Post overview: Best Whisky Distilleries on Islay
First things first: let’s talk about pronunciation (because it throws folks off). Islay is pronounced “eye-lah.” And now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the brass tax. What is Islay, and why should you care?
Islay is an island in Scotland that is home to the smokiest Scotch whisky known to man. And anyone traveling to Scotland for whisky would be remiss to overlook this promised land of peat and barley.
Indeed, the island is home to 9 impressive whiskey distilleries specializing in peated whisky boasting awards that could make ardent sailors blush.
To assume that “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” would be an amateur move, and I won’t let that happen to you. We visited all the distilleries on the pretty island and rounded up the best distilleries on Islay, Scotland.
Some distillers are great for tours, others for traditional tasting and others still for the elusive pours coming straight from the cask. I’ll let you know which is which, based on our personal experience.
Time is precious, so I’d like to help you make the most of your time on Islay. Without further ado, let’s cover everything you need to know about the best distilleries on Islay!
Our experience visiting Islay
My husband is a sucker for smoky scotch so when we embarked on our tour through Scotland, visiting Islay was non-negotiable. We spent five days driving around the island in search of the best whisky distilleries in Islay in the hopes of finding new pours to love.
I’m not much of a whisky drinker myself, but I must admit, after our time in Islay I’ve come to appreciate (dare I say, enjoy?) the stuff. Islay met us with gray impregnated clouds, but we weren’t deterred. I hail from the moody Pacific Northwest, so the setting was par for the course.
Even though we didn’t get to see the stunning scenery, we found Islay to be the highlight of our Scotland trip. I’d return to Scotland in a heartbeat and Islay would be the first stop on the list.
Let’s talk: Whisky vs. whiskey (with an ‘e’), what gives?
The explanation is simple. Whiskey (with an ‘e’) refers to grain spirits originating from the United States and Ireland. Whisky (without the ‘e’) refers to Scottish, Japanese and Canadian spirits.
Tips for visiting the distilleries on Islay
There’s 3 types of whisky experiences on Islay
- Distillery Tour: Guests get full access to magic. You’ll be in the heart of the action, overseeing the whisky making process from start to finish. But not all distillery tours are created equal, some are way better than others (I’ll make sure to highlight the standouts below).
- Cask Tasting: Whisky straight from the cask is stronger than the bottled versions you pick up in stores. While exploring the various distilleries on Islay you’ll have an opportunity to sign up for some cask tastings, which I recommend you do. They’re very fun, especially when accompanied by knowledgeable (and entertaining) experts.
- Tasting Flight: The tasting flight is probably the most classic whisky tasting experience on Islay. You’ll typically get to try 3-5 drams for a nominal fee. This will give you a pretty good understanding of a distillery’s range.
Note: Book your Islay distillery tours (super) early
There were several tours we planned to partake in, but we weren’t able to get reservations (they sell out quickly!). I suggest booking your Islay whisky experience as early as possible, don’t save it for a few days before arriving on the island (like us).
Islay is a popular place for whisky enthusiasts, and even though the island is remote, it still gets pretty busy!
Getting to Islay via car ferry
- We took a 2-hour car ferry from the mainland to Islay. Learn from our mistake and book your tickets well in advance to ensure a spot on the ferry. Worth mention: The ferry to Islay was the most comfortable ferry I’ve been on to date. It’s spacious, clean and food/drinks are offered.
Getting around Islay
- The best way to get around the island is by driving. We rarely noticed buses running and couldn’t imagine being held to a schedule while trying to make the most of our time on the island. We were so glad to have our car with us and highly recommend you do the same.
Lodging & eating
- There aren’t many hotels (or restaurants) on the island. We stayed at Port Charlotte Hotel and loved it (we plan to stay there again when we revisit Islay). In terms of dinner, we mostly ate meals at the Islay Hotel (on the pricey side, but good) and the few distilleries that offered food.
Visiting Islay | Best Whisky Distilleries on Islay, Scotland
#9. Ardnahoe (The newest distillery on Islay)
Founded: 2017 (the newest whisky distillery on Islay)
Founded in 2017, Ardnahoe is the newest distillery on Islay and is in the process of producing their first batch of whiskies. When it entered the scene, it boosted the number of distilleries on Islay to nine. Located in the beautiful (and remote) location that overlooks the Sound of Islay, this gem is ripe with potential.
Ardnahoe’s whiskies are not yet available for purchase (the distillery is too young), but visitors are welcome to book tours of the distillery and embark on whisky tastings (from other labels).
