Wednesday, September 25, 2013


I woke up fairly early this morning to find that the skies were in a rage, and the loch in front of the inn was pounding the shore in its fury. In a word: perfect. Alas, I was the only person on the entire tour - heck, probably in the whole country - that was happy with this turn of events. Everyone was complaining. I love drinking a nice dram on a cold, gray day so I was more than happy to roll up to our first distillery - Bowmore - with rain falling heavily.
The distillery, which lies on the South Eastern shore of Loch Indaal, is one of the oldest in Scotland and is said to have been established in 1779. The distillery is owned by Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd, a holding company owned by Japanese drinks company Suntory. Morrison Bowmore also own the Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch distilleries and produce the McClelland's Single Malt range of bottlings. Bowmore Distillery sources as much barley as possible from on the island of Islay, but there are insufficient quantities produced to satisfy the distillery's demand, so barley is also imported from the mainland. The distillery retains a traditional floor malting, but this also lacks sufficient capacity; the barley imported from the mainland is normally already malted. The distillery has an annual capacity of 2,000,000 litres, with fermentation undertaken in traditional wooden washbacks before the liquid is passed through two wash stills and then through two spirit stills. The waste heat from the distillation process goes to heat a nearby public swimming pool that was built in one of the distillery's former warehouses.
Fun fact: During the World Wars the Bowmore Distillery halted production, and hosted the RAF Coastal Command for much of World War II, Coastal Command operated flying boats from Loch Indaal on Anti-submarine warfare missions.
At Bowmore, we did a full tour - the third and final of our trip. While the others were indeed good tours, there was something a bit extra about our particular tour guide at Bowmore (I really wish I could remember her name). She was knowledgeable and approachable, and she managed to fill in a lot of the blanks that were left by some of the other tours. Basically, she presented us with a whole, understandable picture. She was also quite delightful and adorable so that helped. (Is it bad of me to call someone adorable?)
The Malting Process: barley, yeast and water are the only ingredients required in the production of (barley-based) single malt whisky. The barley used to make the whisky is "malted" by soaking the grain in water for two to three days and then allowing it to germinate to convert starch (which is insoluble in water and not available for fermentation by yeast) to fermentable sugars. 

The tasting here was really exciting. In addition to three regular whiskies, we got to try a sherry-aged whisky straight out of the cask. And, the really special part was, if you wanted a bottle of it you could bottle it yourself. You know we did this. Even if we hadn't liked it so much - we did! - we would have bought a bottle just to say we had done it. We're all about this stuff. 

I really wish we had bought a bottle of the 15 Year Mariner because it was great, but after buying both the sherry-cask one, and another that Alan discovered in the tasting room, we had hit our limit for what we wanted to spend at one place. Of course now I'm trying to figure out how I can get my hands on a bottle since it's a UK-exclusive. I found an online store that will sell it to me and ship it to me, but their shipping fee is ... well ... kind of insane.

From Bowmore, we made a quick stop at Caol Ila. This was unscheduled, but a few people on the tour really love their whisky so Simon was able to fit it in. They were closed for tours because they were installing new equipment, but the ladies in the tasting room were gracious when we basically stormed the castle demanding whisky. I was interested in trying some of the "younger" stuff since on our first night in Islay I'd had a special bottling of a 25-year-old variety.

I had never heard of Caol Ila until we got to Islay, but apparently they are the largest producer on the island, but most of that goes into blended scotch. The location, overlooking the Paps of Jura, is stunning.
Caol Ila, founded in 1846, is derived from Gaelic Caol Ìle (pronounced [kʰɯlˠ̪ˈiːlə]) for "Sound of Islay" in reference to the distillery's location overlooking the strait between Islay and Jura.  The distillery closed during World War II, from 1942 to 1945, because of wartime restrictions on the supply of barley to distillers. From then, production continued until 1972, when the entire structure of the distillery was demolished. A larger distillery was built in the same original architectural style, and production resumed in 1974. The company eventually became part of Diageo. 
Caol Ila is one of the lighter Islay whiskies, pale in colour, with peaty, floral and peppery notes. In addition to being sold as a single malt, it is used heavily in blends such as Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle. Since 1999, the distillery has also produced a non-peated "highland spirit."
Different expressions of Caol Ila have generally rated highly at spirit ratings competitions. The 12-year, for example, received two double gold, three gold, and one silver medal from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition between 2005 and 2010. It also received an above-average score of 90-95 from Wine Enthusiast in 2005. The 18- and 25-year expressions, though not as frequently rated by outside agencies, have also tended to score well.

After Caol Ila, we had lunch at an adorable restaurant - Katie's - at the Bridge End Hotel. It's kind of located in nowwheresville, but the room was beautiful, the service is warm and friendly, and the food was really good.

