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.


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