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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!

Sunday, 15 October 2017

My Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 2: Islay!

So, you're on Islay. You can smell the sea, and the peat smoke if you've timed it right, and there's whisky in the air. What do you do next? Well if you're like me, you'll be very excited after that emotional ferry ride, and you'll be anxious to start ticking off the distilleries from that list you've been looking at for years! I've split this next part of the pilgrimage write-up into two parts for sizing reasons, since it was getting a little too big for it's britches. Part 1 focused on getting to Islay, via London in my case, and both this and Part 3 will focus on Islay itself, including a few of my experiences on the island, some non-whisky tidbits, and of course the main reason we're all here: the distilleries! In this part of the write-up I'll cover my quick visits to Bowmore and Caol Ila, the excellent tour & warehouse tasting at Ardbeg, and the exceptional warehouse tasting at Lagavulin!


So stepping off the ferry and taking a deep breath in, then checking into the bed & breakfast, which was right on Port Ellen harbour on the main street, thanks to some lucky timing I was straight on the bus to Bowmore. Which takes around 25 minutes, and costs around two pounds from memory. This was a good chance to get my bearings, see a few of the sights (driving past the Laphroaig peat fields!) that were on the way, and do a bit of grocery shopping, after hitting up my first distillery! I had booked in my tours of Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bruichladdich and Kilchoman, and the Lagavulin warehouse tasting, months in advance, and you'll definitely need to do the same, especially in peak season (summer).

Those were all must-dos for me, but I didn't do so for some of the other distilleries: Caol Ila, since the distillery was closed for maintenance at the time (not in December or January like the majority of distilleries do); Bunnahabhain, since I wasn't sure I could get there (and I couldn't in the end); and Bowmore, because I made the mistake of not working out what time I would arrive on Islay, and wasn't sure how difficult it would be to get the bus from Port Ellen...

Bowmore!


...And that was a mistake, because I arrived in Bowmore in the mid-afternoon, and with only one more tour left for the day I didn't like my chances. And of course it was booked out! I did try to book in for another tour later in the week, during a trip to Bowmore to do some laundry (as you do!) but left that too late as well. Nonetheless, I visited the gift shop & tasting bar on both trips to the 'big smoke', and I can tell you that after smelling the floor maltings from outside the distillery, and with Loch Indaal about 20 metres away, that first dram went down a treat! I one lucky enough to taste some of the last of an 11-year old red wine cask hand-filled bottling (the only, and the last Bowmore hand-fill available during my time on Islay), and the complimentary dram of the standard 12 year old on the first visit, and the new entry level first-fill bourbon cask expression named "No. 1" and the first release of the new "Vault Edition" series on the second visit. That one is a cask strength NAS bottling that is matured in ex-bourbon casks, and it was very enjoyable, but not quite up to the level of the now discontinued "Tempest" 10-year old ex-bourbon cask strength bottlings.


The distillery itself is very well kept, clean and well fitted out, with a good range of merchandise in the shop, although as I mentioned no hand-fills were available for purchase when I was there. The whole standard range and a few travel exclusives are available by the dram at the tasting bar on the second floor, which is a beautiful room that looks out over Loch Indaal, with Bruichladdich visible on the opposite side. There's also a mini-museum attached, giving a brief history of the distillery with some very old Bowmore bottlings on display. Not such a bad place to have your first dram on the island!


After a bit of grocery shopping at the co-op and a quick wander around I was back on the bus to Bowmore, because I'd driven past something that I wanted to have a closer look at: Port Ellen Maltings, and more specifically, what remains of Port Ellen distillery. For now at least, after the very exciting news of its (and Brora's) revival broke recently! At the time there was only the old kiln buildings, which are now used as sheds, and a few warehouses, none of which are home to any Port Ellen whisky (again, for now), left standing. Nonetheless, I went for a wander along the beach and gave those warehouses an appreciative and encouraging pat, and sat on the rocky shore in front of those famous words painted on the warehouse wall, looking out to the North Atlantic. What a time to be alive!

