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Sunday, 19 November 2017

In Detail: Edradour Distillery!


The first distillery experience on the mainland during my pilgrimage to Scotland was a very special one. For quite some time Edradour was the smallest single malt distillery in Scotland, and it's still positively tiny when compared to 99% of its fellow Scots. Located in a small valley in Perthshire, around 2 hours north of Edinburgh and 10 minutes south-east of the very pretty town of Pitlochry, the distillery tours and visitor's centre are quite popular with tourists, no doubt thanks to its very scenic surroundings, the very well equipped gift shop, and the separate tasting bar that is open to touring visitors, boasting a very large range and very reasonable prices. In fact Edradour is one of the most visited whisky distilleries in Scotland, and after my visit I can certainly see why. Thanks to Edradour & Signatory's Australian importer The Whisky Company I was lucky enough to get a personal tour from distillery manager Des McHagerty, who graciously gave me a very close look at both the distillery and its equipment, and the whiskies they produce!


Edradour was founded in 1837 as a farm distillery, and after a few changes of ownership the distillery ended up in the hands of the Pernod Ricard group of companies. But in 2002 it was deemed surplus to requirements, since Pernod had acquired Chivas Brothers and their distilleries not long before. It was snapped up by Andrew Symington, who along with his brother Brian owned independent bottling company Signatory Vintage, and had been keeping a close eye on what was (and still is) one of his favourite distilleries with the hope of eventually buying it. The distillery really is postcard-level beautiful, especially on a rare sunny day, and is very much what you imagine when you think of a small-scale traditional and 'romantic' Scottish whisky distillery, so I can see why Andrew first fell in love with the place! If you're not venturing too far from Edinburgh, I highly recommend stopping in here for a tour and a dram, it was definitely one of the highlights of my time on the mainland.

Edradour's still house, home to all of the production equipment!

While no longer growing its barley on site (it's now mostly sourced from Bairds Maltings in Inverness), the original farm buildings are still home to the distillery's equipment, and the distillery remains very "old school" and as original as possible, which certainly adds to its appeal. As much of the production process as possible is done by hand, despite there only being 2-3 production staff, and you'll find a very traditional setup in that old original farm building. The distillery uses wooden washbacks, an open-topped cast iron mash tun, very small copper pot stills with worm tub condensers and a spirit purifier (as does Ardbeg), and a Morton refrigerator (heat exchanger) which is used to cool the wort before yeast is added.


Above you can see the 4200-litre wash still on the left, and the 2200-litre spirit still on the right. For a point of reference here, the Islay giant Caol Ila Distillery's three wash stills are 19,000-litres each in capacity, while each of the three spirit stills hold 12,000-litres, so these really are very, very small! These small stills with their downward-angled lyne arms, and the two worm tub condensers, give Edradour's spirit a lovely oily, chewy and sweet spirit that works very well with a range of different casks. The distillery also has its own bottling line on site, which is quite uncommon in the industry, and negates the need for both Edradour and Signatory Vintage whiskies to be shipped in tankers to industrial-scale centralised bottling facilities.

One of Edradour's wormtub condensers. It was great to finally see one of these in action!

The small scale of the distillery is largely down to spacial restrictions, with all of the production equipment located in a single building, one of the original farm buildings in fact. As such there's only two washbacks and a single pair of stills, but there is a second distillery being built on site, which is on the other side of the Edradour burn (creek) that runs through the site. This new facility will have its own pair of small stills, to the same design and size as the originals, including the worm tub condensers and spirit purifier. It will be very exciting to see what Andrew and his team do with this new capacity, and I'm sure there are big things ahead!

The new second distillery being built on site, which should come online shortly.

This additional distillery has been very carefully designed to offer the same characteristics as the current one, but on a larger scale with six new wooden washbacks and an additional larger racked warehouse. The new distillery will initially produce around 200,000 litres of new make spirit per year, which will bring Edradour up to approximately 325,000 litres per year, with the potential for further production increases in the future. That's still tiny by Scotch whisky industry standards, but is a substantial increase for this little Highland distillery. The new distillery was still being setup during my visit, and it was a real treat to see the shiny new stills and equipment sitting in place waiting for the proverbial switch to be flicked.

The shiny new stills in their protective plastic wrapping.

Edradour use a large range of cask types to mature their whisky, including a lot of uncommon wine and fortified wine casks, such as Chardonnay and Madeira, Bordeaux and Sauternes casks, and crucially the vast majority of Edradour bottlings are fully matured in those casks, rather than being "finished" or "double matured" in those casks for short periods. There are around 5000 Edradour casks stored on site, along with around 1000 Signatory Vintage casks from various distilleries, and neither entity produces any whisky for blends, it's all bottled as single malt, often even from a single cask. The majority of warehousing on site is traditional earthen-floored dunnage style, although the racked warehouses are still earthen-floored and are typically only stacked 4-5 casks high, so they're essentially a combination of both styles. Edradour do remind me of a smaller scale Bruichladdich in a lot of ways, from the totally manual and very "hands on" production, to the open-topped iron mash tun and wooden washbacks, and especially in their use of uncommon wine casks and unusual limited bottlings. They also don't add any colouring to their whiskies, and aside from the entry-level Edradour 10-year old which is bottled at 40% ABV, none of their expressions are chill filtered, which is great to see.

    One of Edradour's dunnage warehouses, also home to some Signatory casks.

There are over 25 Edradour expressions in the current range, including the heavily peated (to 50 ppm) Ballechin expressions (10-year old reviewed here) which were first distilled in 2003 and are named after a long-extinct farm distillery that was located a few miles from Edradour and was known for its peated whisky. I was lucky enough to try quite a few of these drams at the incredible tasting bar at the distillery, staffed by Alan, a very friendly and helpful gent that was very accommodating. These drams included some very rare and unusual bottlings of both Edradour and Ballechin, and I was able to take a few tasting notes and first impressions after the tour. The gift shop also offers a couple of different distillery exclusive single cask bottlings, so naturally I had to try some of those as well! 


I started off with the very nice 15-year old "Fairy Flag" sherry cask-finished expression of Edradour to get into the mood, then went for the one pictured above, a 12-year old "Straight From the Cask" (SFTC) Edradour that was fully matured in a single Chardonnay wine cask, and was bottled at cask strength without any colouring or chill filtration. Extremely rich, sweet and fruity, the Chardonnay cask had really worked well with the heavy, oily Edradour spirit, even at "only" 12 years of age. This was an absolutely fantastic drop, and I just had to stop in and buy one of these on my way past the distillery at the end of the trip!


Next up was one of the oldest Edradour expressions to date, a 21-year old that was matured in ex-bourbon barrels for almost 10 years, then transferred into Oloroso sherry casks for a further 12 years. So "Oloroso cask finish" doesn't really tell the full story! This one was also bottled at cask strength, and was also very rich and fruity, but with a darker character and a lovely musty, spicy flavour from the sherry casks that was just delicious. And having the opportunity to taste a 21-year old cask strength whisky, at the distillery it came from, is not something to be taken lightly!


