When it comes to food and drink, Scotland is first and foremost famous for one thing: whisky! Distillery tours and tasting the Scottish single malts are essential experiences on any Scotland trip and no region attracts more whisky-lovers than the famous Isle of Islay. But of course, road trips and whisky tasting do not go hand in hand. Don’t fret – Scottish small tour provider Rabbie’s has the perfect solution: a 4-day Islay Whisky Tour from Edinburgh! Read on to find out whether it’s worth it or not!
This post is sponsored by Rabbie’s. All opinions are my own.
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The Scottish Gaels called it uisge-beatha, the Romans aqua vitae – both means “water of life” and refer to Scotland’s liquid gold: whisky.
And indeed, whisky gives life and glory to many parts of Scotland where connoisseurs and craftspeople have perfected the art of making single malt and blended whisky.
The Isle of Islay is such a region that is inseparable from its whisky distilleries. The distilleries on Islay produce some of the most popular and most successful whiskies in the world. Every whisky-lover is familiar with the smoky taste of an Islay whisky, typical for whiskies made with peated barley. These whiskies win awards, are featured in popular culture and inspire many people to visit Scotland and Islay and see where it all comes from.
Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Bowmore are only just the beginning! There are nine distilleries on Islay and even though it is the fifth-largest island in Scotland, that is still a lot! All these distilleries offer tours and tastings and if you are into your uisge-beatha, there is no way around visiting all of them.
There is just one problem: who is going to be the designated driver?
There is zero tolerance for drinking and driving in Scotland, but even if there was no law, it would not be a good idea to get behind the steering wheel on a self-drive tour around Islay’s distilleries.
Rabbie’s offers the perfect solution – a 4-day Islay tour from Edinburgh (more info here)! The Islay tour includes two full days on the island and the opportunity to visit many of the distilleries on your list. Since your driver-guide makes sure you get from one distillery to the next and arranges tours and tastings on your behalf, you can concentrate fully on your tastebuds.
I was lucky enough to visit Islay with Rabbie’s and try this whisky distillery tour for myself. Read on to find out,
- what to expect on tour with Rabbie’s,
- an overview of the itinerary,
- some practical advice and packing tips,
- where to stay and where to eat,
- and of course my verdict of the tour – is it worth it?
Islay Whisky Tour FAQ
Where is Islay?
Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland. It is part of the wider region of Argyll and the Isles. Islay lies west of the Kintyre peninsula and south of the Isles of Mull, Colonsay and Jura. From its southernmost point at the Mull of Oa (pronounced Oh), you can see the coast of Northern Ireland, which is only 24 miles away.
How to get to Islay & how to get around?
A Calmac ferry crosses over to Islay from Kennacraig near Tarbert and lands either in Port Ellen (south Islay) or Port Askaig (north Islay). The crossing to Port Ellen takes about 2h 10m while the crossing to Port Askaig is slightly quicker at just under 2h.
There is also an airport on Islay and Loganair operates direct flights from Glasgow.
However, the easiest way is to visit Islay on a whisky tour is by joining a guided tour – then someone else can do the driving and you can enjoy all the whisky you want!
Rabbie’s Islay Tour
Rabbie’s offers small group tours of Scotland. Groups are kept to 16 people maximum and transport is always in comfortable mini-coaches with A/C and panoramic windows. Their Scotland tours leave from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen, Manchester and London and last between one and seventeen days.
The Islay & Whisky Coast tour with Rabbie’s lasts four days and departs from Edinburgh two to three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). The price starts at £239 and includes transport in a mini-coach, the ferry crossing and an extremely knowledgable driver-guide. Accommodation, distillery tours, tasting fees and food & drinks are not included. Rabbie’s can book a B&B for you – they always work with great local partners – and your driver-guide arranges special discounts at most distilleries.
Whisky Distilleries on Islay
There are nine distilleries on Islay and all are open to the public for guided tours and tastings:
- Lagavulin, and
- Laphroaig. -> These three make up the Islay Whisky Coast.
- Caol Ila,
- Ardnahoe (the newest distillery on Islay, established in 2019),
- Bruichladdich, and
- Kilchoman. -> These are located in the north of Islay.