#8. Caol Ila
Pronunciation: Cull-eela (rhymes with tequila)
Big hitter: Caol Ila 12 Year Old & Caol Ila 18 Year Old
Sitting pretty along the coast from Port Askaig, Caol Ila overlooks the sound of Islay and offers unparalleled views of the Paps of Jura (the neighboring island). Originally opened in 1846, Caol Ila boasts an impressive achievement — it’s the largest distillery on Islay.
Offering both peated and unpeated drams, the whiskies span the gamut — from exciting young blends to unforgettable mature drams that border on elegant.
The whiskies churning out of this top-notch Islay whisky distillery have a maritime quality so poignant they can transport you to the scenic shores of Islay with one whiff.
Unfortunately, Caol Ila was closed for renovations during our visit, which is why it’s ranked #8 on this list. I’m all about transparency here, and don’t want to make it seem like I experienced something I didn’t. Their whiskies (especially the 12-year) is a staple in our home collection, they make great stuff.
We plan to visit Caol Ila when we return to Islay in 2024 (yeah, we already have a return trip planned — can you blame us?).
Big hitter: Sanaig
Founded in 2005, Kilchoman is one of the newest distilleries on Islay (but not the newest, that title belongs to Ardnahoe), and was the first to be built on the island in more than 125 years.
That doesn’t stop it from being one of the best, though. What makes Kilchoman unique is their 100% Islay philosophy which seeks to resurrect the grass roots tradition of farm distilling.
As such, they’ve released a very exciting 100% Islay range that represents the revival of single malt whisky cultivated from barley to bottle in one single location.
You can see the barley fields surrounding the distillery and learn more about the varietals on the map located to the left of the tasting counter.
In terms of service, the staff are very friendly, and seem happy to answer questions. I appreciated the laissez-faire approach during whisky tastings and found it relaxing. Overall, we had a great time learning about the whisky production process and found it informative and fun.
The reason I consider this one of the best whisky distilleries on Islay is because they offer food (most distilleries don’t). We swung by the cafe after our tour and had a great meal! Make reservations early or swing by before your tour to see if they have any tables available (we had to wait one hour).
- Pronunciation: Broo-ick-lad-ee
- Founded: 1881
- Big hitter: Octomore 11 (for peat lovers), The Classic Laddie otherwise
Founded in 1881, Bruichladdich is best known for their staunch reliance on traditional production methods (much like its neighbors). From traditional floor malting and direct-fired stills, the only thing that has changed at this cherished Islay distillery is the expansion of their ever-growing production.
Bruichladdich uses a variety of barely to create their distinctively unique whiskies on Islay. They’ve built a successful fan base around complex flavors that ripe with notes of vanilla, fruit and earthy peat.
Unlike the other great whisky distillaries on Islay, Bruichladdich doesn’t offer formal tasting flights. Rather, it’s more of an open bar concept where you can choose a pour of any bottle (including Botanist Gin).
But fret not. If you’d like to see how the magic happens, you can sign up for a warehouse tasting or guided whisky distillery tour. I don’t consider this one of the best distilleries on Islay for nothing, book a tour and see what all the fuss is about.
Pronunciation: Bow-more (easy as pie!)
Big hitter: Bowmore 12 Year Old
Bowmore is the oldest distillery on Islay. Dating back to 1779, this legendary gem has been making traditional scotch whisky for as long as the United States has been a country.
Suffice it to say, 240 year of expertise is bound to create some of the best whisky on Islay, if not Scotland as a whole. Some of the distillery’s best-selling whiskies include Bowmore 12 Year Old, Bowmore 15 Year Old, and Bowmore 18 Year Old.
These whiskies are widely available and can be purchased in most time zones, but there’s something special about getting them at the source. The tasting room is a classy affair with an old-school bar vibe.
You can choose the pours you’d like to sample from a robust menu. It’s a very casual and easy-going experience that makes visiting the best distilleries on Islay such a joy.
We opted for a tasting flight and found ourselves impressed by the great drams. Next time I’ll opt for the vaults warehouse tasting to get my grubby little hands on the super strong stuff.
Big hitter: Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old
If you’re looking for Islay whisky distilleries that don’t specialize in peated drams, Bunnahabhain is for you. This is the only distillery that focuses on unpeated whisky on Islay. If you have mixed feelings about that, you’re not the only one!
Located in a remote but beautiful distillery off the Sound of Islay, the most prominent notes in these velvety drams are fruit, salt and smoke. There’s definitely a delicate sherry component to these popular Islay whiskies.
Bunnahabhain claims to be the only distillery on Islay to use water from a natural spring, which tempted us to try the pours straight from the source (the cask). We opted for the cask-strength tasting flight and were taken aback by the (pleasant) intensity of flavor.