After the first of five delicious Scottish "fry up" breakfasts the next day, I had formed a plan: I was going to get the bus to Caol Ila. It was the last real chance I would get, and I had an open morning since I wasn't due at Ardbeg until 2pm. The bus schedule on Islay is a little difficult to decipher, but basically there are two bus routes that go to the major stops, and they travel in circles, but the schedule is a little sporadic and changes completely on public holidays or school holidays, and on Saturdays (it doesn't operate on Sundays at all). With a little practice it becomes easier to follow, and I found my chance to get to Caol Ila: a half hour slot between arrival & departure at the Port Askaig stop. Asking the bus driver to stop at Caol Ila for me, and with another gent alongside who was touring all of the distilleries, there was then about a 10 minute walk to the distillery from the main road. I know I've mentioned this in Part. 1, but that walk is down a massive hill. Which would be fine, except you have to walk back up that hill to get back to the main road.

Caol Ila


I knew the distillery wouldn't be offering tours since it was closed for maintenance, but aside from just wanting to see the place, the shop was still operating, and I wanted to get my hands on something special: the new Caol Ila distillery exclusive bottling, and a branded Glencairn. As you can see below, the distillery looks straight across at Jura from the north-eastern shore of Islay, and it's a beautiful spot, even with a bit of cloud cover! I wasn't too worried about not getting a tour, since photos are not permitted inside the distillery buildings, and I got a reasonable view of the stills from outside anyway, but a Caol Ila warehouse tasting is certainly on my list for the next trip.


A few of Diageo's more visitor-friendly distilleries have recently released new distillery exclusive whiskies, all without age statements, mostly bottled at cask strength, all without boxes, and all limited to 3000 bottles. The still-open shop had the standard range available for tasting, plus this new distillery exclusive, which is matured in refill ex-bourbon and red wine casks and is bottled at 58.8%. It's a very nice drop too, not quite at the level of the older Feis Ile bottlings of Caol Ila that I've tried (2013 & 2015, which were brilliant), but still enjoyable, and as far as I'm aware it's the first official bottling of Caol Ila to include red wine cask-matured whisky. It's quite reasonably priced too at 90 pounds including the 15% value added tax. So I grabbed one of those, and a branded Glencairn, and high-tailed it for the return bus trip. Which as I mentioned in Part 1 I would have missed by a couple of minutes if the bus hadn't come up the road and got me, so a huge thanks to the driver!

The Distillery Walk

After dropping off my new purchase, it was finally time to go on the distillery walk to Ardbeg for the first proper tour of the trip. The distillery walk now has its own sealed path that mostly follows the road, so if setting off from Port Ellen you follow the main road (Frederick Crescent), then turn left onto Lennox street (there's a sign for Ardbeg on the beach side of the road), which turns into the A846 after passing the school on your right. From here, Laphroaig is around 30 minutes walk, Lagavulin is around another 30 minutes, and Ardbeg is another 10-15 minutes from there (just over 3.25 miles / 5.5km from Port Ellen in total). The walk is easy with only a couple of significant hills, and the views are absolutely beautiful, even in the rain, and I'd recommend walking this trail at least once, even if you have a car at your disposal.


You can also get the bus back to Port Ellen (and onward) from Ardbeg to save you the return walk, but it's not a regular departure so check the timetable or ask at the distillery. Or you could always hitchhike, which is a common thing on the island, and there's reasonably regular traffic on the road. Keep an eye out for wildlife on the track too, you'll see plenty of cows & sheep, but often also deer, rabbits and plenty of birds. There'll be wild blackberries growing on the track walls in places too, just in case you get hungry. I hope I'm painting a nice picture here, because I honestly think this little island might be paradise!


Although you can see some of the distillery buildings in the distance after a few of those gentle hills, the first whisky-related things you'll see up close are Laphroaig's giant grey warehouses on the roadside, but keep going past them until the next major driveway on the right, and you'll see the distillery signs. On the left hand side of the road are the Friends of Laphroaig plots (more on that in Part 3), and the stone cairn (memorial) that was unveiled by Prince Charles during the 200th anniversary celebrations in 2015. Walk on for another half hour or so and you'll see Lagavulin, which is more visible than Laphroaig since it's right on the roadside, and another 15 minutes later you'll find Ardbeg, which is down another driveway but is clearly signposted, and is hard to miss anyway!


