Story and photographs by Sam Bygrave
I’m standing on the top deck of the ferry, an icy wind thrashing my face with rain and hoping that this will wash away my hangover. We’re steaming out of Kennacraig on the west coast of mainland Scotland towards Islay; out ahead on the starboard side you can see the snow-capped mountains of Jura in the distance, and beneath the sun and the squall coming at us on the port side you can see the shadowy look of the Islay coast ahead. If I take my hands from my pockets for more than a minute they sting with pain from the cold air; meanwhile, a Islay local walks his dog around the top deck oblivious to both my hangover and my discomfort.
Inside the cabin below, there’s a kitchen serving chips and hot meals (with remarkably warm hospitality), lorry drivers sleeping in the seats and a few whisky adventurers sat with a sparkle in their eye. Before too long we’re coasting up the Islay Sound, Jura on our right and Islay so close you can almost reach out and grab it.
When we visit in early March, before the coronavirus pandemic begins to hit home, Islay distilleries are, as a rule, doing well. There’s a boom in demand going on, with just about everyone increasing capacity and bringing on new stills. What role the pandemic plays in hampering that growth is yet to be seen, but on the 17th of March the distilleries on the island banded together to close to visitors.
Which must have been a difficult decision for them to make. Islay is home to only a few thousand people, much reduced from a peak of 15,000 in the 1830s. Talk to people on the island today and you’ll find that just about everyone is connected in some shape or form to the whisky industry.
And in March, at the tale end of winter (it was autumn, but it sure felt like winter to us), they were busy planning their events for their big hurrah of the year, Fèis Ìle.
It’s the Islay Festival, and it runs over the course of a week or so and draws in visitors and peat-loving whisky fiends from across the globe. But this year, understandably, Fèis Ìle is cancelled.
For much of our stay, the sky sports few clouds and the sun shines; even still, the temperature gets down to five degrees and you really feel the cold when you step into the shadows or out into the wind.
It’s like stepping back 20 or 30 years. The people who live here have iPhones of course, and there’s wifi in the hotels and distilleries, but for the most part if feels like modern life hasn’t arrived on Islay just yet — as if the journey across the sea is too perilous to chance it.
Islay feels like it’s from another time. There is patchy mobile phone coverage. There isn’t a Starbucks or a KFC or a clown on the island. There’s something reassuringly analogue about the place.
Then there is the Islay wave — driving from one distillery to another, over roads that roll up and down (they’re laid over ancient peat bogs — hence the asphalt moves over time), you’re sure to be greeted with a wave by locals passing you by. It’s polite to wave back.
Where to drink when you’re here
If you’re done with distilleries — or have been saddled with designated driver duties — and you’re keen for a drink, plan ahead and get yourself to The Ballygrant Inn. The Ballygrant sits halfway between Port Ellen at the south of the island and Port Askaig to the north. Inside there’s a significant collection of whisky, of core releases, rarer, hard to find stuff, and bottlings you can only pick up from the distilleries on the island. We hear there’s a curry night that is the talk of the town on Thursdays, too.
The Ardview Inn (67 Frederick Cres, Port Ellen) is very much a locals’ joint, whilst The Ballygrant will attract a number of touring whiskylovers. The Ardview is an old boy’s bar. One night in the Ardview, we’re sitting, scanning the bric a brac on the walls, and half watching the one television in the other room when the barmaid — that’s what they call her here — steps from out of the bar, to assist one of the old boys in getting home. When I walked in the previous night she’d noticed I didn’t belong there and her reception was cool at best. “It’s a quarter past six,” she says to him, and his wife is waiting out the front to take him home. “Have you got your jacket love?” she asks him. It’s that kind of place.
But where ought one lay one’s head? No 1 Charlotte Street in Port Ellen was handy. There’s a couple of spots to eat and drink in Port Ellen itself, and No 1 Charlotte Street has a bar you can unwind at as well.
This is the first in our Scotland series that featured in the July issue of Bartender magazine. Stay tuned for the distillery profiles and a wrap up of Edinburgh bars in coming days.