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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!

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