October 2014. A group of our friends – most of which had never been to Scotland or even a distillery, had agreed to be shown a handful of distilleries and follow our lead to our beloved Scotland. Success of our trip was great, we popped some Scotland-cherries and it did not take long before the group started asking if we could do this again. Please. Discussing with the home front, calculating vacation periods and consulting the piggy banks, we suggested to go to Islay on a slightly increased budget, which was agreed upon within a minute.
What follows next has become quite a read, but we decided it would describe the rollercoaster ride as we experienced it, best in one go.
Day 0 – the night before “Christmas”
As we had done in 2014, the group gathered on the evening before we would leave. Some of us had not seen one another in a while and it was good to catch up while sharing a dram from the distilleries we would visit. Why gather the night before? The taxi to the airport would arrive at our house around 5:15. In the morning. That’s why.
Day 1 – ‘ere we go!
Waking up with a quick coffee and a bun, the taxi had come on time and delivered us safely to Schiphol. Some more airport coffee was consumed to open our eyes a little further, and before we knew it, the eight of us found ourselves in the 737-700 to Glasgow. The flight was short, and with this year’s selection of the rental car, we were en route towards Tarbert within half an hour after landing.
While we were crossing the Erskine Bridge, a discussion between the nine navigators, including a digital one was over once the latter was forcefully put to rest. The first miles were in the pocket when… “PONG!” the “Check front right tyre pressure” light came on. Well, shit. Just what we needed. A boat to catch with a 2 and a half hour drive, and only half an hour to spare. Fine, but changing a tyre without a spare… difficult.
Luck be with us; false alarm. No sign the tyre was deflating, so we took the chance. We exited the M8 onto the A82, and from Tarbert, we further followed the A83 towards Campbeltown – the general direction we needed to take. Easy going, the weather was what we could expect it to be in October (thanks Volkswagen for good windscreen wipers), and when we arrived at the Kennacraig ferry terminal, the MV Finlaggan did so too. All aboard!
Excitement rose as we approached Port Askaig, and although the ride was smooth enough to eat our lunches and keep them where they belonged, the doors to the bow-deck was kept closed firmly because of the somewhat enthusiastic weather. From the stern side, we had a good view on Jura’s paps, and arriving on the dot, we secretly hoped the group would feel the same as we do every time we arrive at our home away from home. Islay.
filled with birds, peat and whisky
prepare, ‘ere we come
Time to baptise the gang with their first Islay distillery. Let us see if we could remember the route; up the hill, and just when you reach maximum speed, turn right at the brown sign to follow the single track road, pass the red phone box and halt at the end. Caol Ila, the largest distillery on the island, easily visited in under an hour, including a tasting of our choice from the core range in what is left of the warehouses.
Giving us plenty of time to browse the Caol Ila shop, check in at our accommodation for the week on the High Road between Bowmore and Port Ellen – the Red Lodge and refresh a little, while the group discovered that we had not been exaggerating about the “no cell reception, no WiFi”.
Soon it was time to crawl back into the bus for a short drive to Bowmore where we had booked a table at the Peatzeria. A wonderful new place, in the same old church where the Holy Coo once nested. Peatzeria serves great pizzas & pastas. A sturdy meal for weary travelers who had to get up at un-Christly times to get to this fantastic destination.
Loving Islay already, the boys found out there was enough time after dinner to raid the COOP and get back to the lodge, crack open a cold one, and pop the mysteriously appeared bottle of house whisky amongst the groceries. When the poker chips were divided, the tone was set, the music started to play and the evening suddenly became night at the living room table.
Day two – the western parts of the island
Bright and early, the sun came up. Probably, because none of us were there to witness it. What we, and the pheasants in the bushes around the lodge did witness a little later, were thick clouds. Clouds of smoke, coming from our kitchen window.
Apparently, when you raid a supermarket and forget butter, bacon gets all smokey and burney in a skillet if you don’t know how to operate the stove properly. Our chef in residence was drinking his morning instant-coffee and smoking his first fag, so no help there. Nevertheless, we managed to get (really crunchy) bacon, eggs and some toast inside before heading to the pearly white sands of Machir Bay.
A romantic walk at the beach is something the guys will have to come back for with their spouses, we had a look and a laugh, did a photo shoot for the new album cover* and with a splash of ocean water in our faces, we headed back the dwindling road to the Kilchoman distillery.