Then I was treated to something pretty special and very unusual. While this is an un-peated Edradour whisky, it was matured in a cask that previously held a heavily peated Islay whisky, hence the "PTM" acronym: Peated Through Maturation. But that wasn't just any Islay whisky cask, it was a Signatory Vintage Port Ellen cask! Now that's not something you see every day! The Edradour spirit spent 14 years in that ex-Port Ellen cask before being bottled at cask strength, and it made for a delicious combination of the sweet, oily Edradour spirit with soft influences of coastal peaty-ness. And what an idea!


Then we were in to the heavily peated Ballechins, starting with this Straight From The Cask bottling that was fully matured in a single Port cask for 13 years, before being bottled at cask strength with no colouring or chill filtration. This was yet another delicious dram, with sweet strawberries balancing with a musty, earthy peat and a very nice waxy red fruit finish. These SFTC expressions are also 500 ml bottlings, which helps to keep the cost down to a very reasonable level.


Then we were into the first of two distillery exclusive single cask Ballechin bottlings. This expression pictured above was fully matured in a Sauternes dessert wine cask for 10 years, before being bottled at 58.5%, without any added colouring or chill filtration. Despite being a cask strength 700 ml bottling that was fully matured in an exotic wine cask, this was very reasonably priced at just 69 pounds from the distillery shop. It was a very interesting dram too, and was a lot dryer than I had expected with the sweet wine cask maturation. There was a lot of musty white grape on the nose, with the peat hidden away until you took a sip, when it showed itself as a lovely ashy smoke alongside the fruit.


The last dram of the visit was the second of the distillery exclusive Ballechins, and was my favourite of the range. This one is another 10-year old cask strength bottling, naturally coloured and non-chill filtered, and also selling for a very reasonable 69 pounds from the distillery shop. The difference here is that this one was fully matured in a single Madeira wine cask, before being bottled at 59.1%. And it was absolutely delicious, and dangerously drinkable! Sweet and thick on the nose with roasted nuts and lightly burnt caramel, the palate was also gorgeous, with dark maple syrup sweetness and a little soft smoke and earthy peat behind. Unfortunately I couldn't squeeze one of these into my suitcase, so I went for the smaller Chardonnay-matured Edradour instead, but I'll be leaving some more room in my luggage on the next visit!


As you can probably tell, this was one fantastic distillery experience, and I can't thank Des, Andrew and Alan enough for their hospitality, and for all of their hard work in general! And a huge thanks must go to Craig from The Whisky Company, the Australian importer of both Edradour and Signatory Vintage, for organising such a brilliant visit to this little gem of a distillery. Craig has a great range of Edradour, Ballechin and Signatory bottlings on his website, so make sure you check them out! Naturally I also highly recommend that you check out Edradour Distillery if you're making your pilgrimage to Scotland. It's a unique experience and really gives a close-up and approachable view of the entire whisky making process that is somewhat easier to relate to than its bigger, more industrial cousins. I'm already looking forward to the next time!

Cheers!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Rest & Be Thankful Octomore 2009 Whisky Review!

What's this, some unusual independent bottling of Octomore? Why yes, that's exactly what it is! Not something you see every day hey?

Taken from the shore at Inverary, but looking towards Rest & Be Thankful... you get the idea!

Rest & Be Thankful is owned by the England-based blender & independent bottler Fox Fitzgerald, and is a relatively new brand, only arriving in Australia in 2016. They have made an impact though, bringing us one of only a few independent bottlings of Bruichladdich's super-heavily peated Octomore whisky that are available in the world, and the only one so far that is officially distributed in Australia, in this case thanks to Baranow's Emporium. The slightly awkward brand name on this bottling refers to the "Rest & Be Thankful" viewing area & rest stop located near the highest point on the A83 road in western Scotland, not far from Loch Lomond, which is the road you'll take if you're driving from Glasgow (or Edinburgh) to Campbeltown or Islay. Although I only passed it on the bus, just rest assured (pun intended) that it's a very, very beautiful area.

As you can probably guess by the fact that they've been able to sell Octomore as an independent bottler, Fox Fitzgerald have a close relationship with Bruichladdich, and are bottling both Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte and Octomore spirit under their Rest & Be Thankful brand. Rumour has it that they managed to purchase a large number of privately owned mature casks during the purchase of the distillery by Remy Cointreau, along with some mature casks from other distilleries not very often seen in independent bottlings, such as Macallan, Arran, Highland Park and Springbank. Most carry age statements and cask details on the label as well, and are bottled at cask strength, without chill filtration or added colouring. When comparing these Octomore bottlings to their official cousins, you may notice a number missing: the ppm measurement, which Bruichladdich quote on most of their Octomore expressions. But we do have a 'vintage', as in year of distillation, which in this case is 2009, so we can assume that these casks were filled around the same time as the official 6.1 (which was bottled in 2014 as a 5 year old), which weighed in at 167 ppm. Not that it really tells us a whole lot anyway, so like all Octomore we can safely assume it's going to be seriously peaty.

This particular bottling I'm looking at today was fully matured, not finished, in a single ex-red wine cask from the Pauillac region of Bordeaux, France. So we don't know the grape variety or the vineyard responsible for that red wine cask, and there are half a dozen famous wineries in the area, but that's OK, since that's also how Bruichladdich often operates with their official bottlings. That single ex-red wine cask yielded a total of 300 bottles, at a cask strength of 66.9%, and an age of approximately 6 years & 3 months. These Rest & Be Thankful bottlings are not exactly cheap, with the Octomore releases retailing at around $500 AUD in Australia, which is around double that of the more expensive official bottlings such as 7.2 & 7.3. But then they are older than those official Octomores, they are higher in strength, and of course there are far fewer bottles available. The sample for this review came from the Australian importer for Rest & Be Thankful (among others), Melbourne-based Baranow's Emporium. Let's get to it!

Rest & Be Thankful Octomore 2009, NAS, 66.9%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 11/2009, bottled 2/2016. Matured in a single ex-red wine cask from Pauillac, Bordeaux, France. Cask number 2009004312, 300 bottles. Cask strength, non-chill filtered, natural colour.  

Colour: Deep gold.

Nose: Fresh, meaty and quite citrus-y. Lemon rind, bitter oranges, meaty & salty fresh natural oysters on a plate of rock salt. Yes really! Sweet red fruits come out with time, and does a little damp oak, some wood spice incense, and a soft hint of crumbly, earthy / muddy peat.  

Texture: Heavy weight, thick & meaty texture. Some heat as well, but it's 66.9% remember!

Taste: There's the peat finally, but it's really subdued for an Octomore. Meaty & spicy, like Moroccan-style spiced grilled red meat. Then becomes sweet with red berries and thick dark toffee. Then a little of that citrus and incense spice from the nose.  

Finish: Medium length. Hot & spicy initially, and drying. The wood spice incense note is very dominant for much of the time, when it tapers off the citrus and a little smoke comes out, and that spiced meat note again with a little salt. 

