Monday, 25 April 2016

Kildalton. March 10th and 11th. Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Laphroaig

Travel by ferry to Port Ellen and you’ll see all three, white walled and black lettered. Lurking in their bays; in one case overlooking a ruined castle of the Lords of the Isles. For thousands, possibly millions of people these three are the Lords now. Of Islay, of the Islands. Of Scotland - of the world even. Think of Islay whisky and you are probably thinking of one of them; the most famous exponents of the most distinctive spirit style in the world. The Kildalton trio: Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.

Cards on the table: first time I tried one of these - probably Lagavulin - I wasn’t a fan. I thought it tasted weird. Islay for my father and uncle, and Speyside for me; that was where I stood. It’s a myth, and an arrogant one, that one must work ones way up to a big peaty monster, as if enjoying them marked some achievement of significance and lent weight to the imbiber’s ‘position’ in the whisky world. That being said, whilst it wasn’t love at first sip for

me some seed must have been planted, and before long I was, like so many before me, a convert if not a disciple. 

We’d hoped to knock off all three on the Thursday, thereby giving ourselves a free Friday to explore the still-free parts of the island. Unfortunately, dashboard light still blinking merrily away, our first port of call was a mechanic in Bowmore. Rescheduling Laphroaig for Friday afternoon we left the car keys at the garage, wandered along Loch Indaal for a while before returning via a coffee to find that our mechanic had mistakenly looked at the wrong car. Slightly concerned about the looming Lagavulin tour we roamed Bowmore for another half an hour, then made our way back to be informed that the ignition coil was heavily corroded, that he had given it a clean but that we should find a replacement PDQ once we were back on the mainland. Our nervous and nurturing subsequent drive later, under the brightest, bluest sky of the trip (a far cry from the weather we had anticipated) we found ourselves outside Lagavulin.

I can’t possibly talk about Islay whiskies in terms of ‘favourites’ – it’d be far too close to call, and any time I thought myself settled on one, the ‘oh, but what about...?’ question would immediately arise. But there is undeniably a very special place in my heart for Lagavulin. Partly because it’s what has been open at my family’s house for the last couple of years, and therefore likely the Islay whisky I’ve been drinking most of recently. It also vies with Bruichladdich and Arran for the position of Pilgrim snr’s favourite. I think the main reason though is probably because it was the favourite of a friend of mine, which he first tried when visiting me in Inverness. (His other favourite was Woodford Reserve. Diverse tastes – well done that man.) So Lagavulin’s probably the distillery I’ve looked forward most to visiting on this trip. And it doesn’t hurt that, as a Diageo Classic Malt, we get free entry too.

Lagavulin has one feature you won’t find at many, if any, other distilleries, which is its own castle. The distillery nestles snugly into its bay, and on a thin strip of land spearing out into the sea is the ruin of Dunnyvaig, astonishingly striking on this clearest and crispest of days. Not much time to admire it though – our mechanical mishaps have put us down to the wire for time, so it’s straight into the visitor centre and onto the tour.

We’re taken round by Billy, who is great at working the decent-sized group. He’s a wealth of jokes and interesting facts. The two that stood out were the revelation that end of May-beginning of June was Islay’s peat cutting season (so the peat isn’t too wet. Makes sense, but shame they miss the French Open...) and that mainland cows would not eat Islay draff without the addition of molasses. The Islay bovines incidentally are less picky and will happily eat away with no added ingredients. 

There’s a nice story in the washback room too. Sitting atop one of

the great fermentation vessels at the far end is a large sculpture of an owl. When asked about it Billy said that its main purpose was to scare swallows out of the room. Its effectiveness was called into question however when he told us that a colleague had once photographed the owl with four baby swallows sitting on its head. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the photo!

Talking of photos, this is a Diageo tour, so we can’t take any inside. That’s a shame, because Lagavulin’s stills are particularly striking. Despite being one of Kildalton’s peat monsters, Lagavulin lags behind Ardbeg and Laphroaig when it comes to the ppm of their malt. However it’s not how big your malt ppm is that matters when it comes to making smoky whisky so much as what you do with it – and Lagavulin’s stills are designed to make the most of what they’ve got. The spirit stills in particular are quite a sight. Forget ‘pear shaped’ – these are almost conical, and uniquely for Islay, the lyne-arms are sloped very steeply downwards. I also seem to remember reading somewhere that they’re filled more fully than most spirit stills. The upshot of all this is that the big meaty phenols survive distillation far more intact than their counterparts at the other distilleries, and over the 10 hour process (the longest on Islay) that’s where the massive character comes from.

As we make our way back to the visitor centre for the end-of-tour dram I spot an innocuous-looking small white building to our right. Innocuous I should say, except for the small green sign with ‘Malt Mill’ picked out in white letters. In fact this building is an old distillery, and a special piece of Islay’s whisky history. It was built around the turn of the 20th Century; an attempt by Lagavulin’s owner to replicate the exact style of Laphroaig, and thereby water down Laphroaig’s market share. Every aspect of the process was aped precisely – Laphroiag’s distiller was even pinched to oversee it – and yet the experiment failed. Water? Terroir? Place? Who knows. The distillery finally closed down in 1963, and is probably now best known for the starring role a fictional barrel of its whisky plays in the fantastic film ‘The Angel’s Share.’

Lagavulin’s tasting room is quite something – very old-school drawing room: think dark wooden furniture and wingback chairs. Being Diageo, Lagavulin makes a pretty pared-back range; just the

16, the Distiller’s Edition, an annually released cask-strength 12 and a smattering of special editions. (Most recently an 8yo made to celebrate their 200th anniversary this year.) It’s the 16 we’re tasting today – the only whisky Lagavulin makes that’s available under £50. (And only when you know where to look.)

Lagavulin 16yo – Rich, dark, smooth and layered. The peat has been brought to heel by age and cask; certainly more overt oak influence than most other peated Islay flagships. A sweetness of vanilla, of oak and of dried fruit swells to a kind of old-furniture sense, whilst returning to the nose a greater feel of smoke and savoury barley is just beginning to poke through. Sitting in a leather wingback in the tasting room – very appropriate for this whisky. Definitely an after-dinner, drawing-room sort of malt! 43%ABV

We linger for a few minutes to look at the bottle of Malt Mill spirit in the tasting room (the only verifiable Malt Mill in the world, but

not aged in casks, so not whisky) and to pick up a bottle of the Special Edition Jazz Festival Distillery-only bottling that a colleague of mine had requested. The sun still blazing away in the vast blueness we leave the car at Lagavulin and wander down the path to Ardbeg.

