I may have mentioned round this parts that I took an ill-advised, financially irresponsible trip to the lands of the savage Scots in order to sample the local culture. Whilst hiking around the beautiful islands, a strange old man told me there might be some places in the area in which local sages take a plain old grain and, through alchemy known only to themselves, use it to produce the water of life and that weary travelers may have the fortune of sampling thereof. Well, said I, this sounds like high culture to me. I must take the chance to sample. And, fine reader, sample I did. This is that story.
The trip started auspiciously when I forgot my jacket on the airplane to Glasgow. An astute reader will notice, Scotland has a bit of the old rain going for them, and such a garment was indispensable. Also it cost a chunk of change and I was pissed for forgetting it. The flight attendant had moved it earlier to make room for something else, and I got off the plane in a rush and forgot it. Being in said rush, I did not have proper time to shop, and such made a bad purchase which later sucked. It was the sort of jacket that stops the rain about as efficiently as toilet paper. 34 pounds down the drain. Off course, this being a plane of Romanians, the jacket did not eventually make its way to the lost and found. Proper lost, it was.
But let us not dwell on the negatives. A cheap jacket and a pint of bitter in the rail station pub later, I got on the train to Ardrossan, on the ferry to Brodick – which was late, and on the bus to Lochranza, which kindly waited for the damn ferry. I was sort of tired, because I had to wake up at 4 30 AM and I rarely sleep well the night before a travel, for reasons mysterious to me, so I developed quite the headache and was afraid I was not going to enjoy the day, but after I got off the bus, had a coffee and walked into Isle of Arran distillery, my headache was gone and I was feeling well. I had the combo tour for 20 pounds – distillery (base price 10) and tutored whiskey tasting (base price 15). The distillery tour was not much. It is small and done fast.
Now let’s to the short version of whiskey making, for those of you of the ignorant persuasion: barley is malted (aka soaked in water and spread on a warehouse floor to germinate, turning it 4 times a day for 4 to 6 days, which causes enzymes to convert starch to sugar), dried (with or without flavor enhancing smoke), soaked in hot water which extracts the sugars (obtaining wort).
Yeast is added to the wort, which ferments (becoming basically beer, just like how brandy is distilled wine, whisky is distilled beer, although no hops ) to become wash. The wash is distilled once to become low wine (24% ish). That is distilled a second time to become spirit. The first part of the spirit is not used (called head it contains lots of volatile components among which methanol of the blindness causing fame) and the last part is not used (called faints, the contain heavier, less volatile, compounds and oils).
The spirit is placed in barrels (mostly ex bourbon of sherry, but can be rum or port or Madeira or rye or whatever) which can be first, second, or third fill, and aged for whatever but no less than 3 years and 3 days, by law. Not like you Americans and your bourbon, no patience or sense of time. After it may or may not be finished for 3 to 8 months in different wood – wine for example like Amarone or Sassicaia or Lafite. Bourbon barrels are most common due to their abundance, because of US law that says barrels can only be used once to make bourbon (a law made at the lobby of coopers unions to keep barrel making jobs, but which may be changed soon due to save the trees and shit, which may affect the scotch industry). Single malt is rarely, if ever, aged in new wood. There is also a technique called in shaved, toasted and re-charred casks, but there is no time to get into detail in this post. Now that you are all enlightened, moving on…
The tasting was basically choose 4 of any of the 25 bottles on offer. It is well worth the 15 quid. I had a sip of the 10 during the tour, and it is not much to talk about. During the tasting I had the basic 18 year old (decent dram and goes down way to easy), a distillery exclusive 11 yo cask strength in first fill bourbon casks (my favorite at the tasting and I strongly considered buying a bottle for 60) and two nice but way out of my budget (think in the neighborhood of 200 pounds, which is quite a way from my hood) 21 yo (distillery exclusive) and 22 yo (a special bottling for a music festival they partner with), matured in sherry butts and finished in Solera sherry casks, which, while they had great, complex flavors and were smooth as hell for the more than 50% abv, had a bit too much sherry in them for my taste (and I do like sherry casks in moderation). The guide was in the category old Scotsman with 50 years’ experience in the distillery business, one of the two main categories of guides I encountered.
After the tasting I had dinner and a beer (or maybe two) in the only pub in the quite small village, slept in a sort of summer school center that offers B&B to tourists. On this particular Sunday night I was the only human there, and I do not remember the last time I had such a quiet night, with literally no human made noise at all. Early next morning I caught the ferry to Claonaig.
