The reason for the visit to Islay? Well it was my 30th and to be honest, there was no place on earth I’d wanted to visit more so we, and thankfully my other (and better) half isn’t just a spectator she’s a massive whisky fan and encourages my cross country tours of Scotland to visit distilleries and go to tastings.
On departing Glasgow I really had no idea what Islay would be like, the drive was like a beautiful cross section of Scotland passing Loch Lomond and then up through Inveraray and following the meandering A83 and finally arriving at Kennacraig which would be where I would endure the most horrible machine spat out coffee I’ve had in a while, the ferry terminal did have one redeeming factor and that was that it had a lovely little display with all the most popular expressions from all the distilleries on Islay which at the moment stand at 8, but thanks to planning permissions it could soon be 10 with Gartbek and Ardnahoe ready to be added to the list of Islay distillers a pretty grand incentive to return!
This was where the birthday celebrations kicked off,
Lagavulin which this year celebrates its 200th anniversary (and I thought I was getting old) but to be fair it looks as beautiful as it ever has with its gleaming white coat of paint and its name adorning the wall as you approach it, in case you ever wondered where you were it is literally spelled out for you!
Inside its quaint, it’s in parts like stepping into a time machine, tweed, leather and old mahogany greets you like an old friend you’ve not seen in a while giving you a welcome back hug. Incidentally, the history of Lagavulin makes for an incredible read, in 1889 when Peter Mackie took over the distillery he crafted the ‘White Horse Blend’ which Lagavulin was a big component of, and is today what the image of the horse on the logo is representative of.
The entire place was like a sensory awakening for me, every nuance and smell was scintillating. Sitting back and tasting it in front of the fireplace was a great wrap up of the tour with tastings of the 12, 16 and distillers edition. My favourite? I actually really enjoyed the rollercoaster ride that was the 12 it was the youngest it was a bit… rougher round the edges and the peat smoke felt that bit more charred sitting at 56.1% ABV it’s easy to imagine why. The 16 is the older brother, it’s more mature, smoother and it’s a bit less tempestuous this is in no way to mark it as inferior because it definitely isn’t. The distiller’s edition was again totally different, more sherry notes the smoke feel to it almost feels forced despite it basically being the 16 with a PX finish it almost tastes rushed at times (but that might just be me)
Just a short stone throw from Lavagulin is Ardbeg; the drive down towards it is amazing. Picture the scene. Narrow country roads, go up a blind summit and after the peak of it, you are now driving down looking down towards Ardbeg it was an absolute sight to behold. I’m not going to start at the tour, though, The cafe was where this starts and where any tour should start (or end) because the food was utterly divine and at this point in the day it was exactly what was needed. The cafe and shop are located in what used to be the old malt room, with the beautiful interior of the pagoda shaped roof directly above you now.
Starting by walking through what was the old wooden malt and barley bins where they would have been stored but as we know today all the melting (as for most of Islay) is done at the mammoth Port Ellen Maltings. Also, it should be noted they have a quirky “purifier” which helps recirculation of the alcohol vapours back into the basin and is the only distillery on the island to do so, which is evident in the tasting as it helps contribute to a lighter spirit removing the heavier oily vapours and re-distilling them essentially. Now to the good bit! The tasting
Corryvreckan cask strength at 57.1% ABV, it’s the epitome of Islay, (from the Gaelic Coire Bhreacain meaning “cauldron of the speckled seas”) an incredibly apt name, It saves all it punch for the finish, like some veteran boxer lulling you into a false sense of security then BOOM the knockout punch is delivered, it starts creamy, smooth and builds up to an almost medicinal smoke finish, I was pleasantly impressed.
As impressed with the Corry I was the Uigeadail would blow that out the water, it was a fine balance of tastes I wasn’t knocked out by the finishing haymaker this time, The Ugidal was stealth like, With a brilliantly long finish to it left me wanting more, long after it was gone for a while it made me feel dirty, I’m still waiting on it calling me back.
The10 Years Old is the mainstay of the range, its old reliable it has a personality unto its own as they all do it was the first of the distilleries expressions to be non-chill filtered they let it off the reigns a little and you can tell when you taste it, it’s a pretty adventurous dram, Vanilla, then citrus notes, then an infusion of smoke and heavier tastes and almost peppery notes for what is an “entry level” malt its incredibly approachable and complex.