The views just get better as we walk. Far, far to the south we can just make out the northernmost tip of Ireland. Ahead of us, to the East, is the flat peninsular of Kintyre, and beyond that the snow-capped peaks of Arran which we scaled so often years ago. (I really must get back to Arran for more than an hour and a half soon!) An altogether stunningly beautiful day, and suddenly pagoda roofs and white walls emerge beyond a grassy field, and we arrive at Ardbeg.

‘Rest and be thankful, for you have arrived’ says the appropriately worded welcome sign. The best place to rest and be thankful at Ardbeg is their outstanding café/shop/restaurant, The Old Kiln. So called because that’s what it’s built into! If you visit Ardbeg and don’t grab something to eat there you really are missing a trick, because the food is not only delicious, but the restaurant itself is

one of the best-looking, best laid out visitor centres in any distillery anywhere. You can also enjoy superb value drams – Corryvreckan and Uigeadail go for just £4, or if you’re not driving you can taste a flight of the 10yo, Corryvreckan, Uigeadail, Supernova and Perpetuum for just £15. For those unaware, that’s astonishingly good value!

Our guide for today is Dionne, and it’s another ‘Wells-only’ tour. Dionne talks us through a bit of the history of the distillery, particularly its modern story, which has seen it revived in the last 18 years by Glenmorangie plc after years of being mothballed. Glenmorangie’s attention and the work of the team at Ardbeg have seen meteoric success; whilst it’s one of the smaller distilleries on the island, its product is feverishly sought-after, with special releases vanishing as soon as they appear, a swathe of medals, awards and accolades across its range and debatably the most ferociously loyal following amongst Islay’s currently active


It makes for interesting comparison with Lagavulin, does Ardbeg, because whilst Lagavulin peat less and then try to make the most of what they’ve got, Ardbeg peat their regular malt to a whopping 55ppm, and then set up their apparatus to break that down as much as possible. The stills have ‘corset’ waists, designed to increase copper conversation and break up the bigger phenols, and they have a ‘purifier’ in the lyne-arm – unique to Islay – which returns condensed liquid to the pot for further distillation. The result of all this is a crisp, light style of heavily-peated whisky, with serious sweetness lurking close behind the smoke. 

As with every guide on Islay, Dionne has infectious enthusiasm for her distillery. Funnily enough her big sister works at Laphroaig, which makes for interesting sibling rivalry I guess. We’re able to taste every part of the process; Pilgrim snr is particularly enamoured of the wash, which he repeatedly suggests they bottle! Being a cider man when it comes to low-booze drinks it’s somewhat wasted on me, but if you like the idea of warm, smoky, yeasty, fruity, hopless beer it’ll be right up your street. We’re also shown the warehouse in which casks are emptied and filtered, and

are able to see the remnants of a former cask in the ‘emptying trough.’ (Probably not the technical term...) You’d be amazed how many blackened oak flakes come out of a barrel when it’s emptied, but it smells fantastic! Dionne also gives us a taste of the new-make, which is absolutely delicious. Those purifiers put a hell of a shift in – it’s whistle clean stuff!

A quick look at the wall, where Dionne takes the only photo of both of us that we got on the trip, and then it’s back to the visitor’s centre and into the Manager’s office (‘By invitation only’ as the sign on the door reads!) Rows and rows of Ardbeg adorn the far wall, and Dionne is kind enough to give us a taste of a few of them. We’d had the Corryvreckan and Uigeadail at the hotel bar a few nights beforehand, so alongside the flagship 10 we plump for the Supernova (Ardbeg’s super-peated expression) and Perpetuum, which is a mix of various different cask types.

Ardbeg 10yo – As clean and crispy a malt as you want – its style and cask character a template that so many have now tried to follow. Char and pine forest and pure malty barley on the nose, leading to a palate that opens with vanilla and honey sweetness, then throws up a granite-hard wall of crystalline cereal, sea-spray and peat. Drying on the finish to leave you with smouldering embers. Whether you like this style or not it stands as a lesson in how to put together a young peated whisky – every stage of the process laid in transparent and stark relief. 46% ABV

We wander back to the car via Dunnyvaig; a spectacular end to a wonderful day. It’s a slight shame that we weren’t able to do the whole Kildalton trio in one, but equally it’s nice to have at least one distillery to visit per day!

Friday breaks – and so does the weather. Blue skies replaced by clouds and rainfall. Can’t complain too loudly; on Islay in March we were expecting this sort of thing to be the norm. Our tour at

Laphroaig isn’t until the afternoon, so we take the opportunity to visit the ruins of Finlaggan; ancient headquarters of the Lords of the Isles. It’s very striking today, though it would have been stunning under the beating sun we enjoyed yesterday; two tiny islands in a hill-flanked Loch. The buildings were pulled down at the end of the 15th Century and the last Lord exiled for conspiring with the English, but thanks to recent restoration work the site is now an Islay must-see. And send me the photos if you do get good weather, because it’ll be something else!

A quick lunch is grabbed, and then we’re off to Laphroaig. It’s yet another A-grade visitor centre, complete with a small museum and a room full of Wellington boots. These are for the use of those friends of Laphroaig who have purchased a small area of Laphroaig peat bog and need the right footwear to visit it!

The staff are brilliantly welcoming; we were barely through the door before being greeted and offered a taste or several. After our tour at Ardbeg I was slightly curious as to whether any of the guides behind the counter was Dionne’s sister – but not so curious

as to ask directly! Whilst we waited for the tour to begin I took the opportunity to taste the new Laphroaig Lore, released just a couple of days before we visited, and billed as ‘the richest’ of Laphroaig’s expressions. They also had a spread of cheese available to taste next to the whisky. Cheese being my least favourite foodstuff I passed on this one, but any fans of mouldy curdled milk will have a whale of a time. 