The Islay Whisky tour is a four-day tour departing from Edinburgh. Day 1 and 4 are spent on the road from Edinburgh to Islay and back while Day 2 and 3 are entirely spent on the island. That means you stay on Islay for three nights at the same accommodation which is super convenient.
- Day 1: Edinburgh to Islay – Stops include Loch Lubnaig, Oban and Kilmartin Glen
- Day 2: Islay Whisky Coast – Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg Distilleries
- Day 3: Northern Islay – Distilleries such as Bruichladdich, Bowmore and Kilchoman (Day 2 & 3 might swap places)
- Day 4: Islay to Edinburgh – Stops include Inveraray, Loch Lomond and Queensferry
Day 1: Edinburgh to Islay
Day 1 on this Islay tour from Edinburgh is pretty full on. You start bright and early to meet your driver-guide and the rest of your tour group at the central bus station. From there you are whisked away on a whistlestop tour of Argyll and the Trossachs. It is a long drive from Edinburgh to Kennacraig from where you catch the ferry, but you will make a lot of stops. We were never in the car for more than 45 minutes at a time and saw so many different places along the way.
Shortly after leaving Edinburgh, we stopped at the Kelpies, a large sculpture of two horse-heads dedicated to Gaelic mythology and the industrial past of the central belt of Scotland. Leaving the motorway near Stirling, we continued our drive through Stirlingshire and the Trossachs. We stopped briefly at Loch Lubnaig to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery at this beautiful Highland loch. Next up were the impressive waterfalls at Falls of Dochart in the small town of Killin. From there we crossed through Glen Ogle into the region of Argyll. Our first calling point here was the ruins of Kilchurn Castle at Lochawe and the hotchpotch architecture of St Conan’s Kirk a little further up the loch.
Our lunch break was in Oban where we had 1.5 hours to grab a bite, climb McCaig’s Tower for fantastic views of the coast, wander along the harbour or get our first taste of whisky at Oban Distillery. Refreshed and ready to hit the road, we continued our drive south towards Kilmartin Glen were our driver-guide took us on a little walk to see standing stones and ancient cairns. From there it was a quick drive to Kennacraig where we boarded the ferry to Islay. After a long day on the road, we reached our homes for the next three nights in the small village of Bowmore.
Day 2: Islay Whisky Coast
Today was our first full day on Islay. Because yesterday was so jam-packed, our driver-guide Dave gave us a little lie in and met us in the centre of Bowmore at 9.45 am.
Our first calling point of the day was Dunyvaig Castle, a lovely little ruin on the south coast of Islay from where you get a great view of the iconic whisky distillery Lagavulin. In the old days, ships would have visited the distilleries to pick up casks full of whisky to take out into the world. That’s why the majority of whisky distilleries on Islay are right by the sea. Today, the boats have been exchanged for trucks on roads and ferries, but the picturesque locations have remained.
From the castle, we made our way to Ardbeg Distillery for a full tour, a tasting of three different drams and lunch at the Old Kiln cafe on site. In the past 50 years, the distillery had to shut twice due to low demand but is now one of the most thriving distilleries on Islay. They are currently expanding and are expecting to double their production soon! It does, however, retain its old-fashioned charm and looks like you’d expect a traditional whisky distillery to look like.
Since we had three drams before lunch, Dave decided to feed us some culture next took us to the ancient Kildalton Cross. We were getting thirsty though and so we continued our journey for a tasting at Lagavulin Distillery and a tour + tasing at Laphroaig Distillery. But it’s not all about whisky on Islay! Dave had planned a very special stop for us at Islay Wines, where we tasted wine made from locally grown barley, rhubarb and brambles (= blackberries). Surprisingly tasty!
Ending the day on a high, we explored the Mull of Oa as the sun began to set. Our wee hike took us out past some beautiful cliffs to the American Monument overlooking the sea. We could even spot Northern Ireland in the distance!
Day 3: Northern Islay
After exploring the three distilleries on Islay’s Whisky Coast yesterday (Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig), we had six distilleries left. You can imagine, it was a tour de force!
