Argyll has a rich history when it comes to whisky production, dating way back to the early 17th century. The region’s abundant natural resources, including fertile soil, peat bogs, and fresh water, make it an ideal location for whisky-making.
Today, Argyll & the Isles boasts many world-class distilleries and is often fondly referred to as ‘Scotland’s Whisky Coast’. As a result, many now cite it as one of their favourite areas to take a whistle-stop whisky tour whilst travelling the Highlands.
The origins of the word ‘Whisky’
The English word ‘whisky’ comes from the deformation of “Uisge”. Uisge beatha (pronounced ‘oosh-keh—bae-ha’), originating from Scottish Gaelic, is a phrase denoting the concept of ‘water of life,’: ‘uisge’ signifies water and ‘beatha’ signifies life. Evolving over time and gaining prevalence in Scotland, uisge beatha gradually transformed into the more concise term ‘whisky,’ referring to the celebrated spirit produced through distillation. Although the earliest documented reference to whisky can be traced back to the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland in 1495, the precise origins of its production in the country remain shrouded in historical uncertainty.
Argyll Whisky History
At its earlier time of documentation, whisky production was largely a domestic activity, with farmers producing whisky on a small scale for their own consumption or for trade with neighbouring communities.
As the popularity of whisky grew throughout Scotland and beyond, Argyll became an important centre for commercial whisky production. In the 19th century, the region boasted a thriving whisky industry, with dozens of distilleries in operation. Many of these distilleries were in remote areas, accessible only by sea or by the narrow, winding roads that crisscross the rugged countryside.
Despite the challenges of transportation and production, Argyll’s distilleries produced some of the finest whiskies in Scotland. The region’s unique conditions – the combination of soil, water, climate, and geography – gave its whiskies a distinct character and flavour. They built their reputation for smoky, peaty notes, a result of the region’s abundant peat bogs.
There was a period where many of Argyll’s historic distilleries were forced to close their doors, but recently years have seen a huge revival to the area! 15 years ago, there were 8 distilleries on Islay – there are now 9 (with another 3 in construction as of 2023). On the mainland, Campbeltown has expanded from 1 distillery to 3, with another two in planning. Promising numbers for the area, with Argyll quickly going from 12 sites to a planned 19, only emphasising the demand for Argyll’s whiskies by both connoisseurs and collectors.
Distilleries in Argyll and the Isles
Oban Distillery: Oban Distillery, one of Scotland’s smallest whisky makers, is renowned for producing premium single malt whisky that is highly sought after worldwide. With its exceptional quality and popularity, the brand commands a premium price. Remarkably, the distillery predates the town itself, having been established in 1794 before the town of Oban emerged in the rugged harbour that surrounds it. It is known for its balanced flavours of honey, citrus, and a hint of sea salt.
Springbank Distillery: Located in the charming town of Campbeltown, Springbank Distillery is renowned for its traditional and artisanal production methods. Their whisky range includes the lightly peated Springbank, the heavily peated Longrow, and the unpeated Hazelburn. A tour here gives visitors a wonderful insight into their hands-on approach to whisky production.
Kilchoman Distillery: Situated on the rugged Isle of Islay, Kilchoman Distillery is a farm distillery that embraces tradition and sustainability. Here, guests will witness every step of the whisky-making process, from growing the barley on-site to bottling the final product. Their peated expressions deliver bold flavours of smoke and maritime influence.
Laphroaig Distillery: Laphroaig Distillery, located on the south coast of the Isle of Islay, is an esteemed Islay single malt Scotch whisky distillery. Its name is derived from the area of land at the head of Loch Laphroaig. Renowned as “the most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies,” Laphroaig is celebrated for its signature peaty and smoky characteristics. The 10-year-old expression is the most common, while the 27-, 30-, and 40-year-old editions remain rare and highly sought-after.
Bowmore Distillery: With its establishment dating back to 1779, it proudly claims the title of the oldest operational distillery on Islay. Bowmore embraces its island heritage by sourcing barley from Islay whenever possible, although additional supplies are imported from the mainland due to high demand. The distillery’s signature Scotch whisky, known for its light golden hue and delightful, sweet vanilla notes, is predominantly matured in ex-American Oak Bourbon barrels.
Bruichladdich Distillery: Offers a guided walk through their Victorian distillery, providing insights into their rich history, unique philosophy, and the meticulous process of crafting their three distinctive single malts: Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte, and Octomore. Setting themselves apart from their neighbouring Islay distilleries, Bruichladdich’s range stands out by being made without peat. By eschewing smoke, they focus on their alternative raw ingredient, barley.
Bunnahabhain Distillery: Bunnahabhain stands out as one of the milder single malt Islay whiskies, offering a flavour profile that sets it apart from the bolder spirits found on the island. Among its most sought-after tours is the Warehouse 9 tasting, an experience that promises exclusive access to sample exquisite whiskies drawn straight from the cask.
Ardbeg Distillery: Situated on the south coast of Islay, Ardbeg has a rich heritage dating back to 1798, with commercial production commencing in 1815. Renowned for its heavily peated Islay whisky, the distillery sources malted barley from the nearby Port Ellen maltings. Notably, in July 2022, the distillery achieved a remarkable feat by selling a 1975 cask to a private collector for an astounding £16 million, surpassing Macallan’s previous record for the highest cask selling price.
Caol Ila Distillery: Nestled on the North-Eastern shores of Islay, Caol Ila Distillery (pronounced ‘Cull-Eela’) whiskies mature in proximity to the salty coastal air, which adds an additional layer of complexity. They are known for their ‘approachable’ nature and offer a pale whisky that showcases a combination of peaty, floral, and peppery notes.
