Years ago in an email, my father gushed that he and 14 others had just been on a bus tour around Scotland’s Whisky Trail, including the famous Bowmore distillery on the island of Islay (pronounced “eye-la”) in the Inner Hebrides.
Though he was 1400 miles away in Canada, his enthusiasm was palpable. The Bowmore Distillery invited them to stay three more days at their Islay cottages. He said: “(It) was like offering the keys of Fort Knox to Al Capone”.
Years later I got to follow in his footsteps and it was magical. Even though I had not been much of a whisky devotee up until that point, our tour group tasted world-class single malts at each of the distilleries — and that started to awaken my taste buds to the pleasures of single malt. And so it is for whisky lovers around the world: Scotland and Islay are the Mecca for devotees of the distinctive smoky whiskies that come from the island’s nine distilleries.
My favourite multi-day whisky tour
Don’t have time to read about all the whisky tours on Islay? No worries — our favourite multi-day whisky tour is the 4-day Islay and the Whisky Tour from Edinburgh.
As the only tour with customer ratings, this four-day trip covers seven distilleries and many of the other sights on the island.
Outstanding rugged scenery and multi-day whisky tours on Islay
So where to start to plan your Islay whisky-tasting vacation? You can either plan them yourself or you can take advantage of guided tours where professionals have done all the planning for you.
Many of the guided whisky tours on Islay take you to multiple distilleries and as you visit each one, you’ll learn about whisky making and enjoy samples of their most popular brands.
Each distillery is known for its distinct and unique whisky style, its signature character, and flavour profile. Many pack a smoky punch, and this is based on the peat that is used during production to dry the barley during fermentation. But there are also barley-based concoctions for those that aren’t into the peaty flavour, like my lovely wife.
To help you cut through all the noise, here’s a look at several multi-day guided whisky tours on islay that run the gamut from a very specific tour to Islay to one that pretty much tours all over Scotland and takes you to 15 different distilleries!
- RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars — With 21 positive reviews.
- TOUR LENGTH: 4 days (8:30 am start)
- Starts and ends at: St Andrew Square, Edinburgh
Why choose this whisky tour? Pick up your luxury Mercedes minicoach in Edinburgh and enjoy the stunning scenery in Loch Lomond National Park, Arrochar, Loch Fyne, and Inveraray on the way to Tarbert and Kennacraig for the ferry to Islay. During your 4-day stay on Islay, you’ll tour the island’s distilleries and try their famous single malt whiskies. You’ll also be able to explore Islay’s sandy bays, stay in the charming village of Bowmore, visit Kildalton church, and see the ancient Kilmartin standing stones. On the last day, you’ll take the ferry to Argyll, enjoy lunch at Kilmartin, and spend some time in Oban (known as the gateway to the Isles) before returning to Edinburgh.
- Maximum of 16 passengers per tour.
- Services of a professional driver/guide.
- All ferry and bridge crossings.
- 3 nights en-suite accommodation.
Does NOT include:
- All meals and refreshments
- Entrance fees to all distilleries and visitor attractions.
What past guests have said:
“This whisky tour was great. We had a nice group of 16 of different ages and from different countries. The bus was comfortable. Our accommodation at Bowmore Cottages was excellent. Right at the distillery and steps to everything in town, Our guide replenished our breakfast supplies every day. We visited 7 distilleries and lots of ruined castles, beaches, overlooks and rest stops. I would do this tour again.”
— Joseph (see more reviews)
▶︎ BOOK: 4-Day Islay Whisky Tour from Glasgow
- RATING: unrated
- TOUR LENGTH: 4 days (8:00 am start)
- Starts and ends at: Georges Street, Glasgow (hotel pickup offered)
Why choose this whisky tour? On this private tour, you and your guests will travel to Islay on the ferry from Kennacraig Ferry Terminal, passing Loch Long and Loch Fyne, and stopping at the Rest and be Thankful for photos and a wee Dram of Whisky. There’s lunch at Inverary before boarding the ferry. Once at Islay, you’ll visit eight of the nine distilleries on Islay over the course of your stay: Caol Ila (pronounced “Cool-eela”), Bowmore, Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Bunnahabhain. The tour allows about 1.5 hours for each or about 4-5 hours of touring each day, leaving you some free time to see the rest of the island’s attractions.
This private tour is for you and your guests (only your group participates) and the price includes up to seven seats for your group.
