Old casks in Bowmore Distillery's vaults

ISLAY Whisky Distillery Tours + Map: Visit ALL 9 (2020)

Interested in Islay whisky distillery tours? With 9 working distilleries – all with unique seasons, hours and tours – it’s a bit tricky to plan an efficient trip to tour them all. Here’s everything you need in one place: a helpful table with 2020 visitor information, distillery summaries and suggested itineraries to plan that amazing trip.

Interested in visiting other scotch whisky distilleries? Check out SPEYSIDE Whisky Distilleries: 16 to Visit and Why.

Islay is certainly well known for its smoky peated whisky. Many of its single malts are sought-after around the world, and many are prominent in famous blends like Johnny Walker. Islay also has experimental whiskies, a farm-to-scotch distillery, and a brand-new modern distillery. It’s a fun time for Islay whisky distillery tours!

Now, visiting Islay was my husband’s pick. But Islay stole my heart. Its rugged hills, covered in sheep and shaggy highland cows. Achingly beautiful shorelines lined with proud white-washed warehouses. 

And that peated whisky. Just like the locals, Islay’s scotch whisky warms you through and through, right to your soul. (I suggest sipping it. Slowly.)

ISLAY Scotch Whisky Distilleries: Visit them all!

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CONTENTS

But first … 

TIPS to tour all 9 Islay whisky distilleries:

  • Book tours/tastings in advance. All Islay (and Jura) whisky distilleries have interesting special tours. Pick your favorites and plan your trip around them. Note: children aren’t allowed into production areas, and some distilleries don’t allow them on tours at all. 
  • Best time to visit Islay is May to early July, during the week. In spring/early summer, Islay whisky distilleries are open more days and offer more variety of tours. Plus, the weather is sunniest and warmest. From mid-July to mid-August, some Islay distilleries close for maintenance and have reduced tour options. Also, many special tours are only offered on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
  • Feis Ile/Islay Festival (last week of May): Distillery tours will change during this annual festival. If visiting during this week, check schedules in late March.
  • Flights from Glasgow to Islay (via Loganair): You typically have two daily options during weekdays (arriving by 9am or 6pm) and one daily on the weekend (arriving by 9am on Saturday or 4pm on Sunday). Flights depart shortly after these arrive.
  • Islay is a small island. No two distilleries are more than a 45-minute drive from each other. Bowmore is central, and the airport is about 10 minutes south of Bowmore.
  • Designate a driver. Scotland has lower legal blood alcohol levels for drivers compared to other areas of the UK and the US (at .05%). So, designate a driver, use Islay’s bus system, or hire a friendly taxi to take you around. Visitor centers often give DDs a 50mL miniature to enjoy later.

MAP: Islay Whisky Distilleries, Sights and Recommended Accommodations

Get a sense of where everything is with this Islay whisky distilleries map. It includes key tourist sights and accommodations to check out.

