‘I am so homesick,
But it ain’t that bad,
‘cause I’m homesick for the home I never had’
– Dave Pirnir
A Return To Islay…
I’m not sure what the genesis was this time. Things just sort of came together. Some comments dropped here and there. A few vague wishes and plans on the horizon. Next thing you know, a few chaps have said ‘f*ck it. Let’s do it.’ It really was as simple as that. Of course, I’ve been dying to get back to Islay since I got on a plane to leave Scotland last time ‘round (Sept, 2010…see here for more).
I’m fortunate. I have a wife who is at once understanding and forgiving. After listening to my monotonous natter about wanting to go back for long enough, somewhere towards the middle of 2011 she said, ‘so why don’t you plan a trip for 2012?’ I didn’t take it too seriously until sharing drams with a few mates a while later. Then, as mentioned above…voila! Here we are.
July 27, 2012. Tickets, accommodations, rentals, tours and all are booked. Done deal. Less than two months till liftoff.
This time ‘round (also September) there will be five of us heading across the pond. While my last experience was by no means tame or sober, you gotta know that five dudes going distillery-hopping on a whisky jaunt through Scotland’s own peat Mecca is not gonna be a ‘dry’ experience. This trip will be vastly different from last time. Further updates will follow to fill y’all in on what is planned, snafu’s along the way, and all sorts of inane details. Hopefully these little jottings are a) interesting and b) helpful. I know I certainly could have used a bit more shared insight on any of the trips I’ve taken to foreign lands. Having said that…these main posts will be contributed by yours truly, while I’m hoping to drag the other lads into dropping comments in beneath. Sort of a group travelogue kinda deal.
So who are these handsome chaps, you wanna know?
The gang this time:
Pat – Anyone tuning in to ATW should know Pat by now. He of the stunning photography. A regular fixture in the collective and all ‘round good guy. There was a brief period after tickets were booked and such where it looked a little shaky as to whether or not he’d be able to make it. Thankfully all is now resolved, and the fact that repeated comments were made to the effect that ‘it wouldn’t be the same without him’ should tell you all you need to know as to how well he fits this little excursion.
Scott – aka ‘The Ginger Buddha’. Quick to laugh and up for pretty much anything. Scott will be spending a few days traversing the mainland before hooking up with us in Glasgow for the flight to Islay. The Scottish weather will suit our pasty white red-haired amigo jus’ fine. Gingers burn easy, they do. 😉 Scott’s a guy of golden heart and tons of optimism, and will certainly bring an easy-going approach to anything we do. Necessary, of course, for traveling.
John – aka “Have you booked your ticket yet?’. John is one of the most down home easy going guys I’ve met. Curious and absolutely behind experiencing anything and everything we can. I love the eternal ‘sure’ that this guy offers up to any idea that is tabled. After a few drinks the guy is a blast too. Can’t wait to start tipping the bottle on foreign shores with ‘im. Should mention…John and I have a date to take a long walk on Islay. I’m hoping this has nothing to do with his quickly contacting me about sharing a hotel room. Hmmmmm…
Gord – aka ‘Leg Room’. Gord’s a biiiiig guy. Think he’s like 7’9” or something. Already we’ve heard talk of needing the extra leg room in the plane and ensuring our rental is not a compact car. I think we’ll stick him in the middle of the backseat in an Austin mini for the bulk of our travel time. Gord’s a funny guy, and one of the first to throw in his two cents, which helps a lot, believe me. Arranging a tour across the globe for 5 is tough when you need to ensure everyone is getting what they want out of it. Gord’s thoughts and insight are a boon.
…uh…and then there’s me.
The trip this time…
Early plans were to put in an appearance at each of Islay’s eight distilleries, hop across to Jura for a chunk of a day, then off to Campbeltown to see the mighty Springbank.
A few revisions to itinerary later and we are now looking at the Islay Eight, plus Glengyle and Springbank in Campbeltown. Jura would have added an element of rush that we simply weren’t prepared to entertain on this trip. Islay life is best enjoyed at Islay pace.
At this point most of the logistics are worked out, though there are a few time/travel issues to resolve. Not the least of which is one of the nastiest time crunches you can imagine. Hope one of these lads has a Flux Capacitor. Otherwise we may be f*cked on Day 1.
More to come…
15 days till ‘go’ time. Awwwwright!!
So here’s the deal…
Two weeks and a day from today, Gord, Pat and I are headed for the Calgary airport. We’ll be nabbing a late lunch, or just a wobbly pop perhaps, before hopping a Transat flight direct from Calgary to Glasgow. Departure…4:40pm. Arrival…7:35am Glasgow time. In what promises to be one of the ultimate flight turnarounds, we have 55 minutes from landing to board our Flybe flight to Islay. Ugh. Please cross your fingers for us that this airport dash ends in success. I am scared sh*tless about making this connection.
If all goes well, a 40 minute flight will have us touching down in Glenegedale.
Now…while most of the details are sorted by now, there is one that is still up in the air. Mode of transportation. We have a rental car reserved for now, but the more tours we upgrade (nearly all by this point), the more we are thinking it may be a better idea to have a hired ride. We are currently sharing email with a couple of the drivers on Islay. More to come as we sort out the details.
