There are two ways of getting to the Isle of Islay - by plane or by boat. We choose the latter, ferrying over from Kennacraig following a stunning drive down the Kintyre Peninsula. Caledonian Macbrayne (Calmac) operate a number of routes around the Hebrides (a term used for the collection of islands littered along the western coast of mainland Scotland), including from Kennacraig over to Port Ellen on Islay. The journey was incredibly calm, mainly due to the tremendous weather we were taking with us and offered stunning coastal views for much of its duration.
Our 'base' for the week was at 'The Manse', a BnB located in Port Ellen just behind the maltings which are situated on the site of the old Port Ellen distillery. Little is left of the main facilities of this fabled and now closed distillery, however, much of the dunnage warehousing along the bay is still standing and seemingly in use (big heavy padlocks on those old warehouse doors).
Over the next six days we visited all the currently active distilleries on Islay. The following is a short report from each of our tours in the order that we made them:
One of the Dramble team's party is a self-confessed Laphroaig fanatic, so it was only right and proper that we started by visiting his personal peaty mecca. The distillery grounds are attractive and evocative, set in slight woodland on the coast just a mile or so NE from Port Ellen. Much of the facility can be described as picturesque offering great views of the bay and over to the tiny island (a mere 700m long) of Texa.
Our 'Distillery Wares' tour offered us a complete guided experience from malting all the way through to casking. With only seven active distillery maltings in the whole of Scotland (Laphroaig, Bowmore, Kilchoman, Springbank, Highland Park, Balvenie and Benriach), it was truly fascinating to witness barley being turned and spread, as well as to visit the upper maltings, which whilst empty at the time still were thick with peat reek.
Our tour, expertly led by Tom Edwards (who The Dramble will be conducting an interview with presently) concluded with a warehouse tasting of three separate and equally mesmerising single casks. You can read the tasting notes here. Once complete, guests were able to bottle 250cl of the cask of their choice to take home in an attractive presentation box alongside a shorty Glencairn glass.
Ardbeg like to do things differently, as you approach the distillery, NE of Laphroaig and Lagavulin you'll find both a large gleaming pot still as well as a fake dinosaur skull. Odd! The distillery is attractive and equal parts tradition mixed with modernity. The Ardbeg Cafe is worth a beeline offering everything from tasty bites through to hearty meals. Believe me, a good visit to Ardbeg will require a hearty meal! You can also try many of the expressions on offer for extremely competitive prices.
Our 'Full Range Tour and Tasting' gave us a complete look around the facility both inside and out. For those who geek out on milling technology, Ardbeg is a distillery operating a Boby Mill (the most commonly seen will be a bright red Porteus). More on milling when we get to Kilchoman!
Ardbeg's tasting is conducted in the Chairman's Study. It's arguably a broom cupboard, but is a superb place to sample a dram at the end of the tour. Tastings were substantial, and with me being designated driver for the day, I found that my travel dram kit was generously filled with even more drams than were on offer in the package. It is little things like that which make being the driver for the day oh so much more bearable!
Lagavulin is a very short walk from Ardbeg and offers yet more stunning views across the bay of south eastern part of the island. Our first Diageo distillery visit of the trip and arguably a little disappointing. Diageo operate a rather draconian photography policy at their sites, and none more than Lagavulin where I could not even take photos within the distillery grounds let along the stillhouse. Whilst I fully understand insurance policies etc etc, when all your competitors are more welcoming and more open to people capturing their visits (and after all, they share them widely on social media thus offering distilleries greater exposure in turn), it does make you wonder if this policy runs counter to raising brand awareness. Anyhow, mild rant aside, inside Lagavulin's main office and tasting room, you are whisked back in time with evocative wood panelling and a lovely cosy feel which captures the mood for drinking a good dram perfectly.
Our tasting was only of the basic variety, probably a good thing as the rest of my party were still recovering from the generosity of Ardbeg. Of note would be a comparison between the 8 year old and the Jazz Festival bottling. The similarities were enormous in terms of the style (younger, spirity whisky) and blind I suspect you might struggle to guess which was which. I’d be very interested in more views on these tasted two side-by-side.
