Islay 2012 Day 4…Ardbeg And Lagavulin
Dear god. What the hell was I thinking? Just before visiting my two favourite Islay distilleries. What do I do? Go out and get shoddy the night before. Ugh. Woke up with a thumping ‘ead and a stomach that said, “hmmmm…maybe John’s one-bean-at-a-time approach today.” I managed to get down a few bites, with small mouthfuls and a shaky fork before sitting back with coffee and OJ instead. Just seemed a little safer, to be honest. Likely for all involved.
I left the lads to continue their morning grub and dragged my weary bones off to a quick shower before the others could beat me to it. Ok…a little better now. Refreshed…clean…and, uh…nope…still feeling a little rugged, but at least closing in on ‘human’ now. Gone from primordial ooze to almost upright in one evolutionary bound. I might add that my dialogue at this point may have been a little closer to neanderthal than articulate nature boy. Grunts, nods, etc.
After the others managed to tame their various levels of dishevelment, we began the sunny stroll to the bus stop in front of Bowmore’s Co-op. Here we just sorta hung out and waited. And waited. And waited.
Forgive the fogginess imparted by the sands of time, but I can’t recall the exact reason we ran into the bus snafu we did. I think (if memory is at all valid) that the online bus schedule I had printed before we left Canada had been updated in the time since our early planning, and the bus we thought we’d catch was now running a schedule substantially later than we’d believed. Either way, the long and short of it was that we started to hit panic mode and were about to call for a taxi when the bus finally pulled in. Seeing as we were booked on the “Tasting Tour”, we definitely did not want to miss out on this one. By this point however, there was simply no way were going to make it in time.
When we finally pulled into the stop by the little red phone booth at the head of the lane down to Ardbeg, we five bolted for the door and began running down the hill to the distillery. All but Gord, that is. He was warmly greeted by the local woolies and had to pause for a quick photo of his bah-ing friends. Somewhat of a recurring theme really. We kept bugging John about his liaisons with the sheep, but it seemed to be Gord they were most enamoured with.
Distillery number six…Ardbeg…
I hate being late. I think it shows a complete lack of courtesy to whomever you are late in meeting. So, sheepishly (pun intended), we breathlessly ran in, apologizing profusely, and were told not to worry. One of the ladies led us on a whirlwind trip through the distillery to catch up with our group. After another round of apologies (to Lynn, our lovely guide, and to the group as a whole) we breathed a sigh of relief and settled in to enjoy the rest of the tour. Sadly, the stills were silent when we were there. No concern, however, as the tour was still the full meal deal.
For those that have not visited Ardbeg, this is one of the most picturesque and quintessential of Scottish distilleries. Impeccably maintained and beautifully manicured, one would never guess that it was less than two decades ago that Ardbeg was well-nigh a ghost town. The incredible depth of local pride in this reborn distillery is palpable. There is a protective sense of adoration and profound understanding of how close this piece of Islay came to not being here now. It adds a beautiful gravity to any visit. Not to dwell on the lean years, but to celebrate a poignant history and a bright future.
And I should add, the scenery simply cannot be beat. Beautiful.
Alright…abbreviated tour comes to a close and we find ourselves nestled in Ardbeg’s cozy little tasting room. Let’s see if we don’t have a little medicine to alleviate some of those post-party symptoms I spoke of earlier. First dram in hand; an Ardbeg Ten. A favourite, of course, but feels a bit like swallowing a sandpaper smoothie at this point. Though initially a little slow to reach each other, I and the bottom of my glass finally met. On to number two; Uigeadail. While the sherry cushioning may have helped, the extra weight in ABV kept me sipping slowly. By the time dram number three, Corryvreckan, was in hand I was feeling a bit like a cowboy climbing back in the saddle. Finishing this one? No problem, thank you very much. Finally, dram number four was the newly released Galileo. This was a first meeting between most of us and this new Ardbeg expression. Thankfully I was back to my old self by this point and happily sipping away, sharing laughs and had firmly decided I’d be lugging a bottle of this juice home with me (sort of a ‘just in case this doesn’t make it to Canada’ line of thinking).
The more we chatted, our little group of a dozen or so, the more I would have happily spent the day just hanging out. Fun bunch of folks. One gent in particular, an older chap from Alabama with a feather in his cap who reminded me of a university prof I’d had years before, was a hoot. He and I were bantering back and forth and having a gay ol’ time. Truly a character. Wish I’d caught this fella’s name.
To boot, the lovely lady who toured us, Lynn, asked if I was Curt, and said that she remembered me from last time over. This is just another part of the Islay lure and appeal for me. Two years previous…amid all the untold thousands who visit the island and the distilleries, people there still remember individuals. I love that. Part of the reason that Islay feels more like home to me than where I live now.