After a much-needed lie in, we began our day with another distillery tour at Bowmore Distillery. It is the oldest distillery on Islay and has the oldest whisky warehouse still in use anywhere in Scotland. We were lucky enough to visit while production was in full swing and we saw every step of the process live in action – malting the barley, throwing peat into the kiln fire, mashing, fermentation at 6 different stages and if course distillation!
Next up were the distilleries in the far north of Islay: we did a whisky & chocolate tasting at Caol Ila Distillery which overlooks the Paps of Jura – the mountains on the neighbouring Isle of Jura. At Bunnahabhain Distillery we got to try a special edition in the shop before heading over to Ardnahoe Distillery. The owners of Ardnahoe previously specialised in maturing whisky that they bought in casks from other distilleries – that’s how much the location and features of a warehouse can still impact the taste of a whisky – but in March 2019 also opened their own distillery. The visitor centre with a cafe + bar is already open, but we will have to wait a little longer until we can try their own single malt.
For lunch, we stopped at the Ballygrant Inn, a former whisky bar of the year with over 860 different whiskies to choose from. They even had my favourite whisky there which went out of production last year! Refuelled and refreshed we continued to Bruichladdich Distillery for a tasting of two drams in the shop and finally on to Kilchoman Distillery for our last distillery tour of the trip. What’s special about Kilchoman is that it is a farm distillery: they grow their own barley on site and buy more from local farmers, while other distilleries buy grains from farmers on the mainland. To make the most of the sunny evening, we got our second dram as a takeaway and enjoyed it down at Machir Bay beach nearby the distillery – the perfect way to end the day!
Day 4: Islay to Edinburgh
All good tours come to an end and after three nights on Islay, we had to bid farewell to the Queen of the Hebrides, Islay’s nickname. Before catching the ferry from Port Ellen, our driver-guide managed to squeeze in a quick stop at a peat field with freshly cut peat stacked up to air-dry.
Back on the mainland, we stopped for a wee hike up Dunadd Fort, an Iron Age fort on a rocky outcrop where the kings of Scotland were once coronated. After a scenic drive along Loch Fyne, we stopped in Inveraray for lunch and a wander to the castle – I can recommend Brambles of Inveraray. It was raining, but the lush gardens by the castle were still stunning.
Soon after Inveraray, we stopped for some photos at the Rest and Be Thankful viewpoint – one of my favourite places in Argyll which looks beautiful in any weather. Next up was Luss on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. We strolled through the picturesque village and along the beach of the loch to take in the last mountain views of our tour. On the way back to Edinburgh, we stopped two more times to stretch our legs – at Stirling Castle and in Queensferry for the Forth Bridge – but after three intense days on the road, energy levels were low. We made our way back to Edinburgh, where the tour ended around 7 pm.
Vegan food on Islay
Being vegan in Scotland is becoming easier all the time and Islay was no exception.
Accommodation | My B&B host was so helpful and wanted to make sure she could take good care of me. We discussed via email in advance, what she could make for my breakfast and what is available at the local supermarket (Co-op). She even got me some Trek bars for nibbles in my room.
Vegan-friendly Restaurants in Bowmore | Since we were based in Bowmore for three nights, I had the chance to try two restaurants with vegan-friendly options on the menu. Peatzeria is a family-run pizza restaurant by the waterfront of Bowmore, with a lovely al fresco dining area with sea views. They have vegan cheese for pizzas and a few vegan-friendly pasta dishes. Unfortunately, they did not have any desserts though, so those Trek bars came in handy. Another good option is the Bowmore Hotel where the chef can whip up a fantastic (and humongous) vegan curry for you with rice and poppadoms.
Since there are not many restaurants, to begin with, I highly recommend making reservations at these restaurants when you arrive on Islay.
On the way over to Islay, most people had dinner on the ferry, but I had brought a takeaway sandwich & salad from the Little Potting Shed in Oban.
Lunch stops on the tour | While on Islay, my driver guide Dave helped me out a lot by arranging vegan options for me. First, we ate at the Old Kiln Cafe at Ardbeg Distillery who had some vegan options on the menu by default and the next day, he called ahead at the Ballygrant Inn to make sure they had a vegan soup and sandwich combo for me.
On Day 1 and 4, I went to places I already knew from previous trips, the Little Potting Shed in Oban and Brambles in Inveraray.