TABLE: Islay Whisky Distillery Tours – Visitor Information

 HoursToursSpecial ToursCafe
Ardbeg
(South Islay)
(Apr-Oct)
Sun-Sat: 9:30-5
(Nov-Mar)
Mon-Fri: 9:30-5
Daily variety, incl 30min (£10) to 2.5hrs (£50)Seasonal variety, incl 1hr (£35) to 4hr/dinner (£130)Old Kiln Cafe: 10-4:30
Ardnahoe
(North Islay)
Mon-Sat: 10-5;
Sun: 12-4
Daily variety, incl 30min (£5) to 2hrs (£70+)Seasonal variety, incl 2hr manager’s tour (£70): Tues at 10amMon-Sat: 10-5; Sun: 12-4
Bowmore
(Central Islay)
(Mar-Oct)
Mon-Sat: 9:30-6;
Sun: 12-4
(Nov-Mar)
Mon-Sat: 10-5
Daily 1hr (£10), 1.5hr (£30), weekday 3hr vault1.5hr cask tasting (£55): Sat at 12:45NA
Bruichladdich
(West Islay)
(Apr-Oct)
Mon-Sat: 9:30-5:30;
Sun: 10-4
(Nov-Mar)
Mon-Sat: 9-5;
Sun: closed
Daily variety, incl 1hr (£7.50), tasting (£30), botanist tours (£5-25)2.5hr barley tour (£50): Tues at 1:30NA
Bunnahabhain
(North Islay)
(Apr-Oct)
TBC early Mar
(Nov-Mar)
Mon-Sat: 10-4;
Sun: 12-4
(Nov-Mar)
Daily variety, 30min-1.5hr (£5-70)
90min ultimate tour (£250): Tues/Thurs at 4:30pm or by apptNA
Coal Ila
(North Islay)
Contact for details1hr tour (£7) and 1hr tasting; contact for details90min cask strength (£27); contact for detailsNA
Kilchoman
(West Islay)
(Mar-Oct)
Sun-Sat: 9:45-5
(Nov-Feb)
Mon-Fri: 9:45-5
Daily 1hr (£10) to 2hr (£35)(Apr-Sep)
2.5hrs Wilderness tour (£35): Thurs at 11am
Same as seasonal hours
Lagavulin
(South Islay)
(May-Sep)
Mon-Fri: 9:15-6;
Sat-Sun: 9:15-5
(Oct/Mar-Apr)
Sun-Sat: 9:15-5
(Nov-Feb)
Mon-Sat: 10:15-4
Daily variety of 1-1.5hr tours and tastings (£8-35)Malt Mill Bar:
Mon-Sat at 10:30-3:30
Laphroaig
(South Islay)
(Apr-Sep)
Sun-Sat: 9:15-5
(Oct-Mar)
Sun-Sat: 9:30-4:30
(Jan-Feb)
Closed weekends
Daily 1hr (£10) and 2hrs (£70); weekday tastings at 3:30 (£40)(Apr-Sep)
4.5hr malt maturation daily at 11am (£130)
NA

*Note: Children are generally not allowed in production areas; check details before you book.

SOUTH Islay Whisky Distilleries: Laphroaig, Lagavulin & Ardbeg  

Lagavulin Distillery welcomes visitors to Islay

Let’s start in south Islay, as these Islay whisky distilleries are closest to the airport and likely among your must-do tours.

The Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries are collectively known as the Kildalton Distilleries and within 5 minutes of each other. From April through October, these three Islay whisky distilleries are open 7 days a week. They also offer some very interesting tours, like a bog walk, chocolate pairing, and a hike and picnic to their water source.

About 15 minutes up the road from Ardbeg is the pretty Claggain Bay. Along the way, stop at the Kildalton Church and Cross (the oldest Celtic cross in all of Scotland).

On your way back to central Islay, stop at Mull of Oa. Drive the rugged road to the end (don’t be deterred by the single-track road that leads to the car park!). Then, make the easy 15-minute hike to the American Monument tribute to WWI sailors. Breathe in the fresh salty air and rugged cliff views.  

Suggested itinerary for South Islay whisky distillery tours:

  • 10am distillers wares tour at Laphroaig (2hrs)
  • Lunch and 2pm table tasting at Ardbeg
  • 3pm sister whisky and chocolate tasting at Lagavulin (1hr)
  • Tour Claggain Bay, Kildalton Church and Cross, and Mull of Oa

Laphroaig Distillery

Founded in 1815, Laphroaig Distillery (pronounced laFROIG) is now Islay’s best-selling scotch whisky. Its style has evolved over the years from fruity to tobacco. 

Laphroaig Distillery has a small but welcoming visitor’s center, tasting bar and museum. Its website is laphroaig.com.

Interesting special tours at Laphroaig Distillery include:

  • 4.5-hour malt, maturation and memories tour (maximum 8 people; distillery tour, tasting, bottling, hike and picnic lunch; £130), offered at 11:30am.

Lagavulin Distillery

Lagavulin Distillery (pronounced lagaVOOlin) was founded in 1816 as a direct rival to its neighbor, Laphroaig. Lagavulin’s distillation process makes a “rich and meaty” spirit, by running its stills very full (reducing contact with the copper) and with a slow distillation.

Check out Lagavulin Distillery’s virtual tour by Google Street View, below! Just imagine sipping a dram in one of their comfy lounge chairs (located behind the storefront; it’s truly as cozy as it looks). Explore the grounds, still house and one of the warehouses (it’s a treasure hunt looking for open doors). For more information on touring Lagavulin Distillery, visit malts.com.

Interesting special tours at Lagavulin Distillery include:

  • 1-hour sister whisky and chocolate tasting, offered Monday-Saturday at 3pm.
  • 1-hour sensory experience with tasting kit (5 whisky samples and 7 aromas/flavours), offered Tuesdays/Thursdays at 1:30pm and Saturdays at 10:30am.

