Ok. From me to thee…sincere apologies on delays. Two months home now and finally getting around to fleshing out a bit of this. I caution here and now however, that working my way through each of these pieces will take a while. I’ll post one day at a time, but it may take me until the next trip to get ‘em all published here. 😉
A quick point to address before diving in:
I’ve been asked a few times now ‘Why Islay again?’ or ‘Why go somewhere you’ve already been when there are so many other amazing new places you could see?’ Aside from the fact that the others wanted to see the island, I had my own reasons. Quite simply? … Sometimes I long for the familiar and well-loved. For me, Islay is not necessarily about experiencing something new. It’s more about that feeling of going back home to something I love.
Anyway…I’m sure you’re not here to read me wax poetically about my own personal affinities. You’re here for the whisky. The distillery details…the malt notes…and the debauchery!
Let’s get on it.
Islay 2012…Day 1
Back home nearly a week now. Tired. Fighting off the last of a cold. Happily exhausted. Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) has been tougher than you can imagine. Not through lack of motivation or anything, more a lack of free time. Most eves have been dedicated to family time or personal obligations with friends. Not a bad position to be in, of course, but I have a few voracious hounds nipping at my heels for details of our sordid little adventures across the pond.
Before we dive in to the nitty gritty I will offer a sincere apology (though no excuses). As you, dear reader, will be well aware…updates to ATW have been sparse over the past wee while. I can only assume my writing will be a little stilted and rusty as well. Bear with me. Hopefully I can manage to string a few sentences together to enlighten or entertain. If not…well…hopefully the hilarious hijinks of five mentally-stunted Canucks carousing their way through Scotland will be enough to keep a grin on your face.
Let’s get going…
Where to start. Hmm. How ‘bout 40,000 feet above Eastern Canada, wedged into a tiny little bucket seat on board an Air Transat direct flight to Glasgow? Eight hours of blissful airplane rumble and constant jostling, especially sitting right near the washroom. So relaxing. The perfect way to rest up before a week of bingeing with mates. You may recall after the last trip over (2010), I mentioned never flying with Air Transat again. Several factors contributed to making it a less than enjoyable run last time. I will now, in hindsight, concede that not all were the fault of the airline. Having said that…I was sorta leaning toward the line of thinking that the few extra bucks needed to upgrade or pick a different carrier may have been money well spent.
‘Islay 2012’ was built to accommodate a few different budgets however. Where a few bucks could be shaved off, I tried to make it happen. As the de facto ‘guide’ for this little enterprise, I kinda juggled everyone’s wants against their budgetary concerns to come up with a middle ground. One of the first considerations, of course, was the big expense…flights. So…Air Transat it was. There is simply no other flight for the same price that flies direct from Calgary to Glasgow. We would have been looking at Calgary to Heathrow…Heathrow to Glasgow…Glasgow to Islay. Nah…that time spent flying is time that I could be spending sipping Ardbeg in the Hebrides (or…if you’re John…chasing sheep around a beautiful Scottish island).
The gang started from a few disparate ports. Pat, Gord and I shared the Calgary to Glasgow flight. Scott had opted for an extra week with a bag on his back and spent a bit of time in London (and surroundings) before joining us on the whisky road. John had flown out from the East coast of Canada via London, due to recent work relocation to Newfoundland. In the end though…the plan was to rendezvous in Glasgow prior to hopping the commuter flight to Islay.
Back to the first leg of our journey now…
All bitching aside, this was a newer model craft. Everything was clean and tiptop. It seemed a little more spacious than the bucket I flew in last time (maybe that was just me) and perhaps a little more well set up. I say this as arguably the shortest guy on the trip (about 5’10”). I know a couple of the lankier lads ran into a few occasions on this trip where their freakish size caused some grief (especially in the lounging area at Laphroaig. Bahahaha, John!! BTW…there are bound to be a few laughs at John’s expense here). Funny as hell though, cause it wasn’t me. 😉
Anyway…eight hours. That is a long time to sit in paranoid concern over whether or not we’d make the turnaround flight to Islay. Our arrival in Glasgow was scheduled for 7:35am. Our Islay flight was set to lift off at 8:30am. 55 minutes to deplane, collect bags, clear customs, check in and make it to the next gate for boarding. This was the one part of the trip I had been sweating since prior to even booking our flights. In the end…it turned out to be a non-issue.
