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Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Second Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 3: More Islay!

We've made it to part three! Part 2 covered visits to Bunnahabhain and Ardnahoe, an excellent tour & tasting at Caol Ila, and a perfect warehouse tasting at Bruichladdich. This third & final chapter of the pilgrimage will cover visits to Ardbeg and Kilchoman, a tour at Bowmore, a tour & cask tasting at Laphroaig, and a warehouse tasting at Lagavulin. Yeah, I guess you could say it was a pretty good trip...

The previous day's brilliant activities were always going to be a hard act to follow, but we would certainly come close with this effort. Since my wife had driven the previous day, I had organised for both of us to walk the famous Three Distilleries Pathway from Port Ellen. We would start off with the Distiller's Wares tour at Laphroaig, followed by a Lagavulin warehouse tasting with the legendary Ian McArthur in the afternoon, and then a quick stop at Ardbeg - hopefully in time for the bus back to Port Ellen. That last part didn't quite go to plan, but it certainly worked out well in the end! Unfortunately the weather wasn't on our side on this pilgrimage, and most of every day saw grey & overcast skies with sporadic rain. Typical Scottish weather really, and it certainly does add to the authenticity of the experience! But this did mean that the views during the walk to the three southern Islay distilleries weren't quite as breathtaking as they were last time. Which did precisely nothing to hamper our enthusiasm!

After a brisk, cold & slightly damp 30-minute walk from our bed & breakfast were arrived at our first stop, the mighty Laphroaig! I had already visited this distillery on the last pilgrimage, and we went for the same option again, the Distiller's Wares tour, which involves a more in-depth distillery tour, three drams straight from the cask in Warehouse no. 1 by the sea, and a 250ml hand-filled bottle of your choice of one of those three casks. This isn't exactly a cheap tour at 70 pounds per person, but it's the only way to get your hands on an official bottling of hand-filled cask strength single cask Laphroaig, let alone one that you personally fill in the warehouse, and the three casks offered are always excellent. But we'll get to that shortly.

When I last visited Laphroaig the malting floors were in use, but the kilns were not, which meant I didn't see (or smell) the peat fires, but I did get to stand in the kilns themselves and taste some of the leftover malt. Well this time it was the opposite! After a quick look at the unfortunately empty malt floors and an explanation of how everything worked, we were taken down to view the kilns themselves. And what a view that was! The fires were burning a little hot at the time so peat was being heaped on in an effort to cool them down, which resulted in the glorious aroma of Laphroaig's hand-cut peat filling the room. This was followed by a look at the mash tun and washbacks, and a taste of the smoky, sour & malty wash, before heading to the still room. Those seven gorgeous stills were busy doing their thing at the time, and we were also able to dab our fingers into the low wines as they flowed into the spirit safe. Then we were off to Warehouse No.1 to taste some casks...

And wow were they special! On the last pilgrimage I was very surprised to find that there was a sherry cask on offer, an extremely good PX finish in fact. Well this time there were three! Specifically a bourbon cask-finished sherry cask (yes, unusual!), a fully-matured Oloroso cask, and a sister cask to that PX finish from last year! So now I had yet another difficult choice ahead of me. Interestingly these casks are picked out by the shop & tour staff at Laphroaig, from a range of options that are selected by John Campbell himself. First cab off the rank was the bourbon cask finish, which was a 14-year old Laphroaig at 51.3% that had first been matured in a sherry cask, then moved into an ex-bourbon quarter cask, and then finally into a full-sized bourbon cask. A very unusual maturation method, that's for sure, but it worked, resulting in a rich and relatively soft Laphroaig that felt far more mature than its age statement would have you expect. Next up was something very exciting that I'd never tasted before. A 7-8 year old Laphroaig that was fully-matured in an ex-Oloroso sherry hogshead (250-litre cask) at a whopping 59.8% ABV. This was my pick for my hand-filled bottle in the end, and was a delicious whisky with plenty of Laphroaig character still present (probably due to the young age and high strength) alongside that dried fruit and raisin-y sherry cask influence. Just delicious. The third cask was my wife's pick for her hand-filled bottle, which was a sister cask to my pick from last year and was every bit as delicious as that slightly younger version. This one had spent five years in a bourbon barrel before moving into a PX sherry hogshead, so a 7-8 year "finishing" in a PX cask, which is amazing! It was a super-rich sherried Laphroaig with loads of flavour, and it certainly made for a tough choice between it and the Oloroso cask. But if I'm honest the bits of barrel char in the Oloroso cask may have tipped me over the edge...These casks are definitely worth the price of the tour if you ask me, even with the hand-filled bottles being only 250ml. They're absolute one-offs and are basically irreplaceable.

