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Sunday, 18 November 2018

The Second Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 2: Islay!

Part 2 of the pilgrimage! It's another long one, but it's well worth the read if I do say so myself...


After a brilliant-but-too-short morning at Campbeltown (covered in Part 1), we were back at Kennacraig in time for the ferry to Islay. Just about everything had been planned ahead, all of the main activities were booked in, and the anticipation was high. There would be visits at Bunnahabhain, Ardbeg, Kilchoman and even Ardnahoe (yes - very exciting!), tours at Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Caol Ila, and warehouse tastings at Bruichladdich and Lagavulin. For those counting at home, that's all nine of Islay's distilleries covered! This instalment will cover Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila and Ardnahoe.


On the previous pilgrimage to Islay (here and here) I had made a point of catching the ferry that would deposit us at Port Ellen, mainly to get an ocean-side view of the three southern distilleries, Port Ellen maltings and the village itself. And those views were well worth the extra time spent on the water. But due to the ferry timetable and our busy schedule that wasn't an option on this pilgrimage, which ended up being for the best since in the week leading up to our booking multiple ferries to Port Ellen ended up being cancelled or diverted due to the weather conditions. So we were sailing into Port Askaig for the first time, although the weather wasn't cooperating and we did not have much of a view for most of the trip. But from my perspective the benefit of landing at Port Askaig mid-afternoon was clear - pun intended. We would be at the correct end of the island to visit the distillery that I missed completely on that first pilgrimage, Bunnahabhain. The one that got away. So I'm sure you can guess what the first stop was!


Bunnahabhain is not easy to get to. In fact it's the most inaccessible of the Islay distilleries, involving an unnerving seven-kilometre drive on a single track road, mostly winding and narrow and with very limited visibility around corners. But having missed it last time due to the lack of a car, and having righted that wrong this time, visiting this northern Islay distillery was firmly towards the top of my list. I should add that if you're lucky with the weather that unnerving drive would be beautiful, and luckily it did clear on our return leg, so even without the destination it is worth it. The distillery is famously drab and unkempt, and you shouldn't expect any fancy setups or polished surfaces here. Adding to that is the renovation and repair work that is currently under way, in fact many of the older buildings and houses surrounding the distillery were being demolished when we visited, which was a little sad to see but also understandable. The distillery shop is located in the middle of the distillery grounds at the shore-end of the long pier that sticks out into the Sound of Islay, which means driving down an utterly shocking potholed gravel road (sports cars need not apply) between a couple of warehouses to get there. But the view from said pier, both out to Jura and back towards the distillery, and the special bottles available inside will see that drive being forgotten very quickly. 


What bottles am I talking about? Well I don't want to spoil a future review so I won't tell you what came home with me, but there's a very wide range to choose from. There's a cask sitting in the corner waiting for you to hand-fill your own distillery exclusive bottle, and there's a wall full of distillery exclusive and limited edition bottlings, plus the core range of course. Most are available to taste, including the recent unpeated Palo Cortado sherry finish (an Islay first) which was very interesting, an unpeated Muscat finish, and a peated (Moine, pronounced "Moyn-yah") Marsala finish and PX sherry finish, among others. But while the staff member manning the counter was friendly and accommodating with the samples, I have to say that based on our short visit the overall feel of the place wasn't particularly warm or welcoming, particularly in comparison with the other distilleries. Which I guess is also part of the distillery's charm, it's very rough & ready and isn't particularly worried about catering for tourists. Nonetheless I'm very glad to have finally ticked Bunnahabhain off my list, and those small purchases that I did bring home with me are definitely worth watching out for! After that harrowing drive back to the A-road (with my wife at the wheel this time) there was time for a quick reconnaissance stop at Caol Ila, before heading down to Port Ellen to check into our accommodation. 


As any fan who has visited Islay will know, driving through and around the island is almost a surreal experience. It's hard to fathom that when you drive past a distillery or landmark you've actually driven past that distillery or landmark, and it's almost a constant feeling! And speaking of landmarks, there was something else that I missed completely on the last pilgrimage that was also towards the top of my list on this trip. I'm talking about The Kildalton Cross (pictured above), which is around a 20-minute drive further along from Ardbeg, but be sure to watch out for deer on the road, and - less urgently and for different reasons - seals in the bay on the way. Personally I'm not religious by any means, but this medieval cross and the long-disused church next to it are incredible to see, and if you ask me have transcended their religious significance to becoming artifacts of pure history. The now-roofless church is technically a ruin but is very well preserved, and dates back to the late 1100s, while the cross itself is at least three centuries older. For some perspective that means the Kildalton Cross was erected around a century before the Vikings started raiding Scotland in the late-ninth century, and the church was built over one hundred years before William Wallace was born. Just incredible! Remarkably, unlike many ancient artifacts that have been replicated and moved to museums or art galleries for various reasons, what you're looking at here is the original and authentic thing, while the replica (itself made in the mid-1800s) went to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. As fantastic as the Kildalton Cross is, the church is just as amazing, with ancient gravestones outside and the carved grave slabs of knights (yes, knights!) inside, one of which is embedded in one of the church walls. An absolutely amazing place that I can't recommend highly enough.


