I think I have a picture like this of one of us from all of our last several vacations, beginning with our trip to Maui for our five year wedding anniversary.
Have you ever had a full Scottish breakfast? If not, I recommend you rectify that situation post haste. First, our lovely host Alison served us each coffee or tea. The Swedes were obsessed with coffee, so much so that it became a bit of a joke as the tour went on. Alan's made me a bit of a tea fan, so we went that route. Then came the fresh loch salmon and cucumbers. Followed by the sausage and bacon. And then the haggis and black pudding and roasted tomatoes. And then roasted mushrooms and toast. And then eggs, both scrambled and fried. And then more haggis and black pudding because we're gluttons and we ate all of the first batch. Oh my goodness, black pudding, how I love thee.
Simon warned us that given our day's tasting schedule we were to eat as big of a breakfast as we possible could. I think his exact words were, "when you've eaten as much bacon as you think you possibly could, have another piece." Today was also going to serve up the peatiest of the whisky's we'd taste, so I was definitely looking forward to discovering ones beyond what I can find at home.
I have to admit that I had some trepidation about my ability to keep my ish together on this tour. I can spend all day in wine country and not get hammered, but that hasn't always been the case. I remember a few trips early on in our wine discovery days where I was pickled by the time we rolled up to our last winery stop. And whisky, let's face it, has a lot higher alcohol content than wine. I didn't really have an idea of how the day was going to be paced, so I wanted to make sure to take it easy and not embarrass myself.
Apparently the Americans on this tour have been known to be a bit embarrassing. A couple of months before us, a woman almost fell over the railing at one of the distilleries down a few floors. Rumor has it that another woman fell down into the barley to make barley angels. I knew that wouldn't be me, but I also didn't want to be the person that everyone was laughing at one the tour so I made sure to take it easy - enjoy myself, but also enjoy the whisky.
Our first stop of the day was a peat field on our way to the first distillery. We had to jump over a giant crevice which had me a little scared seeing as how I have shorter legs than most eight year old boys, but I made it with a little help from Alan and Simon. Peat fields are, as you might imagine, quite springy, and these were covered with heather in bloom. It's my understanding that heather only blooms for 6-8 weeks in August and September so we were there at the perfect time to see it.
Our first distillery stop of the day was at Lagavulin. Fans of Ron Swanson will recognize the Lagavulin 16 as his drink of choice. Incidentally, it's also mine.
The standard Lagavulin single malt is 16 years old (43%), though they regularly release a 12-year-old cask strength variety, a Distiller's edition finished in Pedro Ximénez casks, and 25- and 30-year-old varieties. The distillery of Lagavulin officially dates from 1816, when John Jonston and Archibald Campbell constructed two distilleries on the site. One of them became Lagavulin, taking over the other—which one is not exactly known. Records show illicit distillation in at least ten illegal distilleries on the site as far back as 1742, however. In the 19th century, several legal battles ensued with their neighbour Laphroaig, brought about after the distiller at Lagavulin, Sir Peter Mackie, leased the Laphroaig distillery. It is said that Mackie attempted to copy Laphroaig's style. Since the water and peat at Lagavulin's premises was different from that at Laphroaig's, the result was different. International Spirit ratings competitions have generally given Lagavulin's 16-year spirit extremely high scores. The San Francisco World Spirits Competition, for instance, gave the 16-year four consecutive double gold medals between 2005 and 2008 and has awarded it gold medals in the years since. Wine Enthusiast put the 16-year in its 90–95 point interval in 2004. Spirits ratings aggregator proof66.com, which averages scores from the San Francisco Spirits Competition, Wine Enthusiast, and others, classifies the spirit in its highest ("Tier 1") performance category.
Unlike at Deanston, we weren't doing a distillery tour here. In fact, we were doing something much more special, I think. We had a warehouse tasting with Iain McArthur who has worked at Lagavulin for over 40 years, doing everything you can think of at the distillery. He was a great ambassador for the distillery and I felt like we learned so much from him. We have a habit of being the people on a tour to ask the most questions, but I felt like we could have kept going and he wouldn't have run out of answers. He was funny, warm, and engaging, and I would highly recommend making sure that you get to do the warehouse tasting with Iain if you should ever find yourself on Islay. Kicking of our tastings on Islay with Iain was truly special and it helped set the tone for what would be the definite highlight of our time in Scotland.
This is called New Make Whisky, it's straight out of the still and hasn't been aged in barrels yet. It's highly alcoholic and not an easy drink, but with a bit of water it was much smoother than you would have imagined. It smelled heavenly - sweet and peaty. Side note: for Christmas I asked Alan to buy me a whisky-scented cologne from the Portland General Store. I love wearing it but it wears out after about 30 minutes. I feel like I should have smuggled this dram out and used it as cologne because it smelled just that good. I put a bit in my hands and it smelled divine.
This is Alan tasting a special dram that I'm not supposed to identify on social media. Let's just say it was the oldest whisky we tasted - ever - and also the best damn drink I've ever encountered. It was truly extraordinary and I'm unlikely to ever taste anything like it again. Well, maybe I can ... if I'm willing to pony up 100 pounds or more for a dram.
After Lagavulin we took a break at Kildalton Cross and the Old Parish Church. Given the origins of the high cross, it is in remarkably fine condition. And as you'll see below, the views from here were simply outstanding.
Kildalton Cross is one of the finest early Christian crosses in Scotland, the High Cross of Kildalton, is closely related to three major crosses in Iona, St John’s, St Martin’s and St Oran’s and dates from the second half of the 8th century. On the east face (towards the sea), at the top are two angels with, below them, David fighting a lion. Further down, two birds feed on a bunch of grapes then on the shaft, a carving of Virgin with Child and angels. The right arm panel depicts Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, while the left shows Cain murdering Abel. The central boss on the west side is surrounded by seven smaller bosses intertwined with serpents. In the construction of the cross arms are four lions (all with damaged heads) intertwined with more serpents, similar to those on the shaft of St Martin’s cross, Iona.
