Scotland’s west coast is home to the world’s finest whisky distilleries and the surrounding landscape is every bit as refreshing as the drinks themselves, says Adrian Mourby
The west of Scotland is known as the “Whisky Coast” – and with good reason. On its dark, bare islands and along its fertile green shorelines stand some of the most famous distilleries in Britain, which means some of the best whisky in the world is produced here. With regular ferry services operating along the coastline, it’s possible to island-hop for a week and find yourself at a different distillery each day.
Even if you’re the designated driver, there’s still plenty to see and enjoy on these islands and all along the Whisky Coast. Start a tour to the north at Oban. This west coast town is a quiet yet visually dramatic port, especially if approached from the sea on one of the ferries that ply between the islands. Up on its topmost point rears McCaig’s Tower, the outer wall of an incomplete 19th-century museum designed by the philanthropist John Stuart McCaig to give work to local stonemasons. Its silhouette resembles the Colosseum in Rome, Italy.
Down below, close to the port stands Oban’s Distillery, a blunt stone building founded in 1794 by the brothers Hugh and John Stevenson. More than 200 years later Oban single malt is still made from water that flows from a loch three miles inland, using barley brought in from Speyside.
In 1814, the author Sir Walter Scott visited the area and published a long poem about Robert the Bruce’s adventures along this coastline. The Lord of the Isles subsequently encouraged many people to visit Oban and, since the 1950s, its principal industry has indeed been tourism. People come here for the distillery (now owned by multinational alcohol company Diageo), but Oban is also an important ferry port, acting as the hub for Caledonian MacBrayne ferries to the islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides.
Oban is proud of the fact that it is one of Scotland’s oldest, smallest and slowest distilleries. Its copper stills are rested between batches, thereby allowing more contact between the spirit and the metal, which enriches the resulting flavour. The distillery’s popular limited edition “Oban Little Bay” is aged in small oak casks for maximum smoothness.
The nearest major Hebridean island to the west of grey, granitic Oban is Mull. Here the gaudily painted harbourfront at Tobermory dazzles by contrast with the mainland. The ancient, white-washed Tobermory distillery stands on the harbour, tucked away behind MacGochan’s Bar. It was established here in 1798 as the Ledaig Distillery and today produces two single malts. The Ledaig is smoky and robust while the Tobermory is fruity and unpeated. The distillery also produces a gin that uses juniper, tea, heather, elderflower and sweet orange peel among its botanicals; it won the title of Scotland’s best “classic gin” at the World Gin Awards 2020.
Mull is the second-biggest island of the Inner Hebrides after Skye. It’s known for its wildlife such as otters, long-haired Highland cattle and Atlantic grey seals, but it’s also famed as an island full of myths and legends. Away from the coast rises the Bronze Age Lochbuie Stone Circle with eight of its original nine granite stones still standing in the grounds of Lochbuie House. Then there is MacKinnon’s Cave, the deepest sea cave in the Hebrides where a female ogre is said to have lived. She was not in evidence when the famed English dictionary compiler Dr Johnson came to marvel in 1773. And there’s also Loch Ba, allegedly home to the Cailleach Bheur – one of Scotland’s most powerful witches. Every hundred years at dawn, she would immerse herself in the life-giving waters of the misty loch. As long as this ritual was performed before any other creature had woken, her youth would be restored.
It’s a five-hour ferry journey, via the isle of Colonsay, to get from Oban to Islay. This is Scotland’s most famous whisky island, home to the greatest concentration of first-class distilleries in the world. There are nine altogether, with Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig grouped together on a two-mile stretch of the A846 southern coast road. On the north of the island stand Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain and Ardnahoe. There is also a new distillery, Kilchoman, which is based in the middle, surrounded by farmland. (Kilchoman intends to grow all its own barley one day, and there are signs in the fields announcing how many barrels of whisky the grain will yield.)
Each distillery has its own unique qualities: Bruichladdich has recently broken ranks and started distilling with rye. Ardnahoe is the newcomer and will only release its first single malt next year. Bowmore is the oldest, founded in 1779. Laphroaig has a royal warrant, by appointment of Prince Charles (who visits). Bunnahabhain eschews the traditional peatiness of the island’s other whiskies in favour of a sweeter flavour, while Ardbeg is paradoxically light and very smoky. If you only have time to visit one distillery, head to Laphroaig, which smokes its grain on site using furnaces of smouldering peat. It’s quite a dramatic sight.
