at 8:53 AM

Yes, it’s a very welcoming and easy gesture, and it showed me how close-knit the entire island of Islay is. You can’t manufacture it though.

Fish…yeah. Just a bit unlucky I think.

KenNo Gravatar November 23, 2011 at 3:52 PM

Sounds like some great times and life experiences. Really priceless and enriching, a genuine liberal education. I would like to hear that “Scottish accent” too, since by now it should be second nature as much time as you’ve spent there. It would take me back!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 25, 2011 at 8:51 AM

You’ll be back in Scotland soon enough 🙂

LindaNo Gravatar November 23, 2011 at 2:39 PM

Loved this, because it filled in the bits I’d missed when I was away :=) Really would LOVE to hear that recording, though!!! I think you should put it to a vote!!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 23, 2011 at 2:51 PM

Sorry Linda, I can’t risk it 🙂

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