Either way, as it stands right now, plans are to head directly for Port Charlotte, where we will drop our bags at the Lochindaal Hotel. You may remember, this was the place I stayed on my last trip over. It was great last time, so it simply made sense to stick with what worked. Iain and Katie, who run the place, are great folks. The promise of a return to brilliant fish and chips, a bar full of Islay malts and a great location were icing on the cake.
After leaving our luggage we’ll be en route to Kilchoman, Islay’s teeniest distillery. The guys are going to be getting a slightly different experience than I did last time. I had toured a few of the bigger distilleries before making my way to this little farm distillery that could. The sense of scale here made me do a double take. The lads will see things the other way round: smallest first, then working their way up to the bigger boys. Will be neat to see their perspective.
Kilchoman is a cool little distillery. Very independent…very charming…and very competent. I can’t wait to get back. Further…Laura McAffer at the distillery is one of the fine folk who helped me out last time I visited. She answered many a question, not just those related to the distillery, and helped me to connect with her aunt, Kate, in Bowmore, with whom I stayed for the bulk of my last trip. It will be nice to reconnect with Laura.
Incidentally…I tasted one Kilchoman when at the distillery in 2010. I am hoping this time to manage an opportunity to sample a slightly more expansive range. This distillery is doing some hella cool things, and I’ve tried many of their expressions. It would be kinda cool to taste a few newer ones at the distillery itself. Time will tell.
When we’ve weebled and wobbled our way through the tour, we’ll likely tackle a quick bite at the distillery’s cafe. It was a recommendation from Mary, of Bruichladdich. I love the fact that all of the Islay folk are so eager to recommend each other to others. It shows a beautiful small town unity and speaks volumes as to the quality of what you’ll find on the island. Love this place.
Tums full and one distillery down…off to Bruichladdich.
There’s been a bit of a changing of the guard at the ol’ turquoise. Remy recently made that ‘offer you can’t refuse’ and the little giant, Bruichladdich, found itself with new ownership. We here at ATW are crossing our fingers that nothing changes for one of the most inspiring distilleries around. Again…time will tell.
A healthy volley of email with the team at Bruichladdich has taken place over the previous months. From the sounds of things, our visit to the distillery promises to be much like the brilliant day I spent there last time over. The welcome I received was astounding and exemplifies the reasons I would happily pack up and move to the Hebrides.
Last time there was some slightly unfortunate timing, and Jim McEwan and I just happened to be crossing paths in opposite directions. He to Canada…I to Scotland. We’ve shared email…met in person…chatted a bit…but it will be neat to see Jim at home.
I’ll save details for later, when all has become reality.
Anyway…after ‘Laddie we’ll be heading back to Port Charlotte. Time for dinner and drams. And drams. And drams.
I should mention…by this point we will have been up for about 40 hours or so. May not be too late of a night. We’ll see. The next day promises to be a gooder too.
More to come…
Apologies for infrequency of updates. Life keeps getting in the way.
So…officially on holidays now. Today is a lazy Sunday home with the wife and kids. Good times. Hoping for a bit more of this through parts of tomorrow, then, while the kids are at school on Tuesday, we three remaining of the Calgary crew will be heading for the airport. Two more sleeps.
Where were we? Right…day 2.
Plans are to rise up to an early breakfast and head from Port Charlotte around the loch to Bowmore. Here we’ll drop our bags at Kate McAffer’s place (Meadowside), and make our way down to the ‘Kildalton’ area. First stop Ardbeg. Our tour of this most awesomest of distilleries isn’t scheduled until Saturday, but being as how many of the folk don’t work over the weekend, I have to put in an early appearance. Just as last time, the wonderful Janey Torrance has been helping me along this journey. As of right now I believe she has a wee handful of bottles and a few odds and ends put aside for me. I have to deliver a gift to her in return. Hoping for a chance to say a quick ‘hello’ to Mickey Heads as well. You may recall we did an interview with Mickey some time back. It will be great to meet in person.
After this short visit, the five of us will walk on down the road to Laphroaig.
We are scheduled for the 12:30 Water to Whisky experience. Four hours or so with the fine folk of the green and white. Donning wellies, we`ll be hiking for the water source for a picnic and dram. Then off to cut peat, turn malt, feed the kiln, etc. One of the coolest aspects of this all immersive experience will be the opportunity to sample from 3 different casks and bottle ourselves a one-off Laphroaig to take home. Truly awesome. Look forward to this. I have sampled from casks before, but never been involved in something like this.
What trip to Laphroaig would be complete without a visit to my own little plot of Islay? All friends of Laphroaig are entitled to one square foot of land near the distillery. Not much to build on, but hey…any opportunity to say I own property on Islay, right?
After planting our flags and finishing all drams, we`ll make the trek back to lovely Port Ellen. From here we’ll catch a bus back to Bowmore. I imagine Bowmore eve 1 (and 2 and 3 and 4…) will be spent in Duffies, doing our best to work through a selection of island malts and a bite or two.
