Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Islay Trip Part 1. 7th March. Bowmore, Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila

It certainly doesn’t feel like it, but it’s been 6 months since I last fired up the Corsa and made for a distillery. Living hundreds of miles from Scotland and not being able to take holiday during the October to December period certainly isn’t the easiest situation for a Whisky Pilgrim to be in! Rather a lot’s happened during my ‘grounded’ months – new year, new job, new city and a couple of hundred new whiskies tasted as well. 

But, finally, pilgrimage season has reopened, and the first trip of the year was something special. Because this trip was to a place that could make a strong case for being the finest pound-for-pound Scotch whisky region there is. A place with distilleries whose legions of fans delve deepest into the ‘fanatical’ category. A place which stands as Single Malt Scotch Whisky’s most unique selling point, whose very name is synonymous with whisky to many and which, at its best, creates the most intense and most polarising flavours to be found in any category of any spirit made anywhere in the world. Islay.  

At this moment in time though the only thing that’s intense is the boredom, as hundreds of miles of M40 and M6 stretch before me to the Wirral, where I will be picking up my father. It’s been a long week of work, the traffic is wall-to-wall and the menacing clouds hang low, dark and heavy like a god’s fist in the evening murk. So frequent have been my dreary solo drives up the M6 that I am beginning to recognise individual trees. This does not constitute a healthy state of mind. Wirral is reached at about half 10, far later than necessary. 

Two days later and we’re off – and for once it’s not me doing all the driving. Not only that, but the tent is conspicuous by its absence from my car’s boot. Wells snr said he was up for the Islay leg a while back – he visited the island as a boy and a young man, and is one of the Islay faithful where whisky is concerned, but he hasn’t been back since 1980. In fact he’s booked the same hotel he stayed at
with his parents and brothers in the seventies, so there’ll be no tenting, no sleeping in cars, no sofa surfing, no roaming towns at 4 in the morning just for something to do and no hopping on buses with the vague hope that there might be somewhere cheap at the other end! That’ll doubtless re-emerge on my next trip up, but this is the luxury leg, with beds, hot food and drinking whisky out of real glasses, instead of the hacked-off bottom of a plastic bottle. (God there were some low moments on that first trip...)

The drive, whilst long, is far less arduous with someone else in the car, and we reach Kennacraig Ferry Terminal without event. Slightly more eventful is the ferry crossing itself – we were due to be taken to Port Ellen, but instead find ourselves docking at Port Askaig, many miles to the North-East. Happily our hotel is at Port Charlotte, which is roughly equidistant from each of them, and after a short drive through the dark, during which time we pass signs to four famous distilleries, we find ourselves checking in and sitting down to a pint, the best seafood I’ve ever eaten, and a well earned dram. Pilgrim snr went straight in with Bruichladdich Black
Art – clearly my 40 under £40 articles haven’t made much impression! I’m slightly more run-of-the-mill, opening my Islay batting with the delicious Laphroaig Quarter Cask.

Dawn breaks on the first day of tours, and after a proper cooked breakfast – another pilgrimage first – we set off. In possibly the biggest departure from whisky pilgrimage normality I’ve actually pre-booked all the tours this week. Partially because my particular brand of ‘it’ll probably be fine if we just rock up, so let’s save ourselves the hassle’ mindset is not one I share with my father, but mainly because, being the down-season at the moment, some distilleries only do a couple of tours a day, so the planning has become more important.

I’m very excited about today’s bunch. Not just because they’re the
first distilleries I’ve been to in almost six months, but because they include some of Islay’s less fêted characters. Ok, so Bowmore is the second biggest Single Malt seller on the island, and Caol Ila distils more spirit than any of the others, but somehow the whiskynet treats them with less vigorous adulation than it affords to the Kildalton three, the new kid or the resurrected terroir-talker. I’ve even seen more than a few ‘top five Islay distillery lists’ online - which seems like a mad list to make of a region with only 8 distilleries - and overwhelmingly these are the three left out. If I’m honest I’ve even been guilty of ignoring them myself – certainly I haven’t tried Bunnahabhain or Bowmore in years, and Caol Ila has only featured briefly in my sampling list – at a tasting I attended in October. But more than anything else this pilgrimage has been about opening new doors, trying new whiskies and throwing off old prejudices, so it is with great anticipation that we arrive at the gates of Bowmore to get the week properly started.

Like every other Islay distillery other than Kilchoman, Bowmore is coastal. Makes sense – every distillery but Kilchoman was built in the days when grain arrived by opposed to in a lorry on a boat. A nice idiosyncrasy of these coastal distilleries is the distillery name picked out in massive black letters on the wall facing the sea so that ships would recognise them from a distance. We go in, pay for our tour and then mill around for ten minutes or so in the rather large café-cum-museum upstairs. My eye is drawn to a beautifully ornate bottle slowly revolving in a glass case. Turns out it’s the 54 year old Bowmore, distilled in 1957. The oldest Islay ever bottled; only 11 bottles were ever produced. The asking price? A snip at £100,000 each. Ok, so one or two were auctioned off for charity, which is great, but £100,000? Words literally fail me. Deep breaths, and move on.

