Scotland: A Tipsy Distillery Walk

Scotland: A Tipsy Distillery Walk

The Three Distilleries Walk in Scotland, to Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig

By Kevin Spreekmeester

I was wide awake at 7 am, and I was so excited for the day ahead visiting distilleries in Scotland that I couldn’t sleep.

I dared not move and wake up my wife Sue who’s a happy participant in my adventure but knows that our first and only scheduled stop of the day is at 10:00 am and a half-hour walk away, soScotland: A Tipsy Distillery Walk no need to rise too early.

If you are going to Scotland, and have a sense of adventure, an interest in history and an eye for dramatic scenery, there’s a terrific website called “Walk Highlands” that you really should investigate. Plus, there are hundreds of distilleries, that will make any Scotch drinker happy.

Scotland’s Haunting Vistas

I suggest this for several reasons, first is that Scotland’s haunting vistas are an essential part of understanding the people and the country’s history and with so many great hikes to choose from, you may need a little assistance.

Second, this website is the best free guide available to help determine which hikes meet your interest and fitness level.

Scotland: A Tipsy Distillery WalkBut third, and in the case of this story, most importantly, you might just find a hike or a “walk” as the Scots refer to them, that not only gets you off your duff but leaves you a wee bit tipsy!

And so, it is with great joy and excitement that I introduce you to “The Three Distilleries Walk” located on my new favorite Island on earth, Islay!

On to Islay Island

From Port Ellen, this six-ish kilometer distilleries trail is listed as taking anywhere from two hours to an entire day. Huh? That’s one huge variance.

Island Hopping in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides

But as the name suggests, the hike takes you to three of the world’s most renowned distillers of single-malt scotch whisky (Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg).

Just saying those names makes my saliva glands slightly more active and a grin appears at the corner of my mouth.

I was introduced to this remote, Hebridean Island’s brand of smoky, peated whisky eight years ago and quickly became a fan.

Incredibly, on this tiny green island, with more sheep than people (just over 3,000 people live on Islay), there are currently eight of the world’s best known and highly reputed distilleries, with at least two more planned over the next couple of years.

Map showing the The Three Distilleries Path, Iskay Island, Scotland.
Map showing the The Three Distilleries Path, Iskay Island, Scotland.

We’ve showered, eaten our porridge and spent time debating whether to carry rain gear or not. The forecast is mostly sunny, but the lesson learned over the past few weeks is that in Scotland, the forecast is an estimate at best as conditions change rapidly.

I have decided no rain pants, but I’ll layer my upper body with a t-shirt, packable lightweight down jacket and raincoat.

 A Laphroaig Lover

Before I take even one step on this walk, I feel compelled to come clean. My first sip of any peated whisky, was of a 10-year-old Laphroaig. It was an instant, unconditional and lifelong love.

And despite my affection for many other brands, they are but mistresses and I am still a HUGE Laphroaig fan. By “fan” I mean, I joined a club called “Friends of Laphroaig” and even made friends with their North American Whisky Ambassador.

I explain this only because he helped me access a tour that will start our day and you may hear the enthusiasm come through if you haven’t already.

Our walk strategy is as follows:

We will depart Port Ellen, our base while on Islay and walk to Laphroaig distillery for our special tour titled “The Distiller’s Wares”.

Scotland: A Tipsy Distillery Walk
Ardbeg Bench

Ardbeg

We will then head north along the trail passing Lagavulin (ordinarily the second stop on this hike) and stop at Ardbeg, the last distillery along the path, for lunch.

Finally, we will retrace our steps to Lagavulin before heading back to Port Ellen.

At least that’s the plan!

From our hotel, it’s a 10-minute walk around the Port Ellen harbor to the trailhead where there’s a map detailing the hike, distances between distilleries and things to see along the way.

The path is beautifully maintained. No need for hiking boots, a pair of comfy runners will easily do the trick. While my wife pores over the details, commenting on how well it describes our walk to come, I gaze forward to make sure nobody will beat me to Laphroaig.


Rolling Hills and Peat Fields

The smooth asphalt of the path contrasted with the scenery around us, rolling hills, farms animals, peat fields, ancient stone walls and of course the ocean. To call it scenic would be like calling “The Incredible Hulk” a large man. It was stunning and there were very few people along the way. The first and only person we encountered for the first twenty minutes is a local walking her dog.

She was fretting because she can’t locate her dog’s “waste” in the thick grasses along the path. I was glad to hear her sense of cleanliness and civic pride but had no interest in stopping to help, there’s whisky in my future.