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: This was a tough one to call. It's really quite hot, but not in a completely unpleasant way. And at 66.9% that comes with the territory really. Yes I could have added water, but I don't usually do that for any other reviews until after I've scored the dram at hand, so it wouldn't be fair. I love the nose on this Rest & Be Thankful, and the palate was nice too, but the finish didn't quite float my boat personally. I'm not a big fan of dominant spice notes in a whisky (Ardbeg Kelpie, for example), so that incense note didn't really gel with my palate. But the nose does help to make up for that, and this is definitely one of those drams that you could sit with for a long time without even taking a sip. 

It's all too tempting to compare this with the official bottlings from Bruichladdich, and let's be frank, they are much cheaper than this one is. Let's also remember though that they are often reduced, albeit only slightly, from the natural cask strength, while this one is really packing a punch. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing in this case is hard to say, but the distillery obviously has a reason for reducing the strength of their official bottlings of Octomore or they wouldn't do it. This Rest & Be Thankful bottling is also a year older than most of the official releases, although still a young and fresh whisky, so that would make a difference as well. 

I know I'm harping on about the price a little, and an independent bottling of Octomore is not such a commonly seen thing, so we don't have a lot of other examples to refer to, but there's no denying that this is a seriously expensive whisky. Despite it's limited and single cask nature, $500 AUD (and upwards) is quite a number for a 6-year old whisky. One could easily buy two bottles of the official bottlings for that, even two of the delicious 7.3 Islay Barley at the moment. But this is a single cask bottling, and it's a different take on the make, with far less peat and more spice, so it doesn't really replicate any of the official line-up. For me though, it's a little hard to get past that spice, and that price. 

Cheers!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Laphroaig 30 Year Old Whisky Review!

Now that's not something you hear (or read) every day! A 30-year old Laphroaig? Yes please! This is the first of a few special reviews that will honour the favourite distilleries from my pilgrimage to Scotland, and what better to start with than my beloved Laphroaig!

Following on from the excellent 32-year old limited release that hit the shelves in 2015, this 30-year old bottling was released in 2016. Both were bottled at natural cask strength without added colouring or chill filtration, and were presented in very pretty white wooden boxes and clear bottles. While the 32 was fully matured in Oloroso sherry casks and sold out very quickly considering the investment required, this one was fully matured in ex-bourbon casks, and seems to be mostly sold out. It was also more expensive than it's older predecessor, around $500 AUD more expensive in fact, but then it is also significantly higher in strength at 53.5% compared to 46.6% in the sherry cask bottling, and it was released a year sooner. There has since been a 27-year old bottling released earlier in 2017, and that one was down to 41.7% (still bottled at cask strength), but it is almost half the price of the 30 year old we're looking at here. I wonder what they're going to come up with next year!

This 30-year old bottling was distilled in October 1985 (wow!) and bottled in May 2016, and was "double matured" in all ex-bourbon barrels, both refill and first fill. Given the age of this whisky I'm assuming it was mostly matured in refill ex-bourbon casks, and then finished or double matured in first fill ex-bourbon casks, but it could have been the other way around. Although it doesn't say so on the packaging, I think we can safely assume that it is naturally coloured and non-chill filtered, and the texture of this beautiful stuff reinforces that assumption for me. I love the packaging too, a nice simple clear bottle and white label, and that wooden box is very pretty. They could have easily put this whisky in some ridiculous and over-compensating packaging and tripled the price, but there's no crystal decanters and fancy hand-crafted lacquered boxes here, just an understated label and box, and a relatively reasonable price considering what you're getting. Great stuff!

Older Laphroaigs tend to be quite refined, sweet and gentle. But the aforementioned 32-year old was surprisingly peaty considering its age and the sherry casks that were involved, since both age and assertive casks tend to reduce peating levels, so this one will be very interesting, particularly with the significantly higher strength. I wasn't even one year old when this whisky was distilled, so let's see if it's aged better than I have!
Laphroaig 30-year old, 53.5%, 2016 bottling. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 10/1985, bottled 5/2016. "Double matured" in both first-fill and refill ex-bourbon casks. Natural colour, non-chill filtered. 

Colour: Deep gold. 

Nose: Super soft and gentle, no sign of any alcohol at all. Sweet, juicy oranges & apples, dusty light honey and toasted oak. Some salted licorice, and marzipan (sweetened almond paste)! Dried herbs - sage, a little rosemary, and sweet dried flowers. Surprisingly fresh and bright for the age, this is already a winner!

Texture: Very nice. Medium weight, and well balanced. No sign of any heat at all.

Taste: Sweet and light on entry, builds slowly to a lovely dry, ashy peat that quickly fades again leaving salted licorice and fruit. Dried fruit now though, apples & oranges again. More of those dried herbs too, and an almost grape soft drink / soda-like sweetness. 

Finish: Long, and comes & goes in waves. Typical Laphroaig grapefruit here, but it's less sweet and less intense here, more of a dried grapefruit. Lots of dried tropical fruit in fact, papaya too. A little cigarette ash, strong aniseed, wood spices and powdered ginger. Then cinnamon sugar on a flaky sweet pastry, and a little warm oak.   

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: A delicious whisky of course, as can be expected from Laphroaig! It's certainly far less peaty and more subtle & refined than I remember the 32 year old being, but there's still a lot going on here, and there are still traces of that Laphroaig DNA that we all love. I really like the flavours that are on offer here, it's like a gentleman Laphroaig in a three-piece suit. Very refined and gentle, softly spoken but also very expressive and confident. Very, very impressive, as always. And yes, I'd have to say it's aged better than I have...

Like I've said in the past about the 25-year old and 32-year old, if you're a Laphroaig fan and you have the disposable income necessary to buy in to one of these much older expressions, you can't go wrong. If I was in the market myself for a whisky of this age, Laphroaig would absolutely be my first port of call. And what an honour to be able to taste these drams!   

Speaking of which, a big thanks to Beam Suntory & The Exchange's Australian national brand ambassador, the legendary Dan Woolley, for the sample. Lots of love mate!

Cheers!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

My Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 4: The mainland!

Well here we are, the final instalment in my pilgrimage write-up! Part 1 covered my travel tips for whisky geeks embarking on this pilgrimage themselves, and a little of London and a little of Islay, Part 2 covered more of the paradise that is Islay and a few distillery tours, and Part 3 covered the rest of my time on the island, and a few more distillery tours. Now in Part 4 we're on the mainland, looking at Edinburgh and Inverness, and what is probably the holy grail for most un-peated whisky fans: Speyside!


