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I’ve always wanted to do an Isle of Islay tour, and attending the Whisky and Music Festival with Highland Explorer Tours was easily the best option. As I’ve stated before, I don’t drink a lot of alcohol, but I was really happy to sample different whiskies from seven of the nine distilleries on Islay, not to mention all the other attractions, food, and stories on the tour.

As good as the whisky and the island were, the 4-day Islay Whisky and Music Tour with Highland Explorer was so much more.

Visiting the Isle of Islay from Edinburgh

As a quick geography lesson, the Isle of Islay is one of the southwesternmost islands of Scotland, only about 30 miles from Northern Ireland. In a nutshell, off the west coast of Scotland are the Hebrides, which are divided into the Outer Hebrides and the Inner Hebrides. The Outer Hebrides have the Isle of Lewis and Harris at the top and several more small islands extending to the south. The main island in the Inner Hebrides is the Isle of Skye, but there are plenty of more beautiful islands.

Some examples of prominent islands in the Inner Hebrides are the Isle of Mull, Isle of Iona, Isle of Jura, and Staffa Isle where you can find Fingal’s Cave. These islands can be reached by ferry leaving from Oban. The Isle of Arran is sheltered in a bay with a ferry from Ardrossan, just a bit west of Glasgow. And then there’s the Isle of Islay (pronounced eye-luh), which you can get to with a ferry from Kennacraig.

It certainly is possible to rent your own car and get out to Islay, but expenses will quickly mount up. The car rental, fuel, ferry costs, accommodations, etc. aren’t cheap these days. As such, a much better option would be to take a bus tour. And I think the best Islay tour is with Highland Explorer.

If you’d like to book your tour, you can use booking code SKYETRAVELS10 to get a 10% discount.

Islay Whisky Distilleries

Currently, there are nine Islay distilleries – ten if you count Port Ellen which closed in 1983 but will re-open later in 2023. There are also two more distilleries scheduled to open in the near future, bringing the total up to twelve.

As part of our Islay Whisky and Music Festival Tour, we visited seven of the nine distilleries. For Fèis Ìle, or Islay Festival, each of the nine distilleries has an open day over nine days. As we were only on the island for three nights and two full days, we only made it to two of the open days (we missed the Bowmore open day by minutes), but we visited another five distilleries to see how they compared.

The only two distilleries we missed were Ardnahoe – Islay’s newest distillery (I don’t think they have any bottles for sale yet) and Caol Ila (pronounced cull-eeluh) – Islay’s largest distillery. After all, there’s only so much you can do in two days.


The first distillery we visited was Ardbeg, at the end of the Three Distilleries Walk. That’s a path from Port Ellen which passes through Laphroig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. At the distillery, we received a full tour of the operations and got to sample three different Ardbeg whiskies. Annoyingly, I didn’t get the names of all three, but the last was called Uigeadail, which won best whisky in 2021. All three were quite smooth and a little sweet, which was rather different than others we tried on the tour.

We learned some interesting facts on the tour about how Ardbeg stands out from other distilleries. After all, as of this writing, there are 143 whisky distilleries in Scotland, all trying to do something different, but also working together with blended whiskies. One thing that’s unique about Ardbeg is that it’s owned by Glenmorangie, which in turn is owned by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy). In other words, the owners of Louis Vuitton also own this distillery.

I was particularly interested in visiting Ardbeg, as one of the stops I go to on the food tour I give in Edinburgh – The Whiski Rooms – is an Ardbeg Embassy. So I finally got a bit of reality on the distillery and its whiskies.


Lagavulin Tasting

Lagavulin Distillery

Lagavulin has been around since 1816, and now is part of Diageo. Diageo has 132 sites around the world, including Caol Ila on Islay, Talisker on the Isle of Skye, Johnnie Walker, and, of course, Guinness beer in Ireland.

As the distillation process is basically the same from one distillery to the next, we didn’t do a tour of the facilities. Instead, we went into the beautiful tasting room where and learned about their different expressions. This was the only distillery that didn’t provide a free sample, although a couple guests on the tour purchased a sample of a rare bottle.


Selfie at Laphroaig Distillery

This is the southernmost distillery on Islay, at least until the Port Ellen distillery reopens later this year. Laphroaig is a bit different from the other distilleries in the way it smokes peat over the malted barley to create a heavily peated whisky. Oddly, I found many distilleries are a bit secretive about how long they smoke peat over the barley, but Laphroaig says it’s over 17 hours per batch.