Our first full day on Islay was a busy one. After a delicious full Scottish breakfast at our B&B in Port Ellen, we headed to one of my favourite distilleries: Bruichladdich! Since I had toured this fantastic distillery on the last pilgrimage I aimed straight for one of the best whisky experiences on the island, the Bruichladdich warehouse tasting! This brilliant tasting includes three cask strength whiskies: an unpeated Bruichladdich, a heavily peated Port Charlotte, and a super-heavily peated Octomore, all drawn straight from the cask in front of your eyes, before being filled straight into your including tasting glass! I was lucky enough to be a guest of the distillery this time thanks to their excellent Asia Pacific Brand Ambassador Chloe Wood, who I met at the Brisbane launch of the tasty new Port Charlotte Islay Barley & 10-year olds. Chloe also hinted that the casks on the warehouse tasting would be changing around September, so I couldn't wait to get there and see what was on offer. These casks are specially selected for the warehouse tasting by Adam Hannett himself, and just like the three casks that featured last year, the three that were sitting on the warehouse floor were mind-blowing. Although I didn't realise it until after the fact, we were hosted by Lindy MacLellan, wife of the late John MacLellan, Distillery Manager at Kilchoman and previously Bunnahabhain. Lindy was a fantastic host, full of knowledge on Bruichladdich, Islay and whisky in general, with plenty of local stories and a palpable passion for her island home. Exactly what you'd want from an excellent tour guide.


I've teased you enough now, so here are the whiskies! To taste any whisky straight from the cask in a cold, dank dunnage warehouse is always going to be a special experience. But Bruichladdich really go over-and-above with their offerings. What you see above is a 26-year old Bruichladdich at 52% from a first-fill bourbon cask, a 14-year old Port Charlotte at 57% with a 6-year additional cask enhancement (Bruichladdich speak for finishing / double-maturation) in a white dessert wine cask - most likely Sauternes, and a 9-year old Octomore at 62%. Now a 9-year old Octomore at 62% was always going to be special, but this was something else entirely. This cask was a "remnant" of Octomore 6.3! 6.3 was the first Islay Barley Octomore, peated to a whopping 258 ppm on the malt, and bottled at a massive 64%, and it's still my favourite Octomore bottling to date. This now-nine year old example was left happily slumbering in a second-fill ex-bourbon cask before being selected for the warehouse tasting, and was sitting at 62% ABV after the four extra years of maturation. The Bruichladdich was beautiful, that classic Bruichladdich style with extra sweetness and tropical fruit, citrus & salt, while the Port Charlotte was very rich & syrupy, almost a floral-yet-smoky dessert whisky with a brilliant texture. Both were very mature and very drinkable, but that Octomore, as I've probably already given away, was my favourite of the three. In fact it was one of the most amazing whiskies I sampled during the entire trip, possibly even the outright most amazing, and it was among some very serious company. It was still massively peaty on the palate, nicely medicinal but also sweet and rich, with no sign of any heat despite the very high ABV. It's impossible not to get swept up in the moment when you're tasting a whisky like that in a setting like that, particularly for a Bruichladdich fan, and the combination of those things was absolute magic. I'd happily go back to Islay right now just to taste that Octomore again!


As incredible as those three whiskies were, being in that dank & dirty-yet absolutely beautiful dunnage warehouse alone is almost as special. I don't see how you could visit Islay and not go to a warehouse tasting, and Bruichladdich's should be at the top of your list! Sitting amongst rows and rows of casks, stacked only three high of course, with some exciting labels. What did I spot? How about some Rivesaltes wine casks full of Islay Barley Octomore? or Port casks full of Bruichladdich? Or, wait for it... casks of chocolate malt Bruichladdich. As in, Bruichladdich distilled from heavily-roasted malted barley! There was a Bruichladdich Valinch bottling released in early 2018 that featured this same malt, although I'm not sure on the proportions or the cask type, but it may well have been a relative of these casks. That's very, very exciting stuff, and I can't wait to see (and hopefully taste) the results! On last year's pilgrimage I happened to spy some Marsala casks of Port Charlotte, which are due for travel retail release shortly as Port Charlotte MC01, as in Marsala Cask 01. So with any luck some of those special casks will find their way into bottles next year, and the level of anticipation is already high! Bruichladdich would have to be one of the more experimental and progressive Scottish distilleries in general, and are certainly the most experimental and progressive on Islay. Not everything makes it into permanent bottlings of course, sometimes they become micro-provenance bottlings, cask explorations or Valinch bottlings instead, but it's great to see them trying so many different things, even under the new ownership that has clearly only changed things for the better. I can never wait to see what these guys come up with next!


But that's not the end of our Bruichladdich experience. Just as the warehouse tasting (and a distillery tour, if you haven't had the pleasure) is a must-do, the 'laddie shop itself is also not to be missed. With a great range of merchandise, a section dedicated to the distillery's Botanist gin for the non-whisky lovers, and a ridiculously impressive collection of past bottlings on display among the rafters, not to mention a huge range of current whisky offerings for sale, one could easily spend hours in here without even a shred of regret. In fact I may have come close to doing just that! The shop staff (who are often also tour guides, which is a great move!) are gracious, patient and generous hosts, despite being extremely busy with distillery visitors and customers, and both Lindy and my tour guide from last year's pilgrimage Frazer were manning the counter, so there was plenty of knowledge available when needed! As luck would have it the brand-new Octomore 9.3 Islay Barley was sitting on the shelves, and I was lucky enough to taste a small sample. As usual with these Islay Barley Octomores - and with Octomore in general -  it was delicious, and although there were a couple of amazing drams under my belt at this point it was very full-flavoured with loads of malted barley character, but also briny and slightly floral and very drinkable, which is incredible for such a heavily peated young whisky at high strength. That really seems to be something that Bruichladdich excel at, and is real a testament to their hard work. So did I grab one to take home? Well I was very tempted, but there was something in the corner that I had to take a close look at first. Yes, I'm talking about the Valinches!


