Day Three – Caol Ila & Kilchoman

Caol Ila

Woke up early this morning without the headache that has seemed to nag on and off with such ferocity for days (Thank gawd for Imitrex). It was nice to wake up feeling fresh and cheerful instead of gingerly lifting my head from the pillow. I showered and shaved, threw my bags together and tried to sneak out so as not to disturb the three Swedish guys bunked in the room next to mine. Did my best to sort my bags the night before, as I know I am an early riser when on vacation (I suppose most would think that was sort of backwards). This was my last night at Kate McAffer’s Self-Catering place before heading on to Port Charlotte, so after gathering the last of my gear I locked up and dropped my keys through the slot. Trudging through the streets of Bowmore before the sun crests was a highlight more than once while on Islay. Not quite as much fun with suitcases in tow…but hey…can’t complain.

Caught a bus from Bowmore to Port Askaig, passing Caol Ila along the way. Gorgeous views here, as everywhere on the island.  As the road began to wend down to the port, and further from Caol Ila, I began get a little concerned. Steep decline now meant steep incline on my way back to the distillery. Don’t want to snivel, but wow…what a workout. Camera bag on my back and pulled two suitcases from Port Askaig up to Caol Ila. If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I mean. Nice walk though, with the Paps of Jura peeking at me through the clearings along the way.

So…was the grueling journey worthwhile after all? Well…yes and no. For the views and to see Caol Ila (both the Sound itself and the distillery)…you bet. For the contents of the tour itself…sadly…no, not really. Let me explain.

I adore Caol Ila. One of my favorite Islay malts.  Though I had heard less than spectacular reviews of the Caol Ila experience, I am not one to take these things at face value.  I always form my own opinions, and I gotta say that the criticisms leveled by others are not what I was disappointed in.  To each his own, I suppose.

I met Lindsay (I think that is the right name…apologies if not), daughter of Lillian from Bunnhabhain (who I mentioned earlier). Super sweet and charming girl. She was heading to Jura later that night for the music festival as she was one of the pipers.  Nifty.  Wish I had been able to make it across, but time is tight.  I also met Jennifer McIntyre there, with whom I had been emailing to set up my tour. Again…absolutely wonderful lady.

Caol Ila was rebuilt in 1974 after being razed to the ground. I had heard there was a distinctly 70s vibe to it, and perhaps there is, but aside from the amazingly ‘Doctor Evil’ vibe of the old school automation system (you gotta these these computers to believe it) I thought the distillery was pretty neat.  The massive glass wall in the still room, which looks out over the Sound, was very cool.  The views, both from within and looking out and from without and looking in, were exception.

And the tour?  Well…not a lot to see really.  Nothing from Caol Ila is warehoused on the island.  The warehouses here are used for maturing Lagavulin, but even though they are sister distilleries, we were unable to see inside (or even get close). It would logically follow that there is no filling station either.

Though I knew much of Caol Ila’s production ended up in Johnnie Walker, I had no idea it was as high as 95% that disappears into their blends. Shame.  As I said…I adore Caol Ila.

Having said that…

After having drunk the cask strength standard last night at Duffies (Hell yeah!  This is what whisky is all about!), the sherried distillery bottling was somewhat disappointing.  It wasn’t bad.  I just hoped for more.  This is the second sherried Caol Ila I have tried that has been less than impressive.  Obviously not my favorite mix.  I am however still debating a bottle of Caol Ila cask strength (just the standard bottling) to take home with me.


Can’t remember the last time I walked this much.  Dear gawd, do my feet hurt.  Left Caol Ila on foot to start the long walk back to Port Askaig.  As I crested the hill leading to the main road, yet another great American couple (this time from Baltimore) pulled up alongside and offered me a lift back to the port.  No pride here…especially with that much baggage.  Though it wasn’t far (maybe half a km or so), it was helpful.

With a bit of time to kill before the next bus back to Bowmore, en route to Port Charlotte, I grabbed a quick bite in the pub at Port Askaig.  Delicious mushroom soup (with an unfortunate bit of plastic in there…oops) and a chicken burger and fries.  Normally can’t eat like that, but all that walking had me ravenous.

Initially I had hoped to bus it to Port Charlotte, but alas…no luck.  The bus from P.A. only went as far as Port Charlotte before veering South for Port Ellen.  I hopped off in Bowmore and had a bit of a wait for a cab.  This worked out in my favor though, as it gave me an opportunity to pop by Duffies Whisky Bar for an interview with Duffie himself.  Nabbed a few picks, had a great chat and went on my way.  I wandered the shops for a bit before my cab arrived.

