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Published August 31, 2013, 11:37 PM

Views – and whiskey: Scottish isle provides spectacular access to both

ISLAY ISLAND, Scotland – Hop aboard the Caledonia Macbragne ferry from Kennacraig, Scotland, for a two-hour jaunt to the Isle of Islay, 25 miles from the Irish coast. Home to nearly 3,500 people and eight working whiskey distilleries, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides also features hundreds of bird species and grey seals, along with beaches, trails, ancient ruins, shipwrecks, festivals, campsites, hostels, bed-and-breakfasts and hotels.

By: Merrie Sue Holtan and Johanna Holtan, Special to The Forum, INFORUM

ISLAY ISLAND, Scotland – Hop aboard the Caledonia Macbragne ferry from Kennacraig, Scotland, for a two-hour jaunt to the Isle of Islay, 25 miles from the Irish coast.

Home to nearly 3,500 people and eight working whiskey distilleries, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides also features hundreds of bird species and grey seals, along with beaches, trails, ancient ruins, shipwrecks, festivals, campsites, hostels, bed-and-breakfasts and hotels.

It’s a five-star destination experience with a small-town feel.

We rented a car from the owner of our lodging, the Sornbank Bed and Breakfast in Bridgend. It is also possible to transport a car by ferry, hire a driver or fly into Islay. More than 45,000 visitors come to this 25-mile-long island each year by ferry and 11,000 come by plane.

At Sornbank, the owner’s wife provided a Scottish breakfast complete with bacon, sausage and brown sauce, eggs, cereal, fruit and strong coffee, as well as entertaining conversation. She said they had moved back to the family home with their two boys after several years on mainland Scotland and constructed a six-room B&B with two additional vacation flats.

“A bit hard to get used to living on a small island,” she said, pointing out that when someone caught a cold or chicken pox, it quickly passed to everyone.

The secluded location also means no movie theaters.

“Every week, the ferry transports a truck with a portable movie screen in the back,” she said.” We keep up with current movies that way.”

Turns out, we had missed the yearly Islay Malt and Whisky Festival by one week. Established in 1986, the festival celebrates the culture of the island with poetry, history, songs, piping, Gaelic classes, golf and extended tasting hours and tours at the distilleries.

Laphroaig Distillery

Tradition, water and peat moss make Islay distilleries special. Islay is composed of layer upon layer of sphagnum mosses and other vegetation, such as heather and lichens, which rot away to create the black banks of peat.

Laphroaig gets its distinct taste from the lichens. Some of the Islay single-malt spirits are the strongest flavored of all malt whiskies, a taste that endures them to some and is less appreciated by others.

“As an avid whiskey fan, I’ve enjoyed Laphroaig since university days,” said Malcolm Fleming, a Glasgow native and fellow traveler to Islay. “It was great to go to the hallowed peaty ground from where it comes.”

We spent the morning touring Laphroaig, the only distillery to receive the distinguished Mark of Excellence from Prince Charles.

While the early history of Laphroaig is uncertain, island historians believe the Irish had been distilling in the area and the locals learned the trade from them. Officially, Laphroaig was born in 1815. Since then, the distillery has experienced trouble with neighbors, the infamous Water Wars, a transformation into a military depot during war times, and passage through a long line of managers.

A wee dram

Laphroaig fully embraces both its local history and the ever-increasing international interest in their product.

Our tour group represented this diversity of loyal followers with tourists from Germany, France, Poland, the U.S. and U.K.

Together with a knowledgeable but deadpan guide, we started the tour in the steeps, where the green barley is soaked in the famous Laphroaig water for two days, drained and spread on the malting floors. We walked into a massive room covered in sprouting barley, where workers turn and monitor it to ensure constant temperature.

We moved on to the kilns, which date back to 1840. With the salty air from the sea and the smoke from the local peat, the kilns infuse the malted barley with the rich peaty taste over the course of 13 hours. After the kiln and smoking, the barley is dried to stop the germination process.

On to the Mash House, where the grist mixes with warm Laphroaig water. Small windows into these giant vats revealed bubbling ooze far from the warm color of the finished product. The mixture turns into a “wash” once the liquid has reached 8.5 percent alcohol content. Our guide gave us a small cup of this concoction, which tasted like an evil cousin to beer – bland but quite sweet.

We then walked across the courtyard to the stills. These unusual looking contraptions are difficult to maintain due to their shape, but Laphroaig appreciates the role they play in creating unique flavor. We learned how the spirit goes through two distillation steps, and when those are complete, it’s maturation time in traditional oak barrels.

When the whiskey is ready, which can take up to 30 years, the barrels make the journey back to the mainland for bottling.

After the tour, our guide led us into the tasting room, where we all shared a wee dram with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the whiskey experience.

The remainder of our island visit included the Viking ruins, Celtic crosses at Finlaggen, the Columba cultural center, a view of gray seals and several small towns.

Gift shops, pubs, and fish and chips abound, and a “pick up (or scheduled) band” just might break into song at any time with traditional Scottish/Irish music.

We certainly found what our B&B owner said to be true, “Here you will find a warm welcome and kindness. You will be so pleased you came.”

Merrie Sue Holtan is a regular contributor to The Froum. She lives near Perham, Minn., and can be reached at msholtan@gmail.com.

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