The drive down to Caol Ila is stunning, as are the views across to Jura. You almost feel you could swim it, though being highly tidal it would probably be a terrible idea to try to do so. We were greeted at the distillery by 'Sushi' and incredibly friendly local cat who rather than prowling the warehouses willingly wanders up to visitors for daily petting sessions. Cute.
We commenced with a whistle-stop tour of production, which was perfect judged, as by now, the less seasoned members of my group had been fully educated to the point of understanding the whisky-making process broadly. Following this we had our breakfast - a chocolate and whisky pairing. I’ve not written yet about whisky pairing and will do so in the future, but those who are particular interested are well advised to look out for ‘A Table’ By Martine Nouet – she’s incredibly knowledgeable about both cookery and whisky and some of her pairings are truly inspired.
Caol Ila pairs well with chocolate. Indeed, personally I find that peated whisky generally does play nicely with sweeter foods and in particular high cocoa-solid chocolate. Our tasting covered Moch, 18 year old, 25 year old and the Unpeated Special Release 17 year old. The pairing of Moch with a lemongrass infused chocolate is stunning and again a recommendation for you guys to try at some point!
Bowmore Round Church is situated at the centre looking down across the entire town. Originally called Kilarrow Parish Church it was built in 1768 and now holds a congregation of up to 80 people for Church of Scotland services every Sunday. The town of Bowmore is the administrative capital of Islay and looks across Loch Indaal toward Bruichladdich. The recently opened and inspiringly named Peatzeria provided us with a very un-Scottish lunch and some stunning views across the Loch on yet another glorious day.
Bowmore distillery is pretty funky and modern, at least when it comes to the visitor centre, gift shop and tasting room upstairs. The facility itself is fairly sprawling and again, as with Laphroaig, houses its own maltings onsite. Our tasting was held in a nearby hall as the official tasting room was being renovated during our visit. The tasting featured the new No.1 (replacing Bowmore Small Batch), 15 year old (previously called ‘Darkest’, 18 year old and distillery exclusive bottling ‘Stillman’s Selection’. Alongside this was an educational dram of new make spirit and some bourbon and sherry. A pretty decent line-up and certainly super interesting for those new to whisky to try the bourbon and sherry in their natural forms whilst talking about common cask compositions.
The Stillman’s Selection had a glorious nose of zingy fruity sherbert and very nearly tempted me into nabbing a bottle, however it would be wrong of me not to address the new entry level bottling ‘No 1’ at this juncture. Those of you familiar with Bowmore Small Batch will know that it’s not been the success that the distillery had hoped. It’s certainly an entry level bottling and priced accordingly, but for me, it’s not particularly evocative of Bowmore itself as a whisky. Light, drinkable, affordable – yes. Interesting, engaging and evocative – afraid not. So, I was certainly interested to see how No.1 would fare replacing Small Batch, and hopefully righting some of these wrongs.
Oh dear. I’m sorry to report that to my palate, No. 1 is an even further step in the wrong direction. Obviously young - we were told around 6 years to 8 years of age, but tasting even younger then this frankly. This is not necessarily a fault mind, as distilleries such as Kilchoman and Wolfburn have demonstrated admirably what can be achieved in only a few years of maturation. However, No.1 doesn’t hold its age particularly proudly, it tries to mask it with a huge input of vanilla from virgin/first fill American oak casks. Honestly, in the same way that Murray has a problem with so called sulphur taint, I think my No.1 (pun intended) whisky industry issue is overuse of vanillins, usually in an attempt to either hide or impart flavour. Hopefully, Bowmore will get this right in the near future once again.
It was time to get progressive and boy this was a treat. An early morning warehouse tasting experience of three casks: 1989 Bruichladdich, 2005 Oloroso matured Port Charlotte & 2005 Octomore (making it one of the oldest Octomore’s in existence). The 1989 Bruichladdich was beyond a joy and quite simply was the best dram I tried all week. We were told that the cask has been reracked at some point in its life into its present ex-bourbon. This was due to early casks being deemed to be sub-standard at the point where the distillery was re-bought. The 1989 was the oldest Bruichladdich I have tried to date and offered simply superb balance and lingering spices and herbalness. Truly, I will be keeping an eye open for official bottlings in the future as if this is indicative of where Bruichladdich’s unpeated malts are heading, then you can sign me right up, right now.