To what was actually one of the best distillery tours I’ve ever been on. It was just the two of us being taken around by Helen, who was
absolutely brilliant. Bowmore, like a couple of the other distilleries on the island, still does a portion of its own malting, which means
you really do get to see pretty much the whole process. First malt floor I’ve seen with malt on it since Springbank (Highland park weren’t malting when I was there) and the first time that I’ve watched as peatsmoke rises through the grain and infuses it with unique flavour. All of Bowmore’s malt is peated to the same specification, which sits about in the middle of the scale once turned into spirit. In fact in their more sherry focussed expressions I tend to find that the peat’s presence is very light indeed – we’re certainly not talking Laphroaig or Ardbeg level.

Helen was a walking encyclopaedia where Bowmore – and whisky in general – was concerned, and the facts and figures were rattled off more quickly that my scribbling pen could keep up with. A couple worth noting are that Bowmore have the oldest maturation warehouse in Scotland – Warehouse One, into which we were taken and even given a taste from the fill-your-own Sherry butt on display. I also enjoyed learning that excess heat from the whisky
making process is used to keep the local swimming pool warm!

All round it was a staggeringly comprehensive tour. We were even taken into the chamber behind the kiln through which the peatsmoke rises to the barley above, and the shrivelled up shoots float down through the grill – a particularly memorable experience. Finally we returned to the visitor centre for a dram – the 12 year old sadly; they didn’t have a bottle of the 54 year old open at the time. Bowmore don’t yet have sample pots for drivers – though I understand they are currently looking into them – so Helen very kindly gave my dad a miniature to take away, whilst I sat down to the first flagship of the trip.

Bowmore 12yo – Haven’t had this fellow since December 2008, when my soon-to-be-best-friend Greeners got me a bottle in a Secret Santa at the end of our first term at Nottingham. Citrus and barley with a dark earthiness on the fairly light nose. Peat muted. Smooth and subtly smoky on the palate. Tiny bit of struck match/tobacco next to the honey and vanilla. Warming, not aggressive on the ABV front, as you’d expect from 40%. One of the more mellow and approachable of the peated Islays. 40%ABV

It’s a three-tour day, so we were straight back into the car to get to the East side of the island. A more natural order would have seen us head to Caol Ila, but with differing tour times at the various distilleries it was outside Bunnahabhain that we parked the car to rip into the lunchtime sandwiches. And drink in the view. Islay, when not covered in fog, is beautiful more or less across the whole island, but when we turned off the A846 towards Bunnahabhain it took a turn for the spectacular. Pine clad hills to the west, the snow-tipped Paps of Jura across the glistening Sound to the East, and far across the sea to the North the hills of Mull, also capped with snow, rising out of the blueness. All in all one of the best distillery sites you’ll ever come across – and passing a couple of Peregrine falcons on the way in didn’t hurt either.

By contrast, Bunnahabhain is not the most aesthetically dazzling distillery you’ll ever visit. David, our guide, said that previous visitors had compared it to a prison – which is very harsh (I’m pretty sure he was joking!) The tour was another knockout though. My father and I were the sole attendees once again, and it was just
brilliant to walk through the distillery listening to David talk about its whisky and its history. Of particular interest to me were the stills. The wash stills – which are absolutely enormous – dwarfed the tiny, pear-shaped spirit stills. Bunnahabhain has one of the biggest contrasts between wash and spirit stills that I’ve come across, with the aim since the 1960s of creating a lighter spirit than is aimed for by many of the island’s other distilleries.

Confession time. I’ve avoided Bunnahabhain as a whisky for a good few years now. I’d only tried it once, the 12yo, back in my uni days, probably in 2009, and I hadn’t got on with it. In fact I’d thought it was very uninspiring indeed. So I’m a little bit uncertain going into the tasting room at the end of the tour. As it turns out, David is generously pouring us a sample of the 18yo and the Ceòbanach, which is one of the distillery’s peated expressions. Bunna traditionally is unpeated, but these days they distil peated
whisky for 4-6 weeks of the year. I have a sniff of the 18. Wait a moment. Sniff again. Hmm. I look at the label. 46.3%ABV. That’s not the Bunna I remember. 