Ardbeg Distillery

Ardbeg Distillery opened in 1815 and is famed for being one of Islay’s most heavily peated whiskies. After closures in the 1980s-90s, The Glenmorangie Company bought Ardbeg in 1997. Ardbeg continues to produce the heavily peated whisky it’s famous for.

Ardbeg Distillery provides a very personal-style of tour with many options, depending on the season. Its cafe is a great place to grab a bite to eat, and we really enjoyed the table tastings, available between 10am-noon/2-4pm.

Now you can stay right at Ardbeg! Formerly the manager’s house, up to 6 adults can stay in this renovated Seaview Cottage on Ardbeg grounds. 

Shut-down for scheduled maintenance is in December and January; if coming during this time, check in advance on what’s available. Details are on ardbeg.com.

Interesting special tours at Ardbeg Distillery include:

  • 3-hour bog walk (includes picnic lunch; £65), offered Wednesdays at 11am.
  • 1.5-hour bus top tour (bus, tastings and chocolate; £65), offered Fridays at 5:30pm.
  • 1-hour C6H5OH smokin’ tasting (to learn about smoke; £35), offered Monday-Friday at 11:30am (spring/fall only).
  • Table tastings at the cafe, offered 10-noon and 2-4pm.

CENTRAL Islay Whisky Distillery: Bowmore

Bowmore Distillery's whitewash buildings welcome Islay visitors

Bowmore Distillery is the only distillery in central Islay and is located right in Bowmore. Founded in 1779, Bowmore is Islay’s first recorded distillery and second best-selling whisky.

Bowmore Distillery is one of the few distilleries in Scotland that malts some of its own barley and matures a lot of its whisky on Islay … including in the famous No. 1 Vaults that are below sea level. Its whiskies have a fruity character with light smokiness, plus a 1980s expression that’s floral.

Chances are, you’ll have to compromise one of the other suggested itineraries to tour Bowmore. This popular distillery’s 1-hour main tour and 3-hour vaults tour (weekdays only) are offered mid-morning and mid-afternoon, so you could start or end another itinerary at Bowmore. 

You can stay right on the Bowmore grounds in their very comfortable cabins. Once home to distillery workers, these cottages are now spacious and cozy 1-bedroom to 4-bedroom accommodations.

Shut-down for regular maintenance at Bowmore Distillery is mid-July to mid-August, but special tours are still available. For details, visit bowmore.com.

Interesting special tours of Bowmore Distillery include:

  • 5-hour laggan, lade and legendary no.1 vaults tour (hike to water source, lunch and in-depth tour; £130), offered on specific Wednesdays/Fridays from March to September at 10:30am.

NORTH Islay Whisky Distilleries: Coal Ila, Ardnahoe & Bunnahabhain  

Bunnahabhain Distillery on the waterfront from its pierFifteen minutes northeast of Bowmore is North Islay’s whisky distilleries: Coal Ila, Ardnahoe and Bunnahabhain. And it’s only a 10-minute drive between the three. If you want to visit Isle of Jura, you’ll catch the ferry at Port Askaig, which is just south of Coal Ila Distillery. 

North Islay’s whisky distilleries are right along the Sound of Islay, with a rough rocky coastline and fantastic views of Jura. Be prepared to stop along the windy scenic road up to Bunnahabhain. On your way back to central Islay, take a 5-minute detour to visit the ruins along Loch Finlaggan, which was the seat of power for the Lords of the Isles. 

Suggested itinerary for North Islay whisky distillery tours:

  • 9:30am express tour and 10am blending experience at Ardnahoe (2.5hrs), plus lunch
  • 2pm maturation warehouse tasting at Bunnahabhain (1.5hrs)
  • Coal Ila: Contact distillery for tour times of chocolate and whisky tasting (1hr)
  • Jura: Consider the 3pm Wood, Casks and Whisky on Mon/Wed/Fri or 4pm Wee Look; give yourself about 30 minutes to get there
  • Stop at Loch Finlaggan on your way back to central Islay

Coal Ila Distillery

Coal Ila Distillery (pronounced COOL-eelah) was founded in 1846 but has literally rebuilt itself a few times since then. Its “light and flinty style” comes from low fills in the stills. The distillery is located down a steep bank from the road, with very pretty views of the Sound of Islay towards the Isle of Jura.

