Islay travelogue

An interesting Islay travel report from the Scotsman: As the ferry steers its way through the Sound of Islay towards Port Askaig, you are sailing into a whole new world. On the right is Jura, home to 188 people and 5,000 red deer, the place George Orwell came to write 1984; to the left is Islay, which after the neat townships of Arran looks much more the way you imagine the Hebrides should look.

A gang of island children are with me on the ship, returning home after the holidays. "There's the lighthouse, there's the rich man's house, there's granny's car." It's like being in a Katie Morag book as the boat comes into port.

As I drive on to shore, I open all the windows and fill my lungs to test what I've heard from whisky connoisseurs ... and it's true. The air of Islay really does smell like whisky. It could be the musty smell of peat mixed with the salt spray of the sea. Perhaps you can even smell the Angel's Share, the thousands of litres of single malt which breeze through the walls of casks in bonded warehouses.

Islay is the whisky capital of the world, with seven working distilleries producing 25 million litres a year. As any resident will tell you, if the millions of pounds generated in duty stayed on the island, Islay would be the richest place in Britain.

A visit to a distillery is an essential part of any Islay tour and I've decided to visit Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-laddie), the new kid on the block. The Victorian distillery lay empty for years until whisky enthusiast Mark Reynier came across it on a cycling holiday. He and a group of investors put in a bid to buy the white-washed buildings; the owners refused every year until 2000, when they suddenly decided to sell.

Since then, Bruichladdich has become the enfant terrible of the whisky world, breaking the mould by selling the water of life in squat, clear bottles, with a bright turquoise label inspired by the vivid colour of the sea as it breaks over the white sand across from the distillery. In the shop, the sales girl is carefully straightening the display of 40-year-old, which normally sells at £1,000 a bottle. "We are having a sale," she tells me. "We have put the price down to £999."

Simon Coughlin, one of the directors, takes me on a tour of the cluster of buildings, showing me the still, the vat where the mash is stirred, the new bottling plant. Production hasn't started up again but the place smells like heaven. I stick my head into the huge wooden vat where the mash is stirred and breathe in a heady, honeyed scent.

After scrambling up the steps to a platform around the top of the narrow-topped copper still, I am introduced to the copper taps where the spirit finally makes its appearance. Whisky production varies according to weather, wind and atmospheric pressure and only a small proportion of the distilled liquor is fit to be bottled.

The company has an imaginative approach to marketing. A couple of years ago, they made headlines by revealing the CIA had trained a spy satellite on the distillery in case they started producing chemical weapons. Now the Bruichladdich boys claim to have discovered the island has an identical twin on the other side of the world; the remote region of Islay in Peru has the same 1,800 million-year-old Gneiss rocks and its inhabitants are also known for distilling liquor.

With my head full of bizarre whisky facts and the flavour of ten-year-old malt singing in my tastebuds, I set off on a quick tour around the island. Here, on the west side of horseshoe-shaped Islay, there are few trees and the landscape seems empty compared to lush Arran. Yet Islay has its own windswept beauty with whitewashed cottages, shell sand beaches - beautiful, welcoming and frequently deserted - and plains of marsh and seagrass. People come for simplicity, for walking and wildlife.

On the rocky promontory known as the Rhinns, I look up into the vast sky, which I realise is full of birds, with maybe 50 swooping formations. Unfortunately, the sky is also full of rain, so I head to the Port Charlotte Hotel, my home for the night.

It looks like a village pub, but is furnished like a smart country hotel, with antique furniture, a bookcase which stretches to the ceiling and vases of lilies on the coffee table. It has been owned for the past three years by Graham and Isobel Allison, who are firm converts to island life. They have adorned the hotel with a collection of contemporary Scottish art and encourage local people and musicians to inhabit the hotel bar. Visitors also come to the Port Charlotte for whisky. The bar is stocked with 127 different bottles, all from Islay, apart from a lone bottle of Jura.

The sun is shining again and the sea shines turquoise behind the rocks and lighthouse but the bar is warm and welcoming, so I settle down for the evening. I tuck in to a fantastic Islay steak washed down with a malt. My fellow guests are two enormous Vikings, dressed in full Highland regalia and drinking £10 glasses of malt.

Soon I am joined by strapping local farmers, who look as if they have been wrestling cows and hurling sheep all day. I notice the Islay accent, soft with a definite Gaelic lilt. Gaelic is still strong here, although people insist they learn it in school like a second language. Islay was once the centre of a Gaelic-speaking seafaring kingdom, which held court at Finlaggan, and I have a sense that islanders retain the self-confidence of a people at the centre of their universe. They still say "the mainland is cut off" on bad weather days.

The whisky industry means Islay is used to business visitors and doesn't depend on tourism, which brings a subtle change in the way newcomers are welcomed. After hearing that I have visited the distillery, locals start suggesting which whiskies I should try. Someone buys me a 17-year-old Bowmore, which impresses Allison when he drops back in. "That's the one the managers drink," he says, and immediately ups the stakes by pouring me 20-year-old Bunnahabhain. I could get used to this, I think, as the peaty, seaweedy, strawberry, toffee and coffee flavours chase around my mouth. I dream of tasting more Islay malts - Port Ellen, Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin Laphroaig - but, due to the vagaries of ferry timetables, I must head for the mainland at 9am. I retire with a last look at a moonlit sea crashing on to rocks behind the lighthouse, the taste of Islay still tingling in my head.

Next morning, after superb scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, I head to Port Ellen for the early ferry. Driving across Islay, I am almost blinded by sleet, but, as the ferry pulls out, the sky clears and as we drift towards the sunlit hills of Argyll, the view ahead like a postcard.

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