As the three of us from Calgary jogged through the Glasgow terminal towards our departure gate, the Ginger Buddha (Scott) came leisurely strolling up behind us. A quick ‘hello’ before boogying around the corner and down a few stairs and lo and behold…there was John relaxing with a coffee at the gate. Hearty greetings…a bit of mockery…and a resounding ‘f*ck yeah!’ At this point it literally felt like a weight being lifted from my shoulders. From here on in it was ‘game on’. Laughs started to come easy. So… not only did we tear through customs, but we ended up checked in and sitting at our gate with nearly half an hour to spare.
This little bit of decompression time, at least for the Calgary contingent, was just what was needed. I’m not sure about the other guys, but I had spent the previous 8 hours in paranoid stupor, watching the screen in front of me as they shaved a minute or two off of our prospective arrival time…then tacked it back on…then shaved it off again. When we did finally touch down in Glasgow we had a further bit of pulse-pounding impatience as there seemed to be a slight hiccup in deplaning us. Sigh. Anyway…to finally lighten up and settle properly into vacation mode was a welcome relief.
We were soon called to board and excitement was starting to take hold. The little hop across to Islay is no more than 40 or 50 minutes. I love this flight. Takeoff over the green fields and lushness that surrounds Glasgow; soar up through the woolly white blanket of clouds for a few bumps and shakes; down again to circle the island from the Sound Of Islay around the Kildalton tip and finally over to approach from the West. Nice to come in looking down at the lovely white-washed walls of Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.
Landing at the tiny l’il Glenegedale airport brings you face to face with…sheep. Mmmhmmm. John lit up like a kid at Christmas. ‘Patience, John, patience,’ we cautioned. ‘You have plenty of time to get…errr…familiar…with the locals.’
We were well met by a gentleman named Jim at the airport. A big burly guy with a great sense of humour and an endearing manner about him. At this point the guys got their first taste of driving on the island, witnessing firsthand the narrow single-lane roads, friendly waves and mirror-to-mirror vehicle passing as we wound our way North around the loch, through Bowmore and on towards Port Charlotte. The whole while Jim regaled us with bits of news and history.
We made a quick stop ‘round Port Charlotte at the Lochindaal Hotel, hoping to check our bags before heading on to Kilchoman. After emptying the back of the taxi of our half dozen or so suitcases plus carry-ons, the sky opened up. We were soaked in 30 seconds and unfortunately…the Lochindaal was still locked up tight. We threw everything back in the taxi, now thoroughly drenched. Jim offered to drop us at Kilchoman, make another taxi run in the in-between time and then drop our bags bag at the hotel for us. He promised to be back in time for the end of our tour.
With that…gone! And there, gathered in the drizzle, were five thirsty lads standing at the gates of a distillery. The rest is infamy. I mean history.
Distillery number one…Kilchoman…
Islay’s newest (2005 start-up) and smallest (90,000 litre capacity) distillery is also the only one not nestled in among the rugged coastline of the island. In fact, it sits rather landlocked on the Northwest side of Islay, a couple kilometres from the sea. Kilchoman is known as the ‘farm distillery’, because it literally is a farm that has been partially co-opted for the production of single malt whisky. New distilleries do not start up every day, and on Islay this is even more underscored, as this is the first new distillery in 124 years. The truly magical thing about Kilchoman is how they seem to have captured lightning in a bottle. Even at a mere three years of maturation it was evident that the distillery was producing gold. The distillate was sweet and complex. The maturing spirit was like a child prodigy, showing immense potential and brilliance even at this, relatively speaking, immature age. Needless to say, fans of the new Islay malt came out in droves to show support.
Early releases are highly collectible, and subsequent expressions have been released at such a uniformly high quality that the distillery has been in the unique position of being able to generate a decent cash flow, something that fledgling distilleries often struggle with. Our global obsession with an age statement on our malts (or maybe just a preference for a more mellow and aged spirit…hmmmmmm) has meant that new upstarts generally won’t see a real flagship product until at least a decade after start-up. I would suggest even longer really, if you want to consider time to properly iron out the bugs and cultivate the malt’s profile.