Sitting quietly near the back wall of the shop are two casks, a Bruichladdich and a Port Charlotte. These are very special single cask whiskies, again picked out by Adam Hannett, waiting to be hand-filled into 500ml bottles right there in the shop as Valinch bottlings. These are always cask strength, and are often from an unusual cask type, age and/or strength. The Valinches that were available during my last pilgrimage were a Syrah cask-matured Bruichladdich at a very serious ABV, and a Banyuls cask-matured Port Charlotte, which was something I'd never seen before. That was a tough decision, but I went for the fantastic 'laddie cask back then. This time around though the Bruichladdich was a 14-year old first-fill ex-bourbon cask, and the Port Charlotte was... wait for it... an 11-year old first-fill sherry cask at 62.9%! Since the Feis Ile Port Charlotte Valinches have been bottled in the new squat green bottle design that you see above, which I'm going to dub the "smoke grenade-style" bottles, which I'm a fan of, and the limited releases are now mostly named using acronyms. For example the new travel-exclusive Marsala Cask is dubbed MC01, while this particular Valinch cask was dubbed SHC01, as in sherry cask 01. Both of the Valinch casks are available to taste at the shop counter, and both were delicious! The 'laddie was a lovely classic style Bruichladdich with that sweet, fruity & malty punch, but the Port Charlotte was something else. Extremely rich and full of chocolate, sherry and smoke, as soon as I tasted it I knew it had to come home with me. Speaking of which, these Valinch bottles are very reasonably priced at 75 pounds each, for 500ml bottles admittedly, but they're distillery exclusive single casks and cask strength, so I consider that very reasonable considering the rarity and exclusivity that's involved here. These two casks certainly make visiting the 'laddie shop even more special, and they're reason enough alone for me to get back there as soon as possible! Why did Australia have to be on the other side of the planet...


So after a completely perfect experience - and many excellent samplings - at Bruichladdich we were on the road again, headed to Caol Ila. I did say it was a big day! Luckily my wife had picked up a few snacks for the drive, so we had a quick lunch on the road to something I was very excited about. Caol Ila's Cask Strength Experience! 25 pounds gets you a quick tour of the distillery, something else that I hadn't been able to do on the last trip, followed by a dram of a distillery exclusive or limited release bottling and four drams taken straight from the cask. So this is roughly the equivalent of Lagavulin's warehouse tasting, but it includes a tour of the distillery and a full-sized Glencairn glass instead of a miniature version. It doesn't include Ian McArthur though! Caol Ila is still an under-appreciated distillery in my opinion, it's often seen as a faceless corporate giant that is mostly at the mercy of the blenders, but serious fans will be familiar with the magnificent single malts that this softly-spoken workhorse distillery can produce. And visiting the distillery for a tour like this will certainly help reinforce that! Unfortunately the distillery was in their annual "silent season" at the time of my tour, and they were last year as well (September last year, October this year. Just my luck!), but that wasn't so bad in the end because it meant we could actually take photos during the tour, something that is usually never permitted in a working Diageo distillery.


A good tour guide can make all the difference to a visitor's experience and impression, and the opposite is also true, but we had a brilliant one in Justina, Caol Ila's lead tour guide. It was very clear that she had genuine passion and interest in both the distillery, Islay and whisky in general, and she kept things very casual and conversational but honestly informative, even when faced with hardened malt fans. Diageo distilleries can get a bad rap among whisky enthusiasts, but I've never had anything close to a negative experience at either Caol Ila or Lagavulin, both are extremely welcoming, genuine and generous which of course is all down to the distillery staff. The larger scale at Caol Ila will be very clear if you've visited any of the other Islay distilleries, with a larger mash tun, six huge wooden washbacks, and four massive stills, with their fat necks and long lyne arms, which were undergoing maintenance at the time of our visit so could only be viewed through glass from the control room. But it's still fantastic to see it all up close! The "cask strength experience" part of the tasting was up next, which takes place in the old cooperage room inside the distillery's single on-site warehouse, and involved some serious whiskies!


We started with the a choice of 2018's unpeated special release or the current Distillery Exclusive bottling, which was a new bottling for 2018, and was surprisingly different from 2017's release that I purchased last year, being notably sweeter, and a little lighter & brighter in character. The cask selection is similar between the two - a marriage of refill & first-filled bourbon and red wine casks, but for this new version the cask details are printed on the label, the ABV is a little lower at 57.4% compared to 58.8%, and the number of bottles released has been doubled to 6000. So the first batch must have been very successful! Unfortunately this delicious and unexpected new release made my whisky purchasing decisions more difficult, but we'll get into that later since we have some delicious cask samples to talk about first. The chance to taste Caol Ila in its purest form was always going to be special, but we were really in for a treat with these four drams!