As it turns out, I’m behind the times. Badly. A couple of years ago – well, 6 actually - Master Distiller Ian MacMillan ended the addition of caramel colouring and increased the ABV from 40/43% to 46.3% across the Bunna range, as well as the ranges of sister distilleries Deanston and Tobermory. I have been missing out. This is the lot of idiots who don’t give second chances. The 18 is delicious, and I also enjoy the Ceòbanach. Since my remit is to do write-ups for the flagships I bought a glass of the 12yo at the hotel bar later that evening. Notes are below.

Bunnahabhain 12yo – Clearly a Wizard of Oz-style hurricane has blown through Speyside or the South Highlands, picked up a distillery and plonked it on Islay. The 12yo Bourbon-sherry mix is a familiar one, pumping in toffee and stewed apple sweetness. Continues onto the palate with a good, hearty warming kick of booze alongside bags of flavour intensity. Teensiest suggestion that a waft of earth or peat or maritime splash has kicked around, grounding it as Islay. Lovers of Glengoyne, make this your next
port of call – this fellow is similar, but with an extra coastal growl. Delicious. What have I been missing? 46.3%ABV 

The last tour of the day is at Caol Ila, just a couple of miles down the road, and also facing the Sound of Islay. Comfortably the biggest distillery on the island, though most of the spirit goes off to be used in blends. Definitely the most factory-looking distillery of the day; everything was rebuilt in the seventies, and looks very commanding and official and intimidating. There’s a huge glass wall facing the Sound through which the stills can be seen – and whilst I’ve probably not sold it visually it’s actually a very striking picture. As we drive down the slope to the distillery a group of blokes get out of a couple of cars and start jumping up and down whilst high-fiving and hugging each other. That’s a lot of enthusiastic Caol Ila love.

We were also greeted by a most unusual doorman in the form of a small black cat. The friendly feline approached as we got out of the
car, walked with us to the entrance and then wandered off again to meet some other approaching tourists. I later saw it sitting on one of their shoulders. 

Caol Ila is Diageo owned, so my first chance to dust off the Classic Malts Passport for a stamp and a free tour – thanks very much Diageo. No joy on a third successive ‘private’ tour though – I count 16 people in the group, and unfortunately several people didn’t seem to care about or be interested in the experience. Caol Ila also doesn’t have microphones at the various stages of the tour, and in the hubbub of machinery in the washback and still rooms the guide struggled to make herself heard. The still room has an incredible view across the Sound – that glass wall really is the business – but again people seemed to just roam about in small groups not listening to the guide, and I doubt whether anyone who didn’t understand the
process upon entering the room left feeling much the wiser.

However there was a lot of generosity on the samples front at the end of the tour, which always does a lot to generate my good feelings. The first though is the Caol Ila Moch, a malt which troubles me. I’m not going to get into an NAS debate. I’ve made it pretty clear in previous articles that I have no problem whatsoever with the idea of NAS whisky as long as it offers something truly different to its age dated counterparts and tastes good. E.g. A’Bunadh, Quarter Cask, Storm, more or less anything by Bruichladdich etc etc. However no one at any point has told me what Caol Ila Moch brings to the table beyond a more expensive version of the 12. So far as I am aware it is the same sort of cask and the same level of phenol made with the same sort of barley, distilled in the same manner, matured in the same place and bottled at the same strength. So why is it more expensive? And not just a bit more expensive - £10 per bottle more expensive. This is a genuine question – if someone has the answer please get in touch for a chat, because it has me utterly mystified. 

Anyway, we are given additional tastes of the 12, the Distiller’s Edition and  - interestingly – an unpeated cask strength expression.
4 samples is good going, particularly given the tour was free. And they even threw in a free glass. Cheers guys! Also worth noting that Caol Ila – like Diageo’s other visitor centres – have sample pots so that drivers can take away tastes of the whisky, which is much appreciated.

Caol Ila 12yo – Light, lemony. Touch of honey. Super cold in the tasting room, so spend ages warming this in my hands before getting anywhere. Eventually some sooty peat comes through with a lifted menthol sort of thing at the back of the palate. A quiet Islay this – leaves you wanting a little more on the flavour front. Perfectly drinkable though – far more about the spirit than the casks. Medium peat levels. 43%ABV

Our tours over for the day we hop back into the Corsa and make our way back. On my father's recommendation we take a detour to the simply stunning Machir Bay, where thunderous white waves hammer into a deserted golden beach. We linger for a while before returning to our hotel in Port Charlotte, where I try my Bunna 12 – followed by a couple of other drams – and then hit the hay. The Islay trip has got off to a brilliant start; I have revisited old friends and had the errors of my ways put to rights. Bunnahabhain has honestly been one of three big, wonderful surprises of the pilgrimage so far – the other two being Deanston and Ben Nevis – and I know that I will make frequent returns both to their whisky and their distillery. Tomorrow, though, will be about a different island entirely, as we make our way across the Sound to Jura. 


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