Coal Ila is the largest producing distillery on Islay. It produces both peated and unpeated single malts, and is a key ingredient in Diageo’s blends (i.e. Johnnie Walker). But, if you’ve had a chance to taste a Coal Ila whisky, you know its single malts stand strong all on their own.

After being closed for construction over winter, Coal Ila is re-opening to visitors in 2020. Find more information at malts.com.

Interesting special tours at Coal Ila Distillery include:

  • 60-minute luxury chocolate and whisky tasting (5 expressions, including unpeated; £23); contact the distillery to reserve. 
  • 90-minute cask strength tour (2 exclusive distillery-only releases and 3 from cask; £27); contact the distillery to reserve. 

Ardnahoe Distillery

The newest of Islay’s distilleries is Ardnahoe Distillery, which opened to the public in April 2019. By November 2019, Ardnahoe already welcomed 24,000 visitors and received Visit Scotland’s five-star grading (one of only two distilleries on Islay). First runs of distillation began in October 2018 and the first cask was filled in November 2018. 

Its restaurant, The Illicit Still, is open every day, but with reduced afternoon hours on Sunday. This distillery is fully accessible, and various tours and tastings are available depending on the season and day. For more details, visit ardnahoedistillery.com.

Interesting special tours at Ardnahoe Distillery include:

  • 2-hour manager’s tour (in-depth tour with the distillery manager; £70), offered Tuesdays at 10am.
  • 2-hour blending experience (tutored session on how to blend whisky; £95), offered weekdays at 10am.
  • Tastings of whiskies from different regions, including a 1-hour (Monday-Saturday at 3pm; £70) and 90-minute (minimum 4 people, by appointment; £150).

Bunnahabhain Distillery

Bunnahabhain Distillery (pronounced boonaHAAven) is Islay’s most remote distillery. But, it’s at the end of a windy scenic road. This Islay whisky distillery was established in 1881, along with the nearby village of Bunnahabhain that was created for distillery workers. 

Bunnahabhain is best known for its unpeated whisky, but now has a well-received smoky whisky named Margadale. Learn more at bunnahabhain.com.

Interesting special tours of Bunnahabhain Distillery include:

  • 90-minute maturation warehouse tour (New Make Spirit, then 3yo, 7yo, 12yo and 20yo tastings; £75), offered daily at 2pm.
  • 90-minute ultimate Bunnahabhain tour (older whiskies, special releases and Warehouse 9 drams; £250), offered Tuesdays/Thursdays at 4:30pm or by appointment.
  • Fill your own bottle from the cask at the visitor’s center.

WEST Islay Whisky Distilleries: Bruichladdich and Kilchoman

Bruichladdich Distillery beckons Islay visitors into its gatesOn Islay’s west side are two distilleries packed with character: Bruichladdich and Kilchoman. 

From Bowmore, Bruichladdich is a 15-minute drive and Kilchoman a 25-minute drive. It’s about 15 minutes between Bruichladdich and Kilchoman distilleries. Kilchoman is tucked away on the west coast near Machir Bay, which is considered one of Britain’s best beaches and a fantastic spot to watch the sun set. But swimming isn’t advised because of the strong undercurrents.

South of Bruichladdich is Port Charlotte and Portnahaven, right at Islay’s southwest tip. It takes about 45 minutes to drive the loop back up to Port Charlotte. Give yourself time to stop at Portahaven’s An Tigh Seinnse (11 Queen St) and to watch the fishing boats. Another treat is making friends with the neighborhood sheep, horses and highland cows!

Suggested itinerary for West Islay whisky distillery tours:

  • 11am in-depth tour at Kilchoman (2.5hrs), plus a quick bite at the cafe
  • 2pm tour and 3pm tasting at Bruichladdich (1hr each)
  • Port Charlotte loop with dinner at Portnahaven, and sunset at Machir Bay

Bruichladdich Distillery

Since it was founded in 1881, Bruichladdich Distillery (pronounced BROOìch-LADDich) has changed owners many times and has been closed many times. In 2000, it was reborn as a fiercely local and independent operation. Local barley is used when possible; all of its whisky matures on Islay; and, bottling is done on Islay. Bruichladdich uses the original 1881 mash tun, longer fermentation and slow distillation.

Considering how peaty a lot of Islay’s whiskies are, it’s kinda hilarious to read a Bruichladdich scotch described as “ridiculously smoky” and “testing the limits of the barley-peating process.” If this is what you’re looking for, it’s called Octomore! Details are at bruichladdich.com.