Kilchoman (pronounced kil-ho-man) is the only independent distillery on Islay. We arrived for their open day full of activities. With a bagpipe rock band playing in the background, we toured around the distillery sampling three different bottles, all of which were surprisingly nice. There was a large room with barley on the ground we could practice raking and evening out, and a photo spot with Cask #1 from 2005 when they opened.

My one regret was the regular cafe with their world-famous Cullen skink was closed and they had a separate food stand set up, which ran out of food just before we arrived. But the showroom was also really nice (bigger than any other distillery), and I liked learning how they keep their entire production on Islay, using barley from the nearby farms.


We just missed the Bowmore open day the evening we arrived, but I’m glad we returned later on for a quick visit. The Bowmore 12 turned out to be one of my favorite whiskies on Islay. It was super smooth and had virtually no burn at the back of the throat. All the flavor was at the tip of my tongue, which is my favorite kind of whisky.

The tasting room at Bowmore was also beautiful, with a fantastic view overlooking the bay. Technically every distillery on Islay (except for Kilchoman) overlooks a bay, but the open floor plan, historical information displays about the distillery, and great samples really stood out.


Bruichladdich Display

Bruichladdich (pronounced brew-ick-la-dee) was our first distillery stop on day two after we went to the American Monument. This distillery has four main brands – Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte and Octomore whiskies, and The Botanist gin. Each brand is quite different. Bruichladdich is one of the only non-peated whiskies from Islay, and Octomore is one of the most peated.

The Botanist is an incredible gin (more to my liking than the whisky) with over 30 botanicals added, more than 20 of which are locally foraged on Islay. Vanesa also loved the Octomore 13.4, a whisky only available at the distillery and with a peat level of 180 parts per million. We got a little of both to take home with us, but the £200 bottle was slightly out of our budget.


Our final distillery was Bunnahabhain (pronounced bu-na-ha-vin) for their open day. This is the northernmost distillery on Islay, located across the straight from the Isle of Jura. There were several activities, most of which had to be purchased. We missed out on the whisky workshop and chose not to go on a boat tour, exploring the distillery instead.

The Bunnahabhain Distillery is unique on Islay in that it isn’t peated (like the one brand at Bruichladdich). The flavor was surprisingly smooth. Unfortunately, after a couple dozen samples in two days, I was getting a little full of whisky. But I would have still loved to do that whisky workshop.

Other Attractions on the Islay Whisky Tour

While our Islay tour was focused on the distilleries, we had several other stops, particularly on the drive out to Islay and then on the way back. Many of the stops were places I’d never seen in all my other trips and tours around Scotland. As I keep saying, there’s just so much to see and do in this country.


Luss Church

Our first stop was the quaint village of Luss on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. I’ve passed by on the highway countless times but never actually stopped in the village, which only has a population of about 450. It’s your quintessential Scottish village with beautiful little cottages, an ancient church, a pier for boat trips, and a handful of cafes and a pub for snacks or a meal.


Inveraray Castle from Drone

Inveraray feels more like a small town than a village, even though population-wise it’s almost as small as Luss. The difference is the establishments set up for tourists, and the stunning castle built on the outskirts of the town. This was the lunch stop of the tour. We’d heard about the world-famous Loch Fyne oysters served at the pubs, but we chose a traditional Scottish Breakfast for lunch at Brambles of Inveraray instead.

I would have loved to visit the castle, but we were in a rush to catch the ferry as the later departure had been canceled and we had to catch the earlier sailing. At least I had time to get a bit of drone footage.

American Monument

American Monument on Islay

This is quite a unique site on Islay. In 1918, over 500 US servicemen lost their lives when two military vessels sank at sea, one from a German torpedo and the other from a collision with another ship in a thick fog. The monument is like a windmill without sails, looking out to sea. These were just two of the countless ships that sank around the perilous Western Isles of Scotland over the centuries.

Machir Bay

Machir Bay

After visiting Kilchoman on the second day, we went to the end of the single-track road to Machir Bay, a beautiful beach on the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone else went for the view, but I couldn’t help myself. I stripped down to my small clothes to go for a plunge in the waves. At least I had a towel with me.

Dunadd Fort

Fort Dunadd

After a quick breakfast stop at Lochgilphead on the fourth and final day of our tour, we had a stop at Dunadd Fort. A fort was built at this site 2,000 years ago and was used until the mid-16th century by Gaelic kings. Historic Environment Scotland did a great job setting up information displays across the site, which is open year-round and free to visit.