In my ignorance I had no idea taxis were such a commodity on the island.  I was fortunate to get one on such short notice (nearly two hours!), however could only secure it for a one-way journey.  I was driven to Port Charlotte to drop my bags (happily sharing the ride with a nice English couple who were hopelessly legless after an extravagant tour of Bowmore) at Iain’s Lochindaal Hotel, before backtracking in the cab to Kilchoman.  If I had reached a point of dread on my Caol Ila journey realizing the distance I’d have to walk, I was completely daunted by the journey to Kilchoman.  ‘Oh, man…I’m gonna have to hike back all these miles,’ I thought.

After a near-miss on the narrow Islay backroads (holy hell…aged about 5 years, I think!), we pulled in to Islay’s youngest and smallest whisky producer…Kilchoman, aka ‘the farm distillery’.  Here I met Laura McAffer.  Finally.  Laura was absolutely as sweet and helpful in person as she had been through all of our months of correspondence.

My little cab snafu had landed me at Kilchoman almost 45 minutes later than my planned 3:00 pm tour but Laura was completely understanding.  She greeted me warmly and we went to have a look.

Kilchoman is neat.  Really neat.  I want with all of my heart for this distillery to succeed.  It is tiny…independent…traditional (check out the malting floor!)…and obviously well-loved.  Oh yeah…and they are already producing damn good whisky.  Kilchoman is Islay’s first near distillery in 124 years.  How can you not cheer for ‘em?

Tiny mash tun…tiny washbacks…tiny stills.  Everything in miniature.  I sort of felt like the Friendly Giant (c’mon, Canadians…you know this one!).  The nifty thing is though, because of the scale, everything is designed, selected and utilized in a unique and custom way.  It was truly odd to go from Islay’s giant, Caol Ila (a Diageo distillery), to the underdog, new kid on the block who produces only 100,000 liters a year.

To anyone reading…I beg you consider…this is exactly the type of distiller you should be supporting with your hard-earned dollars.  These are the folk ensuring the dram in your glass is big, bold and beautiful, and not the homogenized fare that has nearly drowned the market for some time now.  These craft distillers are working hard to ensure you receive a whisky with character and flavor the way it should be.

Though I can’t speak to Kilchoman’s standard tour, I can say that the one-on-one I had with Laura was brilliant.  I wish I could have seen production, but this was a Saturday and the distillery is a Monday through Friday operation.  I am just thankful to have seen it.

Since I am pushing my luck with my whisky migration already I opted not to pick up a bottle at Kilchoman, though I can absolutely attest that the unsherried Summer 2010 release is just as exceptional (though in a different way) as the Spring 2010 was.  Now…the only reason I was able to walk away without buying this whisky was because it is arriving in Canada shortly.  If it weren’t you can bet I’da been lugging that bottle down eight miles of gravel road back to Port Charlotte.  So…to tide me over I grabbed a couple of minis of this expression, a Kilchoman Glencairn glass and a Kilchoman jacket for my wife, then began the long walk back to PC.  I made it about five miles before being picked up (quiet stretch of road) by a wonderful couple from Glasgow and dropped right back at the Lochindaal.

I threw my things in my room and wandered the coastline for a bit, shooting some video to show the gang and family back home.  Snapped a few pics, then strolled back to the hotel.

Here I am in the restaurant side of the Lochindaal.  I met Iain, the owner and Robert who was tending bar.  Great pair.  Funny and welcoming.  I will undoubtedly stay here next time through PC.  I have a pint of Guinness in hand…the best fresh haddock and chips I’ve ever had…and I am about to order a dram.  Think I’ll try the Black Bottle.  Finally.

More shortly.  Let me eat.

Back now.  Stuffed and uber content.

Man, am I wiped.  Very little sleep…shitloads of walking…early mornings…overload of information…and missing the family.  Great way to be exhausted though.

Finished dinner with a dram of Black Bottle.  Not bad.  Not as good as I had heard.  After settling up with Robert, I went walking for a while, then threw my feet up in my room.  That lasted all of half an hour or so before I was back in the pub.  Sat down with a dram of the newly revamped Bunnahabhain 12.  Nice…very nice.  Quite different for an Islay malt, but I loved it.  May take some home with me if I find we can’t get this newer version in Canada.

Robert poured me a dram from an unmarked sample bottle and asked me what I thought it was.  Lagavulin.  Undoubtedly.  Medicinal as all hell, and tasty and dignified too.  He seemed kind of surprised, then asked how old I thought it was.  ‘Young’, I said.  ‘Under ten years old.’  Nope.  Thirteen.  Not too far off.  In all fairness…it is young for a Lagavulin, their flagship expression being a sixteen year old and all.

Anyway…time for a rest.  Just heard Laphroaig is open tomorrow (the only distillery that is), and may try to make it there in the morning.

3 thoughts on “Day Three – Caol Ila & Kilchoman

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