Lagavulin Distillery: Situated between Ardbeg and Laphroaig on the south coast of Islay, Lagavulin Distillery whiskies are known for their intense flavor and rich character. With a history marked by fierce competition and disputes, a notable part of its history was a failed attempt to recreate the iconic Laphroaig whisky taste. The brand gets a mention in Ken Loach’s famous whisky film ‘The Angel’s Share.’
Glen Scotia Distillery: This distillery, often referred to as The Scotia or Old Scotia, holds a rich history in the whisky-making region of Campbeltown. Established in 1832, it stands as one of the three remaining distilleries in this small and esteemed whisky region. Maintaining its original design, including the iconic mash tun, stillroom, and dunnage warehouse dating back to the 1830s, Glen Scotia remains steeped in tradition. Its range of whiskies feature distinct Campbeltown flavours, offering delightful notes of toffee, maritime influences, and a subtle touch of smoke.
Glengyle Distillery: Also situated in the Campbeltown region, this distillery was founded in 1872, but ceased operations in 1925 due to the post-war economic downturn. It experienced a remarkable revival in 2000, becoming the first new Scottish distillery of the new millennium. The distillery’s single malts are now proudly released under the name Kilkerran. The name Kilkerran derives from the Scottish Gaelic “Ceann Loch Cille Chiarain,” signifying the head of the lake where Saint Kieran’s religious cell once stood—a place that eventually evolved into modern-day Campbeltown.
Jura Distillery: Originally established the Laird of Jura in 1810, this Jura Distillery has a remarkable history of restoration and revival. After falling into disrepair, it was restored in 1884 only to experience a second period of neglect. However, in 1963, it was resurrected and rebuilt. Today, Jura boasts an impressive range of 26 single malt whiskies, showcased across three distinct product series: Signature, Travel Exclusive, and Rare & Limited.
Ardnahoe Distillery: Ardnahoe is situated in a picturesque location nestled between Loch Ardnahoe and the Sound of Islay. The name of both the distillery and the adjacent lake derives from Gaelic, meaning ‘the Height of the Hollow.’ This new addition to Islay’s whisky scene commenced operations in April 2019, marking the first establishment of a whisky distillery on the island in 15 years. Notably, by November of the same year, Ardnahoe Distillery was awarded a prestigious five-star grading by VisitScotland.
Tobermory Distillery: Tobermory Distillery, located on the captivating Isle of Mull, is the sole distillery on the island. It produces two brands of malt, including a smaller quantity of peated whisky known as Ledaig, preserving the distillery’s former name. The distillery sources its water from a private loch situated near the Mishnish lochs, ensuring the purity of its spirits. As a small-scale distillery, Tobermory exudes an informal and relaxed ambience, inviting visitors to embark on an immersive tour that beings with an Audio-Visual presentation. This is followed by a guided walk through the mash room and still room and finishes with a whisky tasting.
Companies that offer multi-distillery whisky-tasting tours
The Tartan Road: The Ultimate Whisky Tour: Islay and Campbeltown
The Tartan Road offers private and tailored tours across all of Scotland, however, they provide inspirational journey suggestions, like this whisky tour through Campbeltown and Islay. The tour, spanning eight incredible days, explores not only Campbeltown and Islay but also the scenic isles of Arran and Jura, and the picturesque Argyll coastline leading up to Oban.
You’’ dive into the art of whisky-making as you visit a total of 14 distilleries, including exclusive tastings and the opportunity to create your own blend of single malt. You’ll also discover the secrets of crafting gin and revel in Scotland’s treasured landscapes.
Go Scotland Tours: Private Whisky Tour to Islay and Campbeltown
Go Scotland Tours offers a multi-distillery tour that can be personalised, but they also offer itinerary examples to inspire newbies. These depart from Edinburgh or Glasgow, pass Loch Lomond, and onto to Inverary for tales about the world of whisky. You’ll then head towards Port Ellen to visit the iconic distilleries of Lagavulin, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig, where you’ll have the opportunity to sample their renowned peaty spirits. A return to the mainland will bring you to Campbeltown, the second whisky region of the tour, where Springbank and Mitchell’s Glengyle distilleries await. Guests conclude their adventure by heading to the picturesque port town of Oban, with one of Scotland’s oldest licensed distilleries.
Loch Melfort Hotel Whisky Trail Package
If you’re looking for a slower-paced itinerary that helps you dip your toe into the world of Argyll Whiskies, our hotel Whisky Trail Package allows you to enjoy one of our Sea-View Lodges, and includes 2 nights dinner, bed and breakfast, and entrance fee & tour of two distilleries (Oban on Day 1 and Campbeltown on Day 2). If you plan to extend your whisky trail after your stay with us, it’s possible to take in up to 10 distilleries in two days on the mainland as well as Jura, Islay or Mull. Ou helpful team can offer advice on which distilleries to visit, how to travel, and onward accommodation if needed.
Rabbies Whisky Tours
Arguably one of the biggest tour companies in Scotland, and predominantly operating out of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Inverness, Rabbies provides 11 whisky-specific tours. They have one tour that shines a light on the Argyll coast: AN 8-day tour Islay, Iona, Mull & Skye. Alongside visits to 4 of the area’s distilleries, you’ll journey venture through neolithic sites and dramatic coastlines. The Rabbies tour coaches will take up to 16 people, making this a convenient option for larger groups or solo travellers looking to join together with others.
Argyll’s whisky distilleries are a real treat for enthusiasts and explorers alike. Whether you choose to embark on a self-guided distillery tour or opt for an immersive whisky experience with a tour company, Argyll promises an unforgettable opportunity to raise a glass and toast to Scotland’s flavours and time-honoured traditions.