Nestled against Loch Indaal and in the heart of the town of Bowmore, the Distillery is the beating heart of this small town, It provides the tourism and jobs to keep it thriving and it also provides the heat to heat the indoor swimming pool next door! When you enter the distillery you at first notice its proximity to Loch Indaal which basically the walls of vault number 1 separate its most famous warehouse from whatever the loch has to throw at it, and as it’s a sea loch its has its turbulent times as a few days prior to our visit were a testament to. The distillery itself is still very traditional, it does (some) of its own malting, its cuts the peat all-be-it mechanically it’s very much a nod to how everything would have been done in the past.
Entering Bowmore you are immediately greeted with a 1957 bottle of Bowmore bottled in 2011 hand-blown and shaped by two of the world’s leading glass artists Brodie Nairn and Nichola Burns into a scene reminiscent of the waves that clatter against the walls of vault no.1 where we would later get to taste a pretty exceptional straight from the cask tasting of a 17-year-old Bowmore from a wonderful sherry cask The 17-year-old in question was a really embracing sherried expression, its available on their bottling tour it nosed of dried dark fruits and then reached a beautiful crescendo of flavours of peppers, nutmeg and almost almond and smooth cashew feel to the finish which was long but when paired with the cold wet conditions in the warehouse it was the perfect partnership, it added a visceral trip back in time and provided the central heating with which to enjoy it. Water complimented it well and opened it right up and evoked much lighter subtle notes, more salty pretzel notes now coming through, with a side order of sultanas.
On the other end of the island lies Kilchoman! nestled amongst beautiful arable farmland and then framed with the picturesque Machair Bay right on its doorstep, to say it was an idyllic location would be a cacophony of clichés but by god it deserves adorned with all of them at once, Built in what was ( and still is ) an active farm it had the most un-distillery like look of any distillery I had ever visited, yet this was one of the very reasons I was determined to venture to Islay because a few months prior to departing I was attending the Whisky Festival in Hampden Stadium and I got the chance to sample Kilchoman it was incidentally the last drink had of the day there but also the one that stood out for me, or maybe I had whisky amnesia! So going to Islay, and more so Kilchoman was a big deal for me I’m in awe of what they are doing and accomplishing they are playing ball with the big boys of Islay and not being overawed by it not pressing the matter either and look like having themselves something incredible. The whisky you ask!
I got to try two more expressions that I hadn’t had the chance to try in my brief fling with Kilchoman, The Loch Gorm bottled at 46% (on site none the less) was a sherried monster, akin to the smoke monster that appeared and disappeared on ‘Lost’ it arrives with a big bang a fanfare of smoke and citric notes and evolves with the aid of the berried sherry notes into something more subtle and so well balanced the sherry has a brilliant equilibrium effect imparting its maturing nature on the young volatile spirit and harness it with poise and grace.
Next up the 100% Islay, their baby! Made, Grown, Bottled and Labelled right here on bottled at 50% ABV the extra jump in strength really helps express the complexity of the flavours in this one, it doesn’t smack you full on in the face with smoke it’s pretty subtle and creamy notes biscuit, almonds hit you then your old pal peat comes to visit and stays with you for the rest of the night, it’s warming and delicate and the higher ABV won’t blow your socks off in fact the strength helps amp up the enjoyment of it, try it with some water to take a further trip down the rabbit hole though!
If Kilchoman was David, then Caol Ila is Goliath. It’s absolutely immense in stature, it’s been called the whisky factory and a step inside doesn’t make you think anything less, its stills are an imposing sight with its size, you would imagine it stood out like a sore thumb and for a place that makes over 7 million litres of spirit a year its surprisiningly modest in location, it’s nestled away in fact the most apparent view of it would be from the sound of jura where it enjoys amorous views across the sound of Jura with the paps of Jura beyond, they have the idyllic views of both Caol Ila and of Bunnahabhain. With most the previous tours there was always a very traditional feel to what goes on this was in stark contrast to Caol Ila which had a highly modernised feel to it. What they create inside (that’s not used to fulfil quota for Jonnie Walker and other such blends) can vary pretty dramatically in complexity, due to the size of the distillery there is a lot more room for experimentation.
