18.04.2015 - 25.04.2015 14 °C
We knew at the outset of this trip that a visit to Islay in the Scottish Hebrides would undoubtedly be our year’s highlight and it hasn’t disappointed. I’ve always enjoyed a wee dram and over the last eight years we have both steadily sought out our favourite whiskies and enjoyed many a trip to Christchurch’s Whisky Galore and the famed Whisky Festivals.
Islay is no easy destination to reach. Firstly, you must drive along a windy road to the tiny Kennacraig pier and then board a car ferry that is routinely cancelled due to stormy weather and high seas but the CalMac ferry is in a class of its own. The ship is nearly new with a wonderful interior including a quiet lounge, as well as a wee restaurant that serves a range of whisky for you to sample over the two hour journey and our journey was about as beautiful and as calm as you could get.
The ferry approaching Kennacraig pier
Once we arrived at our cottage, I started to phone each distillery to book in a time for either a tour or a tasting. Yes. We covered eight distilleries in six days with bouts of sightseeing and plenty of eating in between. This is what we discovered:
Sunday – Lagavulin
We began with a basic distillery tour to get a feel for the process and after roughly an hour and a few whisky tastings we had a reasonable idea of what was involved. Apparently, Johnny Depp, the teetotal actor, will happily order a glass just to nose it, so striking is Lagavulin’s aroma (Buxton, Ian; 101 Whiskies to Try Before you Die). Our favourite was the double matured 16 year old finished in a sherry cask – the distiller’s edition. Our verdict is that this dram is very smooth with a sherried sweetness.
Monday – Caol Ila
On the opposite side of the island is perhaps the most scenic distillery overlooking the wild paps of Jura. We’ve enjoyed Caol Ila’s 12 year old before so we were very much looking forward to what else the distillery had to offer so we elected to do a chocolate and whisky tasting tour. We enjoyed the pairings but unfortunately, our guide was not as informative or as engaging as she really needed to be and overall at 20 pounds per ticket, it wasn’t really worth it. However, we did get to try: Mocka, the 12 year old, the Feis edition and a special edition bottling.
The view of the Jura Paps from Caol Ila
Sushi the distillery cat
The tasting table
Monday – Bunnahabhain
Similar to Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain sits on a wild coast and it is one of my favourite whiskies. The 12 year old is finished in sherry casks and therefore has more body. This whisky is great to have with oatcakes and cheese.
Images of Bunnahabhain
Tuesday – Ardbeg
There is no doubt that Ardbeg is one of Islay’s most distinctive brands and as such, its distillery is very commercialized and includes a café that seems to be more frequented than the whisky tours. Nonetheless, we had a very impressive tour led by Dougie and we learnt so much more that we left feeling as if we could start a distillery ourselves. The standard is the ‘entry-level’ 10 year old expression which has won several awards. The stills at Ardbeg differ from others on Islay as they are taller and have a purifier on the spirit still, the combination of which contributes to the finesse and delicacy of what is a very highly peated spirit. It was fabulous to taste not just the classic 10 year old but also my favourite the Uigeadail (a monster full of peat smoke, earthiness and layers of oats, oil and more peat), the AuresVerde and the Correyvrecken. Ardbeg is just too tough to beat.
Images of Ardbeg
Wednesday – Bowmore
It would be foolish to make the pilgrimage to Islay and not spend a little more than you should to do at least one Craftsman’s Tour. This tour is the most comprehensive tour available, conducted in private with the manager of the distillery who in our case was Eddy and who had worked at Bowmore for 49 years. You couldn’t get much more expertise if you tried. Another bonus of spending coin on a Craftsman’s Tour is to visit the number one vaults and sniff the Angel’s Share.
Eddie was simply fabulous and the tour was very informative. We saw the source of the peaty water, we turned the barley on the malting floor, we raked the barley, we shoveled peat into the kiln, we were even smoked in the kiln, we peered into the mashtuns and the kilns and finally we were taken to the number one vaults.
At the start of the tour
Turning the malt, stoking the peat fire and the source of the water
The number one vault has stood at Bowmore for 200 years. It is a cold, dark, dank warehouse with mossy and musty mould clinging to almost every surface – apparently it enhances the flavor. Eddie led us to two barrels. The first barrel was the typical bourbon cask that had been maturing for 17 years and the second barrel was the far more expensive olorosso sherry cask that had been maturing for 18 years. Eddie grabbed hold of the whisky mallet to loosen the bun and before we knew it, we were tasting cask strength, unfiltered whisky. Let’s just say Eddie’s drams were akin to 200 mils each instead of the standard 25 mils. I’d say that in the space of about ten minutes, he’d poured us at least 75 pounds worth of whisky.
The number one vault
As we’ve been touring the distilleries, I have always kept my eye open for whisky matured in a port cask – this is unusual and quite rare. Believe it or not, in the Bowmore shop, I found a 23 year old Port Matured Whisky selling at 25 pounds per dram (25 mils) or 328 pounds per bottle. Needless to say we were not going to buy that. Cheeky as I am though, I requested a sampling and we were so, so fortunate to be given not one but two huge drams of the port matured whisky. God it was good. So good. I really wished that we could buy it and you can only buy it at Bowmore as stocks are running very low.
After all of that, we merrily slumped into the chairs at the distillery and decided that we needed food. Both of us were having out of body experiences and I was so numb, I could barely feel my skin. We settled into a pub lunch and within a few minutes Scott had to depart. He wasn’t feeling well. I managed to eat his lunch and my lunch and then somehow stumbled home. Luckily, I just felt incredibly weird but Scott really did end up with a bit of alcohol poisoning and you can imagine the rest!
Slumped in the chair at Bowmore
Thursday – Kilchoman
Neither one of us particularly wanted to ever see a bottle of whisky again after the day before but with limited time, we scuttled off to Kilchoman. We love their whisky and no doubt a small part of that is due to the fact that this is one of the very few independent family run distilleries you can find. They even bottle their own whisky which is a rarity. After an interesting tour, we gladly took samples of Kilchoman home rather than tasting them.
Images of the Kilchoman distillery and tasting
Thursday – Bruichladdich
As far as I’m concerned, this distillery has a modern approach to marketing that makes their whisky stand out on the shelf. It isn’t just savvy marketing though as Bruichladdich produces a very fine whisky and they also produce a distinctive gin. I decided to try their new Octomore which is the most heavily peated whisky I’ve ever tried at 250ppms. It really was peaty!
Friday – Laphroaig
Seven distilleries later, we finally arrived at Laphroaig for their flavor tasting experience. Luckily it was just Scott and I. We were given a great explanation of the history and whiskies we were about to try paired with food. We thoroughly enjoyed: 10 year old paired with a creamy blue, the quarter cask paired with an orange and the 18 year old paired with dark chocolate coffee beans. Afterwards, I had a taste of the triple matured whisky, too. Yum. Yum! Although it is a bit of a marketing ploy, we ‘bought’ a slab of land and walked out to plant our New Zealand flags on Laphroaig land. Weird but fun, nonetheless!
Images of Laphroaig tasting and claiming our plot!
Islay has so much to offer other than whisky. As you drive around the island it is not uncommon to see cyclists, ornithologists and whisky buffs walking along the island’s roads. In truth, we would have liked to spend more time walking around the island but whisky was our number one focus. Our other focus, as always, is to discover locally produced food and that didn’t disappoint either.
The Ancient Sites - stone circles and celtic crosses
The food and drink!
And finally, a couple of photos that don't quite fit anywhere...