As you’d expect from the Island’s most famous distillery, and makers of its best-selling Single Malt, there was quite a group gathered for the tour. David, our guide, was absolutely outstanding. He’s been working at Laphroaig for decades, and by the sounds of it has done pretty much everything there is to do at a distillery. He even shows us his own peat-cutter. Rather him than me – seems pretty backbreaking work! Laphroaig still hand-cut their peat, and are the only distillery on Islay who do so. David explains that this is to maximise moisture in the peat, thereby providing more flavour when burned in the kiln.

Our third malt-floor of the trip – though actually there are three of them at Laphroaig, which must make a lot of work for the staff, but still only covers about 20% of their needs, such is the quantity of

whisky distilled at the site. This traditional approach to all parts of the process is one reason that Laphroaig is so loved by possibly its most famous fan, Prince Charles. They’re the only distillery who carry the crest of the Prince of Wales (presumably this will be updated whenever he ascends to the throne) and there are several photos of the Prince adorning the distillery stairwell. David gives us a taste of the barley that was smoked the day beforehand. All I can say is put it in a packet and I’d buy it as a snack. Might get a slightly dry mouth though.

Our third malt floor is followed by our third taste of wash – the first we’ve been prescient enough to take a photo of. My father is now a fully-fledged wash disciple; I think he speaks about it in more gushing terms than he does of the actual whisky. I’m still yet to be convinced. Takes all sorts. Between my wanting them to packet the barley and Pilgrim snr clamouring for bottled wash there’d be nothing getting through to the stills if we were in charge! Good job we’re not. The still room is another striking chamber – one I’m able to photograph this time. The spirit stills are tiny; half the size of the wash stills, with the unusual upshot that Laphroaig’s spirit and wash still numbers aren’t equal.  

We take a look in one of the cask warehouses, where David explains that all casks used by Laphroaig are first fill, other than a few refill sherry butts which go into the 25yo. He also shows us Laphroaig’s famous quarter casks; something of a misnomer when,

at 125 litres, they are about half the size of a regular hogshead. Not far off a quarter the size of a sherry butt though I guess – and pretty small however you spin it!

Then back to the centre, where Laphroaig Select is on tasting. It’s nice stuff, though I personally think of the 10yo as Laphroaig’s flagship, so I make a note to taste a sample at the hotel bar this evening. Thanking David we take a quick photo of Laphroaig’s wall before, sheltering my notebook under my coat, we dash through the rain and back to the car.

Laphroaig 10yo – Peat! Murky, dirty, spit-in-your-eye, uncompromising peat. The Islay smell; the smell that, more than any other, has fired the world’s love affair with this island and launched a thousand imitations. Seaweed and brine and iodine alongside that peat. Burnt wood first up on the palate with a touch of creamy sweetness in behind. A very manageable 40% ABV, with enough character and depth of flavor to satisfy the ‘minimum 46%

please’ brigade – including yours truly. The dram I think Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men would reach for, and the perfect – some would say ‘only’ – way to round off my Islay pilgrimage. 40%ABV

Dawn breaks in somber manner on the day of our departure, and breakfast is a subdued affair. (Once again I admire the sound of kippers and then opt not to have them.) We’ve a long, long trip home via a mechanic who'll replace our coil, so we’re at Port Ellen for an early departure. All in all we've done Islay and Jura proud. All 9 distilleries visited and 41 expressions tasted - not to mention the washes and new makes!

Port Ellen is the perfect place to leave Islay from really, with the maltings belching away in the background – there’s even a barley-laden ship being emptied next to the ferry. Most strikingly, there in the bay is the wall of Port Ellen distillery, a casualty of the 1980s whisky loch, when Diageo decided to shut it down in favour of Lagavulin. These days Port Ellen survives as a special release, and a cult for the very rich; bottles almost never coming in under £500, and stretching well into the four and even five figures. (The hotel had three open, which were £50 or £60 each a pour. We gave them a miss.) Alongside Brora, Port Ellen is one of the most hysterically
lauded whiskies there is, with its praises ranging from the merely effusive to the bordering-on-genuine-worship. Amongst the Port Ellen faithful, who are legion, to offer the slightest criticism is treated as tantamount to speaking ill of the dead. I’ve had the pleasure of trying it a few times – never on my own paycheck – and the whisky it made was very decent. Very very decent. 

But as we depart from Islay I find it hard to lament the passing of Port Ellen too loudly. It has become an ultra-premium cult now, relentlessly flipped on auction sites and available only to the exceedingly wealthy. Once that stage arrives, for me, a distillery’s spirit; the essence of why it was brought into being, is dead. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not old enough to have tasted it back in ‘the good auld days’, and was never bitten by the bug, but I actually think of Port Ellen’s current importance as neither here nor there. It has been part of Islay's history - a wonderful, irreplaceable part, but its part has now been played.

What matters to me is the here and now; the eight distilleries who have carved the modern legacy of Islay in such deep letters upon the tablet of Scotch and of world whisky. Whatever your tastes, Islay cannot but be acknowledged as one of the aces in Scotland’s pack; so unique and definitive and popular that it is almost impossible to answer. Tastes rise and fall of course; Port Ellen is a reminder of that, but sailing past those three most iconic temples to peated whisky; the front row of Islay’s scrum, bared to the South and screaming their smoke-laden challenge for two hundred years, one cannot but be optimistic for the future. One way or another, Islay will endure. It is an indefinably magical island, and its magic transcends its drink. Because what is so wonderful about Islay is the unique and distinctive feel of the island and its people. To me, as Bruichladdich say, it is unquestionable that they are the 4th ingredient in Islay’s inimitable whisky. Something beyond ppm and still shape and cask management; beyond any technical wizardry. The Spirit of the Place. I can’t wait to go back.


Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Bruichen Down. March 9th. Kilchoman and Bruichladdich

As I said in the first of my Islay series posts, this trip was very much the ‘luxury’ leg of the pilgrimage. Hotel, cooked breakfasts and beds that fit the dictionary’s definition of the word. In Canterbury Tales terms this is the Knight’s pilgrimage, albeit neither I nor my father have taken part in any genocidal massacres to the best of my recollection. (See Chaucer’s work for clarification if you can be bothered. You’ll also need to do some pretty in-depth reading up on historical background. All in all maybe just nod, smile and carry on leading a normal life.) Point is, this was the ‘no complications pilgrimage.’ The ‘everything according to plan pilgrimage.’ Right. The celestial mirth must have been deafening. 

