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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!

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