Either way…this is a non-issue at Islay’s youngest distillery since, as I alluded to, their whisky is damn drinkable already.
My super-sweet friend, Laura, at Kilchoman was there to greet us when we arrived and offered to take us ‘round herself on a little private tour. She and I have shared many an email over the past couple of years, so it was good to connect in person again. Aside from being a truly warm-hearted and friendly person, Laura is extremely in touch with what she does. Incredibly knowledgeable about the distillery, whisky and Islay, she’s the perfect guide for this tour.
Since we had arrived about an hour or so before our scheduled tour time, we took a few minutes to relax over a coffee in the distillery cafe. Remember…10am on Islay was really about 3am for us and of course…a few of us hadn’t slept yet. After some caffeine and a quick breakie and it was time to roll.
Kilchoman is tiny. I mean REALLY tiny. I think dropping by here first on any Islay trip is a good idea. It not only shows you what a truly independent distillery is like, it also allows you to see whisky production in a microscosm. They only get bigger from here, and as you know…the bigger an enterprise gets, the more it sources out pieces of its production (i.e. maltings, bottling, warehousing, etc). Fortunately, you can see a bit of all of it here. Neat.
Now…what distillery tour is complete without a couple of sips along the way? For those of you unfamiliar with the experience, these sips tend to be of ‘wash’ and ‘new make’. ‘Wash’ is essentially fermented barley juice. A beer, if you will. Seven or eight percent alcohol…warm and cloudy…smoky (on Islay, anyway) and heavy. This ‘beer’ is what will be distilled to produce the single malts we know and love. First sips of this warm, smoky beer are often the last sips for some. I, on the other hand, kinda like it. It’s also quite neat and informative to see how different the wash is from distillery to distillery and give some thought to how the end result (whisky) is influenced by characteristics already prevalent in this young aggressive drink.
A little ways into our tour, when we made our way ‘round to the spirit still and safe, we got to try the strong clear alcohol right off the stills. This is what I referred to above as ‘New Make’, and it is just that. Here is your whisky before it ever sees wood influence. Unaged and natural, it tends to bear synthetic, spirity and quite fruity ester notes. Again…new make will highly vary from distillery to distillery.
After a few photos in the wee warehouse with Kilchoman’s famous Cask #1 (and our none-too-original attempts to secure some of the goods within), we took a bit of time to chat with Manager John McClelland in the bottling hall. It kinda brings home the small scale, and wonderfully Lilliputian nature of Kilchoman when you see a team of three, including John, bottling miniatures (5cl bottles), labelling them, assembling mini boxes and sealing them up again by hand. Tedium! Love it. It was nice to have a bit of time with John, who has also put in his time at Bunnahabhain, and get a little insight into some of Kilchoman’s development, growth and what is currently happening there.
At this point I think all were in agreement…time to slake the thirst. Laura led us back to the visitor center where the lads got their first taste of Islay malt while standing on hallowed ground. We worked our way through a decent sampling of Kilchoman expressions including the 2006 Vintage, Machir Bay and 100% Islay second edition (MUCH, MUCH better than the first).
With our insides pleasantly warmed (and our minds pleasantly a-tingle), and only a very short time remaining until we were to meet Jim for the trip back to Bruichladdich, we elected to grab a quick lunch in the cafe.
Even before I’d left Calgary, an early recommendation from Mary at Bruichladdich was to try the homemade Cullen Skink at the cafe in Kilchoman. Now…if you’re anything near as ignorant as I, you’ll be asking what the f*ck Cullen Skink is. Put simply? Soup. Haddock and some other goodies in a creamy base. Even the Buddha (not really a Buddha, but a happy-go-lucky bugger anyway) gave ‘er a whirl and he is anything but a seafood guy. When in Rome, right?
One of the saddest parts in the Islay jaunt is always the quick hello and goodbye. Just a couple quick hours after a hug in greeting with Laura…it was time for another in farewell. Hopefully stars align and I can return again in short order. Back outside to the dreary skies and fading drizzle. Jim was waiting there for us as promised. He had indeed made the run back to the Lochindaal and deposited our bags for us, very much showing the gang some of the Islay charm you find in nearly everyone on the island.