Good spirits at the start of the day though. As became my strictly adhered-to morning tradition I talked about how tempted I was by the kippers before ordering the Full English. (Sorry Scotland, but ‘tattie scones’ are an abomination.) The sky was bright and blue,
Loch Indall’s mirror-shine glimmered through the windows, and we had two superb distilleries lined up and booked.

We’d driven past Kilchoman after our visit to Bunnahabhain the other day, as my father had rightly been keen to show me Machir Bay. Hadn’t lingered for a look though, on the basis we’d be back for the tour. We were booked for 11, so after a leisurely start we hopped into the car and were on our way along the winding single-track road. The vast puddle of Loch Gorm stretched ahead of us to the right, and huge flocks of migrated geese from chilly(er) Northern climes honked and hissed in the flanking fields. 

I don’t think I’ve mentioned these geese previously, but they’re worth a swift aside. It turns out that Islay is something of a holiday hotspot for them; seemingly everywhere we looked was another flock of long-necked fat-fodder. Unlike my father and uncle I’m no
ornithological expert. I know which part of the turkey I like on Christmas Day, I know (through gruesome experience) not to leave my car parked under a tree, and I know that a duck weighs as much as a witch, but beyond that I’m relatively clueless, and as far as I was concerned all of these geese were created equal. We did meet one chap though to whom some geese were more equal than others. Like us he was touring a distillery or two, but he was primarily on Islay for the birds, and it transpired that there was one goose he was particularly after. Let me elucidate that statement. He wasn’t after one sort of goose. He wasn’t after one particular flock. One goose. One single, specific Anatidaen face amongst this vast winged horde. Well, to each their own. Maybe it owed him money or something.

Several blind summits and corners later the long Kilchoman driveway stretched out before us, to the small cluster of buildings nestled beneath a low hill. I read an interesting comment from a charming chap on tripadvisor ranting about how the rocky nature of the road didn’t meet with his standards, on which grounds he would never again grace the distillery with his presence. I mean, fair enough, it’s bumpy, but this feels a bit extreme. Thankfully our
machine was more than equal to the challenging topography. But then the 2011 model Vauxhall Corsa excite 1.2 litre is noted by automotive experts as the vehicular apex of all-terrain performance. Possibly the other chap just had some half-arsed German 4x4...    

Kilchoman’s owners don’t really need to worry too much about rough tracks impeding their machines; being a working farm they tend to use tractors. It’s a distillery with a fair few USPs is Kilchoman, but the fact that they’re a working farm is central to most of them, and to the Kilchoman style and ethos as a whole. They are, by an enormous margin, Islay’s smallest distillery, creating less than a fifth of what Ardbeg, the next smallest, produces. Having fully purchased Rockside Farm, on which they are located, they are now also the only distillery in Scotland who perform everything from the growing of the barley to the bottling of the whisky on site. (Though they only do a portion of their own
malting.) It does also occur to me that Bruichladdich used to use Rockside as a provider for their ‘Islay Barley’ expressions. Whether that’s changed on not in the wake of Kilchoman’s purchase I’ve no idea. Kilchoman is additionally the only inland Islay distillery, the first new distillery on the Island for 125 years, and until Abhainn Dearg got going on Lewis they were the most Westerly Scottish distillery too.

So there’s been a lot of buzz about this little newcomer since it filled its first barrel in 2005, and not least because the quality of its whisky has proven to be more than equal to the daunting task of living up to Islay’s hallowed standards. I’ve only tried it a couple of times prior to my visit – in both cases its flagship expression the ‘Machir Bay,’ and it made for very tasty drinking indeed. Delicious in fact. 

And yet I have a gripe.

I don’t mean to use my pilgrimage pieces to go down the road of ‘opinion piece criticism.’ That’s what my general waffle pieces are meant to be for, for the entertainment of those with too much free time who kindly choose to read them. But I do want to mention this particular gripe, because as a consumer it represents one of my
biggest worries where the whisky industry - particularly Scotch whisky - is concerned. 

Kilchoman’s ‘Machir Bay’ is unquestionably magnificent. When I led a tasting recently and needed a peaty whisky it was to Kilchoman that I turned. It is both a distillery and a whisky I admire, and one which I would love to point my friends towards more. Except for the price. The absolute cheapest that I can find Machir Bay for online is £40. Which means that by the skin of its teeth it would have qualified for my 40 under £40 article. More realistically however the price is £42-£45. And that’s for the flagship. In other words, the lowest priced whisky they make. Beyond that things get a little bit inflated. Sanaig, the new member of the core range, is about £50 on average. Moving beyond that, their 100% Islay is £65+, and beyond that you have their various single barrels and special editions. And this is for a whisky whose distillery only last year celebrated its 10th birthday.

Believe me, when a whisky is good, really good, as Kilchoman is, I have no issue with youth whatsoever. In fact I’m of the opinion that youth does a lot of Islays, especially the peatier numbers, a lot of good in showcasing the character of the malt. And I know the
simple answer to my gripes is that demand is equal to, or greater than, Kilchoman’s very limited supply. It’s also true that Ardbeg 10 starts at about £45, Bruichladdich at about £40 and Lagavulin at about £47. But what I’m seeing, and my reason for bringing this up around Kilchoman, is huge numbers of similarly tiny distilleries opening up, releasing their whisky young and early and charging a similar figure. In 2016 we’ve already seen Ailsa Bay at about £55 and Wolfburn at £45. The vast majority of the vast number of distilleries opening or being planned at the moment operate far below the 1,000,000 litres per year mark, are aimed at the romanticised Single Malt market and, I expect, will rarely cost under £50 from the moment they are first bottled.

Whether a market which is, after all, propped up by blends, will be able to sustain so many small-production Single Malts long-term we will no doubt discover in 10-15 years or so. Whatever may be the case, it saddens me that so many distilleries are being created in the knowledge that their product will be out of reach of the average purse. I suspect that words like ‘craft’ will be used with even more abandon, and that numerous back-labels will describe the ‘small batch’ nature of their production as hearkening back to the days of
whisky yore. The inconvenient truth however is that in those sepia-tinged years whisky was an inclusive drink; what you might call ‘a drink of the people, made for the people’. Small batches and Special Editions, by their very nature, are not. This isn’t something to blame Kilchoman for, of course. They simply created a working model – as well as outstanding whisky – and others have followed where they led. But the world, as I have said before, has changed. And to me, at least, there is a part of that change that is saddening.