The 4-Day Islay Whisky Tour from Glasgow includes:
- Shortbread, Water & a wee Dram of Whisky
- Up to seven travellers can be included for this group price.
Does NOT include:
- The cost of meals and accommodation
- Entry fees at the whisky distilleries (usually between £7 and £15 each)
What past guests have said:
— unrated tour, so there are no testimonials to share.
- RATING: unrated
- TOUR LENGTH: 9 days (10:00 am start)
- Starts and ends at: Your guide will meet you at Edinburgh airport.
- This is a private, premium tour (only you and your guests participate)
Why choose this whisky tour? This is not your normal tour — it’s a private, personal tour that takes you throughout much of Scotland to many notable whisky distilleries — 15 in all, plus the Scottish Whisky Experience in Edinburgh — that’s 16 opportunities to explore the different signatures of well-known Scotch whiskies.
There is more time allocated at each stop than on normal tours, allowing you to soak in all that each distillery has to offer. You’ll see Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, take the ferry from Kennacraig Ferry Terminal to Islay, stay at the 4-star Machrie Hotel and Golf Links with access to miles of immaculate Inner Hebrides beaches. As well as the Islay distilleries (including Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig), you’ll visit Kildalton Cross, a monolithic Celtic cross that was probably carved in the second half of the 8th century AD.
From Islay, you’ll travel by ferry to Kennacraig and then on to Campbeltown, once known as the whisky capital of the world, and visit Springbank, Glen Scotia, and Glengyle distilleries, and stay at the luxurious yet historic Ugadale Hotel, with views of the Atlantic and the Islands of Islay and Jura.
Discover Inverary Castle, the ancestral home of the Duke of Argyll, chief of the Clan Campbell and then on to visit the Oban distillery, founded in 1794, for a taste of their whisky. Your guide will drive you through some of Scotland’s most majestic landscapes to Boath House, near Nairn in northern Scotland. Visit Glencoe Village, Fort William, home of the famous Ben Nevis, and Drumnadrochit, home to the famous Urquhart Castle.
A visit to Cawdor Castle and the Culloden battlefield will steep you in Scottish history, and then travel on to Aberlour Distillery, Benromach Distillery in Speyside, and Macallan Distillery, and then finally on to the remote glen to see the Glenfiddich Distillery, and to Glenfarclas.
Travel through the Cairngorms National Park and stay at The Fife Arms, a creatively restored Victorian Inn. Visit Lindores Abbey, which is again producing whisky after 523 years, and on to St. Andrews and the Kingsbarns Distillery. Stay in the five-star Old Course Hotel adjoining the famous St. Andrews golf course.
On towards Edinburgh, visit the Glenkinchie Distillery and Edinburgh Castle, and then enjoy the Scotch Whisky Experience at the top of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, for a tour and tasting of multiple regional single malts.
For the last evening of the tour, stay at The Balmoral Hotel, truly a landmark in the centre of the city.
- Pickup at Edinburgh airport (although pick up at your location/hotel can be arranged)
- All arrangements for dining and accommodation.
- Admission to distilleries
Does NOT include:
- The cost of meals and accommodations.
What past guests have said:
— unrated tour, so there are no testimonials to share.
Other available whisky tours on Islay
- Slinte Scotland Islay and Jura Whisky Tour Package
- Whisky Tasting on Islay and Jura
- Islay and Whisky Tour Itinerary
Booking your own tour of Islay
If none of the guided tours strike your fancy, you can always organize your own stay on Islay. The key to a successful vacation plan is to realize that Islay is very popular and you’ll need to plan far enough in advance to book the dates you want.
After the lull in travel during the pandemic, things are hopping on the island again. All the festivals are back including the Fèis Ìle at the end of May. Accommodation for the festival was mostly booked last year at this time, so definitely plan ahead.
Getting to Islay
There are two ways to get to Islay — by plane or by ferry.
Ferry: we flew into Glasgow airport and picked up our rented/hired car and took the CalMac “Island Hop” ferry from Ardrossan to Arran (and stayed the night at Auchrannie), then to the Mull of Kintyre, and finally to Port Ellen on Islay.
As you can see from CalMac’s illustration (left) you can also take the ferry directly from Kennacraig (if you’d like to take the scenic tour and drive there) or from Oban although that ferry doesn’t run as often.