After the long journey from Islay to Edinburgh by the ferry and two buses, and with the added downer of already missing Islay, I was feeling a little rough around the edges when I arrived. But Edinburgh turned out to be a great experience with plenty of character, and basically the entire city is just dripping with history. And also whisky shops, which doesn't hurt! The Royal Mile is probably the most well known attraction, which is basically the main road through the CBD, stretching from the entrance to Edinburgh Castle at one end to Holyrood Palace (the Queen's residence in Scotland) at the other. Edinburgh Castle by the way is well worth a visit, especially if you line up to see the Scottish crown jewels, and if you time your visit to coincide with the firing of the 1 o'clock gun, a practice dating back to 1861 as a time-keeping aid for the city's mariners. The Royal Mile itself is home to plenty of modern tourist attractions, pubs and souvenir shops, as well as a few very old churches and very dramatic-looking alleyways, and there are a few whisky-related gems as well. The Scotch Whisky Experience shop was surprisingly well priced and well stocked, as was the 'Amber' bar downstairs (I didn't bother with the cask ride / tour or the collection viewing), and Royal Mile Whiskies have a few gems available, including a few exclusive bottlings. But one of the main attractions for me was always going to be Cadenhead's.


This is the main retail outlet for Scotland's oldest independent bottler of the same name, which is owned by J&A Mitchell, who are also behind Springbank and Glengyle (Kilkerran) distilleries. Don't bother looking for a fancy website or online store here, this surprisingly small store has almost no frills. But the windows are full of dusty & very old Cadenhead's bottles, and there are quite a few hidden gems on the shelves with some very reasonable pricing, including "the cage" in the corner that contains small bottlings of "cask ends", which are the leftovers of single casks from Cadenhead's bottlings. The stock levels of these obviously fluctuates, and there wasn't anything available that tickled my fancy at the time, but there was something else that certainly did: the casks on the other side of the room! These are blended malt whiskies, separated by region, that you can hand-bottle straight from the casks in the store! They're all served up at cask / blending strength, are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and you can choose from 100ml, 200ml, 350ml and 700ml bottles. I tried both the Islay and Campbeltown blends, and was very impressed with the Campbeltown blend in particular, especially for asking the price. I (stupidly) went for the 200ml bottle since I was worried about luggage space, which cost me a ridiculously good sum of 14 pounds. For a delicious blended malt bottled at over 59% ABV, and reportedly containing Springbank and Longrow malts, this was an absolute steal. So I highly recommend you visit, and save some luggage space for the occasion!


As for whisky bars, I tried a few along The Royal Mile, but with the exception of the SMWS' Kaleidoscope tasting bar (the downstairs bar is open to non-members), most were more restaurants than bars and were extremely busy (even on a Tuesday night), so I went searching for one that was a little off the busy tourist strip and that had been recommended to me: The Bow Bar. This was a very small and unassuming bar located on Victoria st. around 300 metres from The Royal Mile, and they had an incredible whisky selection with some incredibly reasonable prices, including some amazing independent bottlings. I had quite a few drams here, which probably wasn't the best idea after skipping dinner and having an early start in the morning, but I just couldn't resist trying as many of these unusual whiskies as I could! Highlights were a cask strength 24-year old Hart Brothers first-fill sherry cask Mortlach, and a 6-year old Laphroaig and 15-year old Highland Park from The Exclusive Malts (by Creative Whisky Company), both of which were matured in refill sherry hogsheads and were bottled at cask strength. In fact I tried a total of four drams from that bottler on the night and all were very, very good. I hope they get an Australian importer soon!


That early start the next day was a 5 hour drive to Inverness in the Highlands (plus the mind-numbing 1.5 hour stuff-around for our rental car at Waverley train station - you'll need to allow extra time here if you're following suit), including an incredible tour & tasting at Edradour Distillery in the beautiful town of Pitclochry, around 2 hours drive north of Edinburgh. But there's a separate and more detailed write-up of this little gem coming soon, so for now let's just say it's absolutely worth a stop-in and a tour & tasting. I had planned to stop at Tomatin Distillery as well, but it was closed by the time we got up there (it's another 1.5 hours from Pitlochry), so we headed straight into Inverness. It's a very scenic drive as well, although mostly highway there's plenty of Scottish postcard-worthy scenery to admire on the way. The drive around the edge of Cairngorns National Park in particular was absolutely stunning, which is also where you'll find the pretty-looking Dalwhinnie Distillery.


Inverness is the largest city in the Highlands, and is widely acknowledged as the capital of the region. It's a reasonably sized and quite pretty city with all the facilities you'd expect, and is split in half by the River Ness, which runs from the famous Loch Ness to the south-west to the Moray Firth in the north east. Inverness was to be the base for my visits to Speyside, and I had planned out a pretty intensive itinerary, but in the end we missed a few destinations due to time constraints. But there were still a few must-dos, and I managed to do all of them plus quite a few quick stops, and very luckily I had a designated driver for this part of the trip! The main goals for me were the in-depth tour & tasting at Glendronach in Huntly, which is around 2 hours & 20 minutes from Inverness, a tour & tasting at Benromach in Forres and a visit to Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin, which are around 50 minutes and 70 minutes from Inverness respectively, and a tour & tasting at Aberlour in the heart of Speyside. I'll cover Benromach and Gordon & MacPhail in another separate and more in-depth post, since that was another phenomenal experience, but we'll cover Glendronach, Aberlour and a few quicker visits right now!

Glendronach



There's only one two-lane road going east of Inverness, and it's often very busy until you pass through Elgin, especially if you're stuck behind a logging truck or tractor (which will happen), so it was a bit of a stressful drive to Glendronach in the morning peak-hour traffic. But the destination was well worth it! As my favourite un-peated distilleries, and my absolute favourite "sherry bomb" whisky, Glendronach was on the top of my list of must-do distilleries on the mainland, and it did live up to my expectations. Although a very popular whisky, the distillery is actually quite small, with a very basic visitor's centre that includes a video presentation  (boo!) and the usual range of nice merchandise, although they were sold out of branded Glencairns during my visit (boo!). They also offer a hand-filled distillery exclusive bottling, named 'The Manager's Cask', and usually also an older distillery exclusive single cask bottling, but this also was sold out during my visit.


The Manager's Cask changes frequently, and is generally on the younger side, but is always cask strength, non-chill filtered (like the vast majority of Glendronach) and naturally coloured (like all Glendronach), and reputedly always of excellent quality. It had changed only a few days prior to my visit to a Pedro Ximinez sherry cask, an 11-year old whisky at 56.1% ABV, from a first-fill PX sherry puncheon (500-ish litre cask), selling for around 90 pounds. While still a delicious whisky it was definitely lighter on cask influence than most single cask Glendronachs I've tried, and it isn't quite the sherry bomb you'd expect from the make, although admittedly I did taste it immediately after the excellent 18-year old Allardice and 21-year old Parliament 'core' bottlings which may not have helped. Still, a hand-filled Glendronach is not an easy thing to come by (once again, apart from the inevitable secondary auction), and it was still an excellent whisky, so it was still a must-buy for me.