Back in the visitor's centre we were in for a treat. I had arranged to have a quick chat with none other than John Campbell, Laphroaig's Distillery Manager, who I last met back in 2015 during his Australian tour. John was in the middle of experimenting with some new water & waste management practices, and I managed to get a bit of insider info on the distillery's expansion plans, a very exciting future release, and a couple of other snippets. It was certainly surreal for me to see him on his home turf on Islay when last time we met it was in my home turf on the other side of the planet! Letting John get back to work we headed to the tasting bar, which has had a bit of a revamp since I last visited. They now have a massive range of Laphroaig bottlings available for purchase by the dram, including samples of a couple of the casks that we had just tasted in the warehouse, and the entire range of Cairdeas bottlings since 2009, unfortunately except for the 2013 Port Wood release, plus a massive selection of the brilliant 10 Year Old Cask Strength bottlings. We went straight for the only Cairdeas I hadn't tasted to date, which was the delicious 2010 'Master's Edition', and two very early batches of the 10 CS which I'd never even seen in the flesh: the last of the un-numbered "red stripe" batches, and Batch 001 from 2009. They were absolutely amazing, and I couldn't pick a favourite between them. I think this is new setup is great to see and it'll certainly help people tick off a few bucket list whiskies from their list, I just hope the distillery can keep it up! After collecting the "rent" for our Friends of Laphroaig plots, a 50ml miniature of Laphroaig 10 that you claim after printing your ownership certificate, and finally a quick coffee for the road, we were back on the Three Distilleries Path to our next stop, Lagavulin!

I thoroughly enjoyed the entire Lagavulin experience last time (so much so that I visited three separate times), so before we had even booked our flights I knew that the Lagavulin warehouse tasting with Ian McArthur had to be on the itinerary. This Islay legend has been in the industry for over 48 years now, originally working at Port Ellen Distillery for 13 years before it closed, and then moving to Lagavulin. He's a larger than life guy, but in a quiet and unassuming way, and he's been presenting the distillery's warehouse tastings for years with his characteristic Islay wit. Ian tells me that he's planning on retiring in another two years, which will mark 50 years in the industry for him - not a bad showing - so if you haven't yet attended one of his tastings, well, now you have your deadline! While I did miss the Jazz Festival itself this time, the 2018 Jazz Festival bottling was still very much available, and it was our welcome dram on arrival in the warehouse. It was lighter and sweeter than the brilliant 2017 bottling despite a slightly higher ABV, and was taken from first-fill American oak barrels, refill American oak hogsheads and refill European oak puncheons. Ian later mentioned that there were also more older casks involved in this one, which he would know since he personally picks the casks for these bottlings! We were then treated to drams pulled straight from a 6-year old refill cask, a 16-year old refill cask, a 20-year old first-fill sherry cask (my pick of the lot), a 21-year old refill bourbon cask, and a 25-year old first-fill sherry cask. All were very special drams of course, and the tasting offers incredible value at just 25 pounds each. This is definitely something that should be on everyone's Islay itinerary!

Back in the shop there was yet another difficult decision ahead, with the 2018 Jazz Festival bottling and also a small amount of the excellent 2017 bottling still available, both at 99 pounds, but there was also the 2018 Feis Ile bottling to choose from! This one is an 18-year old Lagavulin from refill & rejuvenated (shaved & re-toasted / charred) American oak hogsheads and European oak sherry butts. It was a little more expensive at 130 pounds, but for an 18-year old cask strength Feis Ile Lagavulin that's not unreasonable at all. In the end I grabbed one of each, and was again lucky enough to have Ian sign the bottles for me, which is just incredible, although it makes them harder to open - but it'll still happen eventually! I'm a big fan of how Lagavulin (and Caol Ila for that matter) handles these special edition bottlings, where they're completely exclusive to the distillery shop and are kept for those who have made the effort to visit the distillery, and they release a decent number of bottles, either 3000 or 6000 these days, which means there is usually enough to go around for at least a few months after each festival. Diageo certainly seem to value & appreciate visitors making the trek to their distilleries, which is great to see! Since the weather had closed in by the time we had finished up at Lagavulin we weren't looking forward to the walk to Ardbeg to catch the bus, but luckily my wife had befriended a small American tour group, and their guide & driver kindly offered us a lift since they were on their way to the Kildalton Cross. Since we were already cold & damp we took up this very generous offer, and we were glad to see the cross & church one last time and escape the rain for a while. And we made the bus with plenty of time to spare!