Our first cab off the rank was a 6-year old refill ex-bourbon cask, intended to showcase Caol Ila's spirit character at a young age with minimal cask influence, and weighing in at a hefty 60.9%. It was delicious as you'd expect, with plenty of peat and Caol Ila's sweet, grassy DNA really shining through, and no heat to speak of. Next up was a 12-year old first-fill bourbon hogshead at 61.9%, which made for a very interesting comparison with less overt spirit character, a richer and fuller texture with more honey and vanilla and less peat as you'd expect, but also less sweetness. These two drams were very special of course, but the next two were about the blow our socks off. Both were fully matured in first-fill European oak sherry butts! I had the honour of drawing our third whisky from the cask with a valinch, and it turned out to be one of the best Caol Ilas I've ever tasted, and one of the absolute stand-out whiskies of the entire trip. It was a 22-year old at 55.4%, with a beautiful bronze colour, and a delicious rich, spicy, chocolatey and nicely peaty flavour that was absolutely magical. Like I said with the Octomore at the Bruichladdich warehouse tasting, this whisky alone would be enough to get me straight back on a plane to Islay. Absolutely outstanding. But that's not all, the final cask sample and second sherry-matured dram was also extremely special. It was a 30-year old! Yes, a 30-year old Caol Ila from a first-fill European oak sherry butt. And at 56.5% ABV no less. It was a magnificent whisky with a dark, musty character and a very rich texture, and it still had flashes of that warm grassy smoke that Caol Ila is loved for. There's only been one 30-year old official bottling of Caol Ila in recent history, which retailed for around $900 AUD, and it was "only" from ex-bourbon casks and was not a single cask bottling, so you can imagine what this whisky would have been worth if they had chosen to bottle it. But they didn't, they put it aside for the cask strength experience to be enjoyed - for a total of just 25 pounds remember - by the serious Caol Ila fans who had made the pilgrimage to Islay. What an incredible experience, and it was yet another absolute highlight of the entire trip. I'll definitely be doing this tour again next time!


Now I had a difficult decision in front of me back in the distillery shop. Due to luggage space I had decided on, or rather resigned myself to, getting "only" two bottles from Caol Ila. And there were two bottles that were calling my name from the shelves, that 2018 Distillery Exclusive that I mentioned above, and something that I did not expect to find in October. The Caol Ila Feis Ile bottling! 2018's bottling was a vatting of refill American oak hogsheads and rejuvenated (shaved & re-toasted) European oak butts, at an ABV of 58.2% and carrying an age statement of 10 years, with only 2,500 bottles were released. After tasting this one it became a more difficult decision, but in the end it came out on top, with two of them coming home with me. One to drink, and one to keep - not sell. Being from the other side of the planet I had only come across one Caol Ila Feis Ile bottling before on my home turf, so getting the opportunity to buy my own was very special, and something I definitely could not miss out on!


We had one last appointment to get to, so it was time to say goodbye to Caol Ila and head back towards Bunnahabhain. Why, you ask? Well we weren't actually going as far as Bunnahabhain this time, we were stopping at something closer that is incredibly exciting. Islay's ninth distillery, Ardnahoe!


Ardnahoe is not yet open to visitors, although it should be towards the end of the year, but I had emailed ahead to ask if we could please take a quick look around. We were met at the gates by Bryony, part of the visitor's centre's management team, who graciously showed us around this very exciting distillery owned by independent bottler Hunter Laing. The distillery team and their legendary production director Jim McEwan were still experimenting with various things when we were there, and much of the inside of the distillery was still under construction, but the equipment was all up & running, and it was looking absolutely gorgeous. If you've been following the distillery's setup you'll know that this is the only Islay Distillery using worm tub condensers (very exciting!) and very long lyne arms, and Jim McEwan's plans for the distillery involved producing both unpeated, lightly-peated and heavily-peated spirit, so it's safe to say that this distillery will be totally unique on Islay. Which is excellent! Admittedly I did have a few drams under my belt at the time, but the excitement in the air was certainly contagious. This brand-new distillery on Islay, the first since Kilchoman opened thirteen years ago, has been designed in a modern way, but has kept to tradition and absolutely no corners have been cut. I can also attest to the view from the still room being one of the best on Islay, since it sits on top of a hill rather than down on the coast itself (no need to hide from the excise man these days!). We were also lucky enough to try a batch of unpeated wash that was fermenting at the time, and it was very tasty. Nutty and sweet rather than sour and very promising to this amateur observer. The resulting spirit that will soon start flowing from those gleaming new stills and their worm tubs will certainly be worth the wait. A big thanks to Bryony for showing us around on the day, it was very much appreciated and was an absolutely unique experience. I can't wait to try the finished product in a few year's time!


So that's it for the second instalment of the second pilgrimage write-up, congratulations on making it this far! The third & final part will be coming next week, and will feature Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore, Kilchoman and a quick stop in at Ardbeg. Cheers!

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Second Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 1: Oban, Mull & Campbeltown!


I'm back in action! After four nights in London and three in Italy, I was again lucky enough to step foot on the exalted ground that is Scotland! After a quick (and brilliant) one-nighter in Edinburgh, the wife & I were exploring some new ground. Oban, the Isle of Mull, and Campbeltown! Then, naturally, it was back to the absolute paradise that is Islay, but we'll save that for Part 2 & Part 3, because this one is long enough as it is...


Before we get into the magic of Scotland, there were a few stops in London that I just can't skip over! Following the hellish ordeal of the seemingly never-ending eight+thirteen hour flights, both of which were delayed (and the same goes for the return journey!), and mixed in with the obligatory sightseeing, there were a few brilliant whisky-related experiences in England that definitely deserve a mention. The first stop, much like last time, was The Whisky Exchange, which now has two stores, with the original in Covent Garden and the new addition in Fitzrovia. Both have similar ranges, although the new branch doesn't have the insane collections of old, rare and closed distillery whiskies that the main location does. You could walk from one to the other in under half an hour if you wanted to, and I did end up visiting and buying from both at either end of the trip, and neither was at all disappointing, with brilliant service and far too much whisky to choose from. Like last time I will probably wind up regretting not buying even more, particularly a couple of their exclusive single casks that I was lucky enough to taste. But then again there literally was no more room in the suitcase come the end of the trip, and I did grab a 12-year old Ledaig that was bottled for The Whisky Show, a Talisker 8 Year Old from this year's Diageo's Special Releases, and a 20-year old Ardmore OB that was an absolute bargain (and is very tasty), so it could have been worse!


