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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!


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.


'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...


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!

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