The asphalt path that follows the coast of Islay is picturesque no matter what corner you turn. This path is consistently easy for the entirety of the Three Distillery walk.
The asphalt path that follows the coast of Islay is picturesque no matter what corner you turn. This path is consistently easy for the entirety of the Three Distillery walk.
The patio outside the Laphroaig distillery's visitor's center invites visitors from around the globe to pause for a wee dram, or two.
The patio outside the Laphroaig visitor’s center invites visitors from around the globe to pause for a wee dram, or two.

The Laphroaig distillery is nestled into a small bay called Loch Laphroaig. The whitewashed buildings stand majestically against the North sea and are exactly what the postcards promised.

The staff in the visitor center are welcoming and happy — who wouldn’t be? I was immediately ready to sell my suburban North American house and move into their lounge.

I’ve done many tours of wineries and distilleries and have never experienced one that goes as in-depth and is as generous with access and information as this one. Our guide, Jonny Cairns, is not only knowledgeable but has a typically Scottish, wry sense of humor.

Deepest Depths of the Distillery

Over the next two hours, we were treated to the deepest depths of the Laphroaig distillery including the heart of the brand, which means watching peat burn and smoke the barley, thus providing this delicious beverage with its distinct flavor.

An interesting tidbit learned on the tour was that at the start, Laphroaig was only bottled for local consumption. However, in the 1920s Ian Hunter who at the time was running the distillery decided to expand, namely to the United States.

In a world where timing is everything, prohibition made the selling of liquor impossible and so the crafty folks at Laphroaig bottled the elixir as medicine and Americans purchased jugs of it at their local apothecary!

At the heart of the distillery smolders a fire fuelled by peat, which not only gives Islay Scotch its flavour profile, but in many parts of the United Kingdom also heats homes.
At the heart of the distillery smolders a fire fuelled by peat, which not only gives Islay Scotch its flavor profile but in many parts of the United Kingdom also heats homes.

We concluded our tour in the cellar where whisky is stored in casks of all ages, on racks three barrels high for as far as I can see. Three casks were set in front of us and we were offered a dram from each, liquid gold to the enthusiasts amongst us. Once we’ve decided which we liked best, Jonny helped us bottle and label our favorite to take home.

Trying Not to Dance

I tried to be discreet. I tried not to dance while I sipped — but I was so happy! I whispered to Sue which cask I thought she should like best, wink, wink, which actually made her laugh as she is not a whisky drinker at all.

Twenty minutes later we departed the cellar with two beautiful gift boxes, each with a one-of-a-kind bottling of Laphroaig and a souvenir nosing glass.

If you’d think that would be enough for me, you’d be wrong! I then dragged Sue to the bar to enquire as to which bottles would be impossible to get in North America. The generous bartender gave me two to try, drams four and five of the morning.

After a second happy dance, I made a mental note of my favorite and we left the distillery with the promise to purchase a bottle on our return trip so we would avoid the added weight for the rest of our hike.

We walked to Ardbeg for lunch and I could still walk in a straight line if an officer asked me to, but the world did have a lovely amber glow to it.

Meeting Americans on the Path

Along the path, we met three young people from just outside New York City who’d taken time away from work, months, in fact, to explore Europe. Two of them were central to the adventure.

They had told family and friends where their travels would take them, and from country to country, many had joined them to share parts of their adventure.

All I could think was that I wished I had tried that when I was in my early thirties. Goodness knows how many times I might have revisited Islay had I known about it earlier in my life. We said goodbye to them as they stopped at Lagavulin and we continued to Ardbeg.

The distillerie's secret recipe. Peated malt gives Laphroaig and many Islay whiskies their smokey quality.
The secret recipe. Peated malt gives Laphroaig and many Islay whiskies their smokey quality.

My research told me that the café at Ardbeg was a wonderful place for lunch. Lots of really fine food all infused with whisky. Apparently, the outdoor patio is in a fantastic setting when it’s warm enough, but we made a beeline for indoor seating given the cool ocean winds.

From an extensive menu, we opted for their smoked haddock chowder with fresh bread, and of course, I ordered dram number six of the day to go with it.

My choice was Ardbeg Drum. Every year, each of the distillers on Islay creates a unique bottling for the music/whisky festival that takes place in late May, early June and Drum was Ardbeg’s offering.

It is strong (like most Ardbeg whiskies), really strong and yet very smooth. It was nicely peated and not too sweet which suits me just fine. This was turning out to be a marvelous day.

