So perhaps I have become a little bit of a single malt snob… I tend to purchase whiskies from distilleries I have visited, although I am always happy to drink a dram from parts known or unknown in bars or with friends (don’t let that deter you from the occasional gift of scotch or bourbon!). One particularly memorable single malt that I enjoyed during my visit to Islay two and a half years ago, the Bunnahabhain Cruach Mhòna, had proven impossible to find in the United States. Even the distillery’s website makes no mention of this expression, although I fondly remember how this quite peaty single malt capped off the in-the-dark/no-power tour of Bunnahabhain… was it no longer in production? Did I have a sip of the last batch that was ever produced? That would be a shame. Preceding a trip to Europe over the holidays (which, as usual, would take me through London) I checked into the World of Whiskies website and discovered the Cruach Mhòna among the whiskies for sale… was this a current product that would actually be on the shelves of one of their airport locations? Time to check in with Bunnahabhain directly.
the Heathrow location… will I find it there?
I received a very detailed reply from David at Bunnahabhain, assuring me that Cruach Mhòna is still currently in production. It is a “travel retail exclusive,” meaning that it is not sold at regular liquor stores but is only available for purchase in duty free shops in airports. David explained that Cruach Mhòna is a “non-age-statement,” consisting mostly of whisky that has been aged in bourbon casks for less than ten years; a small amount of older Sherry-cask-aged whiskies are blended into the mix to “sweeten” the overall taste, and the “peat factor” comes in at 25 phenol parts per million (not terribly high when compared to some of the smoke monster whiskies produced by the southern distilleries). He could not give me a reason why it is not listed on the website (as is Eirigh Na Greine, also a travel retail exclusive)… so even though batch no. 9 was recently released, perhaps Cruach Mhòna is a secret….
Armed with this affirmation/information, I visited the Gatwick World of Whiskies on my way to Germany to see if the whisky is actually available – and it was! But I decided to risk waiting to buy a bottle until flying back to the US from Heathrow; fortunately there was no shortage of Cruach Mhòna (from batch no. 8) at this location. A one-liter bottle, it is not an inexpensive whisky, but thanks to a friend who rewarded me generously for proof-reading his dissertation I was able to complete a two-and-a-half-year search for this elusive dram. I was able to take it onto my flight to the US, but thanks to odd TSA liquids regulations it had to be put into checked baggage for the connecting flight despite the fact that it had been packed in a tamper-proof bag at the point of (duty-free) purchase… too bad Bunnahabhain does not have transparent bottles. All’s well that ends well, and the whisky is now “home.”
As wonderful as I remember: a pungent smoky-sweet nose gives way to a more subtle peat flavor complemented by sweet honey notes and hints of pear with a spicy but smooth finish. A beautiful golden color in the glass, Cruach Mhòna is truly a pleasure for the senses – and was well worth the “quest.” Sláinte!
Having recently seen several varieties of Kilchoman at a “big box” liquor store in Central Illinois (is no secret safe?) I was inspired to finally share my memories of how the names of the various Islay distilleries are pronounced. While I do not claim 100% accuracy (and am not Scottish), I feel that I do have a fairly keen ear for language and sounds. Here we go!
Caol Ila: kull-EE-lah
Bonus (city names)
Port Askaig: por-tus-KEHG
Port Ellen: por-TELL-in
Feel free to gently roll your r’s on the front of your tongue for extra authenticity! Of course there are many more Gaelic (which is apparently pronounced GAL-ik on Islay) names for various whisky varieties which I can barely remember; my favorite (and this spirit is apparently no longer available) was Bunnahabhain Cruach Mhona, pronounced kruch-VOH-nah and meaning “peat stack.” Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain definitely take first place in giving their expressions difficult-to-decipher Gaelic names… who can forget their first dram of Ardbeg Corryvreckan or Uigeadail, never mind Bunnahabhain Ceòbanach, Eirigh Na Greine or Toiteach (the latter apparently sounds quite Klingon)? Perhaps all of these names are easier to pronounce a few drams later – as was the case on the longest day of 2014 when Tom and I shared quite a few at the State Bar in Glasgow. Slàinte to you!
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.
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)
exterior views of the distillery
mash tun – apparently the biggest in Islay (Bruichladdich uses Bunnahabhain’s old mash tun)
several photos of the wash and spirit stills
from here it was all down hill to the distillery… and then back up
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.
view of Jura from the Caol Ila pier