Craft beer and craft gin – there’s more to Islay than whisky

Islay is rightly famed for its smoky single malt whiskies, with no less than eight distilleries (and one on neighbouring Jura) producing some of the most popular and unique whiskies in the world. But whisky isn’t the only drink produced on the island; craft beer and craft gin are made here too. If you’re not a fan of whisky, or you just fancy a bit of variety, make sure you try Bruichladdich’s The Botanist gin or one of Islay Ales’ award-winning beers. Slàinte!

Go for the gin!
The resurrection of Bruichladdich distillery on Islay is one of the whisky industry’s great stories. Brought back from semi-dereliction in 2001, it began to make whisky the old-fashioned way, using the artisanal skills of local people and much of the old machinery that had been installed when the distillery was built back in 1881. As well as producing distinctive whiskies, Bruichladdich then released The Botanist, Islay’s first and only gin.

And what a gin it is! It takes its name from the botanicals used in its production and the local foragers who collect them. Nine classic gin botanicals (juniper berries, angelica root, cassia bark, cinnamon bark, coriander seed, lemon peel, orange peel, liquorice root and orris root) are used along with 22 others that are found on the island. These are hand-picked by local people who search Islay’s hills, bogs and shores to find bog myrtle leaves, creeping thistle flowers, elderflower, gorse flowers, heather flowers, hawthorn flowers, lemon balm, meadowsweet, red clover flowers, tansy and more. The botanicals are distilled with Islay spring water in “Ugly Betty”, a Lomond Still, one of the last in existence. The distillation takes seventeen hours, four times longer than an average whisky distillation. You can find out more about the botanicals, as well as the people that forage for them, on The Botanist website.

You’ll find The Botanist on sale in many of Islay’s pubs, hotels and restaurants. You can also buy a bottle or two to take home from the Bruichladdich visitor centre shop near Port Charlotte.

Bring on the beer!
Islay Ales was set up in 2003 by Paul Capper, Walter Schobert and Paul Hathaway who decided that an island with eight whisky distilleries producing some of the most famous whiskies in the world needed a brewery! They now brew eight beers on a regular basis, as well as some limited editions for special events including the Islay Festival of Music and Malt. Make sure you try Black Rock Ale, CAMRA’s Scottish Champion Real Ale in a Bottle Gold Medal winner in 2009 and Single Malt Ale, CAMRA’s Scottish Champion Real Ale in a Bottle Gold Medal winner in 2010. On a sunny day you can’t beat Saligo Ale, a golden beer whose taste brings to mind sandy beaches and sunshine. For a winter warmer, pour yourself a pint of Nerabus Ale, a ruby-coloured beer that has a spicy, black treacle flavour. And if you want a beer that’s distinctly Islay, then order a pint of Kilchoman Dark or Kilchoman Pale. Both used malted barley direct from Kilchoman Distillery to give the beer a smoky, peaty taste, just like Islay’s single malts.

Islay Ales are available in many of Islay’s pubs, restaurants and hotels, including Port Charlotte Hotel, Lochindaal Hotel, Bridgend Hotel, Lochside Hotel, Islay Hotel, Ardview Inn, SeaSalt Bistro, An Tigh Seinsse, Port Askaig Hotel, Yan's Kitchen, Ardbeg Distillery and Kilchoman Distillery. You can also buy beer to take home (and enjoy a brewery tour) at Islay Ales Brewery and Visitors Centre in Bridgend. And for those of you who live far away, you can buy Islay Ales online.

Eating out on Islay
You’ll want some great local food to complement your local tipple of choice, be that whisky, gin or beer. On Islay, you’re spoilt for choice. Islay’s many farms and estates produce fantastic beef, lamb and game, while some of the best shellfish in Scotland is hauled from the Atlantic waters around Islay and Jura. Islay’s many restaurants and pubs feature this fabulous local fare on their menus.

Getting to Islay
Get the CalMac ferry to Islay from Kennacraig on Kintyre, landing at Port Ellen (2 hours 20 minutes) or Port Askaig (from 1 hour 55 minutes). Alternatively, why not fly? Flybe runs a twice-daily 35-minute scheduled flight from Glasgow International Airport to Islay Glenegadale. The flight provides spectacular views over the islands and Kintyre.

Find out more about things to see and do on Islay, Jura and Colonsay.

Header image: The Botanist gin.