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...
...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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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 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!