But before I get too melancholy, or start storming Winter Palaces with hammers and sickles, on to brighter things. Because Kilchoman is a distillery I’ve been massively looking forward to touring. Pilgrim snr, who had not realised the extent to which Kilchoman is a farm distillery, was quite distracted by the sight of cows in a barn next to the main building. Demonstrating a deplorable lack of agricultural interest I largely ignored them, and made  my way into the visitor centre.

Which is a cracking building actually – very spacious and well laid out, with oak beams overhead and a café at the far end. We were greeted the moment we arrived, and the lady behind the counter came straight out to us to chat, asking where we’d come from, and
telling us about the distillery. As we waited for our tour my eye was drawn to a map of closed Islay distilleries, of which there are many. Malt Mill and Port Ellen I recognised, of course, but Newton? Mullindry? Scarrabus? Even Octomore and Port Charlotte live on in the 21st Century only as expressions of Bruichladdich. A cautionary tale for future small-scale distilleries? I hope not.

Alas, no ‘Wells only’ tour this morning – there’s a whole other individual person in the group led round by Eva, our guide. Second Malt Floor of the trip is an early highlight – hurrah. Though no actual malt on it. Muted hurrah. With the purchase of Rockside Farm Kilchoman will be looking to increase the quantity of their own malting from 25% of their requirements to 45%. So hopefully next time I’m back – soon! – there’ll be some malt down. I realise early on that my use of the adjective ‘tiny’ is becoming a little repetitive, and that I should probably just assume until proven otherwise that everything is going to be ‘to scale.’ (Or invest in a thesaurus. ‘Lilliputian’ would have been a solid synonym.) The stills in particular stand out relative to most others I’ve seen. I’m put in mind of the pair of new pot stills I’ve seen at Penderyn. For a slightly more specific sense of scale, the mash tun at Kilchoman is a tenth the size of the one employed at Islay’s biggest distillery, Caol Ila.  

I’ve not seen a bottling line for a while now – not since English
Whisky co. I think – and it has my father somewhat transfixed. It’s always interesting to watch whisky being bottled – but I’m actually more interested in the equipment and storage room. Huge, towering piles of boxes full of corks from Portugal and glass from Germany (I think it was Germany...) Vast plastic containers full of whisky freshly drained from barrel, and in the corner the two great vats from which the whisky is piped for bottling.

And then back to the sterling visitor’s centre for a dram. First up is the 100% Islay, which I absolutely love. It’s made from the barley malted onsite, which is peated to about half the ppm of the malt from Port Ellen – and shows it in the tasting. The aromas and flavours are exactly my cup of tea, and if I had the money I’d buy a bottle on the spot. We move on to the Machir Bay, and since I have to write this one up I wander off a bit to find a table (in this case a barrel) to lean on, whilst my father chats to Eva and the chap who came round with us.

Kilchoman Machir Bay – Deep, earthy and sweet. Rather appropriately there’s something farmyard about the nose – nice balance of sweet and savoury with the barley really allowed to express itself. Bonfire ashes the first thing to hit you on the palate – very different to nose. Again, very sweet and – surprisingly given youth and ABV – not much burn. Oily mouthfeel – very oily – and again more about barley than about cask. Tiny bits of fruit and vanilla in the background, but those notes aren’t the headline. 46%ABV

As it turns out my father has been talking about my blog whilst I’ve been scribbling away, and Eva very kindly comes over with a glass of Sanaig for me to try. Unfortunately Kilchoman don’t currently have facilities to do takeaway drams – cheers tax man – so no tasting for Pilgrim snr. He’ll have to do with a drink at the hotel bar later. But I gladly hoover up the Sanaig, which is more sherry focussed, and another which I now covet a bottle of greatly. Our timing's perfect actually - 3 days earlier and the Sanaig wouldn't have been available. Love a new release. The nice man who went round with us asks for my blog address, which I jot down on his card. If you’re reading this – hope you enjoyed the tour and tasting as much as we did!

We take the long and scenic route to Bruichladdich, as we’ve no
shortage of time before the tour at half past two. Another Atlantic beach is explored in the form of the awesome Saligo Bay, and then we drive to Loch Gruinart and up its Eastern shore in vain search for seals. Hope the tripadvisor bloke didn’t do the same thing when he was here – he definitely wouldn’t have been keen on the road surface. We eat our lunch whilst watching the invisible seals, then drive in the direction of distillery number two, making a stop to walk down a spit of gravel beach that spears into the North of Loch Indaal. The sea is gleaming, the sun is shining. On my left flank are the white walls of Bowmore, whilst Bruichladdich nestles to my right. Life is good.

We get back in the car. Life becomes not good. The Corsa, not noted for its powers of acceleration, has developed even more pronounced lethargy. More disturbing still, an untoward symbol has
appeared on the display. I alert Pilgrim snr, who dismisses it. ‘I’ve seen that before,’ he says, ‘it’ll go away in a moment.’ 

My concerns are not assuaged. Untoward symbols, I protest, do not pop up on displays of their own volition. Pains-in-the-hole Vauxhall Corsas may be, but self-determining they are not. My worries are even less alleviated when, moments later, the symbol has duly not gone away. In fact it has started flashing. Someone in a car behind us is less than impressed with the speed we’re achieving too. I didn’t really look, but any money says he was behind the wheel of an Audi or a BMW. Probably the former. When did all the maniacs trade in their BMWs for Audis? Vorsprung dick technik as Mark puts it in Peep Show.

We nurse the car to just outside Bruichladdich, by which short time my ‘being concerned’ has evolved into what honesty forces me to describe as ‘having a strop.’ The symbol, whose meaning neither of us can decipher, is still smugly blinking away, and to the best of my non-existent mechanical know-how, the translation of a smugly blinking light on a car display is ‘haha, I’m about to make your life miserable.’

Patiently my father makes the reasonable point that we’re now at Bruichladdich anyway, so we might as well deal with things after the tour. I am in no mood for reasonable points and patience, and I permit myself the luxury of extending my childish huff for a few minutes as we make our way through the Bruichladdich gates and into the visitor centre.