First up on the tasting was their NAS Caol Ila – Moch (43%ABV) was a great start it’s a taste of the ocean with lots of maritime notes, nothing like a Talisker or Old Pulteney but more subtle with clean almost floral and grassy notes that compliment it and make it an all together easily approachable drink, the kind you could enjoy on the numerous cold nights that we are used to in Scotland, that might explain our love affair with whisky. Their 12 Year Old (43% ABV)is their showpiece it much more complex to taste than the automated system that runs the place would make you think it tastes ashy with strong apple and pear notes and perfumes of malted cereals and smoky bbq remnants. For a place that makes so much spirit on the island you just wish that more of it stayed on the island to mature as I’m a great believer that the interaction the land, sea and air all have a maturing spirit help contribute to the final aged spirit and I wonder what an Islay aged 12 years old would be in comparison.. would there be any difference?
My second last day on Islay would be spent with the incredible folks over at Bruichladdich, their marketing and design has always been something I’ve been in awe of even since the days of working in Morrisons and having to security tag every bottle of them and at the time the ‘rocks’ bottle had a glass included and it was the bane of my department to have to tag them.. thanks Bruichladdich! But their approach to the design and creation of their spirit is something to behold they don’t have fancy titles there everything is done in house they don’t outsource design (means I’ll need to move!) They’re the loud neighbour of Islay, they are the ones that have their music up much too loud for most of the night keeping everyone up, they make some incredibly big waves, and it’s all done with friendship in mind from the moment you step foot through their doors it’s like you’re one of the family, I was half expecting to get made to clock in and put a shift in.
This brash modernist feel to everything they do is epitomised by what they create here, and create is main word it’s like an artisan distillery not afraid to experiment, if it works then great! if it doesn’t then try again and nothing showcases this more than the Octomore, this is their bonfire in a bottle it’s sticking your face in the peat kiln and cracking the taste up to 100 it’s that music up really loud again but this time, it’s a rock concert so it’s just right. For something so heavily peated you would be wide of the mark is you assumed it would only taste like an overdose of peat, for something so high in phenol content it’s also delicate, and intricate its young and volatile and has that marmite effect but that’s part of the adventure, and that was the keyword it was an adventure and it works and it’s no surprise that it’s been such a success story.
There was another surprise story for me was the Botanist gin… and even now as I type that I’m still surprised as gin was never something I entertained it was always something I found obtuse and hard to approach but I have no had to redo every bad word I’ve ever uttered about gin as it was crackin’ and a perfect summer’s day, having a bbq accompaniment I’d say.. I just need to wait for the good weather now to see.
The last tour! And unlike its neighbour down the road Caol Ila Bunahabbain was rustic, even right down to that they don’t polish their stills. The approach was all downhill from the windy tiny single track roads that adorn the island but it was well worth it, from the outset the distillery looks like an old prison, damn, dreary and expressionless but what’s created inside is in contrast to this, and even the interior of the shop come office was warming and comfortable they are not known for their mountains of expressions their core range sitting at 4 different expressions, 12,18,25 and Toiteach, the 12 and 18 being the ones I was able to taste on our tour with the 18 just shading it for me as the few years more ageing has made it a much smoother creature and has this incredibly long finish to it. This was by far the liveliest tour I’ve ever been on but the guide handled it with aplomb and leaving I left with a heavy heart that was it no more tours. no more driving down the peat road and being thankful for having good suspension.
Islay for me was the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Mecca it gave me a much more developed education of whisky and the industry and, more importantly, the locals who work and live here who have the most incredible stories. To say I miss it would be an understatement it has an unmistakable solitude that’s hard to find when you work in the city centre but something tells me that this won’t is my last visit to Islay. And even if you didn’t like whisky (they’re people like that right?) there’s more than enough to engross you on the island with more wildlife than I could mention and incredible places to take in from the Atlantic at its wildest at Portnahaven to the American Monument in the Oá where the island appears at its rough and wildest which is the epitome of so much of what its spirit tries to capture, an island like no other.