Nether Largie Standing Stones

Nether Largie Standing Stones

These standing stones make Dunadd Fort seem new. They were erected around 5,000 years ago, although the purpose of them is still hotly contested. I loved feeling the millennia of history here. If you’re an Outlander fan (as Vanesa is) or a lover of history, this is a great stop.


Oban Seafood Hut

This is one of the best towns in western Scotland, and our lunch stop on the last day. There are plenty of places to go for lunch, but I think the best is the Oban Seafood Hut across from the ferry terminal. Some of the freshest seafood and also really good prices (the best combination). Just be prepared for a long line when you go.

Oban from Drone

If you have more time, you can climb to the top of the hill to see McCaig’s Tower, which looks like a mini Colosseum. My 5-Day Highlands Tour with Haggis Adventures also stopped in Oban and I have a full description of the town in that article.


Islay Tour at Glencoe

Our final stop on our tour was in Glencoe, one of the most beautiful valleys in the UK. Nearly every tour passes through Glencoe and for good reason. The scenery is stunning. As usual, we only stopped for a few minutes for some photos. Someday I need to visit there for a few hours and hike up to the top of the trails.

Meals and Accommodations on the Islay Tour

The highlight of our Islay tour was certainly the distilleries, followed by the other attractions and sites, but room and board are also important. We had some great meals on our trip, plus all three nights at the same hotel in Port Ellen on Islay.

No. 1 Charlotte Street

Unlike any other tour I’ve had in Scotland, every night of our tour of Islay was spent at the same hotel – No. 1 Charlotte in Port Ellen. This is where the ferry should have arrived and departed from, but the fleet was minimized on our tour and we had to use Port Askaig at the top of the island instead.

The room was small but very comfortable. We slept like babes in the bed (or maybe that was the whisky). As with many old buildings in Scotland, the thick stone walls made our room completely soundproof, even with a bar downstairs. We had a lovely view of the bay, but the best part was the breakfast in the morning. A nice continental breakfast was laid out for us, and we had a form to fill out for a hot Scottish breakfast as well. In short, we were well fed before our whisky tastings.


On our first night, we went to Bowmore for dinner. We had a dinner booked at the Bowmore Hotel the following night so we searched for another option. That was the same day that Bowmore Distillery had its open day and the village was packed, but we managed to get some takeaway pizzas from Peatzeria to eat out on the pier. The pizzas were surprisingly good – more American style than Italian – and quite large. If you’re looking for some comfort food on Islay, this is your stop.

Bowmore Hotel

Bowmore Hotel Dinner

The following night, we had a very nice, three-course dinner at the Bowmore Hotel. I had a proper Scottish burger topped with black pudding and caramelized onions. But the highlight of the Bowmore Hotel was the whisky selection. The menu was several dozen pages long! If there’s any rare whisky you’ll looking to try, you’ll probably be able to find it at the Bowmore Hotel.

Bridgend Hotel

Our final meal on Islay was at the Bridgend Hotel, a finalist as Scotland’s Best Country Hotel in 2023. The meal was certainly on par with the award. You can usually get the best seafood in the coastal towns and islands in Scotland, and the fish and chips here were perfect. Yet still no Cullen skink. That’s for the next time I’m at Kilchoman.

Why Highland Explorer Has the Best Islay Tour

Renting a car to get to the Isle of Islay is always an option. It gives you the freedom of going where you want, when you want. On the other hand, having a tour guide makes all the difference, and Rich was incredible as a guide. He was a wealth of information, both historical facts and personal anecdotes, and made our Islay tour so much more fun.

Taking a tour with Highland Explorer is also far more economical. Except in a few circumstances, you will always get a better deal on a tour than paying for everything separately. The car rental, fuel, ferry tickets, accommodations, and some entrance fees really start to add up. Lastly, taking a tour takes the headache out of the planning, and you can just sit back and enjoy the experience.

While my tour was special for Fèis Ìle, the Islay Whisky Festival, Highland Explorer has other Islay tour packages. In 2023, there is a tour coming up on September 15th. The tours include everything I’ve detailed above, barring some change in circumstances if something isn’t available. The Islay tour price is variable, so check the website for the current information.

If you’d like to book your tour, you can use booking code SKYETRAVELS10 to get a 10% discount.

Islay Tour Pin

Further Reading

Looking for another tour of Scotland? Here are some other tours to consider with Haggis Adventures:

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Author Skye Class

Hi, I'm Skye. Writer, photographer, adventurer, foodie, teacher, masseur, friend, dreamer, etc. I think "normal" sucks. Let's aim for extraordinary. SkyeTravels seeks to find the good around the world, focusing on adventures, food and wellness. Be inspired. Be yourself.

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