Which was silly of me, because my petulance slightly marred what should have been an arrival of moment and significance. When I asked Pilgrim snr a few evenings beforehand which his favourite distillery was the jury was out between Lagavulin and Bruichladdich, with Lagavulin possibly having the edge on the basis that Lagavulin is what’s currently open at home. As for me? Gun to my head I've no idea which Islay I'd plump for. But I know I'd have to give Bruich serious consideration.

Because they’re just so interesting. It’s sixteen years now since Mark Reynier salvaged the distillery from the unloved doldrums of its Whyte & Mackay existence and, with Jim McEwan, created one of the most exciting whiskies in the world. No, sorry. Three of the most exciting whiskies in the world. I always find it strange how
much fellow whisky-lovers tend to underpraise unpeated Bruichladdich in favour of its brawny, smoky brothers. I know that there’s a school of thought that only whiskies with a lick of peat can be elevated to the top tier of complexity, but I have to disagree. What I love about Bruichladdich is that it proves you can make whisky with teeth and claws and a proper Islay snarl without needing to burn dirt. That being said, I can’t get enough of Port Charlotte, and I’ve never turned down an Octomore yet. Maybe I’m more of a peat-head than I thought...

Love, love, love Bruichladdich’s visitor centre. It’s got a proper dark, maritime, driftwood-style look going on. Feels a bit like the Highland Park visitor centre actually, though with a more storm-tossed impression. There is also, and I feel almost blasphemous saying this, more personality to the Bruichladdich centre. Not just from the more ‘full’ nature of the room, but from the personalised fill-your-own Barrels, each with a Bruichladdich staff-member depicted on them, from the long rows of past bottles overhead, and from the sit-down tasting tables right by the entrance, rather than tucked away at the back. More ‘substance over style’ if I wanted to talk in really critical terms. These are the sort of weird things that pop into your head when your distillery tally’s closing in on 40 in seven months!

Our guide today is Mary, who is just fantastic. Without doubt one of the friendliest guides I’ve come across in my wanderings – and
one of the most knowledgeable. Unsurprisingly, given the concentration of distilleries relative to population density on Islay, you come across a fair few people whose ties to a distillery go a long way back, but I’d be impressed to meet someone closer to a distillery than Mary is to Bruichladdich. Quite apart from her own role with the distillery, her father used to work there, as did her grandfather before him, and before that her great-grandfather helped build it. Not sure quite how you can top that unless there’s a great-great-grandfather sniffing around somewhere involved with scribbling the blueprints!

But then Bruichladdich is the sort of place that inspires ties like that. It’s currently the single biggest independent employer on Islay, with a workforce of over 80. Believe me, for a distillery, that’s massive. Most distilleries cite the ‘people are the fourth ingredient line,’ and in fairness it’s pretty much always true. But nowhere more so than here. What Mark Reynier resurrected and created here is something truly incredible and truly inspiring, which makes it all the more sad that in 2012 he was outvoted by the rest of the board, and the distillery was sold to Remy Cointreau. Happily business
has been allowed to continue as normal after the acquisition, and even more happily Mr Reynier has a new distillery – Waterford, in Ireland, where he is undertaking what, for this observer, is the most potentially exciting and innovative project in the whisky world today. On a personal note, Mr Reynier was very kind and giving of his time in answering some crudely-thought-out questions I sent him purely to satisfy my own curiosity recently. 

Back to Bruichladdich. We’re joined on this tour by a group who are celebrating the 50th birthday of one of their members by visiting all the Islay distilleries. They’re even wearing custom-made tour shirts, with the names of the distilleries picked out in the shape of a bottle of whisky, alongside the birthday boy’s name. (Happy Birthday Keith, in the outrageously unlikely instance you might read this. Hope you had a wonderful week!)

Can’t really talk about Bruichladdich without mentioning their ethos of ‘terroir.’ I’ve written on the subject before, and I’m not going to go into too much detail, but essentially it comes down to the notion of taste being derived through every aspect of where the barley is grown. It requires the barley to take centre stage so far as the flavour of the bottled whisky is concerned, and whilst it is an irrefutable concept in wine, it is not without its sceptics when it
comes to matured spirit. My own opinion is that a barley’s terroir can be an aspect of the whisky, if not the most predominant one, but that whisky is unquestionably a spirit of ‘place,’ and that perhaps we simply need a different word for a different industry. But feel free to disagree. What’s irrefutable is that Bruichladdich’s ‘Islay Barley’ whiskies taste very different to their ‘Scottish Barley’ counterparts, though detractors might suggest that this largely comes down to casks. Who knows? Onwards.

Mary takes us through the welcome speech and a brief history (mostly detailed above!) and then we’re into the distillery. The signature Bruichladdich colour is pretty prevalent in their decoration. I’d have described it as ‘blue,’ but apparently it’s intended to be ‘sea-green.’ Maybe I’m just colour blind...

A few notable standouts of the Bruichladdich tour. Firstly the open mash-tun, one of only three in the industry. I’ve seen another at Deanston, but I’m curious as to the location of the third. Mary wasn’t sure, and neither was another chap she asked. Bit embarrassing if it turns out I actually have seen it already...

The second curiosity is the Lomond still used in the production of the delicious Botanist Gin Bruichladich makes. ‘Ugly Betty’ as it’s labelled. Certainly stood out next to the more conventional whisky pot stills. Not the first Lomond still I’ve seen – there’s one used in whisky production at Scapa, but it is the first that hasn’t been altered, as Scapa’s has been adjusted for production of malt whisky as opposed to grain.

The third aspect that stood out – and it really did stand out – was
the Bruichladdich warehouse, which is an absolute cave of wonders. Busybody that I am I wandered about inside, and a few names on barrels caused a raised eyebrow or two. Don’t know how many of my readers are into their wines, but three names that stood out were ‘Petrus,’ ‘Mouton-Rothschild’ and ‘Y’Quem.’ The first two are four-figure per bottle red wines from Bordeaux and the third a sweet Sauternes of equal critical standing, and similar price. Needless to say I haven’t been lucky enough to try any of them, but as a wine obsessive they are all bottles for which I’d sell my soul – though I doubt I’d get the requisite price. An Adam Wells soul is probably more Echo Falls money territory.