But what about the tour! The distillery is quite pretty, and the tour covers the now disused malting floor and kiln, (they were decommissioned in 2002, and the distillery was closed for 8 years prior to that) the mash tun and wooden washbacks, and the still house. It doesn't cover a warehouse unfortunately, but you can (just) see a little portion of a dunnage warehouse through a window in the distillery shop, which is also where you watch the video that covers most of the distillation process. I must admit I don't like this approach too much, I'd prefer to have a tour guide explain the process in front of the corresponding equipment, and our tour guide was very knowledgeable and friendly so I can't see why the video is necessary at all. And unfortunately this is one of those distilleries that doesn't allow any photography inside any of the distillery buildings, and although the still house has a glass front it's not very photo friendly from the outside. Nonetheless it was very cool to see the old malting floor, which was tiny - even smaller than Kilchoman's - and the kiln where there was once a small amount of peat mixed in with the coal fire. I'm not sure what the actual proportion of floor-malted barley was compared to the commercially-sourced barley in the pre-closure bottlings, but it must have been a very small number given the size of the malting floor and the fact that a single man looked after the whole process.


Glendronach's four now-indirectly heated stills are interesting, they're quite bulbous in shape with thick necks, and the wash stills have a different-shaped lyne arm to their smaller counterparts, with the spirit stills having a typical downward-curved straight arm, and the wash stills curving sharply downward and bend into horizontal before meeting the condensers. You can also peek through the lower windows of the still house above (from the car park) and see the now disused fireplaces underneath each still that were in use they were directly heated with coal fires, which is a very uncommon thing these days (they were converted to internal steam coils in 2005). After that it was back to the shop for our tasting, and I had gone for the 20 pound 'premium tasting tour' which included a dram of the 18- and 21-year olds and the current hand-fill exclusive bottling. As great as this distillery is, I do wish they'd had some more stock of the distillery exclusive single cask, and the damned branded Glencairns!


After that it was back on the road again, headed for Dufftown, a 40 minute drive from Glendronach. We only had two full days to cover what is quite a large area, and Speyside is filled with distilleries, so I could only do a quick visit at most of them. Thanks to good timing and the fact that their restaurant (and tasting bar) is excellent, Glenfiddich was our lunch stop, and it's a very pretty and well maintained distillery that doesn't reveal its massive size from this angle. The tasting bar also included a few distillery exclusive hand-filled bottlings, but they were a little too pricey for me at the time so I went with the 'Distillery Edition' 15-year old 51% bottling, which was delicious.


After lunch and a quick look at the distillery's resident highland coos (cows) it was on the road again, but this time it was a few minutes down the road past the distillery to Balvenie Castle. I'm sure you can guess which distillery owes its name to this historic site, which dates back to the 12th century. While it's not exactly in working order it's actually in good shape for over 800 years of age, and is well worth a visit.


A few minutes north of Glenfiddich you'll find Balvenie Distillery, which is a little less polished than its larger stablemate, with the visitor's centre being a tiny shop around the size of your average bedroom. The shop didn't have anything special available that caught my eye, but the distillery does offer hand-filled exclusives as an extra add-on to your tour. The grounds are well kept though, and the distillery tours are widely acclaimed, so I may have to spend a little more time here on the next trip. From there we had an impromptu stop at Speyside Cooperage, which is an impressive facility that you can navigate to by spotting the mountains of casks sitting alongside. The cooperage does offer tours and has a nice gift shop with plenty of local items made from disused casks, but thanks to the day's tight schedule it was just a quick wander around for me. It's a very impressive and busy place in a very pretty area, and it's easy to imagine the cooperage supplying most of Scotland's distilleries with casks with the mountains of staves, lids and hoops lying around, and the pallets of completed casks awaiting shipping.


Next up was Aberlour Distillery, around a 10 minute drive from the cooperage and located right on the highway, where I was booked in for the 2pm tour & tasting. I'm a huge fan of the NAS A'Bunadh expression, and I consider it to be one of the best value "sherry monster" whiskies around, but I was also looking forward to Aberlour's distillery exclusive bottlings, of which there's usually an NAS cask strength vatting and an age-stated single cask bottling available. Unfortunately though both of these were sold out at the time of my visit, which was very disappointing, and there was nothing else available that I couldn't buy from my local bottle shop on the other side of the planet. The distillery itself and the surrounding area is very pretty, despite the clouds of midges we had hanging around on the day, but unfortunately the tour left me a little cold.


While our guide was again friendly and knowledgeable, the presentation seemed very scripted, and the tour itself was very polished and almost artificial in feel. Once again there was no photography permitted in any of the distillery buildings, and we had to keep to the yellow safety lines and weren't allowed near the stills or in an actual warehouse, although there is a viewing room with a few examples of casks inside. Unfortunately it seemed like the health & safety people had had a great time here. There was even a gigantic corporate poster hanging in the still room, which took great pride in declaring how few workplace accidents there had been and how important safety is to the parent company and its employees. Which is exactly the kind of thing that you do not want to see in an almost 140-year old whisky distillery in the heart of Scotland, and was a real mood-killer for me. At least hide the damn thing away when tours are running guys!


The post-tour tasting was nice enough, while I really shouldn't complain since the whole "Aberlour Experience" cost 15 pounds. But since they were sold out of all of the exclusives, we were only able to taste the regular 10, 12, 16 and 18-year olds, all of which are low in strength and are chill filtered and artificially coloured, and the always great A'Bunadh. Which was the only redeeming feature of the tasting, aside from the new make spirit which was very interesting to taste, and is an extremely uncommon inclusion to most tastings. In fact that was one of only two chances that I had to taste a distillery's new make spirit over the entire trip, but I still think the "Aberlour Experience" tours could use a little work to get a more authentic and welcoming feel. Or at least just get rid of the damn poster and the yellow lines!


From here we went on to Glenfarclas, around 10 minutes south of Aberlour, and Glen Grant for a quick look around and a few photos. Although Glenfarclas was very busy at the time it was a very pretty thing to look at. Another one to spend some more time at on the next visit! Glen Grant had a beautiful garden as well, despite the weather closing in at the time, although the distillery itself was a little industrial and commercial in appearance.


Next up was Macallan, which is around 10 minutes from Aberlour, crossing the River Spey and looping back to the distillery. This was the last stop of the day, since it was getting late-ish and we still had the 90-minute driver back to Inverness ahead of us. Unfortunately Macallan is a bit of a construction zone at the moment while they build their massive second distillery, so a lot of the site was closed off at the time of our visit. But some of the original buildings and the visitor's centre were still accessible, and it was very striking to see the size of the new facility. We were directed past the new warehousing on the way to the visitor's centre, and they were absolutely huge buildings, easily the size of aircraft hangers, and there was at least half a dozen of them all painted bright orange. So I can only imagine how much spirit this new distillery is going to be pumping out.


The visitor's centre was a much more inviting  place and was well worth the visit, with a good range of whisky, and reasonable pricing for their tastings. I went for the 2 dram tasting with the 12-year old Sherry Oak (the 40% version) and the extremely expensive 'Estate Reserve' NAS bottling, which were both very nice, particularly the Estate Reserve, but could do with losing the chill filtration in my opinion. With that it was back past those massive orange warehouses to the A-road for the drive back to Inverness, with the final distillery visit of the trip approaching the next day...