From there we split up as a group - the Swedes and the young Dutch guy went to Islay Ales, while the older Australian couple and us went to Islay Woolen Mill. The master weaver (?), Gordon, is a bit of a wool legend. He is the man behind the plaids used in the movies Rob Roy and Braveheart. I wanted to pick up a blanket while in Scotland, but between all of our clothes and our whisky we didn't have enough room in our luggage, so instead we picked up some gorgeous caps for both of us. Our introduction to the weaving process by Gordon's son was ... interesting. Let's just say that he is a man of few words. As in, hardly any. It became a bit awkward to ask him any questions beyond the basics so we went back to shopping.

Our next stop of the day was at Bruichladdich Distillery. Major whisky fans will recognize this as the distillery whisky veteran and evangelist, Jim McEwan, calls home.
Bruichladdich Distillery (/ˈbrʊklædi/ brook-lad-dee), built in 1881, is a Scotch whisky distillery on the Rhinns of the isle of Islay. It is owned by Rémy Cointreau and is one of nine working distilleries on the island. One interpretation of the Gaelic word Bruichladdich is "stony shore bank", referring to a post-glacial raised beach, though an alternative, perhaps more pertinent translation may be "rocky lee shore". Normally pronounced brook-lad-dee, or by some Gaelic speakers as broo-ee-clah-dee (depending on accent), it incorporates a specific, localised soft pronunciation of the Gaelic ch element.
The distillery still uses the original 'open' 7-tonne mashtun—the only one on the island, and one of only a handful still in existence. There are six pine wood washbacks. There are two wash stills, two 6 meter tall and narrow-necked spirit stills, and since 2010 the last authentic Lomond still. All are heated by steam.
All barley used is exclusively Scottish, grown on 23 different farms, each kept separate from barley to barrel (and, since 2010, to bottle). Since 2004, Islay grown barley is once again used on 14 island farms with the rest coming from eight mainland Scotland farms and one in Orkney. Organically grown Scottish barley represents between 30 and 40 per cent of the annual requirements. Around eight different types of barley are grown, including heritage varieties such as the ancient Viking Bere. Primarily, the barley used for Bruichladdich is unpeated (3 ppm), although peated versions (40 ppm) do exist under the Port Charlotte sub-brand. Bruichladdich also produces "the most heavily peated Single Malt Whisky in the world'—Octomore (at 80, 130, 141, 152 and 167 ppm).
Bruichladdich Distillery has the island's only bottling hall. All bottlings are 100 per cent natural, non-chill-filtered, colouring-free, bottled at 46% or cask strength on the isle of Islay. There have been a wide number of small-scale bottlings. 
In production, no computers are used, apart from in the offices and to run a series of eight webcams. These webcams were the focus of an intelligence operation by the (American) Defense Threat Reduction Agency, when the distillery's antique distilling equipment was mistaken for that purportedly used for Iraq's elusive chemical weapons. This story has roots in an e-mail sent by an American agent to the distillery when one of the webcams had broken. A limited run of commemorative WMD bottles were released in honour of the story, while a second WMD bottling, Yellow Submarine, was issued when an Islay fisherman found a MoD submarine ROV, and a minor farcical affair ensued.
They had, by far, the nicest tasting room, and the widest selection of whiskies available to taste and to buy, but they do their whiskies a bit different and it wasn't necessarily in keeping with the taste that we enjoy from our Islay single malts. We've seen several of their varieties available at BevMo and other liquor stores, so if you live in a major market, chances are you can find some, or already have. One thing I did appreciate was that they let us taste a whisky called Octomore that we're thinking of buying a bottle of just because it is literally the peatiest whisky you will ever taste. We're also curious enough to want to pick up a bottle of their Black Art, which unfortunately we weren't able to taste but is incredibly intriguing to us. Neither are cheap, to be sure, but a single malt appreciation is not a cheap hobby.
Octomore: The world's most heavily peated whisky, this is the sixth edition of the uber-experimental cult Octomore. Titanic amounts of peat but with a light, delicate complexity and a beguiling finesse. Young, yet eminently mature, it defies us. It remains an enigma. We embrace that. Here, we pay tribute to its pedigree, to the land from which it came and the raw materials that gave it life: Octomore Scottish Barley.Magnificently muscular. Most heavily peated malts are so dry and phenolic there is little else to spark the senses, not so this young warrior who arouses pride and passion, transporting you to that most famous rock in the Atlantic ocean – Islay – the beating heart of the Hebrides. The first waves bring a combination of sea spray, spindrift, wet sea weed and hints of oily iodine. Then peat smoke with cracked black peppercorn and as the spirit reveals itself, stunning notes of heather flowers, lemon balm and water mint. Its like watching a spiritual weaver create a tapestry from the Hebrides itself. As the spirit breathes in the glass a subtle change takes place. Rising steadily comes the crisp, malted barley then the sweet oak, giving notes of vanilla, toasted rye bread and walnuts. Add a burst of fresh lime, poached apple and pear from distillation whilst always in the background the steady rhythm of the sea painting pictures in your mind of a people and place who know that single malt is the stuff of life, sustaining them for generations.
Black Art: Even we don’t know how Jim McEwan has conjured-up this bewitching dram – this is something he alone has crafted (in dead of night?) in the stygian darkness of Warehouse No. 12. A dark, sensuous spirit, very fine, incredibly elegant, decadently-hued, perplexingly complex, mishievously-prepared and subtly provocative. Beguiling, other-worldly, sublime, inspired. The spirit is hedonistic and a magical cultivation of the senses. The texture, like velvet, has weight, warmth and the balance of a ballerina. An opening bouquet of cherry blossom and deep red rose gives way to a rainbow of soft ripe red fruits; redcurrant, loganberry, damson, apricot and blackberry crystallised with soft brown sugar. A sensational opening for the toasted oak and sweet malted barley, which give structure and strength. As the spirit aerates a wave of delectable red fruits rise and pass through the oak like a summer breeze, lifting the taste experience to a level of pleasure beyond belief. The harmony of flavours merge both on the nose and the palate and deliver a totally unique malt experience like no other. Totally selfish. Decadent, late night, brooding dram. This one is not for sharing. Pure, physical pleasure, indulge yourself!