When we finished the last of our drams and said ‘so long’ to the rest of our tour group we made our way out of the tasting room and back to the Old Kiln Cafe. Was good to chat with Lynn a bit as we walked. Back at the shop I was able to exchange the open bottle of Almost There for a full one as Janey had promised, not to mention changing out the wrong sex hoodie for a snazzy Ardbeg jacket instead. And yes…I again spent a ton of money spent in the shop.
Now, I knew Ardbeg was going to be expensive, but f*cking ‘ell! Ended up leaving the distillery with six bottles, a jacket, a shirt and canvas bag for the wife, a great big beautiful book, glassware, peat cones, etc etc. Pretty sure all the other lads took at least a bottle or two (and some other misc) as well. This place is like a candy store for me. When I see that stylized ‘A’, I immediately open my wallet.
So now, with our insides warm and toasty like a bed of smoldering peat, it was time for some lunch. The Old Kiln Cafe is one of the best kept little secrets on Islay. Well…maybe it’s not so secret, but man…this place is amazing. The food is legendary well beyond the shores of Islay. This used to be the old malting floors of the distillery and now houses one of the island’s great restaurants and visitor centers under the watchful eye of Miss Jackie Thomson. The food is delicious, the coffee hot and fresh and the ambience…well…in order to experience it you’d have to be sitting in the greatest distillery on earth, wouldn’t you? ‘Nough said.
This day there was a great broccoli soup on offer. And coffee. Sold. Pat went for a second run at the cullen skink, wanting to know how it held up against that we had upon arrival at Kilchoman a couple days prior. None of us were disappointed with our chosen meals.
As the gang stretched out and digested, I batted my purty little lashes (uh…right) and managed to coerce Lynn into checking for any more interesting Ardbeg bottles around. Nothing from the ‘long gone’ ranges, but she did manage to find the last two bottles of Ardbeg Day. I took one, as a gift for the Maltmonster back home, and Scott took the other. Thanks, Lynn. Many months later, this is still much, much appreciated.
Loading up our suddenly much heavier packs, we had a somewhat rushed stroll back down the road to Lagavulin, but still managed to squeeze in enough time to snap some great photos along one of my favourite parts of the island.
It can’t always be a sad leaving, so instead of looking back forlornly, it was time to look forward to Lagavulin.
Distillery number seven…Lagavulin…
Now…here’s where things get messy (well…I guess the hangover and late arrival at Ardbeg were a little messy too, but…). Guess there was a little bit of miscommunication between the fine folk at Lagavulin and I. Still not sure where the blame lay, but let’s just chalk it up to crossed wires, poor communication and lack of clarity.
We didn’t actually get to tour Lagavulin. Apparently this was their silent season. The distilleries have a rotating closure to allow a couple days of maintenance and such. Just so happened this was Lagavulin’s downtime. When I booked the tour, there was no mention of a closure, but the email from the distillery (now that I read back) did speak only of a ‘tasting’, and did not specifically mention a tour. The frustrating part is that my email to them did mention five of us for a tour. Doh! Anyway…no one at fault; we simply had crossed wires, as I said. Oh well. A bunch of us were escorted back to a bit of a lodge in behind the distillery visitor center where we gathered ’round a table laid out with many a seat and many a dram. While the tour concept was a bust, the tasting itself was cool as hell. Tasting both Lagavulin new make, as well as an unbottled 19 year old PX cask sample were definite highlights. The rest of the range was fleshed out with the 16 year, 12 year old cask strength and Distiller’s Edition.
Breakfasting on a bunch of Ardbeg, then moving on to a bunch of Lagavulin…does it get any better?
When the last drops were tipped from glasses we bid farewell to our host and made our way back to the shop in the visitor center. No amount of coercion on my part could net me a bottle of the this year’s famous Jazz Festival release they had done. Sold out, we were told. Hmmm…just one back there? C’mon. Just one? No such luck. Maybe I should have undone an extra button or two on my shirt. 😉
Rather standard fare on offer in the shop, otherwise. Gord nabbed a bottle of the Distiller’s Edition, but there was nothing in particular that was screaming out to me that it needed to hitch a ride back to Canada in my luggage. That’s ok. I’ll still consider the 2010 Distillery Only bottling I bought last time over as a coup. Wish I’d grabbed two. Sigh. Fortunately, the one I have is quietly slumbering in a bottle on my shelf awaiting a future date with some good friends and special memories.