There are plenty of other attractions on this walk too, including remains of an old croft (rented farm), and what's left of Dunyvaig castle, which was the naval base for the Lord of the Isles. This medieval castle site pictured above dates back to the 12th century, although the remaining ruins date back to the 15th century. Neither of these are close to the walking track, but they are signposted, and you'll see Dunyvaig from the walking track. And of course if you're driving or have the whole day (and good endurance!) you can walk to the Kildalton cross, a Celtic cross which dates back to the late 8th century, and the medieval church of Kildalton which dates back to the 12th-13th centuries. Both of these are around two hours walk further on from Ardbeg. By the way, despite having a UK sim card, the only place on Islay that I had 3G internet was at the top of the hill between Lagavulin & Ardbeg. So you can safely expect to mostly rely on wi-fi during your time on Islay.

Ardbeg



It may have been partly due to the weather fining up at this point, but Ardbeg is one gorgeous distillery! It's easily visible from the track, through green fields of sheep with a few trees dotted around, with those iconic whitewashed buildings with their green roofs, the old kilns and their pagodas, and the old still that now stands at the front of the car park, and the sea a little further ahead. Walking down the road towards the distillery is yet another emotional Islay experience, and you might just find an uncharacteristically huge grin spreading across your face at this point...


The visitor's centre and well-renowned Old Kiln Cafe is in the large building on the left, and the distillery shop only has the standard range of bottlings available - it's time you had an exclusive LVMH, you're now the only one that doesn't! - it's all well presented, and there's a good range of branded merchandise available, but overall the shop felt a little cold and artificial, maybe even indifferent. But the tour itself wasn't like that at all. Ardbeg offer a few different options for their tours, and the particulars and/or names of the tours seem to change each year, but I went for the "ArdBIG" tour, which is only run once a day at 2pm, and is the most expensive, but also offers the most for your money if you're an Ardbeg fan (and who isn't). For your 40 pounds you get a more in-depth tour, including sampling the wash at various stages, and four drams straight from the cask, all at cask strength, plus a bonus dram of an older committee or special release, and a branded mini-Glencairn glass to take home. Pretty good value if you ask me!


The tour went into a good amount of detail, and like most it covers the grain mill (Ardbeg's is a Boby mill rather than the more common and more modern Porteus) and the malt, mashing and the mash tun, the wash and washbacks (Oregon pine in Ardbeg's case) including sampling, which in Ardbeg's case was smoky and surprisingly sweet, not at all sour like most of the wash I've tried so far. You then move on to the still house, which is the only area of the tour where photos are not permitted, although our guide let us take photos from the doorway, and then the cask filling area and finally a warehouse. A quick note here, all of the Scottish distilleries seem to have different policies about photography during tours. Quite a few don't allow any photography at all inside distillery buildings, some allow photography in all but the still house, and some give you free reign, right up in front of their spirit safe. It all seems to stem from health & safety, risk assessors, and different insurance companies, and supposedly is all down to minimising the risk of fire. It can be a little painful, but it's just par for the course.


The first straight from the cask dram on my tour (they change regularly) was a first-fill 10-year old ex-bourbon cask at 57.6%, which was delicious as expected. I really wish they'd do a cask strength of the much-loved standard 10 year old (how about making that the exclusive guys!). Next up was a 12-year old toasted American oak cask at 52.4%, similar to those used in the Auriverdes special release from 2014, although only the cask ends (lids) were toasted in that bottling. Next was an absolutely brilliant 14 year old Manzanilla sherry cask at 51.2%. I was and still am a huge fan of Ardbog, the special release from 2013, which was a marriage of some of these Manzanilla casks, and ex-bourbon casks, at "at least" 10 years of age. This and the next dram were the highlights of the tasting, and in fact were some of the highlights of my whole time on Islay.


Which brings us to the final dram: a 12-year old first-fill Oloroso sherry cask, at 57%, and what a dram! This was my first first-fill Oloroso Ardbeg, and it was absolutely beautiful. But that wasn't the end, we were also given the choice of one of five different special releases, mostly recent, but one stood out - The Alligator committee release at 51.2%, partly matured in heavily-charred virgin American oak casks. I don't believe the committee release was significantly different to the 'general release' version in this case, but it's still a delicious whisky!


That was one hell of a tasting, and was well worth the quite substantial outlay of 40 pounds. Now that I've done it a few times, there really is nothing like tasting an excellent whisky drawn straight from the cask in the warehouse that it's maturing in, or the distillery where it was made. The sights, smells and sounds of a working distillery definitely add to the experience, especially in a traditional earthen-floored dunnage warehouse.