The working farm, housing the smallest distillery on the island was using their malting floor, filled with lumped up and ready to get kilned malt. The tour was very informative and the difference with yesterday’s big Diageo complex gave a good comparison towards the difference between the end result of a spirit when using the same base materials but different gear. A pre-arranged lunch with homemade soup and sandwiches at the Kilchoman Café was gobbled up quickly, while we were overlooking the building site where a new kiln and malting floor was being built.
We had somehow managed to squeeze an extra hour onto the planning, but our next stop, Bruichladdich, had already told us they might need this time, so we went back to the car and drove back down to Lochindaal. Entering the shop & bar, Bruichladdich being Bruichladdich, we were all quickly quickly provided with a dram.
The weather was looking good for that particular afternoon, and Carl had decided to take us up the hill to the Bruichladdich water source. A short hike with Bruichladdich Wellies on, the sun out and the ever talkative Carl in our midst, Islay was being Islay and decided our wellies weren’t the only things that would get wet and filthy this afternoon – it started to rain. Hard. The short walk became a soggy pilgrimage, where more than one of us looked as if we had swum up river within five minutes.
More Bruichladdich anecdotes and future whisky came pouring down on us, but we only saw smiling faces around us. And mud. Good times. After opening and closing the valve, normally only used in times of drought (October is definitely not that time), we struggled back to our car. As per good Islay tradition, the rain immediately stopped upon our arrival.
Turning the car at the new racked warehouses Bruichladdich are building, we had a good view on the distillery and its older warehouses. Some of the older and smaller warehouses (the ones furthest away behind the distillery) are on schedule to be emptied and converted into a malting. An old dream of the distillery is to have all whisky making facilities back on the island, and the maltings (they do not use Port Ellen maltings for several reasons) is one of the last missing links.
After the short ride back to the Victorian distillery we got the opportunity to dry inside its bowels, and we may have spent a little too much of our time in the stillroom to warm up – asking silly questions that didn’t really need to be asked. So much time indeed, that the extra hour at the start was extended with another hour at the end, so, with a surprise parting gift from the team, we had to hurry to our dinner appointment at the Bridgend Hotel.
Oysters were had, good portions of venison and local lamb were devoured, cheese and port were enjoyed, topped of with strong, hot coffee. The restaurant at the hotel is a good place to have a proper meal after a long day of hunting, fishing, or swimming in the bogs in search of a distillery water source.
Back to the house with us, change some of the semi-dried clothes and start the peat fire. Opening the parting gift, the group was surprised with a generous sample of a 2007 Rivesaltes private bottling, a lovely whisky from 1990 we will probably never taste again and a set of the Octomore Masterclass: three 20cl bottles of the 8.1, 8.2, both made from 167 ppm and the 8.3 from a whopping 309 ppm, all for the group to taste and enjoy.
Needless to say, the evening continued with discussions about ppm levels, terroir, yield and distilling, followed by laughter, beautiful singing (according to some, mostly the singers themselves), music quizzes, some more rounds of poker, and emptying of the samples of Octomore. Some of us loved them, others not so much and one or two don’t really remember.
Day three – North-east of the island – and above
Ouch, this one hurts a little. At a rather inconvenient time, we appeared at the Ardnahoe building site. The builders themselves only started to arrive, and our meeting with the tour guide was a little later as planned, so there was some extra time to do a study of the insides of our eyelids. When our tour guide arrived, she redirected us to Ardnahoe farmhouse, showed us a virtual reality environment of the newly built site and took us up the hill at the back of the site where we could see the progress and the gorgeous vista.
The paps of Jura looked lovely in this morning light. It was nice to see what Hunter Laing has planned for Islay’s 9th distillery, although, from what we have seen now, the plans for the spirit are not set in stone yet, and the site is most definitely something to come back for.
Next up: building our own raft for the car and paddle our way over the currents of the Sound of Islay towards Jura.
Our eight heads had unanimously chosen it would still be better not to make our own raft, so we waited in the long line for the Jura Ferry. About seven cars and a lorry. In terms of Jura ferry, this means they had to make two trips to get everyone to the other side. They can easily take a fully loaded tanker of spirit or a shipment of malt, a crane of substantial size or a horde of whisky hungry Dutchies – the keyword here is “or”, because the ferry is a wee one.
Nonetheless, the trip is only a couple of minutes and with the offloading and embarking of the vehicles on the Jura side, the extra oxygen and catnaps were welcome to most of the Band. The wait was well worth it though, because once we landed on the opposite side, we had arrived in a completely new landscape with mountains, deer and… well that.
The single track road leading to the distillery is only a small part of the one road, and once we had driven the south coast of the island in about half an hour, the new hit song “Oh dear, a deer” was born. Luckily, before the chorus was finished, Craighouse village and its Jura distillery emerged from the treeline before us.