The other mentions that must be mentioned were the same two brilliant whisky bars that I visited on the last trip, Milroy's of Soho and Soho Whisky Club. Maybe I'm a creature of habit, but I couldn't fault either bar last time, so there was no need to take extra risks this time! Many drams were enjoyed at both of these, with some major bucket-list whiskies getting ticked off the list. Milroy's have an excellent range of independent bottlings and more obscure distillery bottlings, and they also sell bottles to takeaway which I did take advantage of (Kilchoman Machir Bay Cask Strength - couldn't resist). Soho Whisky Club on the other hand is actually a members-only bar, but as with last year I was lucky enough to score a "hook-up" to visit this brilliant place. In fact George, the generous gent of a bar manager I met on my previous trip is now one of the distillers at Melbourne's Starward Distillery, the lucky bugger, and he was kind enough to clear another visit with the current manager, another George, who turned out to be just as outstanding as the George he replaced! Just to give you an idea of the whiskies on offer here, I was able to tick off legendary drams like Highland Park Odin, The Syndicate Lagavulin 15-year old, and the original Ardbeg Day bottling from 2012, among many others, and all were reasonably priced considering their rarity. Like I said last year, if I was a London local, I'd be doing my utmost to sign up with Soho Whisky Club on day one.


So, after a few days in Italy and a couple more hellish flights spent trapped in confined spaces with the possibly-possessed offspring of the other passengers, we finally arrived in Scotland. Or more specifically, Edinburgh. I very much enjoyed this fantastic city on the last trip, and although we only had one night here this time I suspected my wife would feel the same. And I was right, so there'll definitely be more time spent here on the third adventure. After a quick pub dinner and a visit to Bow Bar on that one night, we only had the following morning to explore, although we did manage to see plenty in that time. And thanks to the power of social media we also found another brilliant bar, The Black Cat, who had an open bottle of that aforementioned 8-year old Talisker just waiting to be sampled. It was delicious, by the way, in fact it's my favourite of the Taliskers that I've tasted to date (it's possible that the famous cask strength 25-year olds would beat it, but I haven't yet had the pleasure). Then came the chance to tick off another bucket-list whisky, Ardbeg Almost There, the 9-year old cask strength third stop on the peaty path to maturity (more info and a review of the fourth & final stop here) that was bottled in 2007. It was a brilliant "purist's" Ardbeg, full of that tarry, creamy peat, black pepper and lime that many of the great younger Ardbegs seem to exhibit. And a few hours later we were on the road north!


The first stop was the pretty town of Oban, on the west coast. It's around a three hour drive from Edinburgh, and we added a quick stop at The Kelpies on the way. But since we were a little late in setting off, the third hour of this drive was mostly in the dark, and in the rain, both of which kept the blood pressure up, and put an end to the sightseeing for the day. The next morning saw a very quick visit to the shop at Oban Distillery in the centre of town, before boarding the 50-minute ferry to the Isle of Mull for the day. Which of course included the island's resident distillery, Tobermory. The main town of the same name (pictured above) should also get a mention here, it's very beautiful and - even on a Sunday - there's plenty to do for an hour or two. Don't expect the ferry to drop you at its doorstep though, it only goes as far as Craignure, which is around 30-minutes drive from Tobermory, so make sure you factor that into your schedule if the town and distillery are on your list (which they should be).


Right, we've finally arrived at the first proper distillery visit of the trip! I'm a big fan of Tobermory's work, particularly their peated whisky Ledaig which can be fantastic. This Signatory bottling would probably be the favourite so far, but the standard 10-year old OB and the sherry finished 18-year old are consistently delicious, and also a little underrated. So I was excited to actually visit the place, although I knew they weren't producing at the time, and they won't be for around another two years yet while major maintenance and repairs are under way. The distillery is quite small, mostly thanks to the only "warehouse" on site being the size of your average living room, since the main warehouse was sold off and converted into apartments in the 1980s. Which means the majority of their spirit is matured on the mainland, mostly at sister distillery Deanston in the Highlands. The visitor's centre is also quite small, but has a great range of whisky, branded merchandise and other locally-made products, and the staff were great. The tour itself is relatively basic but reasonably informative, and there aren't any "off-limits" areas for the tour or for photography, which is a plus. Two of Tobermory's four wooden washbacks had recently been replaced, as had two of the stills, with the others due for replacement in the coming months. I was surprised at the shape & design of those stills too, as they all had reflux "onions", and the lyne arms are angled upwards before curving into a sharp upwards & ninety degree-bend to meet the condensers, yet the spirit they produce is relatively heavy. So the majority of that weight has to come from the high (around 90%) fill levels employed in those stills, and of course also the cut points, rather than the shape or design of the stills.


I went for the tasting tour option here, which includes a standard tour and the two entry-level drams (Tobermory 10 & Ledaig 10) plus an additional two drams of their limited releases or distillery exclusives. There were a couple of Tobermory bottlings and a few Ledaig expressions to choose from, and I opted for the 17-year old Madeira finished Tobermory, and the 20-year old Moscatel finished Ledaig. Both were good, but - surprisingly for my taste - the Tobermory was the stand out, and I very nearly purchased a bottle before spotting some interesting-looking 200ml bottles behind the counter. They were cask samples, a 10-year old Tobermory from a Bordeaux cask, and a 14-year old Ledaig from an Oloroso cask, exclusive to the distillery shop, and they were both fantastic. They weren't particularly cheap at 30- and 35-pounds each respectively for the 200ml bottles, but were well worth it for this level of quality and exclusivity. I'll be reviewing both of those in the future, so keep an eye out for that! We had a big drive planned for the following day, so that was it for Tobermory and our time on the Isle of Mull, but I'd definitely recommend making the trip if you're a fan.