The ferry itself ran smoothly, luckily for me, because I did not know what to expect on the other side. I though another town or village. It was, in fact, nothing. Not a shack. The ferry unloaded cars on the beach and I caught the bus – about 5 minutes after getting off. I don’t know if the bus would have waited or what I could have done if I did not catch it, besides hitch a ride. My original plan was take a taxi form the town, but there was no town, just a single track road and the bus of which I was the only passenger. Thus I arrived to the Kennacraig ferry terminal and got on the ferry to Port Ellen. On the ferry I got myself a Scottish breakfast with a cold beer and a mediocre coffee, and then enjoyed the ride, as the sea was calm and the sun was shining and the scenery was nice. The scenery was too nice, a large island which I began to suspect was Jura. But Jura should not have been there. Until I found out the ferry was, in fact, going to Port Askaig. Which was, apparently, announced on the ferry website, which I did not check. I was not the only passenger thus puzzled, but one of the few who was not inconvenienced. In fact, I was sort of pleased because otherwise I would not have had the time to see the north of the Island. My lodging in Port Charlotte was equally distant from Port Ellen and Port Askaig.
I arrived in Port Askaig with a thought of wait, that’s it? Smaller than I expected. Grabbed the bus, stopped at Finlaggan with a thought of wait, that’s it?, had some scotch at the Ballygrant Inn, grabbed the bus, went to Portnahaven and back again, and finally I was settled in Port Charlotte. During the day I tried to secure taxis for the next day and failed miserably. I had not expected to need to book more than a day in advance. Oh well. What can you do? Well… walk… mostly. And walk I did.
The next day I got a ride to where the high road branched off towards Kilchoman. After that I started walking. It was a beautiful day, sunny and not to warm. I had left early and the visit was at 11, so I had time. I could have hitchhiked – apparently the people there stop for you – but it felt to awkward for me to stick my thumb out. Embarrassing if you will. So I walked. I walked passed the distillery to the Machir Bay beach which I wanted to see, I walked back and some 8 or 9 miles later, there I was, sore of foot, but ready for the ultimate tour (35 pounds, two hours). Also, with the help of the distillery folk I secured a cab for the way back.
Kilchoman is the smallest and only family owned distillery on Islay, and they are going for the farmhouse distillery vibe. The guide for this one was in the category young woman seasonal worker on summer break from University. The tour was probably the most complete one I had. The distillery has a 100% islay expression, for which they do everything. Growing the barley on the island and malting it on site is unique, as all other distilleries get their malt from a big industrial malting plant in Port Ellen. They all use, I believe, concerto barley. As I said, the tour was quite complete, we tasted the malt straight of the matling floor, the wort – basically sweet barley water or barley tea, we tasted the wash (or low beer as it is called) in a couple of stages and we tasted the new make spirit. We saw the warehouse and ended in the visitor center trying 4 nice malts. The best was the distillery exclusive cask strength but at 114 pounds I decided to pass. Interesting was the sauternes cask finished expression, which really had a strong hit of desert wine in the aftertaste… interesting but not my thing.
Afterwards I grabbed the cab to Bruichladdich , where I did a warehouse tasting (25 pounds) of 3 very nice whiskeys directly form the barrel, a Bruichladdich unpeated 27 year old, a Port Charlotte peated at 22 yo, and an heavy peated Octomore which I do not remember the age of. The guide was in the young woman class. All great whiskeys, none that can be bought in stores as their bottlings are rarely single cask.
I ended the night in Port Ellen at the Trout Fly guest house, which I recommend, after I manage to get a ride when some people noticed me walking on the side of the road in what was for Islay the middle of nowhere and kindly picked me up. Also much better breakfast than on the ferry.
The three days of lovely weather ended, and on Wednesday morning it started raining sideways and raining and raining. After breakfast at the guest house I went to rent a bike and was lucky to also borrow a rain jacket. The rain was intermittent then for the rest of the day.