The advantage of the ferry is that, once you get to Islay, you have your car to get around. It’s also cheaper than flying. You’ll need to remember to pre-book your car’s spot on the ferry (see the CalMac linked page above).
Air: The most direct flight to Port Ellen Airport (Glenegedale Airport-ILY) is from Glasgow (GLA). It takes around 45 minutes. Loganair flies twice a day to Islay and once a day on weekends. Flights can range between £68 – £111 (and as they say, depending on when you book, your mileage may vary…).
The advantage of flying is that you get there quickly, but you’ll need either rent a car at the Islay airport (book ahead!) or rely on public transportation.
Where to stay on Islay
Islay is a major tourist destination and there are lots of accommodations available although they tend to be booked up well in advance. Here’s a sample of some of the more well-known places:
- When our little group visited Islay, we stayed in the Bowmore Distillery Cottages. Originally built in the 1840s for Bowmore distillery workers, these cottages have been renovated to the 4-star Visit Scotland standard. There are five cottages with between one and four spacious and nicely-finished bedrooms, each with its own ensuite bathroom. There’s also a sitting room and a large self-contained and completely outfitted kitchen, which became our evening haven for catching up with each other.
- The Machrie Hotel & Golf Links made the UK’s Top 30 Hotels list in Condé Nast Traveller Reader’s Choice Awards last year. It also has a world-renowned championship golf course that is ranked 75th in the world in Golf World’s Top 100 and No 6 in Europe by Leading Courses. Stunning sea views and a seven-mile beach cap the experience at this outstanding modern hotel.
- There’s AirBnBs, independent Bed & Breakfast establishments, hotels, cottages, campgrounds and caravan (trailer) hookups, and something called self-catering rentals which means a vacation rental with facilities for guests to prepare their own meals.
Here’s a map that can help you to see what is available on the dates you want to travel:
- Hover over the “star” icons to get distillery info. Click on it to go to their website.
- Hover over the hotel icons to see info. Click on it to book.
- You can also investigate the many AirBnB options on the island, including the Yellow Rock Cottage run by Christine Logan, also known as “the Lady of the Isles”.
The distilleries of Islay
Here’s a quick look at each of Islay’s distilleries:
Ardbeg — In operation for more than 200 years, Ardbeg whiskies have won many prestigious titles for its spectacular single malt. Compared to other Islay Malts Ardbeg doesn’t focus on the sea and salt tastes. They rather focus on aromas of spices, malt or sweet tones like vanilla and chocolate. The core range of Ardbeg consists of the Ardbeg TEN, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan.
Ardnahoe — Ardnahoe is the youngest distillery on the island, started in 2018. Whisky icon Jim McEwan, who had previously led the Bruichladdich Distillery to great success, was recruited as production manager and advisor. Situated on the north east coast between Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain, it has a whisky bar, a cafe, and dining for lunch (book ahead).
Bowmore — As the first and oldest licensed distillery on Islay, Bowmore has been in operation for more than 240 years and has the oldest Scotch whisky maturation space in the world. We invest more time than necessary at every stage of our process. We have our own proprietary malt barns, hand-turning our barley.
Bruichladdich — Esquire magazine says Bruichladdich is “tough to say, easy to drink”. Located on the southwestern tip of the island, the distillery is known for being blessed with some of the best spirit in Scotland, helped by the tall, narrow-necked stills which produce an elegant, floral and fruity house style. Bruichladdich is our personal favourite for a number of reasons.
Bunnahabhain — Bunnahabhain means ‘mouth of the river’ in Gaelic. Bunnahabhain’s whiskies have a signature unpeated style. With the tallest stills on the island and the only distillery to use water from a natural spring, Bunnahabhain single malt whisky is known for its sherried, delicate, complex and unpeated taste.
Caol Ila — Turning out more whisky than any other Islay producer, Caol Ila manages to combine a fresh pear note, grassiness, a hint of juniper, and distinct notes of the seashore – lobster shells, crab creels and gentle smoke in the flavour of it’s whisky. Caol Ila translates to ‘Sound of Islay‘.
Kilchoman — as one of the six Scottish distilleries still working with traditional floor-maltings, Kilchoman is unique in completing all parts of the whisky making process – growing barley, malting, distilling, maturing and bottling – on Islay.
Lagavulin — Perched in the picturesque town of Port Ellen, the Lagavulin distillery celebrated its 200th birthday in 2016, although illicit distillation started in 1742. Peated malt, lengthy distillation, and long maturation together make sure Lagavulin develops its distinctive flavour that has won many awards.