From Islay, you might fancy that you could almost swim the half mile or so east across to Jura, home of another famous whisky. However, the water is cold and fortunately there is a small landing-craft style ferry that makes the crossing in five minutes. The silhouette of the island with its three bald, rounded mountains, known as the Paps of Jura, is distinctive. The island itself is wild – and scarcely populated. Fewer than 200 people live here today and the island’s one road leads to its only distillery, pub and hotel.
George Orwell referred to Jura as an “extremely un-get-at-able place”. In the late 1940s, he wrote his classic dystopian sci-fi novel Nineteen Eighty-Four here in a farmhouse known as Barnhill at the north of the island. A decade later, two landowners on Jura, worried by the island’s declining population, hired the Welsh engineer William Delmé-Evans to build a distillery. He shipped in unusually tall stills that gave rise to a lighter kind of whisky. Today the Jura Single Malt is aged in former bourbon and oloroso sherry barrels, and just a hint of that peaty smoke found on nearby Islay.
From Islay’s twin ports it’s a two-hour crossing to the quiet, modern ferry terminal of Kennacraig on the Kintyre Peninsula. From there it’s then a 40-minute drive south through rich, fertile farmland to Campbeltown. Known as “Whisky City” in the late 19th century, Campbeltown was a huge success story. This small mainland port near the southernmost point of the peninsula was turned over to whisky production by wealthy merchants and shipowners who brought in local grain and distilled it with water from Crosshill Loch. The resultant whisky packed a punch and was shipped all round the world. The town grew rapidly to supply a massive demand for Scottish whisky, particularly in the USA.
Great civic buildings and palatial mansions were built by the distillery owners and Campbeltown became its own recognised whisky region, much like Champagne is a wine region – in fact, it is the only town in Scotland to be accorded that honour. At its peak the town was home to around 30 of these big stone whisky factories working flat-out in the streets behind the port. But overproduction, the rise of Speyside as a rival, and the sudden collapse of the American market during the Prohibition era in the 1920s all but bankrupted Campbeltown.
Many distilleries were boarded up and fell apart, leaving the picturesque shells visible today; they are still marked on street maps as “lost” distilleries. Today there are just two companies producing whisky in Campbeltown, Glen Scotia and Springbank. A third subsidiary distillery, Glengyle, has been resurrected by the owners of Springbank. Glen Scotia produces a rich and spicy single malt with hints of sweetness depending on how it’s aged.
Nowadays Campbeltown is building a new reputation as Scotland’s smallest – and most exclusive – whisky region. There are still some massive churches to view, a picturesque port, a cinema in the Glasgow Art Deco style and all those lost distilleries that loom in the backstreets like ghosts. There is also a garden dedicated to Linda McCartney, who lived nearby on the Mull of Kintyre at High Park Farm with her Beatle husband Paul. The McCartneys were, for many years, supporters of various small festivals in Campbeltown and frequent visitors to its cinema.
Driving north west from Campbeltown to the remote dockside at Claonaig there is a small ferry that makes the 30-minute journey south to the Isle of Arran. It is a beautiful, green and mountainous island that receives a lot of tourism from Glasgow via the mainland port of Ardrossan. It’s also unique in having two distilleries, one of which produces Highland whisky and the other Lowland.
The reason for this is the Highland Boundary Fault line, which bisects Scotland diagonally from northeast to southwest, ends on its southern edge at Lochranza on Arran. When a distillery was set up near the ruins of Lochranza Castle in 1995 it dedicated itself to Highland whisky while its more recent baby sister distillery in the south at Lagg now produces Lowland Whisky. Single malts from the Lochranza Distillery are light, floral and usually unpeated. The distillery itself is an impressive piece of understated modern architecture with the entire whisky process taking place in one large room lit by vast glass windows. Computerisation means that one person working alone at each distillery can run the entire production.
Between the two distilleries lies the great fortress of Brodick Castle which was the home of the Earls of Arran. Today it is a popular National Trust for Scotland property whose image appears on the Scottish £20 note. Down on the shore below lies the picturesque village and port of Brodick from which the ferry takes you back to the mainland, a 55-minute journey that ends this Whisky Coast tour.