The Third Day

Call me a frugal German (or perhaps it’s the Scottish frugality which surrounds me), but in order to get £9 back for two t-shirts which I bought on Tuesday and hadn’t worn (so glad to have the suitcase back) I decided to skip the Islay Ales visit today after visiting the two northeast distilleries. I have gone on my fair share of craft brewery tours in the US (and have been surrounded by the brewing process for the last few days anyway), so this particular stop on the itinerary seemed like it could be put off until the next time. Besides, the bike ride from Bunnahabhain to Caol Ila and from Caol Ila to Bowmore featured some of the most intense climbs (both of these distilleries are right on the shoreline), so getting back to hit the shower – even though I biked through a relatively brief shower – was also high on the to-do list. Yes, next time (with a car?) a few more options would present themselves… many historic sites on Islay, a trip over to Jura, etc., but the vistas I enjoyed from the road were truly marvelous. (I had little time to stop for photographs as I was trying to maintain my momentum.) After these three biking days it will be nice to relax in Glasgow over the weekend – I am infinitely glad that I took a cab to Bunnahabhain this morning as a there-and-back ride would have really taken a toll.

Bunnahabhain

shipwreck

a private and free tour (by the lookalike of a friend) – the power had gone out across the entire island as I took the cab from Bowmore; as a decision on whether or not to proceed with the tour was being made, I took a stroll along the shore to see a shipwreck (don’t drink and sail)

bunnahabhain 1

bunnahabhain 2

exterior views of the distillery

bunnahabhain 3

mash tun – apparently the biggest in Islay (Bruichladdich uses Bunnahabhain’s old mash tun)

bunnahabhain 4

wash backs

bunnahabhain 6

bunnahabhain 5

bunnahabhain 7

several photos of the wash and spirit stills

Caol Ila

caol ila 1

from here it was all down hill to the distillery… and then back up

caol ila 2

exterior view of the distillery – interior photography was not allowed

Caol Ila is a huge facility; 85% of the distilled spirit (which is shipped to Edinburgh for cask maturation in tankers, one of which I happened to encounter on the single-track road up from the shore) is primarily used for Johnnie Walker blends. They have only been producing single malts since the 1990s, and as part of the tasting we were offered a fantastic 26-year-old whisky direct from the sherry cask in which it is maturing. This particular whisky is not for sale anywhere, and once the barrel is empty it will be gone… next year, it will be a 27-year old! Well worth the price of admission.

jura 2

view of Jura from the Caol Ila pier

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The Second Day

Now that was a bike ride…. Google maps will tell you it was 26 miles, but what it doesn’t really tell you is that it was uphill both ways and almost always against the wind. Yes, Islay has a very unique topography. Despite the challenges of the ride, I did make it to all three of the distillery tours which I had booked – sometimes with only ten or fifteen minutes to spare. (Good weather continues to be a welcome travel companion.) Along the way I ran into several familiar groups of German whisky tourists, a Japanese Scotsman (I don’t know how “authentic” the heritage was, but styling a kilt he was), cows and sheep. The drivers on Islay are very friendly, giving a hand or finger wave and even giving way on some of the narrower roads I navigated today. So after this long ride I am going to take it easy tomorrow and catch a cab for me and the bike to the northeast side of the island to visit the last two distilleries on the itinerary. I feel comfortable enough with the traffic re-education I have undergone that renting a car the next time could be an option… if a few friends come along to split the cost.

bowmore

view of Bowmore from halfway around Lochindaal

loch gorm

Loch Gorm (not Gorn) en route to Kilchoman

Kilchoman

kilchoman 1

exterior view of the distillery

kilchoman 2

ladder up to the peat kiln

kilchoman 3

peat kiln fire – still warm

kilchoman 4

distilling room

kilchoman 5

mash tun in the back of the distilling room

kilchoman 6

mash tun in action

kilchoman 7

washbacks

kilchoman 8

spirit safe

kilchoman 9

bottling machine – most of this operation is done by hand

kilchoman 10

Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels just filled

Bruichladdich

bruichladdich 1

exterior view of the distillery

bruichladdich 2

grain mill

bruichladdich 3

open-air mash tun – unique

bruichladdich 4

washbacks

bruichladdich 5

distilling room

bruichladdich 6

the “spirit still” spirit safe – a second spirit safe is used for the “wash still”

bruichladdich 7

distilling “The Botanist” gin

bruichladdich 8

awww… they put my name on some barrels!

Bowmore

bowmore 1

seaside view of the distillery

bowmore 2

the grain mill

bowmore 3

pouring grain into the mash tun

bowmore 4

mash tun in action

bowmore 5

washbacks

bowmore 6

distilling room

bowmore 7

spirit safe

bowmore 8

the oldest whisky maturation vault on Islay – at sea level and cold

And yes, I finally broke down and bought a bottle of single malt which I believe would be difficult to find back home. Along with a t-shirt to supplement my meagre clothing supply, which was suddenly enhanced by being reunited with my missing suitcase. It’s going to be a little heavier now….