We loaded up and hit the road for the winding way back to Bruichladdich.
Distillery number two…Bruichladdich…
Man…can you ever say enough about the folks at Bruichladdich? I truly hope the powers that be at Remy Cointreau decide to let this little maverick distillery continue to stay the course. Note to Remy: Feed them capital and allow the distillery to do what it has always done to claw its way to where it is. Obviously the ideas at play here find traction among the consumer. It’s hard not to admire what has been done here, and I can only assume that is why the distillery was recently bought anyway.
Sometimes things work in your favor and other times you simply have to roll with it. Unfortunately, there was a little bit of a kerfuffle at Bruichladdich. No, no…nothing bad (at least not for us), but a bit of a change of plans. The initial idea (penciled in) was to spend the day with Master Distiller, Jim McEwan, and managers Duncan McGillivray and Allan Logan. Well…the best laid plans of mice and men…
We ran into Jim M just inside the distillery gates as we unloaded from Jim’s (other Jim) taxi. A friendly greeting, as always, and we chatted for a few minutes. This was a first time meeting for some of the guys, and Jim was in fine spirits. If you’ve ever met the man, you’ll know what I’m talking about. he immediately makes you feel like a friend. Warm-hearted and funny as hell.
Sadly, Jim informed us that the boiler was toast, the distillery was offline and Duncan was speeding off to Glasgow for replacement parts (the beauty of island life, huh?). Jim himself was also off in a hurry due to this unforeseen stoppage. “I swear I have you guys marked on my calendar for arriving tomorrow,” he told us, seeming utterly boggled that we were there this day and not the next. Nope, sorry Jim. Yer stuck with us. Anyway, not one to let things get crimped, Jim went off for a few minutes and brought back a lovely miss named Ilsa. When not at the distillery, Ailsa is found working at Spirited Soaps, a great little shop on the main drag in Bowmore which she owns and operates and that sells her home-crafted soaps and other products. These cool little concoctions are made using some of the island’s best whisky. Cool as hell. After a few more laughs with Jim, we said farewell and settled in to an hour or two with Ailsa on a private tour.
I have to say here that Ilsa, for someone only in the distillery’s employee for a short while, was incredibly knowledgeable. I suppose it helps to have some ‘inside connections’. Either way…she was a great guide and a ton of fun to hang out with. We walked through the whole whisky making process with her (even though there was no production in full swing) and managed to coerce a few interesting nuggets of information out of her along the way. More neat stuff to come from Bruichladdich, to be sure. After finishing up in the true ‘production’ areas of the distillery, we went up to the old bonded warehouses, seeing both racked and dunnage, and a boatload of interesting casks. The latest Bruichladdich run while we were there was of Port Charlotte. We got to sip a young CS PC while it was in the process of being brought down in strength and bottled. Nice dram.
We made our way back down the hill (looking down at a great view across the loch) towards the visitor center/gift shop. Much like at Kilchoman, it was time to wet the whistle. All this touring and asking questions was really thirsty work. The plan was to try one or two ‘Laddie malts before meeting up with Allan, the distillery manager. With all that had been going on at Bruichalddich of late, Allan was running a wee bit behind. Consequently…that ‘trying one or two’ became more like sampling…uh…7 or 8 (16 y.o., 22 y.o., Ancien Regime, Renaissance, Black Art 3, etc).
Now that we found ourselves thoroughly warmed up from our impromptu tasting, Allan came round the shop. Allan is a great guy. Younger than I and already helping guide the future of this distillery. And holy hell, does this guy know his stuff. We had a good chat for 15 or 20 minutes, much about the Remy buyout and the path forward. It was at the same time eye-opening and reassuring. Nice to hear such positivity and optimism. There has been a lot of concern and fearmongering over what would happen to this little giant once its independence was bought out. If what I heard comes to play out the way it seems…I think the distillery will be just fine.