I also picked up a few interesting new tidbits about the distillery from our excellent guide, and was reminded of a few more, that you may or may not already know. Firstly the most commonly known, which is that like a few distillers on the island Ardbeg only has one pair of stills, but unique on the island is that one of those stills (I didn't realise that it was only the one), the spirit still, has a "purifier". This is a relatively small copper drum that sits underneath the spirit still's lyne arm, and essentially creates more reflux on the spirit still. It catches some, but not all, of the heavier compounds in the passing spirit vapours before they reach the condenser, and directs them back into the still for re-distillation. On the next trip up the lyne arm those vapours are now lighter, and they may be caught by the purifier again, or they may make it through to the condenser. This is thought to be one of the factors in why Ardbeg is so approachable for such a heavily peated whisky.


Aside from limiting the annual production capacity of the distillery to 1.2 million litres of spirit (the second lowest on Islay after tiny Kilchoman), having this single pair of stills means that they cannot fully discharge one of their wooden washbacks into the wash still, so around half of the wash actually stays in the washback awaiting its turn in the wash still. It's not getting any stronger in alcohol at this point since the yeast is already dead, but it's believed that it's still developing more sweet and fruity flavours. Interestingly, and a little unusually, both of Ardbeg's stills are more similar in size than some (18,000 & 17,000 litres respectively), so after these two runs through the wash still the now low wines are brought together in the spirit still for their second distillation into new make spirit.

Lastly, Ardbeg actually houses all of its spirit on-site at the distillery, there's no off-site central storage facility on the mainland, and no casks stored at other distilleries, and all of those maturing casks sit in eight warehouses in total, four of which are modern racked warehouses, with the other half being traditional dunnage warehouses. So after a quick wander around for a few photos, a bonus dram of the new "An Oa" expression in the shop and a quick purchase for the wife, and a bit of a stop to soak it all in and savour the moment, it was back up the road to the distillery trail.


But it turns out that Lagavulin is open until 6pm during the week in peak season, and I had already stuck my head in the door of the shop on the way to Ardbeg, so I could hardly walk straight past without taking a closer look, could I? The distillery shop & visitor's centre, which is housed in the old Malt Mill distillery building (!), is relatively small but very well appointed, and is also home to working offices and distillery workers, rather than being a separate, more "polished" experience. This all gives it a functional but warm and welcoming feel, also helped by the fact that there's plenty of whisky on offer by the dram, dished out by the very friendly and helpful shop staff. I had read some negative stories about Lagavulin being a little cold and unwelcoming, but I found it the complete opposite on three different visits, and loved the entire experience.



I went for the distillery exclusives tasting which was a bargain at around 15 pounds, for which you received generous pours of the three distillery exclusive bottlings that were available at the time. That's the standard 16 year old on the left above, which also shows you the power of E150a! Aside from the 16 all were at cask strength, and the line-up included the new Distillery Exclusive bottling, a no age statement cask strength whisky at 54.1%, the 2016 Jazz Festival ex-bourbon cask bottling at 54.5% (more on these in Part 3!), and the 2017 Feis Ile, an ex-Caol Ila Distiller's Edition Moscatel cask finished 16-year old bottling at 56.1%, all of which were still available for purchase in the shop. I'd never had the chance to buy a Feis Ile bottling before, and was surprised to see there was a decent amount still available three months after the Feis (the annual Islay festival), so I knew one of those would be coming home with me! All three were delicious drams though, and it was very difficult to pick a winner!

With the generous offer of a lift from a fellow whisky tourist it was back to Port Ellen for dinner and a dram at Sea Salt, followed by a few more drams at the Ardview Inn, a cosy little pub with a massive range of Islay whisky, friendly locals and far more reasonable prices than the other option in the village. Oh, and with the bonus of having reliable wi-fi! But there was an early start and another big whisky-filled day ahead of me, so we didn't go overboard...

Lagavulin




I'm actually skipping ahead a few days here, but we're already talking about Lagavulin, so why not? I briefly mentioned the Islay Festival above (Feis Ile), but there's another lesser known annual festival that deserves a mention: the Lagavulin Jazz Festival. It usually happens a month or two after the much larger Feis, and despite the name actually encompasses most of the island's distilleries and landmarks during the three days of the festival. And as I found out a few months beforehand, it was on during my last few days on the island! Basically there are a number of jazz performances all over the island over a three day period, but of a little more interest to me personally was something whisky related (surprise, surprise): The Lagavulin Jazz Festival bottling! Released annually to commemorate the festival, usually at cask strength and in lesser numbers than the Feis Ile bottlings (but still in the thousands), I was actually going to be able to get my hands on one of these beauties, and a brand new one too!