Among the early Christian church sites in Islay, and there are quite a few worth a visit, the Old Parish Church of Kildalton is of special interest because of the above mentioned High Cross of Kildalton. However, the Old Church, and many of the carved medieval grave slabs in the graveyard or within the chapel itself, is also very worthy of attention. The rectangular building, now roofless (probably roofed originally with thatch since there is no record of broken slates being found) has internal measurements of 17.3 metres by 5.7 metres – fairly large for an old highland church.
The Kildalton parish is medieval in origin – early documentary records suggesting from c 1425, but the church building is older than this, possibly dating from the late 12th or early 13th century. Following the 1560 Reformation, Kildalton Church continued to be used, for a parish which extended from McArthur’s head in the north, to the Oa in the south, until the drift of population towards Ardbeg caused change and regular public worship was discontinued in Kildalton and transferred to the Lagavulin area at the end of the 18th century.
Our next stop was Ardbeg, which has a bit of a cult following in the Bay Area. The plan here was to eat lunch while having a tasting. It wasn't entirely clear what the specific plan was - to us or to the employees there (it felt like) - so our tasting felt hurried at the end of our meal and we didn't really learn anything specific to their whisky. While I was underwhelmed with the whisky experience there, I found the location of the distillery itself stunning. (I feel like I'm using that word a lot to describe a whole host of things on this trip.)
Ardbeg Distillery (Scottish Gaelic: Taigh-stail Àirde Beaga), located on the south coast of Islay, is owned by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, and the company claims it produces the peatiest Islay whisky (with most expressions using malt with a phenol content of 55ppm). The Ardbeg distillery has been producing whisky since 1798, and began commercial production in 1815. For most of its history, its whisky was produced for use in blended whisky, rather than as a single malt. By 1886 the distillery produced 300,000 gallons of pure alcohol/year, and employed 60 workers. Production was halted in 1981, but resumed on a limited basis in 1989 and continued at a low level through late 1996, during the period when Ardbeg was owned by Hiram Walker. The distillery was bought and reopened by Glenmorangie plc (owned by the French company LVMH) with production resuming on June 25, 1997 and full production resuming in 1998. The distillery was reopened by Ed Dodson in 1997 and handed over to Stuart Thomson, who managed it from 1997 to 2006. Michael "Mickey" Heads, an Islay native and former manager at Jura who had worked at Ardbeg years earlier, took over on March 12, 2007. Ardbeg's offerings have garnered an array of awards at international spirit ratings competitions.
From Ardbeg we made our way down the road to Laphroaig. When we first started planning our trip to Scotland, I toyed with doing an Islay tour on our own, which would have included the Water to Whisky Experience at Laphroaig, but obviously when you have a group of 14 it's much harder to conduct that sort of tour. We were fortunate to get a full tour of the distillery (including the malting floors, kiln, mash tun, wash backs, still house and the warehouse) to see the process of how Laphroaig whisky is made, start to finish.
Laphroaig is named for the area of land at the head of Loch Laphroaig on the south coast of the Isle of Islay. The meaning of the toponym is unknown but a commonly suggested derivation implies the elements "lag" (Gaelic: hollow), "breid" (Norse: broad) and "vik" (Norse: bay), implying an original Gaelic form something like "Lag Bhròdhaig" (the hollow of Broadbay). The name may be related to a placename on the east coast of Islay, "Pròaig", again suggested as meaning "broad bay". The distillery and brand are owned and operated by the American spirits company Beam Inc.
Laphroaig has been the only whisky to carry the Royal Warrant of the Prince of Wales, which was awarded in person during a visit to the distillery in 1994. The 15-year-old is reportedly the prince's favourite Scotch whisky.
Laphroaig is one of the most strongly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies, and is most frequently aged to 10 years, although the 18-year-old variety is common (the 27-, 30- and 40-year-olds are rare and expensive). The company describes their whisky as the most distinctive of Scotch whisky.
The Laphroaig Quarter Cask was introduced in 2004. This expression is aged in smaller casks and is not chill filtered. The Quarter Cask Single Malt is inspired by the whiskies that were produced 200 years ago. Due to the smaller barrels used, the oak surface contact is 30% greater than with standard barrels. Quarter casks were preferred in the 18th century, when smuggling was rife, as the smaller barrels were easier for mules—a favoured means of cross-land transportation—to carry. The Quarter Cask is bottled at 48% ABV (96 proof), or 20% stronger than the minimum of 40%. The standard bearer 10-year-old bottling has also been bottled at 43% ABV.
As Friends of Laphroaig, we were excited to pick up our certificate and claim our plot of land (1 square foot by 1 square foot in Islay). It took some doing as we couldn't remember our username and password, but after looking us up by name we were able to locate Alan's plot. Along with our Dutch compatriot, Rory, we were given our certificate of ownership, our "rent" dram, some wellies, and off we went to plant our flags.
I have a feeling the Swedes thought this was all a load of malarky, but it was a really fun experience for us and it added that much more to our visit to Laphroaig.
For dinner we all ate at the Lochside Hotel. I don't have much to say about the experience except that a massive storm walloped the coast while we were in the restaurant. It was quite spectacular. Alan ran outside to capture it and he reports that while one side of the sky was pitch back, the other half was sunny with a double rainbow. You don't see that everyday. I was excited to see the storm because it was the first time during the trip we'd have anything described as "bad" weather. For me it was a welcome respite because as you all know, I much prefer rain and cold. Besides, when you're in Scotland, surely you want to experience the moody, stormy Scottish weather, no?