A couple of other gents were hanging about the shop with us and joined in the conversation. Paul and ??? (please help me out, guys, if you’re reading this. Apologies…both my notes and mind are shoddy) are a couple of Canadian fellows working/living abroad. Asia, actually. They were actually staying at the distillery and in no uncertain terms mentioned being treated like royalty there. Happy to have them along with us, we made our way into the warehouse with Allan. Much like last trip, we started yanking bungs from casks and sampling some goodies. Two, in particular, stood out. One was an ’85 (so…27 y.o.?) bourbon cask, as pictured below.
The other…an over-toasted cask of 2008 Octomore. Wow…what an odd one. Errrr…it’s highly possible we had more than one glass of this one. If you read through the 2010 Islay Blog write-up you’ll recall that sampling an Octomore straight from the cask was a highlight a couple years back. If ever a whisky was made to be drunk in this manner…Octomore. Truly. While that particular cask is long gone, there is now another dozing away in the warehouse. This one is a burnt rubber, charbroiled monster of peat reek and asskicking enormity. As I said…one glass wasn’t enough.
I took a rather cool shot of Allan ‘valinch-ing’ (can that be a verb?! Why the f*ck not?!) a dram from the cask a couple years ago, and talked to him about possibly reviewing this new Odd-tomore to go with that shot. He disappeared for a few minutes while we sipped our firewater and came back with a healthy sample (couple hundred mls) to send home with me. Review will be up on ATW ASAP. This was a unique as hell whisky.
When we finally finished up in the warehouse at Bruichladdich, made a few purchases and said goodbye to our new mates, Allan offered us a lift back to Port Charlotte. We made tentative plans to all meet up at the Port Charlotte Hotel later that eve.
Ok…things got a little…errr…interesting from here on in.
First things first…we popped in to the Lochindaal Hotel to see Iain McClellan (owner) and to check into our rooms. I hadn’t known ahead of time, but there were apparently some workers staying at the Hotel and Iain, in all of his consideration, had us set up to stay in a beautiful place just a stone’s throw from the hotel. A great home facing right out onto Loch Indaal. Plenty of rooms spread over a couple of floors. The place was amazing…the view even moreso. In hindsight, I wish we had stayed an extra day here. We ended up not having much time on Port Charlotte at all. Shame. There are some great walks and views in this area.
We got ourselves settled in to our new digs and, before heading out for dinner, Pat and Gord opted for a dip in the Atlantic. Yep. Even the locals thought these two Canadians quite possibly had some screws loose, they still elected to do it. Having said that though, I would have joined them if I had thought to bring something to swim in, if for no other reason than to say I had. As you can imagine, the lads said it was f*cking frigid. No surprise there. Made for a few good laughs though.
After drying off and getting prettied up again we made for the Lochindaal. The place was jumping! There was a big group in for a lobster or crab cook-off on the restaurant side. No problems…or so we thought, and made our way to the bar side. Five dudes…up for nearly two full days…stomachs full of Bruichladdich jetfuel…and itching for a good feed of fresh fish and chips. “Sorry, lads…can’t feedja right now. Kitchen’s too busy with the big party.” Ummm…ok. Ended up being 2 or 3 hours later we finally got to eat. By this point we’d missed our spot at the Port Charlotte Hotel for live music with our friends from Bruichladdich. Sigh.
Again…sometimes you just gotta roll with it. So…being the good-spirited lads we are…we elected to play along and get lit up at the Lochindaal instead. Dram followed dram followed pint followed dram…you get the picture. We hung with locals, had a few others join our table, laughed and socialized and basically lived it up on holiday time. When we did finally get food it was honestly really damn good. Fish and chips on the island is one of my fond memories and something that calls to me.
As the evening wore on the glasses grew lighter (though decidedly more in number) and the eyelids heavier. A couple of us took our leave, while a couple stayed behind. Deciding they weren’t quite through, John and Gord hung back for a while. Good idea? Not really. Well…Gord made out ok. John…well…let’s just say it was a bit of a shaky morning for our mate. More to come on this when I get to filling you in on the ins and outs of Day 2.
Should note, the lady tending bar was lacking something quite noticeable. That beautiful Scottish accent. Instead, she just happened to be a Fort MacMurray transplant. How the hell do you go from Fort Mac to Islay? Wow. Just one of those things that makes travel so damn interesting.
Anyway…after about 40 hours on the go…day one…end.
– Words: Curt
– Photos: Curt (unless otherwise credited)