Next up, and the last tour of the trip, was the often-unloved Bowmore Distillery. I had missed out on a tour here on the last trip, mostly because I didn't plan ahead since they're not my favourite of the Islay bunch. But they can still produce some great whisky, and they're home to one of the island's three active malting floors, so I decided to give the tour another try. And they had a spot available! I went for the standard tour, which only costs 10 pounds and includes the tour, a miniature tasting glass, and a 15ml dram of three core range Bowmores. It was the last tour of the day, which unfortunately meant that the tasting bar had closed by the time the tour had finished. I would suggest that in future they either move the tour forward 30 minutes or extend the tasting bar's hours by 30 minutes, since that's prime time for tour attendees to try the whiskies that they're interested in buying. Speaking of which, unfortunately there were no Bowmore hand-filled bottles available from the distillery shop during my visit. In fact there wasn't last year either. The exclusive bottling was a 17-year old "Warehouseman's Selection", but it was a little pricey at 125 pounds and wasn't available to taste thanks to the bar being closed, so I gave it a miss. While I was there another potential buyer came in looking for hand-filled bottles, and when he was turned away mentioned that he'd now visited the distillery four times and has never been able to get one. These bottlings must be very sporadically released, but I've tasted a couple of excellent ones (particularly this Feis bottling) so they're still worth a shot (pun intended).

The tour itself was enjoyable but busy, and our guide was excellent despite having a full tour mostly consisting of non-whisky geeks. Bowmore is a modern distillery in some ways and a traditional one in others, for example their wooden washbacks were replaced with stainless steel units years ago, but they switched back to wood again when they weren't happy with the difference that came from the steel washbacks. Yet those same washbacks have automatic CO2 extractors and de-foaming fans mounted under their lids. The floor-maltings are traditional of course, and they are noticeably smaller than Laphroaigs, but the sausage-shaped peat used in the kilns is cut by machine rather than by hand. And the four stills are monitored by computer software, but also by the stillman manning the room. Those large and plain stills are quite interesting in their own right, all four have different angles and lengths on their lyne arms, and three have their condensers mounted inside while the fourth is mounted outside the building, with its smaller lyne arm going through the roof. I was excited to see the famous No. 1 Vaults, Bowmore's dunnage warehouse that actually sits below sea level in some parts, but then I was a little disappointed when we could only view them from behind glass. Laphroaig's internal iron gate is a much more welcoming option if you ask me. The viewing area setup in the warehouse is nice though, with display versions of a half-coopered cask and old coopering tools, and cut-out sections of staves from both bourbon, sherry and wine casks to help demonstrate the differences. One complaint here though, when exiting the still house on the way to the ancient No. 1 Vaults we were greeted by a charming massive Beam Suntory corporate sign that proudly told us how many days had passed since Bowmore's last recordable safety accident. For gods sake people, this is a 200+ year old Scotch whisky distillery, visitors do not want to see that! I remember finding the same thing at Aberlour last year, it completely ruins the mood and takes you right out of the moment. I understand that we live in the age of occupational health & safety, but at least keep this crap out of sight of the distillery tours!

Once back in the visitor's centre overlooking Loch Indaal we were presented with our three drams, with Bowmore 12 in our miniature tasting glasses and a take-home 15ml sample of the 15- and 18-year olds. I've never been a huge fan of Bowmore's core range to be honest, although the 15 year old 'Darkest' was quite pleasant - and it's recently lost that slightly erroneous (because the whisky was artificially coloured) extra name and is now known simply as the 15 year old. Since the tasting bar was now closed that was it for Bowmore, but I'm glad to have finally ticked that tour off my list, and to have seen their very interesting setup. I've now visited all but one of Scotland's distilleries that are still floor malting their own barley in-house, with the one exception being Highland Park. Although Benriach was closed at the time of my drive-through visit if you want to get technical! These rarities are great to see, since like only a few other things in the whisky industry it's a practice that hasn't been significantly altered by time or technology.