This has to be one of the best distilleries on Islay if not for the epic panoramic views alone. On a clear day you can see the breathtaking Paps of Jura– it’s a sight you won’t soon forget.
In terms of the best whisky tours on Islay, the warehouse distillery tour at Bunnahabhain is a strong contender. The cream of the crop is the Warehouse 9 whisky tasting tour (9 whiskies, people!) where you can sample cask-strength pours.
#3. Ardbeg (Some of the best whisky on Islay, period)
- Pronunciation: Aard-beg
- Founded: 1815
- Big hitter: Uigeadail (Oog-a-dal) won Whisky of the Year in 2021
- Best whisky experience:
Of all the great whisky distilleries on Islay, none impressed me more than Ardbeg. Velvety drams offering varying depths of smoky aromatics and weighty aftertaste, this is some of the most memorable Islay whisky.
The distillery was founded by the MacDougall family in 1815 and it’s estimated that by 1886 a third of the town worked at Ardbeg. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for this tale because the distillery shut down in 1983.
Thankfully it reopened in 1989, before being purchased by Glenmorangie PLC in 1997. Glenmorangie invested 10 million pounds ($11.5 million USD) into restoration, but the work paid off — Ardbeg made a comeback in the early 2000’s.
Something fun worth knowing: Arbeg is owned by Glenmorangie, which are owned by Moët Hennessy, which is owned by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) group. In short, the people that own the luxury Louis Vuitton brand also own Ardbeg. I think that’s kind of interesting and wanted to share.
We opted for the distillery tour and enjoyed it enough but wished for a more generous tasting. Unlike the other distilleries on Islay, this one only offered one measly dram (criminal!).
For what it’s worth: One of our friends visiting Ardbeg shortly after we returned home from our trip. He claimed the whisky from Ardbeg was too smoky for his liking. Take that how you will, but he’s definitely not getting a Christmas card from me this year.
Tip: Ardbeg offers food, visit the little food truck near the entrance for some great fare.
#2. Lagavulin (Best Islay Distillery for Cask Tastings)
- Pronunciation: Laa-guh-voo-luhn
- Founded: 1816
- Big hitter: Lagavulin 16
- Best whisky tour to book: Warehouse Experience
Only one year younger than Laphroaig, Lagavulin is no stranger to the limelight, largely thanks to the highly applauded 16-year. This bad boy has received double gold medals from San Francisco World Spirits Competition four years in a row.
Much like the other great whiskey distilleries on Islay, the locale is beautiful. Sitting right on the bay, the interior is perfectly cozy but the tasting warehouse is very chilly.
I suggest opting for the Warehouse Experience at Lagavulin. It was by far the most memorable part of our time on Islay. The tour is run by Iain McArthur (legendary name in the Islay whisky world) and his wit is only out-shined by the velvety pours coming straight out of the cask. Grab a coat or you’ll be freezing.
The definitive Islay malt—intensely flavoured, smoky and rich. The windswept Isle of Islay instils a strength of character into everything it produces and it’s here, nestled in a small bay that the beloved Lagavulin whisky has been made for over 200 years.Lagavulin
#1. Laphroaig (Overall Best Whiskey Tour on Islay)
- Pronunciation: Luh-froyg
- Founded: 1815
- Big hitter: Laphroaig 10 & Laphroaig Lore
- Best whisky tour to book: Warehouse 1 Tasting & Experience Tour
Started by two brothers in 1815, Laphroaig is arguably the best distillery on Islay. Most scotch drinkers are no strangers to Laphroaig. A household name for those that consider a proper pour akin to drinking in a campfire, my husband has been stocking this stuff for as long as I can remember.
I suggest booking the Experience Tour at Laphroaig. You’ll get an opportunity to tour the historic malting floor and see the peat get fed to the fire. From there, you’ll watch the liquid gold cascade from copper kilns before getting the chance to try 3 whiskies.
Our favorite part about the Laphroaig Experience Tour was having an opportunity to scoop the malt in our hands. This comprehensive tour is a very hands-on experience where you get to watch the peat smoke infuse the grain before heading downstairs to see the peat get fed to the fire.
Fun fact: Laphroaig is the only Islay whisky distillery to carry the Royal Warrant of King Charles. The 15-year-old is King Charles III’s favorite Scotch whisky.
Best Distilleries Islay (Post Overview)
In sum, here’s a roundup of the best whisky distilleries on Islay.
- Caol Ila
Map of the best whisky tasting on Islay
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