Anyway…let’s step back to this Lagavulin tasting event itself. The whiskies…top notch, unquestionably. This is Lagavulin after all. The presentation ( if you want to call it that)…absolutely underwhelming. The fellow who led us through these world class malts (a rather high-ranking Diageo ambassador I believe. English, not Scottish, if memory serves) was completely checked out. Seemingly indifferent, and presenting an outward air almost as though we were putting him out or that he was deigning to be there as a personal concession. I have NEVER experienced this on Islay, especially not at any of the distilleries. Comparing this to the personal touches and passion at Bruichladdich, Ardbeg or Kilchoman is not even possible. As a consideration, I won’t mention his name here. The other lads all felt exactly as I do about this.
Fortunately, my 2010 experience at the distillery was of such high caliber that I simply have to call this an anomaly and look forward to the next trip over. I’d also note…the folks at Lagavulin on that previous trip were wonderful, and the tour was brilliant. One of my favorites actually.
After we left the distillery, we made our way back up the road a wee ways (towards Ardbeg again), where a little side road allows a short trek down to the remains of Dunyvaig Castle behind the Lagavulin distillery. This is the jagged ruin you can see from the back of the distillery, and is even more incredible close up. Dunyvaig was a twelfth century castle that was the naval base of the Lord Of The Isles. According to Wikipedia, “today all that remains of the castle are mainly the ruins of the sixteenth-century castle, although the site includes a thirteenth-century courtyard, and a fifteenth-century keep.” It’s a brilliant experience to take the stroll out, climb up and stare ’round at a stunning panorama. Again…the history is thick and vivid.
The five of us passing around a flask of Ardbeg Day amid the castle remains was a definite thing to remember. We snapped a bunch of photos of the distillery from this lofty vantage, as well as some looking out to sea. After navigating our way back down the jagged remains, a couple of us with wee ones back home took a moment or two to gather a few shells along the shore before heading back up to the main road and onwards to Port Ellen.
Again…this walk is beautiful. I can’t imagine visiting Islay without taking the time to walk along this stretch of road. It’s not only a great opportunity for reflection, but also simply to admire the overwhelming beauty the coastline and rolling green hills. I’ve been fortunate enough to have brilliant blue skies and sunshine for this trek each of the several times I’ve done it.
Back in Port Ellen now with some time before our ride back to Bowmore. We hit up the Co-op for some snacks and drinks, then sat around on the benches in the harbour beach area, tearing chunks off a baguette and sharing a couple small snacks. And perhaps maybe another round of Ardbeg circulated. I also managed to track down a few more of the Cadbury Fudge bars my wife so adores. Everywhere I went on this trip these seemed to be in short supply for some reason.
A couple of the lads elected to take a load off their weary feet for a bit while Scott and I strolled down the beach a ways towards the Port Ellen distillery. I wanted to try for the best possible photo of this iconic lost distillery. Something showing the beautiful pagodas and the big black lettering on the side of the white-washed walls. Indeed I managed to get quite a few decent shots, one of which has been blown up to poster size and now, in shades of sepia, adorns the wall in Maltmonster’s mancave.
Before turning back to join the others I took a cue from Scott I scratched a note in the sand to my wife and kids back home, snapped a picture of the message and sent it on. A sort of ‘wish you were here’ thing. For me the only difficult part of this trip is being away from the three ladies in my life.
More John hijinks as we waited by the bus stop. As we stood around sharing a few laughs and patiently awaiting our ride, John took a load off against a wall, where a little jutout made a decent little seat. He was immediately berated by the home owner for sitting on the sill of her window. Think that is the only time I’ve ever seen an indignant Ileach. Made all the more funny (for us) simply because it was John again. 😉
Now, back in Bowmore it was creeping on dinner time and appetites were high. Time to drop our bags and get fed. Oddly enough, again we ran into the ‘sorry, boys…can’t feed you now.’ But at Lucci’s (the Bowmore Hotel) this time! WTF?! Small staff, lots going on. I get it, but man…five growing boys here needing sustenance.
Alright, so we can’t eat now, I guess, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is still a mighty thirst to be quenched, right? We threw down around a table and ordered pints of Tenants 80. After a quick one or two it was back to Duffies to sate the hunger. Fish and chips, of course. Gotta love the local seafood. Oh yeah…and whisky.
A few we tried (can’t recall all, and have an incomplete list from this day): OMC Isle of Jura 25 y.o….Bowmore 17…Bowmore Enigma12…Ardbeg Ten.
Day four detailed out for any who may be interested. Day five is nearly done too.
I’m in early negotiations with my beautiful bride for a 2014 trip over again. Not sure if I would opt for another solo run or round up a few individuals and lead another rowdy pack back that way. Both have merit.
Don’t make too many plans yet…. If you taste some Bladnoch you may want to travel to the lowlands…..