Whisky on Wheels
There’s not much better way to see Islay than the ‘Tour de Islay’, a ride that takes place on the first day of the Islay Whisky Festival.
Prior to beginning this cycle journey around Islay’s distilleries, it’s worth offering up a smidgeon of background. For those unaware, Islay is an island of approximately 3,000 people that sits a two-hour ferry journey west of the Scottish mainland. It is currently home to nine malt whisky distilleries, with the prospect of at least three more in the coming years.
It’s probably also worth my while pointing out that I am completely teetotal, so my ride to all nine distilleries might take a bit less time than yours! If you fancy tasting one or two (or nine) drams along the way, my advice would be to take a miniature if it’s on offer; cycling after a few drams is not recommended)
Though you can ride to the distilleries in any order you like, I’ve done this before as part of what was entitled the ‘Tour de Islay’, a ride that took place on the first day of the Islay Whisky Festival in late May.
The route for the latter began at Islay’s most southerly distillery: Ardbeg. Following the distillery’s closure during the pandemic, an internal reshuffle has taken their Old Kiln catering outside, into an appropriately converted Airstream trailer. However, to fit all nine distilleries in a single day’s ride, it’s probable that you’ll leave the distillery car park before its opening hours.
Leaving the home of the island’s peatiest whisky, along the A846, you head along the 5km road towards Port Ellen village. Optionally, you can ride along the shared-use ‘Three Distilleries Path’, but either way, the next distillery en-route is that of Lagavulin. Along with the next distillery on the list at Laphroaig, these three distilleries sport the ‘smokiest’ of Islay whiskies, having dried the barley over peat smoke, adding phenols to the finished drams. Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig are those most associated with the peaty finish ascribed to Islay malts.
Other than the distilleries, there’s not much of a scenic note along a road that eventually takes us through Port Ellen village, one of the two ferry ports on the island. As we leave its environs, you cannot fail to notice the looming bulk of Port Ellen Maltings on the left side, where Diageo prepare malted barley in bulk for its own distilleries at Lagavulin and Caol Ila, as well as one or two others.
There’s a short uphill drag on the approach to the ‘High Road’ (B8016), along which we head towards the village of Bridgend. This is a single track road with passing places, which I’d suggest you use as often as necessary to allow faster vehicles to pass, particularly the 40ft articulated trucks collecting pot ale from the distilleries. In preference to the ‘Low Road’, the views over Loch Indaal to the Rhinns of Islay and even Ireland, can be superb in clear weather, and it offers a tad more shelter from the prevalent winds.
Approximately 10km along the road, a signpost for ‘Cluanach’ signals the beginning of the Glen Road on the right, along which we’ll turn, heading ultimately towards the village of Ballygrant. The surface on this 12km road can be challenging to say the least, along with one or two cattle grids, but we regularly ride here on 28mm road tyres, so all should be well if you watch where you’re going.
At Cluanach road junction, to continue the more scenic route, you veer right along a stretch of road that offers pretty decent views along the way. Islay is relatively flat, with most of the bumpy bits existing around its edges, however, the tallest of those bumpy bits, Beinn Bheigeir (pronounced Ben Vicar) sits to the right at 491 metres.
The gradient ahead, past Barr farmhouse, climbs gradually up to 6% towards Storakaig – watch for deer on the right – then rises briefly again towards Dunlossit estate office at Knocklearach, before a short, but rapid gravelly descent into Ballygrant village.
At the junction adjacent to the quarry, we turn right and head north, along the A846 for another 7km. This is the main road towards the CalMac Port ferry port at Port Askaig and for the Jura ferry, so watch for speeding traffic en-route, possibly late for the boat. Turn left at the sign for Caol Ila. The distillery name is Gaelic for ‘Sound of Islay’, the stretch of fast-moving water on which shoreline it sits.
There’s a very short, steep descent from Caol Ila village into the distillery, remembering that it’s a steep climb on the way back out. At the time of writing, the distillery is closed to visitors, while refurbishments are carried out, though I can only state that I failed to have anyone answer the phone to confirm. Caol Ila is one of Diageo’s workhorses, providing spirit for Johnnie Walker amongst others; however, I am reliably informed that its single-malt is a most worthwhile dram…
Brian writes and edits thewashingmachinepost.net cycling blog from the Scottish west coast island of Islay.