Another cask of particular interest contained quadruple-distilled whisky; Bruichladdich’s attempt at usquebaugh-baul, the ‘perilous spirit,’ last heard of circa 1695. A couple of quadruple-distilled Bruichladdichs/PCs/Octomores have been released, though only for those with serious wallets – but a portion of it was used by Oz Clarke and James May to cause a supercar to accelerate faster than it would on petrol. Comes off the last distillation at 89%ABV. They drank strong stuff in the 17th Century.

We’re still drinking pretty strong stuff now though, and lots of it if the end-of-tour tasting that Mary laid out is anything to go by. The selection presented is – and bear in mind this was the basic tour – Classic Laddie, Classic Laddie Islay Barley, Laddie Valinch (distillery exclusive), Port Charlotte Valinch (distillery exclusive) and Octomore 6.3; at an immense 258ppm the most peated malt ever distilled and put in bottle. (Though there’s some 300+ppm lurking in casks in those warehouses somewhere.)

Bruichladdich ‘The Classic Laddie’ (Scottish Barley) - Anyone who says proper Islay character needs to involve peat ought to try some of this. Real blast of savoury, uncompromising barley. Little bit of tropical stonefruit, little bit of oak and vanilla and then just waves and waves of malt. More malt on the palate, and a little heightened tropical sweetness that quickly dries into a lingering salinity. 50%ABV

Our hotel is just down the road from Bruichladdich, and with the light still revelling in Machiavellian flash we arrive, phone a mechanic, and arrange for the car to be seen tomorrow. I'm still fretting; in all likelihood we'll have to reschedule the distillery tours planned, and we've left the 'big three' until last, which I certainly don't want to miss out on.

Except are they the big three? And do I really consider them as such? Somehow in my head the Kildalton trio have always occupied a special tier when I consider Islay malts, and I certainly know people for whom they are the be-all-and-end-all. But here, in this moment, I'm thinking of Islay, and I'm thinking of Kilchoman and of Bruichladdich. I realise, with something of a shock, that for the first time I'm thinking of terroir and it really does make sense. Yes, I have my price gripes - and Bruichladdich is just as expensive as Kilchoman even at entry-level, but for a pure expression of place
I'm struggling to think of more eloquent whisky. Right now, if that gun was to my head, it would be Bruichladdich and Kilchoman I'd consider most seriously. Because they're not just made on Islay - they're made of Islay. They're what the island tastes like, and that's the whisky I want to drink.

Might change my mind again tomorrow mind you.


Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The World Duty Free Whisky Experience Brunch. 6th April

I am, by nature, a nervous individual. This comes with the territory of being the weight and build of a packet of dried spaghetti and having a selection of anecdotes concerning being chased down the road by nutters. (Funnily enough, one of them actually caught me only to then turn down my phone, which at that time was a cameraless, internetless piece of rubbish that had cost me £3.95. He had the effrontery to demand an explanation for its poor quality. I had the gutlessness to apologise. That's how British I am. I digress.) Anyway, it's 9:15 in the morning, its mizzling with rain, I'm roaming aimlessly up and down a Mayfair backstreet, nursing an outrageously expensive cup of sub-par coffee and nervous as hell.

Let me explain why.

About 3 weeks ago I was working away, and my phone went zing. E-mail zing, not text zing. Astonishingly it's the email account for this blog, which is something of a rarity. Nervous (see!) that it's someone who disagrees with me about the taste of Mackmyra or has taken umbrage with my stance on regionality I
take a look, and discover to my great surprise that it is from a lady called Caroline who works for World Duty Free, and if I'm not busy touring distilleries on April 6th would I like to go to an indulgent whisky brunch hosted by Signe Johansen in Mayfair to celebrate the launch of some new whiskies?

My first reaction was that it was a hoax. Honestly. 'This is some elaborate prank,' I thought, 'played either by a friend who thinks they're terribly funny, or by an internet person with too much time on their hands.' My second thought was that maybe I'd been sent the email by accident, although even I admitted that was probably far fetched. (How the hell would you typo 'thewhiskypilgrim'?) Look, I just didn't credit it, all right? Invitations to take a flying leap, sure. Invitations to keep my damn opinions to myself are par for the course. Invitations to brunches, indulgent or otherwise? That's a new one.

Deciding to go down the 'benefit of the doubt' road I thank Caroline for the invitation and, having squared it with my manager, accept. Out of curiosity I google the venue and, on the strength of the
photos, make a note to pack a jacket. The evening of the 5th finds me in London demanding sanctuary at Rachel's flat in exchange for Chianti.

The morning of the 6th, and there's still a niggle of suspicion in my mind that someone has pulled a prank for reasons unknown, just to see if I turn up at some random Mayfair restaurant and demand an indulgent brunch. Marching in step with the rest of the civilised world the first thing I do on awakening is check my phone, to discover that Signe Johansen has sent me a message on twitter saying looking forward to meeting at the World Duty Free brunch. Ok, if this is a prank then hats off for thoroughness. Signe also compliments the Scandinavian-style jumper in my twitter profile picture, though if she could see the out-of-shot decorative snowman with his maniac grin she'd definitely retract that.

It occurs to me that I probably haven't been singled out for greeting, so like the ill-mannered busybody I am I take the opportunity to see who else might be coming this morning. I instantly regret looking. Sent similar greetings by Signe are the absolute cream of the whiskynet. Quite apart from people whose sites are essentially my
gospel (Whisky Discovery, Whisky For Everyone and Malt Review stand out here) Signe has good-morninged Becky Paskin of, Alexandra Heminsley, Kristiane Sherry, editor of the Spirits Business and other respected and significant food and whisky folk. And then there's me. 

'I can't go to this, Rachel,' I say, 'I'll look like an idiot, they'll know I'm not proper.' She tells me to stop being stupid, and to 'be myself.' Rachel is full of terrible advice like that. I allow myself to be pushed out of the door, and a bus and a tube later sees me roaming the aforementioned Mayfair backstreet (I was shocked to discover that Mayfair had backstreets) disgustingly early, clutching my coffee and muttering to myself like a psychopath.