But not before stopping at one little distillery for a quick photo-op: Benriach. Another one of my favourite mainland distilleries, unfortunately Benriach doesn't offer tours unless you have a group of four, and it was late in the day anyway. It was also raining at the time, but it's still a very functional-yet-pretty distillery. I managed a drive to Loch Ness the next morning, which was absolutely beautiful despite the grey gloomy day and bus loads of tourists. Then after a quick lunch it was back on the road west to Forres, the home of one of my favourite mainland distilleries: Benromach!


But I'm saving that, and the corresponding visit to Gordon & MacPhail, for a separate write-up. Which means we're basically at the end of the Pilgrimage write-ups, since I was on a train back to London the next afternoon! They've been a pleasure to write, and I hope you haven't found them too long or too arduous. I also hope they've helped you plan your next trip to Scotland, or maybe reminisce about your own first pilgrimage to this magical place. Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for the next few posts! I have some very special whisky to review in the near future, and two very special "Distillery in Detail" write-ups on the way!


Cheers!

Sunday, 22 October 2017

My Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 3: Islay Continued!

So after a couple of days on Islay and a bit of exploring I was starting to settle in to the Islay way of life, and loving every second of it! Part 1 of the pilgrimage covered getting to Islay via London, and Part 2 covered the first half of my time on Islay, including visits to Bowmore and Caol Ila distilleries, an excellent in-depth tour and warehouse tasting at Ardbeg, and an incredible warehouse tasting at Lagavulin. Part 3 is another long one, and I'll be covering a little more of the island, and finally getting to Laphroaig, Bruichladdich and Kilchoman!

Laphroaig



Although it's in a close race with a few others these days, Laphroaig is still my favourite distillery. This was the first tour that I booked, roughly six months in advance, and I couldn't wait to walk down that driveway and get amongst it. So after a quick (and delicious) Scottish breakfast at the B&B in Port Ellen it was time to set off for this bucket list experience. Laphroaig is around half an hour's walk from Port Ellen, with some stunning scenery along the way, although the distillery itself is largely hidden from view until you're almost on top of it. Unfortunately it was overcast and rainy on this particular morning, with a few clouds of midges hanging around waiting to ambush me. But I'm sure the intended destination helped, because it still made for one beautiful way to start the day!


Laphroaig's visitor's centre is very nice, with a great selection of branded merchandise, including Laphroaig cheese (yes really, and it was delicious!), Laphroaig tablet fudge (also delicious!), plus the usual branded clothing, branded glassware and lots more. And also the best-looking branded beanie (woollen hat) I saw on the whole trip. Whisky wise they have the standard range plus a few exotics like the recent 30 year old (review coming soon!), and although they didn't have any of this one on my first visit to the distillery, they had found some more stock on my second visit, and I couldn't walk away without one: the most recent batch of the epic 10 year old Cask Strength. Which as I mentioned in this review sells for an absolutely incredible price of 49 pounds, including the VAT, from the distillery shop. This really is one of the best value for money peated drams out there, and I honestly don't know how they do it for that price! Like I also mentioned in that review, that's roughly the same price that we Australian's pay for the standard 10 year old at 40%, so the "CS" really is one serious bargain!


There's a very nice museum in the visitor's centre too, which contains a few incredible bottles of Laphroaig from the past, including the 40-year old (the oldest they've ever released), and a very old bottle of 10-year old. There's also a little room attached to the museum which is lined with gumboots (wellies) and a couple of touch screens. This is where Friends of Laphroaig can claim their rent on their plots, where you print a certificate with your plot co-ordinates on it, and you can take a flag of your choice to mark the spot in the field on the other side of the main road. You then take this certificate to the sales counter, and you're given a 50ml distillery miniature of the 10-year old as the rent for your plot, which is not such a bad deal really! There's also a nice cosy tasting bar towards the rear of the visitor's centre, which has the standard range (sometimes including the 10 cask strength) and a couple of travel exclusive bottlings, and if you're lucky they'll have a bottle that was filled straight from the cask in the distillery, and will never be bottled for sale. During my visit this was an 18-year old ex-bourbon cask Laphroaig, bottled at cask strength, which I just had to sample on my third visit to the visitor's centre. It was absolutely delicious, even when tasted immediately after the cask strength 10 year old.


Laphroaig offer a few different options for tours and tastings, and I knew well in advance which tour I wanted to do: the "Distiller's Wares". It's not cheap at 70 pounds (the basic tour is only 10 pounds), but what you get for your money is pretty much incomparable. Included in the in-depth tour is the malting floors, kilns, mash tun & washbacks (including sampling the wash), and the extremely beautiful still house. And unlike most of the larger distilleries, they give you complete free reign on photography, even right in front of the stills and spirit safes while they're hard at work making the nectar of the gods. In fact many distilleries don't even allow you to walk within 5 metres of their stills or spirit safe, but at Laphroaig it's right in front of you in it's shiny resplendent glory! Thankfully the weather had also cleared during the tour, and when we were shown outside after seeing the malting floors (which is a must-do!) the distillery was looking absolutely beautiful basking in the sun, as you can see in the photo above. We could even see the coast of Ireland in the distance!


Both the 'Distiller's Wares' and the 'Water to Whisky' tours (which adds a visit to Laphroaig's water source and peat beds with a picnic lunch for an extra 30 pounds) also get you one little extra. Towards the end of the tour you're taken down to the famous Warehouse No. 1 on the edge of the sea (yes, the one with the letters on it), and you're greeted by three casks sitting on the floor. You're then given a generous dram of each of these specially-selected casks to enjoy, in a miniature Glencairn glass which you take home, and you're given a little detail on their history, age and cask type, and which type of warehouse they were matured in. Unlike most warehouse tastings though, you then choose one of these three whiskies to personally hand-fill into a 250ml bottle to take home! None of these casks will ever be bottled for retail sale, and aside from the occasional auction listing on the secondary market, obviously coming from people who don't fully appreciate how special they are, you cannot get your hands on one of these puppies without doing either of these two tours at the distillery. Which makes them very special if you ask me! Adding to this exclusivity is the fact that they're obviously at cask strength, and are not filtered or played with in any way. And obviously the tend to be absolutely delicious, which actually makes it very difficult to make your selection!


During my tour our choices consisted of a quarter cask-finished 12 year old (considerably older than the standard bottling) at 55% ABV, which was very intense and rich, an 11 year old Maker's Mark ex-bourbon cask at 58.4%, which was very sweet, peaty and citrus-y, and a 12 year old PX sherry finish at 54.8%, which had spent 5 years in an ex-bourbon cask before being transferred to a first-fill PX sherry hogshead in 2009. I'm a huge fan of the travel exclusive PX bottling (old review here), so I'm sure you can guess which cask I bottled up to take home! Aside from being cask strength, this hand-filled Laphroaig has obviously spent far longer in a sherry cask than the travel exclusive does, and it also didn't spend any time in quarter casks like the regular version. It was far darker in colour for a start, and was extremely rich & sweet and intensely sherried, in fact it's without doubt the most heavily-sherried Laphroaig I've ever tasted. And a heavily-sherried Laphroaig is not such an easy thing to come by. So my choice was pretty easy in the end!


