Glasgow is a beautiful and easy-to-navigate city; the people are very warm and there is a wonderful array of both shopping and entertainment choices. Islay, a very short plane ride away, is a world that operates at a different pace of life: there are no traffic lights and sheep roam free. To anyone who is a whisky fan, this small island will jump off the page as a very special place to sample the spirit, learn about the distillery process and experience a unique place.
Even if you do not take a particular interest in Scotch, you most certainly will after taking a trip like this. Scotch is an incredibly complex spirit that is equally complicated to create. There is a tremendous amount of passion put into the production of single malt scotch, a very small handful of individuals are responsible for the process; the pride they take in their craft is infectious.
A stay at Mar Hall begins the journey, situated about a 15-minute train ride from Glasgow. Refurbished and opened in 2004, this hotel was originally built as a home for the Earl of Mar in the 19th century. Overlooking River Clyde on a 5-star golf course, Mar Hall is a picture-perfect place to begin a trip to this part of Scotland.
Once on Islay, Bowmore offers lodging just steps from the distillery. The Cottages at Bowmore will accommodate couples or groups up to 12. The visitor's center at Bowmore offers comfortable tasting rooms that overlook Loch Indaal; they also cater to groups of various sizes. Touring the distillery, you will discover the process from start to aging. Guests begin in the malt barn, where those that work at Bowmore turn the barley every four hours, and ending in one of the oldest maturation warehouses in Scotland. Here, the casks are kept just below sea level to age. Upon a visit you will see first-hand how the distillery handles the grain, imparts it with the peat Islay is known for and eventually produces a raw form of whisky that is then placed into barrels.
Staying at the Bowmore Cottages is a perfect idea. While the rooms in each of the cottages are different throughout, mine boasted vaulted ceilings, several large windows that looked out onto a charming garden, a large four-poster bed... and fast WIFI, a welcome amenity you may not expect in such a charmingly rustic location.
Shops, restaurants and the Kilarrow Parish Church (or Round Church as it is well known), are steps from the cottages; the structure and its surrounding cemetery sit at the top of a hill that is the main street of Bowmore. Be certain to take the brief walk here, particularly if you find cemeteries to be interesting. Softly padding through this Kirk yard, all the while taking in a view of the island, loch and distillery is a wonderful way to connect with the area.
Dining on Islay is a treat; the island is known for its lamb and seafood, particularly shellfish. Crab, langoustines and oysters are wonderful here, prepared as they always have been: fresh, simple and delicious. If you enjoy a good boat ride, there are many islands to hop over to whilst you visit Islay. If you are indeed a scotch drinker, the island of Jura may be of interest to you, as it's nearby and the distillery produces a very well-admired whisky. Riding there is half of the fun and you will find the Jura Hotel offers ridiculously fresh seafood.
Another place of interest on the island, the Islay Woolen Mill is where Chanel actually sources their tweed; their designs were also featured in Braveheart and Forrest Gump. Established back in 1883, the family of people that runs this mill takes great pride in what they do; they do it the way it has always been done. This tiny, old and picturesque mill produces only 20 yards of fabric per day on nearly original machinery. If you are one to appreciate tweed, this is an excellent place to stock up; they manufacture an excellent assortment of scarves, jackets, hats and more in a variety of colors and prints. "Quality over quantity" barely does the place justice.
After taking in your fill of Islay, discovering the distilleries, finding quaint shops, familiarizing yourself with the people and the essence of the island, it's hard to leave. The second you do, you will think you might forget the smell... which is so unique it is almost indescribable... regardless, you have my word, you won't forget it and you will want to come back.
Returning to the mainland it is necessary to reacclimate to the faster pace of life most of us are familiar with. Glasgow, as well as Edinburgh just 45 minutes away, both offer a plethora of dining, sights, culture, nightlife choices and activity options. Much like the cities they reside in, the award-winning Auchentoshan Distillery has a bit more of a modern feel in contrast to Bowmore, despite its founding in 1823. This is appropriate as the spirit itself has a more contemporary style. Like the tour at Bowmore, we saw the production process from start to finish, and there are a couple of main points that distinguishes Auchentoshan from other whiskies. I have already mentioned the modern flair the spirit embodies, the second is the fact that it is the only Scotch that is triple distilled. Compared to Bowmore, Auchentoshan is more mild in flavor, as you would expect due to its lowland location. For an extra special experience, during your own tour you can bottle your very own Single Malt straight from the cask.
Being back in Glasgow, Hotel du Vin One Devonshire Gardens is truly one of the most beautiful properties in the city's West End, plus the location is perfect for exploring the area. This boutique hotel's rooms are lavish, the restaurant was named "Glasgow Restaurant of the Year" and naturally the service is excellent. If you can tear yourself away from the accommodations, there are plenty of entertainment options for any time of day, including shopping, cultural attractions like Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum as well as an assortment of nightlife and dining choices. Recommendations? Crabshakk served up some very tasty seafood dishes and both Lebowski's and Blue Dog offered great cocktails.
Journeying to Scotland was an experience filled with both old and new. Old associations of plaid, green hills and bagpipes have certainly have faded into small details of a much bigger picture. This experience is painted with memorable conversations, vivid memories and a refreshing revelation of what Scotland is truly like. So go and discover it yourself, I would wager you will want to visit more than once.
By Courtney Driver
Read The Full Review: Award-winning Whisky: Bowmore Single Malt Islay Scotch or check out the Photo Essay
Read the Complete Guide to Scotland's Distillery Regions