Laphroaig — Established in 1815, Laphroiag distills peated whisky that is renowned for its bold, smoky taste, followed by a hint of seaweed and a surprising sweetness — full-bodied with a long finish.
Port Ellen — Port Ellen actually closed operations in 1983. But it is still a successful whisky company as it provide maltings to all of Islay AND releases whisky from the reserves still maturing in their casks. In fact, in 2022, a rare 1979 cask of Port Ellen whisky was auctioned by Sotheby’s for £875,000.The distillery does not offer tours year round, but it does provide the opportunity to be given a tour of the maltings and warehouse facilities during the annual “Feis Ile” Islay Whisky festival; you just have to be sure to book in advance to reserve a place. As of 2022, plans are for the distillery to reopen in 2023.
Portintruan — Islay’s newest distillery under construction is Portintruan, a name taken from the historic farm estate where the distillery is located and means ‘place of the stream.’ The correct pronunciation of this is Port-nah-truan. In addition to facilities to product whisky and rum, Portintruan will include a visitor’s centre with a bar, a restaurant, a tasting room, and space for an apprenticeship program. Portintruan plans to begin distillation in 2024.
FAQ (frequently asked questions) about whisky tours on Islay
Commonly asked questions that might help you plan your whisky-tasting vacation.
What is the biggest town on Islay?
Bowmore is Islay’s administrative capital. With a population of just over 700 people, it’s the island’s largest town. Bowmore town sits on the southeastern shore of Lochindaal, a sort of loch that’s open to the sea. Just south of Bowmore, there’s a 5-mile stretch of sandy beach, called the Big Strand — one of the best beaches on Islay for relaxing, walking, and watersports.
Port Ellen is the next largest and is situated in a sheltered part of the island, offering views to the Oa Peninsula and to Kilnaughton Bay, which is named after the chapel ruins and burial ground at the end of the bay beside the road to the Oa peninsula.
What’s the best single malt whisky on Islay?
That’s like asking which of your children is your favourite, or which Beatle song is your favourite — it’s really hard to choose and it depends on two things: your tastes and your pocketbook. That’s one reason the whisky-tasting tours are so helpful — you get to taste each of the whiskies and determine which is your favourite — if that’s possible!
How many distilleries are on Islay?
There are currently nine working distilleries on Islay, and Port Ellen is due to re-open over the next couple of years. The first recorded distillery was Bowmore, founded in 1779; the most recent was Ardnahoe, which was established in 2018.
Are Scottish distilleries open for tours?
In line with the end of Covid-19 restrictions in Scotland, visitor attractions including Distillery Visitor Centres are open again.
How did the whisky trade on Islay get started?
The history of the whisky industry on Islay is fascinating — they should make a movie as it seems to have everything: it was begun by monks in the 14th century then revived by the island’s Duke and tenants in the 1700s. There’s been crop failures, prohibition, illicit distilling, wars with the Excise people foiled by lenient magistrates, the intervention of big business, and economic struggles to get where we are today. All interesting stuff — if you’d like to read more, ScotchWhisky.com has this detailed story about Islay’s turbulent whisky history.
Can Scotch whisky be made in other countries?
Scotch Whisky can only be made in Scotland and can’t legally be called whisky until it has matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks. Prior to this, the spirit is referred to as P.B.S. (Plain British Spirit).
What is the Islay Whisky Festival?
The Islay Whisky Festival is one of several that occur each year on the island:
- Fèis Ìle, a 10-day gathering of whisky and Islay fans from around the world (May, 2023).
- Cantilena festival, a celebration of chamber music put on every July by students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
- The Islay Agricultural Show happens on the second Thursday of every August. and has been going since 1838. It promotes the advancement of agriculture on the islands of Islay, Jura and Colonsay.
- The Islay Book Festival as originally started by a small book club in Port Ellen, and is now part of Islay’s busy annual events calendar has brought a colourful mix of authors, poets, and storytellers to the Hebrides.
- The Islay Jazz Festival brings world-class musicians to play at various venues around the island. Sponsored by Lagavulin, it takes place in the autumn over the course of one week.
- The Islay Sessions is a smaller music festival held in November, that brings Scottish traditional and folk musicians to Islay for a weekend of concert performances, pub sessions, and workshops.