As fantastic as my first pilgrimage to Scotland was in 2017, there was something missing. Something that had been on my wish list for years, mostly due to my penchant for its three remaining distilleries. Campbeltown! I just didn't have enough time, or sufficient transport options, to get there on the previous trip, but it was definitely going to happen this time! Since we had a rental car for this portion of the second pilgrimage, and my wife had (albeit a little reluctantly!) agreed to drive when necessary, it was relatively easy to get there this time around. And what an incredible experience it was! Due to the Islay ferry off-season timetables, and wanting to get the most out of the trip, we elected to drive down from Oban (a 3 hour drive with some incredible scenery) very early in the morning to arrive in Campbeltown at around 9.30am, which would give us a bit of time to look around before getting on the 10am tour at the mighty Springbank, before heading back to Kennacraig (around 40 minutes drive) in time for the afternoon ferry to Islay. It was a little tight, but it was essentially the only option if we wanted to maximise our time. I'm also a fan of Glen Scotia and would've liked to tour there as well, but due to our time constraints we could only take a few photos and peek through a few of their windows. A proper visit is on the list for next time, as is more time in Campbeltown in general!


Springbank! This was one of many "pinch-myself" moments during the pilgrimage, although finding the distillery isn't so easy! It's not visible from the main road and is basically hidden behind rows of shops & other buildings, plus our sat-nav decided to have a fit at this point, but with some help we found the narrow driveway with plenty of time to spare, before coming face to face with the glorious distillery wall pictured above. Once you're in that car park you get your first glimpse of the distillery in all its old-school, traditionally rough & ready glory. The distillery shop itself has a fairly good range of merchandise, and again some other locally-made products, although as you'd expect if you're a Springbank fan there weren't any rare or unusual bottlings available for sale. There simply isn't enough of this fantastic juice to go around! But there are some glass cabinets setup around the tasting table, containing a plethora of breathtaking old and departed bottlings of all three brands produced at the distillery. And they're the stuff of (dram) dreams...


Springbank is a wonderful place. The tour covers all of the usual areas of course, but as fans will know, this is the only distillery in Scotland that does everything on-site, from floor-malting 100% of their barley to bottling and packaging, and that all makes experiencing those things up close all the more special. The first stop was the malting floors, which are a similar size to those found at Bowmore and a little smaller than Laphroaig's, but Springbank isn't buying in 80% of its malt like those two Ileachs, all of the whisky they produce is made from malt that has been laid down on these very floors. And seeing that happening in front of you helps to emphasise just how small this distillery actually is, despite its deservedly-massive following and cult status. After a brief pause at the kiln and the peat store outside - also giving a nice view of the worm tub condenser fitted to the centre still - the next stop is the malt bins and mill, followed by the open-topped cast iron mash tun and wooden washbacks (interestingly made from larch, not Oregon pine like most), before arriving in the still room. To finally see those three stills with my own eyes was almost a spiritual experience, particularly that famous direct-fired wash still on the left. Like the rest of the distillery you won't find any spotless glossy paint, polished steel or & lacquered copper here, everything is unashamedly functional and very traditional, which makes it all the more beautiful. After a look at the spirit safe and an explanation of Springbank's rather complicated distillation practices (the 2, 2.5 and 3-times distillation methods of the three different spirits) we were led next door to the filling room, and then on to one of the distillery's dunnage warehouses.


Visiting Campbeltown and Springbank certainly helps to underline where that famous briny note comes from in the whisky, since the distillery is only around 250 metres from the sea, and the warehouses are all breathing in that salty fresh air, particularly during windy conditions. And of course there's plenty of that musty, earthy dunnage atmosphere to soak in. Whisky maturation is a long game of course, so what you're looking at may not be bottled for decades, but it's always exciting to look around warehouses and see what you can spot. There were plenty of exotic and interesting casks to gawk at in that dark, cold, dank warehouse, from port pipes of Springbank to bourbon barrels of Kilkerran, and sherry butts of Springbank Local Barley that had been filled in 2016, among others. Our final stop of the tour was the bottling hall, which is responsible for bottling all Springbank, Hazelburn, Longrow, Kilkerran and Cadenheads whiskies. So it's quite a busy place! We weren't permitted to take photos inside unfortunately, largely because something pretty special was taking place at the time. The next instalment of Springbank Local Barley, the 9-year old, was being bottled & packaged right in front of us! I'm a big fan of this series so far, and I'll definitely be adding one (or more) of those to the shelves when it eventually arrives down under. After that it was back to the visitor's centre, since unfortunately we didn't have the time to also tour neighbouring Glengyle Distillery.


Glengyle (producing Kilkerran single malt) is a short walk from Springbank within the same complex, and I did sneak a quick look from the outside before our Springbank tour. A proper visit is also on the list for next time! As part of the Springbank tour you're offered a dram of an entry-level expression, and you're also given an exclusive 50ml miniature of Springbank whisky as a drinkable keepsake, a 'Private Bottling for Distillery Visitors', which changes each year. 2018's version is a 10-year old Springbank from first-fill bourbon casks at 46% which I'll probably review in future, since I'm very interested to try it and curiosity will likely get the better of me. These two inclusions make this tour exceptional value for money, since the Springbank-only standard tour costs just 7 pounds per person. Adding the Glengyle option ups that to 12 pounds, but adds both a dram of Kilkerran 12-year old and a Kilkerran visitor's miniature. Both of us elected to takeaway our included drams after the tour, which were a choice of the standard Hazelburn, Springbank or Longrow 10-year olds, because (thanks to the pending ferry) we needed to get to one final stop in a hurry before leaving Campbeltown: Cadenheads!