The First Day

Rescued by the bus! Facing a long bike ride back to Bowmore from Port Ellen, I was just intending to take a break at the Islay Airport (half-way point) bus stop when the bus came by. The driver stopped and invited me in – with bike. That finally answers one of the questions which I had not been able to have resolved: can I transport the bike by bus to take a little “edge” off the cross-island endurance test? Yes. And thankfully that answer came today, as I was heading into the wind on the return trip from visiting the three southern distilleries.

Ardbeg

ardbeg 1

ardbeg 2

ardbeg 3

ardbeg 4

exterior views of the distillery

ardbeg 5

a version of the “spider diagram” which the Scotch Club once used at a meeting

ardbeg 6

the mill for the malted barley

ardbeg 7

the fermentation room – which produces very smoky, flat beer

ardbeg 8

the distillation room

Lagavulin

lagavulin 1

lagavulin 2

lagavulin 3

exterior views of the distillery – interior photography was not allowed

lagavulin 4

our tasting room; we were offered a sample of their pre-casked spirit, a very interesting flavor

Laphroaig

Perhaps the best tour of the day, very fun and informative. I became a “Friend of Laphroaig” and now own a square foot of land on the property – on a return trip I can collect my “rent” in the form of a dram.

laphroaig 1

seaside view of the distillery

laphroaig 2

royal approval

laphroaig 3

an actual malting room!

laphroaig 4

the peat kiln – smoky

laphroaig 5

the peat kiln fire; we all got to throw a little peat onto the fire, so some of the 2024 10-year-old will include peat from Pete

laphroaig 6

mash tun and fermentation tanks

laphroaig 7

distillation room

laphroaig 8

laphroaig 9

the spirit safe… a slightly mysterious but important process takes place here featuring terms such as “foreshots,” “low wine” and “feints”

laphroaig 10

cask storage… primarily used Maker’s Mark barrels (Ardbeg uses Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s)

The Trip

the trip

Bus-ferry-bus – that’s the way I got to Islay. As for my suitcase… perhaps tomorrow. A few snapshots from the journey:

loch lomond 1

loch lomond 2

loch lomond 3

Loch Lomond

inverary

A ten-minute stop in Inveraray

finlaggan

The ferry

kennacraig

The Kennacraig “harbor”

fog

fog exit

There were several thick patches of fog on the way

islay 1

islay 2

Islay from the southwest approach

jura

Jura… maybe next time

port askaig 1

port askaig 2

Port Askaig

After finding a few clothes and more toiletries, I watched World Cup games in the bar – between which I enjoyed the Lagavulin venison roast, and after which I enjoyed a dram of Kilchoman. Thanks to a friendly bartender, tonight I learned how to correctly pronounce “Lagavulin” as well as “Bruichladdie”; once I have (hopefully) visited all of the distilleries I just might spill the beans.

The Switch-Up

Folks, don’t fly into or out of the Florence airport. The single runway is short, and the valley in which Florence is located is subject to strong winds. Which means that certain smaller airplanes will be prohibited from flying into or out of the airport if the tailwind-headwind-crosswind situation is deemed to be too dangerous – tricky, since with a short runway larger planes are unable to land at the airport. The very definition of a catch-22.

Yesterday’s flight to Birmingham was diverted for this very reason. The incoming flight was sent to Pisa when it was decided that landing in Florence would be unsafe. So at the time of the flight’s original departure we were put on a bus for a lovely one-hour ride on the FI-PI-LI to the Pisa airport. No ground support was offered once there, but we all found our way to the correct baggage drop-off counter (we had already “checked in” to the “flight” at the Florence airport) and the gate. But then hours went by…. So, depending upon whether you believe the captain of the flight or the Italian gentleman with whom I had several pleasant conversations and who seemed to know the operations personnel, the fuel purchase system either kept breaking down or was made “difficult” by an airline wishing to purchase fuel at an airport from which it normally does not fly. We eventually left about three and a half hours after we should have departed Florence and arrived at Birmingham airport well after the last flight to Glasgow should have left….

But my original connecting flight to Glasgow was delayed as well – they were waiting for the very plane I was on from Pisa (Florence)! So I got to run around the airport, made it onto the flight and sat across the aisle and one row back from where I had been sitting thirty minutes earlier. Unfortunately my suitcase did not make it into and out of the Birmingham airport as quickly as I did (I can only hope that it did leave Pisa); I am crossing fingers that it will meet me in Islay sometime later tonight as it did not get to Glasgow before I had to catch the bus to Kennacraig. Thanks to the Poundland across the street from my Glasgow hotel I am at least equipped with a few toiletry essentials, although a change of clothes will be necessary at some point down the road.

(Aside to LW: as far as I know I have no “enemies” in the European aviation system who would purposely divert my suitcase.)