Where to Stay on Islay
Multi-day tours with Rabbie’s do not include accommodation. You can either make your own booking or ask Rabbie’s to book a place to stay on Islay for you. They always work with local businesses so you can rest assured that they will select a nice place for you.
If you book a B&B or hotel yourself, make sure that it is located in the same area as the other guests. Driver-guides can offer pick-ups and drop-offs, but only if your accommodation is not too far away from the rest. In the case of the Islay Whisky Tour, you want to base yourself in or around Bowmore.
I stayed at Allandale B&B which Rabbie’s booked for me, but is also available via AirBnB. The B&B only has two rooms, both with fantastic views of Loch Indaal and the tidal beach. My room had a large comfortable bed, a sitting corner by the window and an en-suite bathroom. There was also a huge wardrobe and a shelf with a kettle, tea and snacks. I had access to a small fridge next door and my host Fiona took great care of my vegan breakfast in the mornings.
The B&B is about a 20-minute walk from Bowmore, mostly along pavement but with a bit of road walking too. I walked home after dinner twice while watching the sunset, but in the mornings, our driver-guide came to pick me up on the coach.
Most other tour guests stayed at The Lochside Hotel in Bowmore, a traditional but fully refurbished hotel in the centre of Bowmore. Many rooms have lovely sea views and thanks to the location, you are just a stone’s throw away from Bowmore Distillery, local shops and restaurants. You book the Lochside yourself here.
Packing Tips for Islay
I packed for this trip to Islay pretty much as I would pack for any other Scotland road trip. Check out my Scotland packing list if you’re not sure where to begin.
Here are a few tips specific for the Islay Whisky Tour though:
- The tour might be focussing on distilleries, but I highly recommend bringing a pair of proper footwear for small nature walks. A pair of trainers is absolutely fine, but low-cut trekking shoes might be more appropriate if the weather is poor.
- You will be drinking a lot of whisky – that’s what the tour is all about. To stay hydrated and avoid hangovers, make sure you have enough water with you. I always bring my insulated water bottle with me which keeps my water fresh and cold all day.
- One of the perks of visiting distilleries is that you can often get a special edition whisky that is not available anywhere else. If Islay is on your itinerary, book a checked bag for your flight home and leave space for a bottle or two. You will also receive whisky glasses at several distilleries which are yours to keep.
- The Scottish Islands are rich in wildlife. If you are into birding, bring a pair of binoculars and a book of Scottish birds. During our trip, I spotted oystercatchers, large herons and colourful Eider ducks.
- Last but not least: bring paracetamol. *HA HA*
Is the Islay Whisky Tour with Rabbie’s worth it?
I had a fantastic time on Rabbie’s Islay tour. The itinerary, organised activities and commentary by our driver-guide was delivered on a very high standard – like I’m used to from other Rabbie’s tours in the past.
Day 1 was full-on with lots of stops and impressions, which made you forget that you are actually covering a huge distance on the way to Islay. Day 2 and 3 on Islay were perfect. I had not expected to see all nine distilleries in such a short time span, but our driver-guide put together the perfect mix of distillery tours, tastings and hikes to fit as much as possible. Day 4 was much more relaxed. We still stopped often to stretch our legs, but we were not overwhelmed with quite as many sites and experiences as the days before. The adjustment back to Edinburgh was easy that way.
The biggest benefit of joining an organised Islay tour is of course, that someone else is doing the driving. But our driver-guide was far more than a chauffeur. He took us to his favourite places on the island, made lots of extra stops to accommodate people’s special interests or places of ancestry and organised the best deals with the distilleries – he even managed to get us a complimentary tasting at one of them.
I highly recommend this Islay Whisky Tour, not just for the whisky and the scenery, but for the carefreeness this tour provides. Our driver-guide took care of everything, was really knowledgable and helpful and had some great chat. He did a great job in keeping the group together and make everyone feel part of the experience – not just coming along for the ride but really involved in the whole process.
We spent a lot of time together as a group and it really is true what they say – you step onto a bus full of strangers on day 1, and leave the coach with many new friends at the end. Rabbie’s guests are always a pleasant bunch and nothing beats bonding over a dram of liquid gold!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.