We were appointed a witty tour guide with an enormous coiffure who was informative and straightforward. Perfect to truly start our day with. The impressive Jura stills are only the second tallest in Scotland and without a lot of posture and a short tasting at the shop, we were ready to cross the road to have a small lunch at the Jura hotel. After the sturdy meals were served and devoured, we headed back.
During the ride, another song emerged, which you can find on the album as “Oh, 4G… aaaand it’s Gone!”. After crossing the Sound of Islay and driving up hill again, we turned right at the second brown sign, the same way we went this morning, but now drove all the way to the end of the road where the Bunnahabhain distillery finds its place of residence since 1881.
We happily gave our virtual orange tour guide flag to David, who showed us the ins and outs of the distillery, which has one of the largest mash tuns of Scotland and probably the least polished stills in an open-to-visitors distillery. An honest, no bullshit, “this is what we use and make beautiful whisky with – deal with it” attitude. We love it. As an added bonus, we were taken into the warehouse and had a sitdown with David, who introduced us to a threesome of gorgeous whiskies, straight from the cask.
Struya Stuyr new Bunnahabhain was added to the house-whisky collection and with eight big smiles we left the Port Askaig side of the island to introduce the gang to the Kildalton side of the island – the south-east. The new Sea Salt Bistro in Port Ellen was chosen to be our dinner designation. Good times again, continued at the lodge with some more poker, the St… new Bunnahabhain, more music quizzes, more laughter, and excitement when we shared the surprise we received two days earlier.
Day four – South of the island
When we were at Kilchoman, We received a message from Diageo: the morning of our fourth day, we could show the lads the insides of the Port Ellen maltings. A rarely visited site, which normally only opens for visitors of the Feis Ile and VIPs. Where we fit in, is a bit of a mystery to us.
The man in charge of the maltings, Colin, took us up a series of grated stairs to show and tell us everything about the steeping process. Huge cylindrical vessels contain large amounts of barley, soaked and drained over a fair amount of time. Where a traditional floor malting would put the steeped barley on the floor (duh) and is labour intensively turned and raked every couple of hours, here they put the barley in immense drums, which rotate leisurely to keep the malt from tangling together.
Then, as with any other malting looking for a smoky result, beds of malt are put over peat fired kilns. Different timing for each required recipe, the dried malt comes out, ready to be used for making whisky. Six of the current Islay distilleries take their malt from Port Ellen, only Bruichladdich and Bowmore (no longer) take their malt from the facility but source their malt from the mainland of Scotland.
With this brief introduction to industrial malting in the pocket and a little sad we had to go because Colin could have talked about his job and the malting processes for at least four more hours with an eagerly listening group, we were running late for our appointment at the Lagavulin distillery. A quick tour through the impressive distillery with its wooden washbacks and dumpy onion and pear shaped stills was all we had time for, before we were all given a different dram of one of the core expressions or one of the distillery exclusives.
The smiling faces did not stop. “Sit back and relax, we are about to start the longest trip of the week: to Ardbeg”. Slowly, it is becoming a thing; once the car was up to speed, we turned right onto the Ardbeg parking lot – Islay just isn’t that big. Jackie welcomed us to the Old Kiln Café, and while our table was set, we browsed the shop for a little while.
We had booked the ArdBIG tour for our fellowship, trying to convert some of the group into Ardbeg-aficionados. This tour is a great way to explore the distillery. After we got to see the parts of the distillery that really matter, including a sip of the wash and a good explanation of the purifiers. Plenty time was taken to explore a series of cask samples and talk about the ins and outs of Ardbeg. After that experience it was time for a sweet dessert back at the Old Kiln Café with the best Sticky Toffee Pudding ever.
After a small breakfast run at the Port Ellen COOP, a pint at the Islay Hotel Bar and dinner at the Islay Hotel Restaurant, we headed back to the lodge, which turned out to be further away and impossible to find coming from the south side on the High Road in the dark. The peat fire was once again efficiently lit by our master peat-fire starter, and with another round of poker (which, for unknown reasons, was unclear to many who had won), we decided to hit the sack rather late at night, because the fifth day was the day we could sleep in.
Which we gratefully did.
Day five – turning the malt
Our final day on the island. We had done all distilleries but two. Laphroaig would be our first on today’s list. From the pier in front of the distillery, we had a clear view over the sea and with some imagination could make out the contours of Northern-Ireland. With some more fantasy, we could even see the smoke coming from the pagodas at the Bushmills distillery. Jep, that kind of morning.