Buying a Cask!

Sitting next to us was a couple from Maine. I can’t really explain how we got into a conversation with them as I was focused on my dram, but somehow they started telling Sue about how years ago they’d purchased an entire cask of Octomore, one of the finest and most expensive whiskies on the island, distilled by Bruichladdich which is near Port Charlotte.

Lagavulin is the second of three famous distilleries you can visit along the Three Distillery Walk. It's most famous offering is the classic Lagavulin 16 which is accepted as one of the finest Scotch whiskies anywhere.
Lagavulin is the second of three famous distilleries you can visit along the Three Distillery Walk. It’s most famous offering is the classic Lagavulin 16 which is accepted as one of the finest Scotch whiskies anywhere.

Suddenly they had my attention. They said that at the time of their purchase Bruichladdich was selling casks to promote and support their Octomore whisky. The cask is housed at the distillery and whenever they visit Islay, they simply call ahead and whatever they want is bottled and ready for them.

Stay at the Ardbeg Distillery
Seaview Cottage is the ultimate Ardbeggian abode. Nestling at the heartScotland: A Tipsy Distillery Walk of the Distillery, the cottage was the former home of the Distillery Manager and sleeps up to 6 adults in 3 en-suite bedrooms. Stays include a bottle of Ardbeg 10!
While many of the original features have been retained, the cottage has been newly renovated and boasts a stylish interior with an eclectic mix of Ardbeg and Islay inspired furnishings. Book now to enjoy breathtaking sea views as well as experiencing life at the Distillery first hand. more

The only reason they don’t have it sent home to the United States is that import taxes kill all the savings derived from buying a cask. They estimated that by investing in the cask, each bottle costs them roughly $30. Today a bottle of Octomore sells for around $200.

The Next Dram

I quickly tried Googling “Peated whisky casks for sale” while finishing my dram and nibbling on a dessert called “Ardbeg Drum, honey, vanilla cheesecake with Chantilly cream and berries” OMG! The Googling would have to wait for another day. I won’t forget. But it was time to hit the trail in search of my next dram.

 

I know this  Lagavulin whisky very well and I like it very much, in particular, the classic Lagavulin 16. But for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to get my heart around the brand. The distillery, like others on Islay, is in the most picturesque of settings. Many distilleries in Scotland dot the rugged coastline, as ocean-going vessels were needed to bring in barley and take away whisky to an increasingly thirsty planet.

Before leaving us, our three young friends from NY offered to take a picture of Sue and me outside Lagavulin. Please note the smile on my face that couldn't be removed for the entire day.
Before leaving us, our three young friends from NY offered to take a picture of Sue and me outside Lagavulin. Please note the smile on my face that couldn’t be removed for the entire day.

If you’ve ever wondered why the massive black, block letters spell out distillery names on the whitewashed sides of their buildings, it’s so that ships could see and identify where they were going from well off-shore.

The giant block letters on the white-washed walls of distilleries around Scotland alert ships through the fog as to the correct direction to travel.
The giant block letters on the white-washed walls of distilleries around Scotland alert ships through the fog as to the correct direction to travel.

The visitor center at Lagavulin is, in my opinion, underwhelming. It’s dark and scant of souvenirs or any sort of warm welcome, particularly in comparison to where we’d been on this hike.

I decided that all I really wanted was dram number seven and then we could make our way into the glorious sunshine that was now illuminating the surrounding landscape.

Fitting the Goodies into Suitcases

Back at the hotel, we worked feverishly to figure out how to get all the new goodies into our small carry-on sized luggage.

Mission accomplished as we opened the special expandable zippers that help make your luggage look like a cube.

Including the walk from our hotel to and from the trailhead, tours and exploring off the trail, my iPhone says we walked over 11kms and despite not being a whisky drinker Sue thoroughly enjoyed herself.

The fresh air and pacing of my drinks must have countered any sort of typical alcoholic effect. Never once did I bust out my Sean Connery impression and not one local glared at me as if to say, “lightweight tourist”.

Kevin SpreekmasterKevin Spreekmeester has been a senior marketing executive with a background in advertising, marketing, photography, and photojournalism for over 30 years. From 2008 to 2017 when he retired, he served as Chief Marketing Officer for Canada Goose.  His stories and images have appeared National Geographic, British Journal of Photography, The Globe and Mail, the Detroit Free Press and many others. He has also been a staunch advocate for the preservation of the habitat of the Polar bear and volunteers on the board of Polar Bears International. He lives in Mississauga Ontario.

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