Stilll having some issues reconciling travel here, but…we’ll get ‘er figured, I’m sure. This is a late start day. First tour not until 1:30 at Bunnahabhain. We’ll be tackling the Tasting Tour. Four drams of Bunna, all of which I’ve tried, but nearly all new to the other chaps. And I gotta say…no complaints on my end either. I love the rebranded Bunna, and the 18 is one of my favorite drams. Looking forward to revisiting the Toiteach as well.
Last time at Bunnahabhain I only had a few minutes to chat with Lillian as she was quite tied up, but it was a gent named John who led me and one other fellow (you may remember from last time…nice guy named Howard) through the lovely old establishment of Bunna. Not 100% sure I can put into words the exact reasoning for it, but there is something about Bunnahabhain that just resonates with me. I have a bit of a soft spot for this distillery. Maybe it has to do with it being sort of Islay’s underdog. Not sure. Either way…works for me.
After sucking in all of the wonderful scenery and ambience (and quaffing a few drams), we’ll be heading back down the road to Islay’s gentle giant…Caol Ila.
This distillery produces some of my favorite peated malts, but battles for recognition against the overwhelming ooomph of the big three Kildalton distilleries. Historically about 95% of Caol Ila’s output has also ended up in blends, which doesn’t really help further the cause in raising awareness as to just how great this spirit really is.
Since last trip, Caol Ila has been shut down for reno’s and reopened. I can’t wait to see what modernization has brought to this formerly seventies-ish distillery.
Unfortunately timing didn’t allow us to upgrade the Caol Ila experience, but The same sweet lasy who booked me last time ’round (Jennifer) has promised an opportunity to sample an extra dram or two. Lovely.
Then…(sigh)…the long steep walk back to Port Askaig. At least it will be downhill from here. From Port Askaig…back to Bowmore. And the warmth of Duffies for some chow…drams…and perhaps suds. A couple of us are also beer guys. I look forward to revisiting some of the Islay beer, and the others are anxious to try.
*As a side note…we are still trying to work on taxis to get us back and forth this day. Luck does not seem to be on our side at this point. Fingers crossed.
Ahhh…heaven. Two absolute heavy-hitters in one day. Ardbeg and Lagavulin. Can life get any sweeter? Both of these tours have been upgraded, so it looks to be about 8 drams to set up and knock down between 10:30 and 3:00 or so. Ardbeg is the Full Range tasting and Lagavulin the Premium Tour.
Two trips to Mecca in one journey? Awwwwright! Back to Ardbeg after an early morning Scottish breakie. We’re scheduled for the 10:30 Full Range tour. Not sure what constitutes the full range at this point, as we (at least in Canada) keep getting conflicting information on which releases are sticking around, but who cares? Is there a bad Ardbeg? (yass…yass, Maltmonster…I hear your overt objections to the Blasda. Over-ruled).
Even though it isn’t going to be a surprise, I simply can’t wait to get back to the big green. To see those pagodas as you walk down the lane towards the distillery…man!
Plans are to cruise the distillery…sip some nectar…stand out back and watch the sea…then likely some lunch at Ardbeg’s phenomenal Old Kiln Cafe. I’m sure it will be time for a carb fuel-up and rehydration (and perhaps a coffee?), before legging it for Lagavulin just down the road.
Lagavulin is a beautiful building to approach (especially from the West). I look forward to seeing the little burn delivering water to the distillery…the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle…and the greenery all ’round.
This is a tour I am greatly anticipating. Lagavulin is one of those distilleries that only has a few expressions on the market. This tour will be an opportunity to sample four. I imagine it will be the 16, 12 CS, DE and…who knows? Jazz Fest? Distillery Only? Dunno. Either way…there aren’t often bad Lagavulins.
After a wee speall in the old lounge at the distillery, we’ll be heading back to home base (Bowmore.)
The Lord’s Day. Errr…no. I kid.
In all seriousness though, this Sunday has nothing firmed up. There were initial considerations for a trip to Corryvreckan, or for a few to go hit the links, however…seems it may be slightly more key. Right now we are in talks about a tour of the island, with Stuart Doyle. This appeals for so many reasons. Would be great to have a local show us some history. The beauty of Islay is unparalled. To have a knowledgable guide to share insight would be brilliant.
So…after our slow day of recovery (though likely not drying out) we’ll be back on the horse to tour Bowmore. The distillery, not the village (Though, if anything like last time, the village will get much touring as well. It had started to feel like home byt he time I left).
I’ve fallen for Bowmore a lot more since my last visit. Still underwhelmed by a few of the younger expressions, but I have some found a few gems in the main releases, as well as some absolute stunners in the older beauties.
I sincerely enjoyed the Bowmore tour last time. Look forward to taking in a little more this time ’round. Especially since we upgraded this one to the Craftsman’s Tour. A chance to visit the Number 1 vaults. Yep…this is where the legendary Black Bowmore came from from, the single greatest whisky I have EVER tried. There will be a few drams along the way. Fun stuff.
Sadly, at this point, we will have finished our run of Islay distilleries. Somewhere around midday we will make the last leg over to Port Askaig. Here we’ll catch the ferry over to Kennacraig. From there…a bus down to Campbeltown.