I hope you've already gotten this impression, but visiting and touring Laphroaig was without doubt one of the highlights of my entire trip. Seeing those malting floors in action, tasting the barley, the wash and even the low wines (a first for me) that would go on to become Laphroaig, and being in amongst the stills and the distillery staff as they worked their magic, before sipping on Laphroaig straight from the cask and bottling my own, was all one absolutely phenomenal bucket list experience. I'm not sure it could get much better! Although I'll probably do the full water-to-whisky tour next time, just to take the relationship even further! If you're a fan, you absolutely cannot miss this amazing place! In fact I'd suggest every Islay visitor make the effort to do at least the standard tour here, because there's nothing quite like it. On my third visit to the distillery, and on my last day on the island, after enjoying a couple of drams at the tasting bar, looking out at the namesake hollow by the broad bay, I collected my rent from the counter, grabbed a flag and walked across the road to place it on (or near) my Friends of Laphroaig plot. A very fitting end to my time on Islay. Long Live Laphroaig!


But don't worry, we're not done on Islay yet. Not even close. We have Bruichladdich and Kilchoman still to come! Not having a car at my disposal (and I wouldn't have wanted to drive anyway, for obvious reasons!), and with the buses not suitable for an early start, I had booked a taxi for the next day. I had booked it over a month in advance too, which you'll also need to do as they're in high demand (even with the locals), and it wasn't cheap, but it was well worth it. I was booked in for a tour and warehouse tasting at Bruichladdich, which is around 20 minutes' drive from Bowmore on the other side of Loch Indaal, or around 45 minutes from Port Ellen. And it's also slower by bus, of course.

Bruichladdich


'The Laddie' was also at the top of my list of Islay distilleries, so I had booked months in advance, and just as well because like most of the tours I attended both it and the warehouse tasting were fully booked. There isn't really a visitor's centre here as such, but there is one amazing shop, with an incredible range of older bottlings on display up in the rafters, including one of each Octomore and Port Charlotte release. Along with a decent range of branded clothing and other merchandise, there's also a huge range of Bruichladdich's whisky available for sale, including the standard range, some recent travel exclusive bottlings (e.g. _.2 Octomores and PC_ Port Charlottes!), some slightly older bottlings, and some much older bottlings. Most of the current range is also available to taste from behind the counter, although the more expensive bottlings are of course a little more restricted.


As it turns out, I had timed this distillery visit pretty well too, because the eighth series of Octomore had been released not long before, with the mighty 309 ppm beast Octomore 8.3 being shop exclusive at the time. In fact it still hasn't been released on the distillery's website at the time of writing, so I was pretty lucky! I already knew that one of those would be coming home with me, in fact I had one put aside before going on the tour, and after sampling it after purchase (it was only available to taste after purchase due to availability at the time) I should have made that two! As far as retail bottles that I could actually buy, this was one of the top drams of the whole trip. A seriously amazing whisky, and I'll be getting a second one to drink when (hopefully) it arrives in Australia. I also took this opportunity to remind myself how much I loved Octomore 7.2, and after a bit of pleading was also given a sip of the brand new 8.2. But there was one more thing in the Bruichladdich shop that I was very excited about: the Valinches.


A valinch is the siphon-like tool used to draw whisky from a cask through the bung hole, and it's also the name given to Bruichladdich's hand-filled single cask distillery exclusive bottlings. There's usually two different casks available, an un-peated Bruichladdich, and a heavily peated (40 ppm) Port Charlotte, and in typical 'laddie style they're most often matured (not finished) in an unusual cask type, or maybe bottled at an unusual age, that sort of thing. During my visit the two casks were an 11-year old Bruichladdich at 65% (!) that was fully matured in a Syrah red wine cask, and a 10-year old Port Charlotte at 61.3% that was fully matured in a Banyuls dessert wine cask, which I have to admit I'd never even heard of. Both were selling for 70 pounds each in 500ml hand-filled bottles, and they can't be purchased anywhere else (other than the inevitable auction on the secondary market). They change quite often too, since once that cask is empty, that's the end of that Valinch bottling! I went home with the red-wine matured Bruichladdich, purely because I preferred it on the day, and you're able to taste both casks before purchasing. Next time I'll be saving more luggage space for two of these, because they're just so damn special!


Prior to this though, it was time for the distillery tour! Bruichladdich is a relatively small and very hands-on operation, and they take great pride in doing things differently (and so they should), and trying to keep everything as local as possible (again, bravo!). All of their whisky is bottled on-site, and all is either matured on-site or in the old Loch Indaal distillery's warehouses down the road from Bruichladdich. The only external step at the moment is the malting of the barley, which happens at Bairds Maltings in Inverness, due to them being supportive when Bruichladdich was being resurrected, being willing to try new things (e.g. Octomore), and also doing a damn good job! Even the Islay-grown barley is currently transported to Inverness to be malted, although a floor-malting facility is currently in the planning stages at the distillery which will be very exciting, and is really the only thing missing at the moment. I imagine that will be used for some of the Islay barley bottlings, which use barley sourced from local farms, most of which only started growing barley because of Bruichladdich's demand. On the tour you're actually given the chance to taste both the un-peated Bruichladdich, heavily-peated Port Charlotte and super-heavily-peated Octomore malted barley, and while the un-peated is very nice, and the heavily-peated is delicious, the Octomore barley is really something else! Extremely peaty and even bitter, and the taste doesn't go away in a hurry. So a little like the finished whisky then...


After the mill you're then taken to see Bruichladdich's famous open-topped Victorian-era iron mash tun, the wooden washbacks, and the stills and spirit safe, although unfortunately the still house floor had been freshly painted during my visit so we couldn't get up close and personal. The distillery does feel smaller and more close knit than some, despite now being owned by Remy Cointreau, which I should add has not changed anything at all so far, other than giving the employees a pay rise, which is great to see! After that it was back to the shop for a surprise birthday celebration for our tour guide Frazer, and those of us who were also attending the warehouse experience were then ushered outside for the next stage. I should add here that the standard distillery tour is a bargain at only 5 pounds, and the warehouse tasting was another 25 pounds, but that also includes a tasting glass and a 5 pound discount on any full-size bottle purchase (so not the Valinches) at the shop. And again you're also given free reign when it comes to photography.


The warehouse experience takes place in one of Bruichladdich's traditional earthen-floored dunnage warehouses, where you're given three very generous drams drawn straight from the specially-selected casks in front of you, usually a Bruichladdich, a Port Charlotte and an Octomore. On my visit they were a 28-year old ex-bourbon cask Bruichladdich at 53.5%, a 12-year old Bordeaux red wine matured Port Charlotte at 57%, and an 11 year old 167 ppm Octomore at 62% that was initially matured in an ex-bourbon cask for 4 years, before being transferred to a Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes wine cask. If you're an Octomore fan that may sound familiar, and yes this was a cask that could have become Octomore 4.2 back in 2013 or so as a 5 year old whisky, but was held back and left alone to spend over 7 years 'finishing' in the Sauternes cask! As you can probably imagine it was absolutely delicious, but of course they all were. The Bruichladdich was beautiful, still vibrant and bright for its age, with plenty of honey, tropical fruit and citrus, with a nice hint of salt to it. The Port Charlotte was lovely too, meaty and peaty but still with a lot of red fruit. The Octomore had of course been tamed slightly by all that extra time in the cask, but it had also become very rich and syrupy, with plenty of peat left to keep things interesting. This tasting also pressed home just how much variety this distillery is capable of with their three different spirits and countless unusual casks. What a place!