So that leaves us with two more Islay distilleries, Kilchoman and Ardbeg. Unfortunately we didn't have time to tour Ardbeg this year, which was a shame since their "ArdBIG" tour was one of my highlights on that first pilgrimage, but my wife was curious to see the distillery (mainly just the shop I suspect!), so we stopped in for a quick visit after a bit of seal-spotting in the bay a couple of minute's further on from Ardbeg. The distillery had added a couple of extra buildings (presumably warehouses) since I had last visited, although I'm told the gift shop is being moved to make way for more cafe seating. The entire site was looking beautiful in the morning light, and I managed to sneak around and get a photo of the famous warehouse wall by the pier, but thanks to the weather it couldn't really compete with the excellent view from last year. The shop itself had pretty much the same range of merchandise and whisky that it did last year, with a good range of accessories as usual. But aside from the 23-year old Ardbeg that was now in place of the 21-year old, like last year there was nothing on offer that couldn't be easily found at home at relatively comparable prices. Ardbeg is now the only active Islay distillery that does not offer an exclusive bottling of any sort, which is a real shame since their whisky can be so utterly fantastic, and in my humble opinion they need to fix that as soon as possible!

Since we were in the area I took this last opportunity to finally visit Dunyvaig Castle, the naval base of the Lord of the Isles in the 16th century who ruled his territory from Islay. The foundations are much older than that, and it's believed that the original castle was itself built over the ruins of an ancient fort. More incredible history from this incredible island! This spot will also give you unrivalled views of Lagavulin from the sea side, which were stunning even on a very overcast day as you can see from the photo a few paragraphs back. Definitely worth the small amount of effort to walk there and touch such an amazing piece of history and soak in the atmosphere. One of many... spiritual... moments on this trip.

Last but absolutely not least was Kilchoman. Islay's smallest distillery is a little out of the way, involving a 15 minute drive from Bruichladdich on a single-track road. But the views from said road are absolutely incredible, from Loch Gorm to Saligo Bay and Machir Bay, and of course the distillery itself is brilliant. The difference in physical size is immediately obvious, even from the outside, when compared to its Islay brethren. It has a different atmosphere to it, it's charming and more "homely" and somehow comforting. Since we were mobile on this trip we were also able to drive a little further on and have a look at Kilchoman Church, the decrepit and closed-off but still impressive church and graveyard that is visible from the distillery, and of course Machir Bay itself. There's quite a bit of building going on back at the distillery, with the expansion work very much under way. The new malting floor & kiln were completed earlier in the year, and the new still house and tun room are in place, although I'm not sure what stage the internals are at. The visitor's centre and cafe haven't changed, they're still excellent, although the old display cases full of older bottlings had mostly been replaced with current bottles available for purchase. Kilchoman's shop does have a major draw card all of its own, the shop exclusive single cask bottlings! During my visit last year that was a Caribbean rum cask finish which was excellent, and this time around it was again something special, but in a different way. This time it was a 10-year old Kilchoman from a single ex-bourbon cask, selling for a not-unreasonable 110 pounds, and it was utterly delicious. So needless to say one of those was my final purchase on Islay, and once again I already know that I should've bought two...

Leaving Islay is a very difficult thing to do. Particularly when the weather on that final day is the best of the entire trip, a realisation that is made all the more painful by knowing that you're booked in on the first ferry and have a rental car to return and a train to catch back in Edinburgh. But it was a busy few days, visiting all nine of Islay's distilleries, and ticking off some bucket list sights, not to mention whiskies. I don't think these posts can accurately portray just how special this island is, you really do need to experience it yourself. There actually is nothing like it. And once you've finally been, Islay will have carved out a piece of your heart for safe-keeping until the next time you visit. And that piece seems to get a little larger each time you leave...

So that's it for the second pilgrimage! Thanks for reading, I hope you've enjoyed these long-winded write-ups, and I hope they've inspired you to get to Scotland and Islay on your own pilgrimage. You absolutely will not regret it. Cheers!

Sunday, 18 November 2018

The Second Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 2: Islay!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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