I'd already tasted the 2016 version (a mix of first-fill and re-fill ex-bourbon casks) during the aforementioned tasting, and I was surprised to see that it was still available for purchase, but I had high hopes for the 2017 version, which was being released on the second to last day of my time on Islay. Now that's good timing! I'll cover the 2017 bottling in an in-depth review in the near future, but for now let's just say that while I was being very careful with my bottle purchases during my time on Islay, since space in my luggage was at a premium and I still had the mainland distilleries to go, but I couldn't leave Islay without two bottles of this one. In fact it was the only bottle purchase on the whole trip that I bought a duplicate of, so that might give you a rough idea of how good it is! There was another advantage to the Jazz Festival too: there was an extra warehouse tasting on the Saturday! Again, I booked this in way in advance, and since I hadn't had the time for a standard distillery tour at Lagavulin, the anticipation was high...


I had been reading about these Lagavulin warehouse tastings for quite some time. Generous pours, amazing drams straight from the cask, and they're hosted by the living legend that is Ian "Pinky" McArthur, pictured below. This unassuming gent of an Ileach has been working at Lagavulin for over 47 years now (and he started at Port Ellen before that!), and has become the face of the distillery for many people, even appearing in Parks & Recreation, and in Lagavulin's brilliant "My Tales of Whisky" advertising on YouTube, alongside Nick Offerman (a.k.a Ron Swanson). Just check out the list of drams that Ian is holding! A 5 year old, 13 year old, 19 year old, 24 year old, and 35 year old Lagavulin! All at cask strength, all unadulterated and drawn straight from the cask, and all from sherry casks of various types. And it all started with a dram of the 2017 Jazz Festival bottling, which had just been released on the previous day. Wow!


These were all brilliant drams, as you'd expect, but the highlights for me were the 5 year old, which was matured in refill American oak, and was like peated pear juice, and very rich & mature for such a young age; the 13 year old first-fill sherry cask, and of course the 35 year old refill sherry cask. That one was amazing, super soft despite it's surprising strength for the age (53.5%), very fruity and still nicely smoky. Tasting these incredible casks in the warehouse where they were matured, with the legend that has looked after them for their entire lives, was extremely special! Ian was a great presenter as well, entertaining and full of character, knowledge and more than 47 years of Lagavulin history. I'll need to be very lucky to taste Lagavulin of this age again, in fact I doubt it'll ever happen, so this day really was the stuff that dreams are made of!


Again I had heard a few slightly negative stories about this tasting and the whole experience at Lagavulin, which alluded to it being a large, clinical and commercial operation, but I'm putting that down to (completely unfounded in my opinion) anti-Diageo attitudes, because my experience at Lagavulin was anything but. In fact aside from the 'no photography on the tours' rule (and there was no mention of this at the warehouse tasting) and Ian's safety vest-wearing helper, there was no sign of any corporate interference or restrictions during any of my three separate visits to the distillery. All of the staff were very helpful, very genuine and welcoming, the distillery itself is calm, honest and unassuming, and the warehouse tasting was extremely generous. Especially for the price, which was just 20 pounds for all of the phenomenal drams listed above. In fact Lagavulin was one of the best visitor's centre experiences of the whole trip! So if you've heard any negative feedback on Lagavulin, I suggest you do yourself a favour and pretty much ignore it. Next time a tour and another warehouse tasting will definitely be at the top of my to-do list.

I was also lucky enough to have Ian sign two of the bottles of Lagavulin that I had decided were coming home with me; a 2017 Jazz Festival and a 2017 Feis Ile. What an experience! In hindsight I should have also bought a bottle of the new distillery exclusive, but there were still so many distilleries coming up on the trip, and the suitcase was already getting heavy (it ended up holding a dozen full bottles, plus a few miniatures!), so I 'limited' myself to the three. Which just saves something more for the next visit, I guess!

Coming up in Part 3, along with a few more tidbits, we're headed to Laphroaig, Bruichladdich & Kilchoman!

Cheers!