I go for another coffee - my first has run dry, and having been told kickoff is 9:50 there is no way I'm arriving until the stroke of 9:51.
(I'm forever turning up too early to things, and there's no worse way for my paper-bag level conversational skills to be thrown into sharp relief.) Visions of terrifying whisky colossi pointing at my quivering frame and demanding with booming voice an explanation for my miserable presence are dancing relentlessly through my head. Why have I not shaved? I ask myself. Why have I not cut my hair? Why am I wearing such garish socks? (It's astonishing how garish my socks aren't.) What sort of stupid name is 'The Whisky Pilgrim' anyway? ('Who are you?' 'I'm the Whisky Pilgrim.' 'You sound like an imbecile.' 'I'm sorry, you're absolutely right.') 

Telling myself that I'm being irrational I tread with faltering step over the threshhold of Mews of Mayfair, ready to flee at the first sign of a 'who's this grubby little urchin?' or a well-aimed bottle. (Exactly what I also thought would happen the first time I visited Rachel's family and started a new job.) Well, I'm pleased to say that I'm now three for three on not having bottles flung at me; I was barely through the door when Vicki and Caroline from World Duty Free were greeting me, offering me tea or coffee and introducing me to the already-arrived.

Who were as impressive a gathering as twitter had suggested, but also - as people inevitably are once I've stopped being a paranoid lunatic - enormously friendly and not at all the sorts of people who would hurl bottles, point or boom. Sorry chaps! (Though one day I'll let my guard down whilst meeting a new group of people and all three of those things will happen.) Cocktails were being handed round, and I joined a small group who were listening to Signe explain the inspiration behind them.

I heartily recommend the Mews of Mayfair if you are ever in that direction and someone generous is paying. The interior is lovely, especially the room in which the brunch was being held, the food is simply fantastic and the bar (I always glance that way) very well provisioned. The gorgeous cocktails, which we sipped as the last of the guests arrived (about 16 or thereabouts in all) had a base of Glenmorangie Tayne and were - as Signe put it - a riff on the whisky sour. We were all given the recipes, and I shall certainly try to make one at some point, which I will get Rachel to drink before I do.

We trooped upstairs into the  beautiful room mentioned previously. An apt one for World Duty Free - the walls were festooned with old-school maps and charts of the world; the sort on which you'd be disappointed if the names weren't written in Latin. We took our seats at the long table and, after a few minutes of chattering, Signe stood up to give the introduction.

As I say, we were all there for 'Whisky Experience,' World Duty Free's annual celebration launch of their whisky lines, one of which was the Glenmorangie used in the cocktail, and three more of which had been incorporated into the menu. After a brief warm welcome Signe talked us through the menu. First course was Chapel and Swan Smoked Salmon on English muffins with poached eggs and Ardmore Tradition-infused hollandaise. This was to be followed by Pancakes with Bacon topped with Maple and Port Charlotte Syrup and finally an Apple-and-Singleton-of-Glendullan Sorbet. I know. Read it and weep. The Ardmore Tradition, Glenmorangie Tayne and Singleton of Glendullan were also open in bottle to taste.

And so the smoked salmon was brought in, and the rigours of the morning began in earnest. I'm not entirely sure quite how to describe it all without sounding a bit smug, so I'll just say that it was bloody fantastic, and massive thanks to the chefs and waiters at Mews of Mayfair as well as Caroline and Vicki.

Best of all though was the chance to sit down with a group of people who seriously, properly love whisky and nerd out to my
heart's content. Unfortunately, due to normal dining table conditions, there were only a few people within 'chatting' distance but over the hour such topics reared their head as the shape of Penderyn's stills, the growth of spirits industries outside of whisky and - as a wine-man by trade I had to force it in somewhere - terroir's existence or lack thereof. I also asked Caroline why duty free bottles are usually litres rather than 700ml, something I've always wondered. Turns out its just to let them offer better value for money to customers. Should probably have guessed that really; don't know why I thought there'd be some special mysterious reason...I'm just a fanciful fellow I suppose.

The three courses were absolutely delicious, but my favourite - perhaps oddly - was the Sorbet. Signe explained that the Springtime fruit flavours she found in the Glendullan made for a good match with the palate-cleansing apple. Worked for me. Another I'll have a crack at and then insist on Rachel guinea-pigging. My culinary skills are below school-canteen-level.

Obviously it was a whisky brunch, so it wouldn't have done not to have tried the three whiskies open, but I found myself short on time so - despite having brought a book in preparation - I wasn't able to make notes of any great value. The Sherry influence really came through on the nose of the Tayne though; lots of nice sweet raisin. Word to the wise - don't sip it straight after Sorbet as I did initially. All I can say is that the second sip was far more pleasant! If you're a fan - as I am - of the Glenmorangie 'house style' allied to a healthy dollop of Sherry oak you'll find lots to love here.

The Glendullan was chewier somehow, and a little meatier. Smidge of sulphur maybe? Certainly heavier than the Glenmorangie, but that's to be expected of the distillery character. I'm with Signe on the fruit - orchard for me: rather pears-and-apples. Also a fair bit of toffee perhaps? Ardmore was my pick though. It's a distillery rapidly shooting up my 'top picks' list and this was a proper salty, medium-peated mouthful. Nice vanilla from the Quarter casks and a bit of sweet almond too. Very much my bag; wish I'd had time for more than a swift sniff-sip.      

Unfortunately wangling a full day off work had been beyond my capabilities, and I had to shoot off on the stroke of 12 to make sure I caught the 12:30 train back to Reading and grape juice. Before I left I thanked Caroline and Vicki and was given the best party bag I've ever had in my life, containing a bottle of Glenlivet Nadurra Peat-Cask-matured (which I'm sipping as I write this) and a couple
of samples of Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte which will require all my patience and self-discipline to leave until the twitter tasting on Thursday 14th.

And that was that. My first ever by-invitation whisky event over, and far too quickly. I still can't help thinking that, considering the incredibly vaulted company, I must have ended up on the invite list through an administrative miscue. I can only hope for a few similar errors in the future! My sole regret - apart from not finishing the whiskies - is that in the 2 hours available I didn't really get any chance to say more than 'hi, my name's Adam' to a fair few people who I wish I could have stayed longer to properly meet. That will have to wait for another time. For now, huge thanks (and good luck with the upcoming book!) to Signe, to Caroline and Vicki and to World Duty Free. Fantastic event, fantastic food and fantastic whisky. A glorious triple-threat, and a wonderful morning spent away from normality! Looking forward to twitter tasting on the 14th.