The Shout-Out

Tomorrow begins the long-awaited journey to Islay. Prepped and calculated for over a year (and conceived three years ago during my visit to Auchentoshan), it will involve a three-hour bus ride from Glasgow to Kennacraig (which is apparently little more than a ferry terminal), a two-hour ferry ride to Port Askaig (which is apparently little more than a ferry terminal), and finally a twenty-minute bus ride to the hotel in Bowmore. My attendance at various tours and tastings of the eight distilleries during the following three days has been booked… hopefully the slow-to-communicate bicycle shop will indeed be able to rent me a bike on Wednesday, otherwise the itinerary will become difficult to complete (and pricey – taxis would have to become the primary means of transportation). Oh, and the string of tours will be capped off by a visit to Islay Ales, the island’s lone brewery. Yes, craft beer, I have not given up on you.

Before the journey gets under way, a few “honorable mentions” of friends who have inspired my whisk(e)y explorations over the years:

PI: my “bourbon friend,” with whom I initially discovered Woodford Reserve and several other fine single-barrel expressions while living in the Bluegrass; gifts of whisk(e)y continue to bond us

RJ: the role model for undertaking this trip who (I believe) invited me to join the “Scotch Club,” where peat and I did not become best of friends right off the bat; thank you for sharing “The Precious” with me a few years ago

LW: another frequent participant in “Scotch Club” meetings and whose friendship and warm hospitality (not to be outdone by CNW!) I have enjoyed for many years; your smoked meat is as delicious as smoked peat (pun alert)

DB: a true fan of “tough” bourbon – stuff that would warm even the coldest Scottish night, when a smooth single malt might not be strong enough; you sent me to the odd little liquor store where I bought my first bottle of Dalmore

CW: while logical, the idea of blending a puff from a fine cigar with a quaff of smoky single-malt had not previously occurred to me; hopefully you, too will return from your own trip to Scotland with a new bottle for us to discover

AP: we have not had much whisk(e)y together, but we definitely share an enthusiasm for the spirit; thank you for the many interesting articles on Scotch you have sent my way, and rest assured that I am not trying to make you jealous

Certainly many friends have joined me on the whisk(e)y path or suggested worthwhile detours over the years, and you all will join me “in spirit” as I sample drams during the course of the week. So let’s pop down the street to The co-operative food to pick up some water and get on the road. Lunch is at Ardbeg on Wednesday!

The Inspiration

peaty whiskies

The Bunnahabhain 21-year-old… one of the most delicious whiskies I have tasted. A sharp, peaty nose rewarded by a smooth, syrupy and vaguely woody finish. Warm to the tongue, with just enough of a burn in the throat – wonderful! But that wasn’t always how I liked my whiskey. Or is it whisky?

Before landing in Kentucky and being exposed to the great variety that is bourbon, my only prior experience with whiskey had been occasional shots of Jack Daniels as a freshman in college (I was of legal drinking age) prior to a music ear-training class. In my pea brain, having a little alcohol before dictation – the class took place right after lunch, so Jack also served as digestive aid to college cafeteria food – opened up my ears so that I was able to better hear what the teacher was performing. Not until many years later did I learn that Jack Daniels is not a bourbon but is actually a Tennessee whiskey… and so my snobbery began.

My first true sampling of bourbon was a shock: harsh and aggressive, but there was a flavor behind the assault which intrigued me. After a period of investigation, whiskeys such as the somewhat rare Corner Creek, the single barrel version of Evan Williams and the sublime 18-year-old Elijah Craig had caught my fancy (Woodford Reserve is still my go-to bourbon when no single malt opportunity presents itself, although Bulleitt also holds a special place in my memory) – and then I met Scotch whisky.

A brewpub with an extensive list of single malts attracted colleagues to meet irregularly as a “Scotch Club,” and I was welcomed to this fraternity of connoisseurs with open arms. But since I was still a relatively recent bourbon “convert,” my six-dram flights (a terrific way to compare flavor profiles) mixed both types of whiskey (whisky); I found the peatier varieties to be too foreign, dismissing them as being too medicinal and too reminiscent of iodine. So I gravitated towards smoother, more bourbon-like single malts… indeed, the first bottle of single malt Scotch which I bought reflected this appreciation: the Dalmore.

From this particular taste of single malt Scotch I was hooked… thank you bourbon, for having prepared me for this journey! The first peaty malt which I subsequently embraced was Bowmore; prophetic, since it will be in the village of Bowmore – just down the street from the distillery – where I will make my home base in a few weeks. Peat no longer deters me, and I relish the subtle distinctions of taste between the various Islay malts which I have had the pleasure of sampling. I do enjoy whiskies from other parts of Scotland (many given as gifts from dear friends), and I still have fond memories of my first trip to Glasgow during which I had the opportunity to tour the nearby Auchentoshan distillery. But what peat does to the malt – and the briny sea air does to the water –has become the source of my fascination.

Auchentoshan

I don’t know if I will be able to accomplish my goal of visiting all eight Islay distilleries in three days (by bike), but one thing is for sure: I expect it to be a fun adventure. And if I am unable to visit all of the distilleries in person, the bars of the three hotels in Bowmore will offer me the chance to fill in any of the gaps that weather, time or fatigue might create. Don’t forget to hydrate, and pack a few sandwiches for the trip!