For almost as long as I've wanted to visit "the wee toon" I've also wanted to get my hands on the ridiculously special bottles that come out of the Cadenheads shop there, which is only two hundred metres from the distillery. Cadenheads is of course owned by the same company as Springbank, the privately-owned J&A Mitchell & Co., and while they have similar casks of regional blended whiskies on the wall for hand-filling (at very reasonable prices) as the Edinburgh branch, in this case that also means that this particular Cadenheads shop gets their hands on some incredibly rare bottlings from both distilleries, plus an amazing range of Cadenheads' own independent bottlings, and casks of Springbank, Longrow and Hazelburn malts sitting on the wall ready for hand-filling and labelling as "Tasting Room" bottles. All of which are already rare, but there's something else here that really ups the rarity stakes. Known as "cage bottles" thanks to the padlocked mesh-doored cupboard that they're kept in, these mysterious and wondrous yet entirely nondescript bottles - which only adds to their allure - of Hazelburn, Springbank and Longrow can only be purchased from this very shop, unless you come across one at auction at a very inflated price. From what I gather (told you they were mysterious!) these are mostly cask samples or cask ends, and a case or two will randomly turn up on Cadenhead's doorstep every now and then, with the random contents then stocked into the cage for sale as incredibly special 'Duty Paid Samples'. They're all one-off bottlings, they all have age statements, and the level of quality seems to be reliably excellent. Oh, and let's not forget the cask types that you might (yes, might) find in there, that are denoted by hand-written short codes on their plain white labels. Springbank FP HHD? That'd be a first-fill (a.k.a. "fresh") port hogshead Springbank! Longrow FSB? That'd be a first-fill sherry butt Longrow! Springbank RR BRL? That's a refill rum barrel Springbank! See what I'm talking about here? Very special stuff!


These bottles are of course very collectable and very lusted after by those in the know, and what is available (if anything!) is entirely luck-of-the-draw on the day that you're there. If you're unlucky and some cashed-up collectors have recently been through, you may find those shelves particularly bare, or even completely empty. To make things better (or worse, depending on your perspective) they're also very reasonably priced, with most going for around 70 pounds. The cage was looking a bit sad when I was there, but luckily there was still plenty to choose from. I wish I'd had even more time to look at (and buy) these magnificently plain bottles, but I ended up getting my hands on a couple of very special Springbanks, one from a first-fill sherry cask and one from a refill rum cask. And I already know that I should've gotten more. Will I review one of those? Well, maybe one day. I just know that I need to return to Campbeltown as soon as possible...


And yes we did make the ferry on time, so Part 2 & 3 of this write-up will feature my favourite subject: Islay!

Sunday, 7 October 2018

SMWS 10.116 & 10.130 (Bunnahabhain) Whisky Reviews!

Review & compare two young, peated, cask strength, single cask Bunnahabhains? Don't mind if I do!


It's been quite some time since I reviewed a Bunnahabhain, about 18 months in fact, so before we get down to it, we're long overdue for some revision! Bunnahabhain is a bit of an outlier on Islay. The majority (currently around 80%) of their 2.75-million litre production capacity is essentially un-peated, since their standard malt generally measures 1-2 ppm phenols, which of course is undetectable in the whisky. But there is also an increasing amount of good quality peated Bunnahabhain around, with the official bottlings mostly going under the sub-brand name "Moine" (Gaelic for "peat"), and many of the peated independent bottlings under the name "Margadale" (Bunnahabhain's water source is the Margadale spring). A large chunk of the distillery's production still goes into blended whiskies, particularly Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark, both of which are owned by Edrington who in turn owned Bunnahabhain from 1999-2003. It also features in the Black Bottle blended whisky, which is owned by Burn Stewart Distillers who owned the distillery from 2003-2013, but the current version of that blend contains much less Islay whisky than earlier iterations did. And those earlier versions were actually quite good!

Bunnahabhain is currently undergoing substantial renovation & restoration work, and will be for a couple of years to come, including a new visitor's centre, improved car parking and even on-site holiday accommodation. It was looking a little shabby, so I can see why the distillery is getting a face-lift, although that shabby-ness is / was also part of its charm. Unlike their fellow Distell-owned distillery on the Isle of Mull, Tobermory, the distillery is still working during these renovations, and tours aren't expected to be affected. Bunnahabhain is the most remote of the Islay distilleries and isn't particularly easy to get to, so it's good to see that the owners are investing in the visitor experience and also the aesthetics of this softly-spoken but venerable distillery.

The two Bunnahabhain's that I'm looking at today are a little different from most. As you've probably noticed from the title of this review, they're independent bottlings from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a.k.a the SMWS or "the society". The SMWS only bottle single cask, cask strength, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured spirits (they're bottling more than 'just' whisky these days), and they don't name the distilleries on the labels. Instead they use distillery codes, for example 29 is Laphroaig, 33 is Ardbeg, and 10 is Bunnahabhain, which is followed by a bottling or cask sequence number. So the first of their malts that we're looking at here, 10.116, is the 116th cask of Bunnahabhain that the society has released. I've only reviewed a couple of SMWS whiskies so far, namely a brilliant young sherry-matured Ardbeg and a very interesting and extremely rare & expensive Karuizawa, and I've also had the pleasure of attending a masterclass with their Australian cellar master, Andrew Derbidge with a few more tasty drams included (write-up here), but I'm generally not exposed to many of their bottlings. The samples for today's two reviews were kindly donated by the society's Queensland manager, Scott Mansfield. Cheers Scott!