And sadly, we made our way to the last distillery we'd tour on Islay - Kilchoman. We weren't sad to be touring it, rather, just that it was the last one. There are only a handful of them (with another one coming soon!), but we decided that between wandering the tiny villages, drinking whisky, eating seafood, exploring the shore, and going for walks, we could easily have spent another week on Islay. 

So, Kilchoman Distillery. Just an all around lovely experience and a great way to end our two days of tasting. In addition to really enjoying our drams, it was incredibly interesting to visit such a small distillery, and to see one that isn't on the water. In fact, Kilchoman is on a farm near Machir Bay (also the inspiration for a whisky we've since found out is readily available in this area.
The distillery is situated on the western side of Islay, near the small settlement of Kilchoman. The location made it the most westerly distillery in Scotland, until the Abhainn Dearg Distillery started distilling on the Isle of Lewis. Built in 2005, Kilchoman is the first distillery to be established on Islay in over 124 years; the first run of new spirit came off the stills later that year. Kilchoman is one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland with an annual production of approximately 100,000 litres of alcohol. Kilchoman is one of only six distilleries to carry out traditional floor maltings, but the key difference at Kilchoman is that the barley is grown here on the farm, whereas other distilleries purchase barley from around the country.
We ultimately chose to bring back a bottle of their 100% Islay as it was unique to all of the other whiskies that we tasted throughout our trip.
All parts of the production process for the 100% Islay have taken place at the distillery – from barley to bottle. The barley is grown, malted, distilled, matured and bottled at Kilchoman making for a unique character. Bottled at 50% abv and peated to a lower level to that of other releases, 100% Islay has a lighter, fresher feel to it. Citrus and lemon notes come through with soft peat smoke and a long smooth finish.

After the distillery tour and tasting, I convinced our guide Simon to take us down to Machir Bay. Again, the Swedes seemed less than concerned with this sort of scenic pit stop, but gosh darn it, we were done with our whisky tastings and I wanted to see the ocean! Being in the front seat where you can become friendly with the tour guide has its benefits.

Machir Bay is amazingly gorgeous, as you might imagine it would be. You know I am just so, so enamored of cold weather beaches at the end of the road on remote island locations, so in that regard Machir did not disappoint.  The sky changed color every few seconds depending on where the clouds had blown to and where the sun was peaking through. You'd look in one direction and it'd be bright and sunny. You'd turn to the other direction and the sky would be moody and gray. Then, turning back to the first direction, it would have changed as well. They call Montana "Big Sky Country" but there's something magical about the sky in Scotland as well. It's never the same for more than a couple of seconds.

For dinner that night we stuck together again for a meal at the Bowmore Hotel. The food was good, but oh my, what an experience. Let's just say that the chef is wildly creative. How creative you ask? Well, when the waiter asked if anyone had any questions, Alan's response should have been, "Did this place used to be a zoo?"

Why yes, that IS zebra, reindeer, and wildebeast on the menu. I know reindeer is common in some of the Nordic countries close to the Arctic, but I don't believe I've ever seen zebra or wildebeast on a menu (and we've been to multiple Bizarrebeques in our time). I played it safe with a seafood stew in a rich, creamy, succulent, dreamy cream sauce, while Alan branched out with venison. Oh, and of course we had oysters. I mean, obviously.

I was really tired and starting to feel a bit under the weather so around 9:30 p.m. I went back to our room, while Alan went out with Jorgen and Susan to another bar down the road. He reports that it was small and incredibly hot so I likely would have been a miserable, sweaty mess. I crashed pretty hard once back at the room and got an excellent night of sleep, waking up the next morning revived and ready for our long drive back to Edinburgh. 

So, so, so sad though to be saying goodbye to Islay.