Interesting special tours of Bruichladdich Distillery include:

  • 45-minute botanist tour (reclaimed whisky still to create Islay’s first dry gin), offered daily at 1pm. Combine this with a 1-hour cocktail-making class on Wednesdays/Saturdays at 2pm.

Kilchoman Distillery

Kilchoman Distillery was established in 2005 at Rockside Farm, and has a unique concept. Kilchoman grows its grain, malts it, uses it to make whisky, and even bottles much of it, too … Islay’s only farm-to-scotch distillery. Its farm doesn’t produce enough grain, so outside malt is used, too. BUT, unique to Kilchoman is its 100% Islay whisky.

Because of Kilchoman’s unique farm-to-scotch operation, it’s a terrific tour to take in. Consider the more in-depth 2-hour daily distillery tour at 11am (£35) or the special tour on Thursdays (details below). Its website is kilchomandistillery.com.

Interesting special tours of Bunnahabhain Distillery include:

  • 2.5-hour whisky and wilderness tour (farm and distillery tour; £35), offered April to September on Thursdays at 11am.

BONUS: Isle of Jura Distillery and Port Ellen Re-opening

Isle of Jura Distillery 

Isle of Jura Distillery originally opened in 1810 but, like so many Islay distilleries, closed for quite some time. It reopened in 1963 and produces a style similar to Highland scotches, with some experimental peated scotches from the 1990s. Jura is a rugged island, with 200 locals and plenty of roaming deer.

It’s easy to combine a trek up to Isle of Jura Distillery with your visit to North Islay’s distilleries. Catch the ferry from Port Askaig (just south of Coal Ila Distillery) over to Jura, then head over to Isle of Jura Distillery in Craighouse. It’s a 5-minute ferry ride (less than £30 return for car and 4 passengers) and a 15-minute drive up to Craighouse.

Visitor information for Isle of Jura Distillery:

  • High season (Apr-Oct): Open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm; closed Sunday
  • Low season (Nov-Mar): Open Monday to Friday from 10am to 4pm; closed Saturday and Sunday; daily and tasting tours only
  • Tours: Daily at 11am, 2pm and 4pm (in winter, no 4pm); each day features either a tasting (10am) or special tour (3pm)

Note: Isle of Jura Distillery shuts down for summer maintenance from mid-July to mid-August; if visiting during this time, connect with them on what’s available. Visit jurawhisky.com for details.

Port Ellen Distillery Re-opening

When this 1824 distillery closed its doors in 1983, its increasingly rare scotch whiskies became the most sought after in the world. And pricey. On thewhiskyexchange.com, the Port Ellen 1981 33 year old fetches and handsome £7000!

Port Ellen Distillery’s young spirits were rough. You were recommended to “put it down in a oner” and chase it with water to “put the fire out.” But, it matured into a highly-appreciated, complex peaty spirit. 

And soon, Port Ellen Distillery will be up and running again! In 2018, Diageo received approval to re-open Port Ellen Distillery. Plans include restoring original 1819 buildings and constructing a new still house, to retain Port Ellen’s character while enabling it to experiment. Port Ellen Distillery is slated to restart production in 2021.

Summary and Resources

Touring Ardbeg Distillery in Islay

Nine scotch distilleries on Islay … plus one on Jura. This is one delicious adventure!

I hope this has been helpful in planning your Islay whisky distillery tours. If at any time you feel a little whiskied-out, just pull over and start talking to the friendly island animals … they really are SO cute!

Here are some helpful resources in planning your Islay whisky distillery tours and Islay visit:

For private guided tours of Islay whisky distilleries, check out:

  • Custom private tours of Islay’s distilleries: Both Islay Whisky Tours (through Bowmore Taxi Service) and Islay Taxis offer customized private tours of Islay to hit your priority distilleries and other local sights.
  • North Islay Whisky Tour (£125/person): Tastings, lunch and chocolate pairing (brilliant!) at North Islay’s 3 distilleries. Offered April to October on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. 

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About Author

View from Mount Royal, Montreal

Meet Cora

Dreaming. Planning. Exploring. Finding that “wow” moment. Cora loves the journey nearly as much as the destination. She wants to experience the wonders and the stories of this amazing world for herself. Cora has toured with friends, family and now three little ones (eek!).

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