What we have here are two 9-year old peated Bunnahabhains, one from a refill ex-bourbon barrel (200-litre cask), and one from a refill ex-bourbon hogshead (250-litre cask), so this should make for an interesting comparison. 10.116 "Flaming Orange Twist" was distilled in February 2008, and came from the aforementioned refill barrel, which yielded 187 bottles at a cask strength of 59.6% ABV. Whisky number two, 10.130 "Chimney Sweep on a Trawler", was distilled in October 2007, and the refill hogshead yielded 270 bottles at 61.9% ABV. So the larger cask was responsible for the slightly older whisky, but at a notably higher ABV and (it would seem) not as much attention from those thirsty angels. Time for a closer look!

SMWS 10.116 (Bunnahabhain) "Flaming Orange Twist", 59.6%. Islay, Scotland. 
Distilled 2/2008, matured in single refill ex-bourbon barrel, bottled 2017 (9 year old). 187 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Surprisingly subtle and refined, with grassy, oily, fresh vegetal peat, bitter orange peel, and semi-sweet vanilla paste. There's a lovely briny and sandy coastal note too. With more time in the glass it becomes more herbal and grassy, with some fennel seed coming through.

Texture: Medium to heavy weight, nice and oily, there's some heat but it's felt more in the chest than on the palate, which is different, but it's not a harsh or rough spirit-y heat.

Taste: Creamy vanilla and more dark, oily, vegetal peat, some old marine tar and hot bitumen or asphalt (which tastes better than it sounds). Some hot chilli spice and more bitter orange peel.

Finish: Short length, becomes surprisingly soft quite quickly, with that herbal grassy note from the nose coming back through, and the fennel seed as well, but it's been toasted this time.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: It's always hard to combat the power of suggestion with these SMWS bottlings. As soon as you've sighted the label or just the name of the bottling your brain is pre-programmed into looking for, and often finding, certain aromas and flavours. But this one definitely does seem to do what it says on the tin, with the bitter orange, chilli spice and peat notes coming through nicely. I can't say that I find it particularly smoky, it's definitely more peaty and herbal for my palate, but it's nicely balanced as well. Admittedly there's not a huge amount of complexity here, and the finish is surprisingly short and light, but it's a nice young, fresh peated Bunnahabhain with a great weighty texture.


SMWS 10.130 (Bunnahabhain) "Chimney Sweep on a Trawler", 61.9%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 10/2007, matured in single refill ex-bourbon hogshead, bottled 2017 (9-year old). 270 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Immediately very different to the .116. Much lighter, softer and cleaner on the nose, despite the higher ABV. There's some charcoal BBQ briquettes, floral honey and dried leafy herbs, some wallpaper paste (flour-y glue) and putty, and a nice sweet lemon citrus note.

Texture: Medium weight, soft on entry with a quick crescendo. There's slightly less heat than the .116 as well, again despite the higher ABV, and it doesn't hang around as long either.

Taste: Cleaner and fresher, more floral honey, sweet citrus, a dry powdery peat and some coal dust. Is this Bunnahabhain's take on a Bowmore? And that's absolutely not a complaint! There's a dry spice as well that releases its heat gradually, like a cayenne powder or dried chilli flakes. Some sweet leafy herbs and a light wood smoke as well.

Finish: Medium length, more staying power here. A little astringent to start with, with more of that floral honey and some lemon oil, then more dry chilli powder and a touch of musty old oak coming through. Sweet citrus again, and maybe a hint of honeydew melon? Some coal dust again, and a good pinch of dark cocoa powder to finish.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: Very interesting! It's less peaty and much less coastal than the .116, and it's dryer as well. There's also less heat, and the heat that is there is more on the front of the palate & tongue rather than the back like it was in the previous dram. I definitely get the "chimney sweep" part of the name of this bottling, but not so much the "trawler" part. And I don't think I'd pick this whisky as a Bunnahabhain if it was served blind, it's much less obvious here with the distillery style more hidden, which makes for a very interesting dramming experience. I really think I could be convinced that this was a Bowmore. But after all, that is the beauty, and also the fun, of tasting single cask whiskies. No two are exactly alike, even when they look similar on paper, and some are vastly different!

Overall notes: They may not be astronomical scores, but these are both very enjoyable whiskies, and they made for a great comparison! In fact the scores wouldn't be this close if I'd gone with a 10-point system way back when. Good old hindsight is always so accurate! The .130 is the winner for me, partly because it's so unexpectedly different, and also because of the longer and more assertive finish. But both are interesting whiskies, and both are different (to different degrees) from the typical distillery style, which is all as we should expect from the SMWS. That's pretty much what they do! Both are also quite mature for the age and strength, and without the helping hand of fresh casks, which is a good sign of careful production from the distillery, and discerning cask selection from the society. Thanks to Scott Mansfield from the SMWS for the samples, and for the opportunity to taste these bottles!

Unfortunately there'll be a short break between reviews over the next five weeks or so, since I'm off on holidays! England, Italy and then of course Scotland - almost exactly 13 months after the last visit! See you on the flip side folks!

Cheers!