It is one thing to read the blurb on the back of your favorite scotch and another to ferry out to the Hebrides. It is a third and far, far better thing to actually track the precious liquid back to its original source, especially when that source happens to be a peat-darkened loch on the famed island of Islay. While visitors to the island will enjoy the warehouses at Lagavulin and Laphroaig, Ardbeg is the only local powerhouse that guides travelers and whiskey lovers out of the distillery into the landscape that gives the drink its powerful taste.
The Ultimate Islay Experience is the culmination of the idea that a distillery visit can and should be more than a three-hour tour. Ardbeg enthusiasts start their journey at Loch Lomond, a serene freshwater lake on the Highland Boundary Fault about 45 minutes northeast of Glasgow. The place is postcard perfect until the helicopter arrives to shuttle travelers to the island over a patchwork of green fields and a lick of angry water. The choppers lands right at the distillery, where a bagpiper attempts to drown out the whirr and Shortie, the resident terrier, welcomes visitors.
At the main building, you’ll have some dining and tasting options, including the intoxicating “Ardbeg through the decades” flight, which offers drams from 1975, 1989, 1994, and 2003, the standard one you can buy in stores. (The apple-hinted 1989 was a particular favorite of ours, despite the ungodly tasting time of 10 a.m.) After getting a bit liquored up, visitors start the hike to Loch Uigeadail – the name means “dark, mysterious place” – Ardbeg’s sole water source. Because Ardbeg is the only whisky on the island to have a single reservoir, the distillery employees care deeply about the health of the loch.
Trekking through fields of ferns and muddy bogs, travelers can look out over the North Atlantic toward Northern Ireland, a sliver on the horizon. The trudge stops briefly at Solam, the stone ruins of a village allegedly destroyed by the plague. It’s an appropriate place to check for ticks and reapply bug repellent to keep away the brutal Scottish midges before continuing up the slippery hills and down the slick rocks toward the Uigeadail campsite, a huddle of luxury yurts atop a series of seemingly endless hills.
Near the loch, the ground is soft and uneven due to the high levels of peat. The still water seems more solid and welcoming. Campers go swimming then warm themselves in beanbag chairs carefully arranged around fire pits. Shots of Ardbeg as passed around along with local beers. After everyone settles down, distillery manager Mickey Heads passes out glasses of Ardbeg Uigeadail, which are sipped delicately than poured back in the loch as a tribute to the partnership between the distiller and the maker himself.
In the morning, visitors hike back down to the distillery for a final seaside dram, sweetened somewhat by a plate of dark chocolate. It is a bit cold and mucky, but no one could possibly complain. After feeling the water, smelling the earth, and seeing the labor involved in creating a simple glass of the good stuff, it is plain to see why spunky little Scotland makes the greatest whiskeys on Earth.
More information: Ardbeg’s week-long Ultimate Islay Experience costs $23,000 per person and includes a hunting trip, a luxury yacht outing, trout fishing, and tastings as well as a hike to Uigeadail. To book a trip email [email protected].
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