I biked to Lagavoulin, where I had the warehouse tasting at 10 30 (30 pounds). We were guided by a class combination, a young woman and the distillery famous Ian McArthur in his 50+ year in the biz. In this warehouse tasting we tried a 7 yo at 60.2% year old in second fill bourbon – young and very pale – a 9 year old at 58.1, a 21 year old bourbon cask at 51.4 and a 22 year old sherry cask at 51.8 plus a taste of the Feis Ille 2019 bottling at 53.8 %. They were all good and were all different, the young ones on the rough side, the old ones mellowed with age, with the peat always underlying things. When the woman left for a while, Ian gave us all an additional and much heavier pour of the 22 year old – he told us the young ones don’t know how to treat people properly. Which made things even better. Overall a nice tasting.
After this I biked through the rain to Ardbeg where I had scheduled the Ardbig tour (50 quid). It was a decent tour – although I found it overpriced. The guide was in the same class as Kilchoman, they even looked somewhat similar, although being Islay girls they could have been related. It is a small island. During the tour we got to taste the low beer – more sour than Kilchoman – but not the new make spirit. We ended in the warehouse where we tried 3 different barrels. Ardbeg does not really do single cask bottling, and all their bottles are a combination of many casks, so this is probably the only chance to taste single casks. But the taste of them is not that relevant to the final bottling.
At Ardbeg’s cafe I got to sample the local specialty haggis, neeps and tatties, with a dram of Ardbeg perpetuum on the side.
And thus my all to short time on Islay came to an end. Thursday morning I took the 7 AM ferry back to the mainland and the bus to Campeltown, a quite nice ride, not too long at 1 hour. And the reason for Campbeltown was Springbank.
I started with the tour of the distillery – old Scottish guy with 50+ years’ experience – and it was a good one. We did not get to taste the beer (booo) but got a sip of new make spirit, saw the malting floor (they do all their malting, pictured on top of the post) and their kilning.
What is also nice is they have displayed at each step information. They distill 3 spirits here – Hazelburn (unpeated malt dried for 30 hours just hot air) Springbank (slightly peated, 6 hours peat smoke) and Longrow (peated, up to 48 hour peat smoke). The first is triple distilled, the second and third twice like most scotch. The wort is done with 4 waters, at 63.5, 72, 82, 82 degrees Celsius, although only the first two are used for distilling, while the third and fourth are used as the first water for the next batch. The middle cut, used for whiskey, is 79% to 63% for Hazelburn, 76% to 60% for Springbank an d 69% to 58% for Longrow.
Springbank distillery is partnered with one of the older and more prestigious independent bottlers in Scotland, Cadenheads. They store their barrels and bottle the spirits. And work closely on other issues. As such, after the tour at Springbank one can get the Cadenheads warehouse tasting (35 pounds). And one definitely should. You will have the chance of tasting various spirits you may not find otherwise.
This was given to us by a different class of guide, young guy, but he was proper enthusiastic and the pour was generous and we got to sample 8 different malts. And all interesting. After, you have a chance to buy bottles directly from the casks, something they offer as a reward for going out of your way to Campbeltown. What did I have? Let us see…
A Tomatin 11 year old; a Tormore barreled in 1988; a Benrines of 1995 – which I bought as it strikes a balance of unusual and decently priced at 75, a distillery which mostly makes whiskey for blends and rarely comes up with single malts; a quite interesting blended whiskey which was sat in the cask for 39 years – 140 pounds a bottle was a lot for a blend, but not for something 39 years old – and which no one knew what whiskey it contained, although the guess was some combo of Macallan Highland Park, Glernrothes or Tomatin, as it came from Highland Distilleries company, so it should have been from something they owned in the 70s. We followed with a Paul john from India, aged 5 years in India and 2 in Campbeltown – the climate makes quite the difference, but the whiskey was unimpressive. A Coolie Irish whiskey, 12 year old although put in the cask in 1992, because apparently for Irish whisky the aging, by Irish law, only counts when the barrel is in Ireland, and when the barrel was moved to Scotland it stopped counting; And to finish with some peat, Ardmore 5 (almost 6) very nice at 45 pounds and I got some, and an 11 year old unnamed due to various legal reasons, although our host told us the distillery name rhymes with agavoulin.
And thus ended the trip to Campbeltown, which I am sorry I cannot make more often.
The next morning a grabbed a ferry back to Androssan, followed by the train, which I preferred to 4 and a half hours on the bus. The ferry is spacious, it has a bar and restaurant, toilets, room to walk and all that. It was a beautiful morning and I left with a great wish to return, which did not happen for many of the trips I took. The rain started again to come down heavy just as I got on the Glasgow bus to the airport. Cheers.