The Distillers’ Wares Tour was set to start shortly and after a quick coffee and introduction with the obligatory “where are you’s from”, we started the distillery at the floor maltings. From there, we were guided through the distillery in a rather quick pace, passing the stainless steel equipment, taking a moment to ask the mashman on duty one or two questions, through the stainless washbacks into the stillroom.
The stillhouse itself is a feast for the eye with its three wash stills and four spirit stills, running full throttle to reach this year’s projected yield. After this, we were invited into the warehouse to taste three differently aged, but all ex-Bourbon matured Laphroaig whiskies, from which we could select one and take a 25cl bottle home with us.
Ample time to inspect the restroom and the shop, before we had to head for Bowmore one last time. A preordered lunch at the Harbour Inn was prepared for us, so we would be in time for the tour at the distillery across the road. Mighty good burgers at this restaurant…
Quickly wiping hands and feet, we stumbled into the distillery up the slope where none other than retired distillery manager Eddie MacAffer awaited us to be our guide in the Craftsmen Tour. Starting in somebody’s back yard where the water source to the distillery trickled through, we were in for another treat; the Bowmore malting floor.
Eddie had done every possible job in his over 50 year long career at Bowmore, and showed us how to turn the barley with the wooden shovel as if he was still 14 years old. Of course, we were next, and the honest truth is, we are not 14 years old anymore, and had quite some trouble making it look anything worth while.
While we were still gasping for air, Eddie reshaped the mishandled barley and took us to the next step of the process. Into the kilns between the burning peat fire and the heat exchanger. A good place to dry from an outside job in the Scottish weather, or to rent as a tiny sauna.
Above our heads, we could see the drying malt gorging on the peat smoke, and that was exactly the location we were heading; onto the kiln floor itself. Not something you would do everyday, we’re sure.
From there, things got more and more detailed, the pretty copper innards of the mash room were shown, the wooden washbacks with the historic lineage was explained in detail and in the still house, we had time to have a brief conversation with the still man and have a taste of the spirit. Thinking we were done, we were taken into warehouse number one, where we had two exquisite samples straight from the casks; a 1998 ex-Bourbon and 2002 ex-Sherry casks.
Completely overwhelmed with this Grand Tour and ready for a snack, we arrived at the nearby Lochside Hotel. One final meal on the island before we would head back to the lodge and pack our suitcases, because, well, the trip back to Glasgow was planned to commence early. Sad, tired, but satisfied, we had one last session to enjoy the driver’s drams and acquired house whiskies. Plans to return to Scotland as a group were made then and there, then with all nine to complete the posse. WhiskySpeller Travel Agency – approved for a third time.
thank you for the love, again
‘till we meet next time
Day six – heading home
Morning. The sun is out, the wind is gone. Clear skies made us remove an icy layer from the windscreen. The sea as seen from the Port Ellen Ferry Terminal had been exchanged for a mirror. As the MV Finlaggan arrived and we listened closely, we could hear the glass break under its weight and see it repairing itself at the stern. A promising sight, which would be kept until we arrived early at the Kennacraig terminal.
The road back was also forthcoming, which even gave us some time to pause and stretch our legs at Inveraray, where the Loch Fyne was a mirror image of the mirror at Port Ellen. The last legs took a little getting used to traffic again, and when we had finally found the parking lot, handed in our keys, weighed, redistributed and re-weighed our luggage, we checked in and headed home. Time for us to relax.
From this rollercoaster-ride, we have learned one thing: We like doing these kind of trips, and are already planning our next one(s). If you want to take our advice; one week on Islay is certainly do-able. With the proper advanced planning and requesting the right information from the right people, without demanding special treatment, you can get a long way. If you would like to take in more of the island itself, add another week, the island has a lot more to offer than just a couple of whisky distilleries.
Many thanks must go out to the following people for making this an #EpicIslayTrip that all of us will never forget, in no particular order: Carl, Kristy, Adam, David, Billy, Andy, Ronald, Vicky, Katriona, Eddie, Jackie, wee Emma, Nicole, Rachael, Colin, Georgie, Sophie, Marianne, Leigh, Hazel, Scott, Lain, Bryony and all people who we forgot to mention but arranged for us to be (very) well treated and fed during the trip. Of course our company of merry men, Caspar, Dennes, Guus, Martijn, Maurits, Werner and Jos – who was certainly missed but will join again next time.
Thomas & Ansgar
* luckily, the album is not for sale
Photo credits: WhiskySpeller & Caspar, Dennes, Guus, Martijn, Maurits, Werner