Our second cask sample was from an Oloroso matured Port Charlotte (Bruichladdich’s heavily peated line). Not a cask finish….full term maturation. Several of The Dramble’s crew members thought this to be their favourite dram of the week. I don’t blame them, it was stunning again. Bruichladdich are known to be experimental and, when I asked about where they thought the whisky industry would be exploring in the future I was given the answer of ‘Ace’ing’ – Additional Cask Enhancement – roughly translated as quick maturation finishes, maybe only a few weeks or a few months in different casks. So we'll what that's all about in the near future no doubt. Our final tasting was an Octomore from 2005. Interestingly, whilst a new bottling is being envisaged with a PPM of over 300, this early days Octomore was only (only!) peated to around 80 PPM making it a positive peat-lightweight in the grand scheme of things. It will be intriguing to see what these early, ‘lighter’ casks of Octomore are used to make up further down the line.
Bunnahabhain is located towards the north of the island. On the long and windy drive you’ll see Ardnahoe, the new distillery being built by independent bottler Hunter Laing. There’s quite some work to do on the site which is situated between Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain – unlike Kilchoman who converted farm buildings into some of their facilities, Ardnahoe is starting afresh on a greenfield site. As of writing, the ground is being prepared for the build, but the driveway entrance has already been started so we’re sure that it’ll be a very welcoming facility when it’s completed. Watching this space.
Bunnahabhain held a spot in my heart for a long time and some of my very favourite whiskies have come from this Islay distillery. The Dramble will be producing a special Bunnahabhain feature shortly, so I won’t go in details here, suffice to say that time spent with tour guide David Brodie in Warehouse No.9 is time very well spent indeed.
The current new boys on the block until both Ardnahoe and Gartbreck are up and running. Kilchoman is Islay’s only ‘inland’ distillery, eschewing the coast for a site located at Rockside Farm next to Loch Gorm. The distillery was founded in 2005 and was the first new build on Islay for 124 years.
Kilchoman, like Bowmore and Laphroaig operate their own maltings, though again, like their Islay neighbours, only for a percentage of their barley requirements. Milling at Kilchoman is also interesting in that they're a young distillery, but have a Porteus Mill (no new Porteus's have been produced for a very long time). Research turns up that they obtained this, not from a closed distillery elsewhere, but from a brewery. All the equipment at Kilchoman is brand new, except this mill. They really don't make them like they used to. The distillery is the very definition of craft with all elements of production being present and familiar but on a much smaller scale that what you’ll witness at most traditional distilleries. The stillhouse is impossible cute and one wonders if the Lyne Arm length and angles were determined, not by science or by preference, but by physically what would fit into the room!
Kilchoman is also distinctive as they're one of the few distilleries to operate their own bottling facility onsite. The lads were boxing up gift packs of Machir Bay….a thankless task when you’re talking about quantities in the thousands. No visit to Islay is complete without seeing Kilchoman and comparing the modern but small, with the old but enormous. Much is still the same despite hundreds of years and acres of difference.
During our time on Islay we also made time for some tourist stops, as should you. Both Finlaggan and Kildalton are worth a drive and if you’re looking for longer liquid refreshment you can do a lot worse than a visit to Islay Ales (and you thought the Kilchoman production was small….this would literally fit into your garage!).
The Dramble visited Islay at the start of May. Quite deliberately. At the end of May each year is the annual Feis Ile – Festival of Music and Malt, a world famous event encapsulating all the islands distilleries and drawing visitors by the thousands. Whilst undoubtedly a great time to visit Islay to soak up an atmosphere thick with whisky celebration and traditional music, the island takes on a rather different feel at this time of year. Whilst we experienced quiet and sedate drives and several private tours, a visit during Feis Ile will see roads blocked by camper vans and queues at distilleries which form at 1am ready for the next day. Whilst not to put anyone off attending the Feis Ile, do just bear this in mind when planning your trip to the island. But, regardless of when you make your peaty pilgrimage, we can promise you that Islay offers a heady blend of inspiring scenery, evocative history, welcoming residents and of course, fantastic whisky.