By Richard Goslan

By various estimates, the population of Islay more than doubles during its annual Fèis Ìle, the festival of whisky and music that lures whisky pilgrims from near and very far at the end of May. But at 9am on a dreich Friday morning at Ardbeg distillery on the first day of the weeklong hoolie, there’s little sign of life, apart from workmen making last minute modifications ahead of the expected throngs arriving.

No matter. It’s too early for a dram and we’re abstaining until our planned tour of the island is complete. But with 65 miles between Ardbeg and Bowmore to take in – and stopping of at all eight of the island’s working distilleries en route – an early rise is imperative.

Myself and three other cycling enthusiasts have agreed to undertake an inaugural Tour de Islay on two wheels for The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a club for whisky enthusiasts which is holding an open day to kick off the festival at Islay House later in the day. We even have a specially designed cycling jersey for the occasion, along with a ‘brevet’ card with eight blank spaces, begging a stamp from each of the distilleries we’ll pass to prove we made it.

If we hit the road now, we might just make it to the party in time to celebrate with a dram from a special single cask, single malt whisky the Society has bottled especially for the Fèis. That’s all the incentive we need.

Our start is inauspicious, in a blanket of mist and the kind of rain that is almost invisible but quickly puts even the highest quality rainwear to the test. Once you’re moving on a bike, the worst that the elements can throw at you soon loses its bite. We’re moving, we’re warming up, and within three miles we’ve already gathered stamps from Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig on our brevet cards. Only 60 miles to go…

Passing through Port Charlotte, there is the choice of two routes north, and we pick what’s known as the High Road. It’s a cyclists’ dream, an undulating ribbon of tarmac with a smooth surface and a complete lack of any other transport.

From out of the mist, an isolated red phone box appears, and as we approach the turn off for the Glen Road there is a welcome break in the clouds. The Glen Road exposes us to the wild moorland at the heart of the island, and a gradual climb, before we sweep down onto the wider road leading to our next stop, Caol Ila, close to the ferry terminal at Port Askaig.

The imposing, factory-like surroundings of Caol Ila are tucked away at the bottom of a steep descent that tests our brakes and our appetite for climbing when we have to return to the main road. The distillery might not be the most picturesque, but we can’t fault its location on the Sound of Islay. The story goes that the distillery manager had to turn his desk around to face away from the view, otherwise he’d never get any work done.

We stamp our cards again and grit our teeth for the short but nasty climb out of Caol Ila and roll along the sweeping single-track road towards Bunnahabhain. It’s the most northerly of the distilleries and considered by many to be the most untypical of Islay. But the familiar smell of malt hits us as we drop down to the shoreline and take a seat on casks piled high on the shoreline.

We’re half way through our tour and in need of sustenance, so we stop off at Labels café in Ballygrant to refuel on hearty homemade soup and sandwiches. If we want to make it to the party on time, it’s time to get a move on, so we form a neat peloton heading down towards Bridgend and then along Loch Indaal.

Before Bruichladdich, we turn right for a four-mile slog into the wind to reach Rockside Farm, home of Kilchoman. The island’s only inland distillery is a welcome sight, not so much for the unimposing structure, but for the knowledge we can turn around and pedal back towards Bruichladdich with the wind behind us.

At moments like this, you appreciate the joys of cycling. Having ground out those miles leading to Kilchoman, suddenly we’re pedalling like professionals, the tailwind propelling us not only down the dips but shooting us back up the other side. If only cycling was this pleasant all the time.

The distinctive aqua colours of Bruichladdich’s casks that spell out the distillery’s name are a welcome sight, as we sweep through the gates to get our brevet cards stamped again. We’re also almost there – seven down, one to go.

And with our burst of speed, we feel we can reward ourselves with another caffeine break, at the Bruichladdich mini-market café – better known to every Ileach as Debbie’s. Not only does it serve one of the best cups of coffee and carrot cake on the island – or anywhere, for that matter – it’s also a little shrine to cycling, with pedalling paraphernalia everywhere you look.

Suitably replenished, we’re all set for the home stretch, and it seems that we’ve saved the best for last. With the same tailwind that carried us back from Kilchoman, we are now coasting along the side of Loch Indaal towards our finishing point at Bowmore. It’s time for quiet reflection as we gaze across the white sands to the grey-blue waters lapping on the shore.

There’s no doubt that two wheels is an ideal way to experience the island, whether you undertake the distillery tour in one day or decide to divide it into a more relaxed two-day experience.

The distilleries make great play out of the ‘terroir’, or provenance, of their products, and before a glass even meets your lips, a cycle tour of the island exposes you to all the elements that combine to make Islay whisky loved around the world. There’s the sea air and brine, of course, but also the stacks of peat sitting in the fields as you pedal past, the scent of the barley fields that provide whisky’s essential ingredient, and the pungent aroma of the angels’ share escaping the casks as you approach the distilleries.

Free from the confines of your car, you can soak up – both literally and metaphorically – everything that Islay offers up to you. And whether you buy into the notion that terroir applies as much to whisky as it does to wine, after 65 miles on your bike, you have a clear sense of what this island is all about and how crucial the landscape is to the whisky making process.

As we sweep into Bowmore for our last stamp on our brevet cards, we punch the air and congratulate ourselves on a successful circuit of the island – before heading to Islay House to celebrate properly.

At The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s open day event, whisky pilgrims from all over the world are nosing their drams and swapping stories about where they’ve been visiting, why they’re here and what makes Islay so special to them. Within half an hour I encounter enthusiasts from all over Europe to Hong Kong, California and elsewhere. They’re here for the whisky, of course, but more than that they’re here for the camaraderie and the magical, mystical atmosphere of this island that puts it at the centre of the whisky universe.

Our tour is complete, so we raise our glasses of Society bottling No. 3.243, labelled as Dark, smouldering flamenco gypsy. There’s only one toast we want to make: Slàinte, and let’s do it all again next year.

For more information about The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, visit

Travel notes

How to get there

Caledonian MacBrayne sails from Kennacraig on Kintyre to both Port Ellen and Port Askaig. The journey time varies but is usually a little over two hours. Passengers pay £13 return, and a vehicle is £65 return.

FlyBe departs from Glasgow to Islay, flight time 45 minutes, fares from £70 return.

Where to stay

If you’re going to Islay during the annual Fèis Ìle at the end of May and want to sleep in a real bed, be sure to book your accommodation well in advance. Otherwise, do what we did, bring your tent and head for the Port Mor campsite at Port Charlotte. It’s £8 per night per person and has excellent facilities, including a café on site and wi-fi access.