Which is the oldest distillery on Islay?
Bowmore is the first recorded distillery on the Isle of Islay and one of the oldest in the whole of Scotland, dating back to 1779.
What do you wear to a distillery tour?
It is acceptable to wear casual, comfortable clothing on any of the whisky tours on Islay, but you may want to dress in layers. You can take off your jacket or sweater if it gets too warm. It also is not a bad idea to wear close-toed shoes since you will be around heavy machinery.
What time of year is best to go to Islay?
The driest months (and a good time to visit Islay) are April, May and June. Islay receives 50 inches of rain every year, double that of London, with January and October the wettest months. We visited in September and had very good weather throughout our stay.
How do you get to Islay?
Islay is accessible by air or by ferry. There are regular flights from Glasgow to Islay that take about 45 minutes. You can also fly from Oban with Hebridean Air Service. There are two rental car companies at the airport: Cresswells and Urquharts.
There are also regular ferry services from Kennacraig that sail to Port Ellen and Port Askaig. We took the scenic ferry route from the mainland near Glasgow to Arran where we stayed for the night at Auchrannie, and then continued by ferry to the Mull of Kyntire, and then on to Islay.
How long is the ferry crossing to Islay?
From Kennacraig on Kintyre, the journey to Port Ellen will take 2 hours 20 minutes. Alternatively, if you make land at Port Askaig it’ll be slightly shorter at 1 hour 55 minutes. Making reservations for your ferrying your car/vehicle is recommended.
Do you need a car on Islay?
We rented a car and brought it to Islay by ferry. But once we were there, we barely used it and, instead, used a personal tour service run by Christine Logan (known as Lady of the Isles). Unfortunately, Christine’s service no longer runs, but there are buses available.
There are two bus routes, both of which use the main roads on the island. The 450 runs from Bowmore in the centre of the island to Portnahaven in the south west, while the 451 runs between Port Askaig in the north-east down to Port Ellen and Ardbeg in the south. The bus timetable and routes are limited, and it may affect which distilleries and other sights you can visit.
Taxis, and private tours/shuttles, and community alternative transport options are more flexible alternatives. Googling “taxi transportation on Islay” will get you a list of companies that offer transport.
How long does it take to drive around Islay?
You cannot drive around the perimeter of Islay as there is no ring road, but it is possible to drive to most parts on the mainly single-track roads. Port Ellen to Port Askaig: 19 miles, approx 30 minutes. Port Ellen to Portnahaven: 26 miles, approx 40 minutes.
Is it true that the Woollen Mill on Islay made the tartan for the movie Braveheart?
That is true! The Islay Woollen Mill designed and produced the tartan fabric as worn by Mel Gibson and others for the blockbuster movie Braveheart. Owned and run by Gordon and Sheila Covell, the Woollen Mill has also produced designs and fabric for Forrest Gump starring Tom Hanks and Rob Roy starring Liam Neeson.
Yes, we know the movie was not always factually correct. Wallace was the son of a knight and since he was not a highlander; he did not wear a kilt.
But, for me, that didn’t make the movie any less exciting and led me years later to wear a Braveheart costume at Hallowe’en and yell “Freedom” with a helium-powered voice!
The mill produces an excellent range of top quality woven fabrics, and is located just off the main Port Askaig road near Bridgend. If you’re interested in high quality tweeds and tartans you need to visit upstairs at the mill!
Are there midges on Islay?
If you are considering a trip to Islay in summer, please don’t let midges put you off. It really is few and far between occasions that these wee beasties cause any irritation. And so you are sure to happily enjoy our beautiful island year-round without any problems!
Conclusion: choose your favourite whisky tour on Islay
Choose your favourite from the many whisky tours on Islay and make it part of your whisky bucket list. Ours is the 4-day Islay and Whisky Tour from Edinburgh based on the overwhelmingly-positive customer ratings, the coverage of Islay distilleries, and value for the money.
From the smoky and peaty notes of Laphroaig to the maritime flavours of Lagavulin, there are plenty of experiences to be had, both in tasting these delightful drams as well as learning how they are made.
If you think that whisky isn’t for you, why not challenge yourself? With each distillery offering multiple tour options, educational tastings and more, you’ll soon find yourself hooked on this beloved spirit from Scotland’s western Hebrides. So go ahead and let your hair down a bit—it’s time to explore the fantastic world of Islay single malt whisky.