As amazing as all three drams were, just being in a Bruichladdich warehouse definitely added to their flavour!.In fact we were seated directly in front of the still-maturing Octomore 8.4! There were some crazy looking casks hiding in plain sight, and you were pretty much free to have a look around and soak in the atmosphere. What did I spot, you ask? Let's see, how about Port Charlotte in Marsala casks that was distilled in 2009. Or Bruichladdich in Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes casks that was distilled in 2007. Or Islay barley Octomore in Rivesaltes wine casks that was distilled in 2012, which if my maths is correct could become Octomore 9.3!!! I could've easily spent the rest of the day exploring this cold & musty yet absolutely beautiful warehouse, but it was time to get back to the shop to taste those valinches (and a couple of others) and collect my purchases before the taxi came to collect me for the next leg of the trip...

Kilchoman!


After quite a few high strength drams at Bruichladdich, it was back into the taxi for the incredibly beautiful drive to Kilchoman. Once again the weather had fined up at this point, and Islay was looking amazing. I'm sure the whisky played a role, but this was another emotional experience! The road is mostly narrow single lanes through green fields, but you're going past more peat fields, and the actual Loch Gorm, and golden barley fields, and you can see Kilchoman beach and the actual Machir Bay in the distance. In fact this drive alone was enough to make me realise that I really should have hired a car, at least for a day or two. I'll definitely be spending more time over this way on the next trip, because it was absolutely stunning!


Some of you are probably well are of this, but Kilchoman really is a tiny operation. While they're the smallest distillery on the island in terms of production capacity (by more than 50%), and currently the only farm distillery (growing some of their barley on site), visiting the distillery and seeing everything first-hand really brings this home. For example the malting floor is only around the size of a small house, the result of which goes into their 100% Islay bottlings, and after seeing Laphroaig's comparatively massive two malting floors the previous day it really put things into perspective! The whole distillery has a very warm & cosy, even "family" feel, and it is also now Islay's only independently-owned distillery. The tour also drove home the distillery's commitment to quality, with long fermentation and slow distillation, and very careful cask selection, all of which is crucial to their young-yet-mature and very flavoursome whisky.


I only did the standard tour due to timing (there's only one premium tour per day), which would have been a bargain at 7 pounds including a miniature Glencairn tasting glass and two drams (Machir Bay and 100% Islay). But if you're a card-carrying Kilchoman Club member the standard distillery tour is actually free, which is pretty damn awesome! We started at the kiln, then the aforementioned malting floors, and then the still house which is home to the mill, mash tun, wooden washbacks and the distillery's single pair of small stills, all under the one roof! And again you're given completely free reign with photography, even right in front of the spirit safe. We were then shown the filling store and bottling hall, which again are relatively tiny, but the standard tour unfortunately does not include a look in one of Kilchoman's warehouses. Nevertheless you do really get a feel for how small-scale the distillery is, particularly after visiting the bigger boys.


It was then back to the visitor's centre and into the tasting room, where we were treated to a dram of the freshly released 100% Islay Batch 7, and the 2017 bottling of Machir Bay. Machir Bay is always delicious (older batch reviewed here), and the 100% Islay was very nice, and certainly far improved over batch 2 & 3 which I had tried previously. That said I've also tried batch 6 since returning home, and it was very good as well. One extra little touch at Kilchoman is that they use the naturally peaty water from their actual water source for their tastings, in all of it's light brown glory (even after being filtered). This was my first encounter with peaty water, and there's definitely a slight earthy-ness to it, which was very cool! The tasting room is also lined with a bottle of just about every past Kilchoman bottling, which is really a sight to behold, and there have certainly been quite a few over their relatively few years.


I also went for the limited edition tasting, which include the new 2009 Vintage and 2017 Loch Gorm bottlings, both of which are eight years old, the delicious Sauternes cask bottling from 2016, and one more very special dram: the Distillery Shop Exclusive single cask bottling, pictured above. Released only a couple of weeks prior to my visit (good timing again!), it was another highlight of the entire trip. This absolutely delicious whisky is not even 5 years of age, but you'd never guess that, and it was finished in a Jamaican rum cask for only three months before being bottled at a cask strength of 59.1%. I've tried a few rum cask-finished whiskies previously, and despite the short finishing period this one had the most overt rum-influence, and was also by far the best, so I had to take one home with me. It was also quite reasonably priced at 89 pounds, especially considering how limited (and tasty) it is. Again, I really should have bought two of these! This really is a fantastic distillery, and they're making big waves despite only being around for 12 years so far. I highly recommend visiting and doing the tour, and appreciating how small, tight-knit and hands-on the place is. It'll give you a new appreciation for their whisky, and how they manage to release so many great bottlings!


After collecting my purchases and taking a few minutes to soak in the atmosphere, the taxi turned up to take me back to Port Ellen. It was around 5.30pm at this point, and after dinner on the beach near the maltings and a little more atmosphere-soaking I decided to take the walk around to Carraig Fhada lighthouse. Which turned out to be a bit of a lapse in judgement, since while it's a pretty easy walk and doesn't look that far from the beach, by the time I got to the lighthouse it was basically dark. Luckily I ran into a local roofer who was taking a few sunset photos and generously offered me a lift back to the village, which was much appreciated, and is yet another example of how helpful & friendly the Ileachs are. It was a beautiful walk though, once again the scenery is outstanding, there are a couple of ancient old graveyards right by the water, and there were highland cows, horses and rabbits around, plus a huge number of long-horned wild goats that were all over the cliff faces, and the rocks and the road! The still-working lighthouse dates back to 1832, and gives stunning views across the Atlantic to Ireland, the Mull of Kintyre and back across to Port Ellen. The walk was around an hour in total, and this is also the road you take to get to the Mull of Oa and the American Monument, but that's another two hours walk, so I had to skip it. Both of those and the lighthouse are accessible by car though, so it's on the list for next time!


With that it was back to my accommodation to start packing up my purchases and getting everything in order, since I was on the first ferry off the island in the morning. After the last Scottish breakfast on Islay (sniff) I went for a quick wander over to the maltings again, picked up my suddenly pretty heavy suitcase, and begrudgingly got on the ferry. Which was an extremely difficult thing to do, since the weather was absolutely perfect on this already sad morning, and I had well & truly fallen in love with the place. Islay really is heaven on Earth, and I can only hope that my next visit isn't too far away! If you're yet to make the pilgrimage yourself, I suggest you move mountains to make it happen. Writing these last three posts has made me miss the place even more, and I really cannot recommend it highly enough!


Coming up in the final Part 4, we're headed to Edinburgh, Speyside and the highlands!