7 days, 1000+ miles, 11 distilleries, 1 Land Rover Defender and what do you get? Many fine moments, and many fine drams, in many beautiful settings… The Whisky Lounge does Backstage Islay 2016!!
And so we have returned, for the second time this year, from the mystical, magical (and sunny I’ll have you know) Isle of Islay.
“What’s this?!” I hear you cry, “11 distilleries?! There are but 8 on the Isle of Islay…!” And you’d be right. But combine a complete backstage distillery tour of Islay, with a complete backstage tour of Campbeltown, and you have our most comprehensive, and distillery-packed trip to date.
For the 3rd year running, but alas for the very last time, our abode was the now familiar Finlaggan House, our noble guest house standing guard over the once august, and still mightily impressive, Finlaggan Castle. Once the seat of The Lords of The Isles, and situated on the island of Eileen Mòr in Loch Finlaggan, to this day, Finlaggan Castle is an important site of immense historical significance. It also provides a stunning backdrop for our stay on Islay.
Let it be said now that The Whisky Lounge Team, and our guests alike, will all look back with great fondness at Finlaggan House, through a golden whisky-induced haze of happiness and serenity.
Sun 2nd – Bunnahabhain
After allowing Eddie, and our first lucky trio of TWL guests to settle nicely into the wonderfully relaxed island pace of life for an afternoon, myself and Joe arrived to Finlaggan hot off the back of a packed TWL Whisky School in Malmaison Manchester on the Saturday.
No sooner had we dropped off our bags (and a rather large quantity of Glencairn glasses!) than we were back in the car, with a TWL Defender full of keen whisky enthusiasts in tow (yes, even Eddie is STILL enthusiastic about whisky after all these years; testament and tribute to the incredible appeal of the water of life!), and off to Bunnahabhain we went.
Bunnahabhain (pronounced Bunna-har-ven) translates as “the mouth of the river” in Scottish Gaelic, and is situated in relative isolation (even by Islay standards!) on the North-East coast of Islay, gazing across the Sound of Jura at the majestic Paps of Jura. An already stunning vista only enhanced by the radiant October sunshine we were blessed with for the entire week! After enjoying a guided tour of the distillery, we fortuitously found ourselves in the one part of the distillery where everybody wants to be: the warehouse…
For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure and privilege of exploring a Scottish distillery
warehouse (with a glass at the ready!), we urge you to go and sort it out.
This certainly wouldn’t be the last time that we would squirrel our way into an exclusive warehouse tasting this week, but for some of the group, it was the very first time, and thus it was really quite memorable, with the 7yo Beaujolais wine and the 13yo Pedro Ximenez sherry casked Bunna’s real stand-outs. There’s a lot to be said for not only having the whisky drawn directly from the cask, unfiltered and unfettered, but also enjoying it in the very place where it has been patiently resting for so many years… Swoon-worthy indeed…
Mon 3rd – Bowmore and Caol Ila
Up bright and breezy and, after a delicious cooked brekkie, straight to Bowmore for a wonderful tour of this, the oldest of Islay’s distilleries. Although subjected to the tides of both history and Loch Indaal since 1779, the whole distillery has clearly been lovingly cared for for all these years and is actually in very fine fettle! It even boasts its own traditional floor malting’s and the only distillery warehouse in Scotland situated beneath sea level; The No.1 Vaults. Certainly a destination for any self-respecting whisky enthusiast to visit.
Of course, no TWL distillery tour would be complete without some sort of liquid gold bounty to be found at the end… Cue a wonderful selection of vintage and distillery exclusive Bowmore single malts for us to get our thirsty smackers onto.
This moreish medley included a 13yo single-cask, cask-strength bottling, the limited edition 2016 Feis Ile bottling and, my personal fave, the Stillman’s Selection, matured in top-notch sherry butts and bottled at 53.1%abv. Delish!
After conveying our utmost gratitude to the brilliant Bowmore team, off we rushed to our next destination, back on the North-East coast, but this time at Caol Ila. (It’s a hard life!)
As most of you will know, whisky distilleries undergo essential maintenance for a few weeks every year and this was the current situation at Caol Ila, so whilst a walkabout the still room might not have been on the cards, a fantastic premium tasting with Nigel, our host, was well within the realms of possibility! What a great line up it was too:-
- Moch (Light, fresh, grassy and zesty!)
- 2015 Distiller’s Edition (Moscatel finish. Smooth, sweet, fruity, aromatic smokiness)
- 17yo Unpeated (Part of Diageo’s 2015 Special Releases. 55.9%abv! Intense ginger spice with just a wisp of smoke)
- 18yo (Rich yet mellow with vanilla and a soft spice)
- 2016 Feis Ile (A vatting of American & European oak matured Caol Ila bottled at 56.2%! A real powerhouse of a whisky!)
After the we’d had our fill of Caol Ila, it was a short drive back to the house for a little R&R ahead of the big day tomorrow…
Tue 4th – Campbeltown: Glen Scotia, Springbank and Glengyle!
As our ferry departed across the choppy waters towards Kennacraig on the mainland, the very early start and rather rough ride were made well worthwhile by the stunning Hebridean sunrise. We had no choice but to brave the cold winds and cascading ocean spray in a valiant attempt to capture our best snap shots of this moment. Myself and Eddie were the main casualties, with the elements selecting us to cast as their soaking sea-swept victims, and the laughing fish-stock for the rest of the group! Thank you, oh merciful Poseidon!
Callum and Glen Scotia to the rescue. Nothing better than a fine dram of Scotch to warm the cockles of your heart, and after checking out the distillery and the warehouses, with some interesting stories and even more interesting casks along the way, we got our noses into a few Glencairns of Glen Scotia’s finest!
Up next on our distillery packed tour of Campbeltown – Springbank. And what a lovely, traditional, family-owned distillery it is too – taking great pride and care in crafting whisky today just as they have for the last 188 years, The Mitchell family and Springbank distillery will find some of its biggest fans and advocates right here at TWL… We can’t get enough of it!
A warehouse tasting at Springbank is a true privilege and means direct access to an incredible array of casks owned by independent bottler, Cadenhead’s. Our good friend and guide, Grant, would practically leave no cask unturned and untapped as he filled our outstretched glasses again and again with rare and vintage malts from across the length and breadth of Scotland.
After a heady injection of delectable cask strength drams, Grant walked us around to the Springbank-owned Glengyle distillery, where Kilkerran single malt is made. We were also shown exactly where the inspiration for the distillery emblem came from. Now we know…
Wed 5th – Kilchoman & Bruichladdich
And so we had reached the halfway point of our trip, and it seemed about time for some reinforcements as we were joined by two more thirsty enthusiasts, before diving straight into a tour and a tasting at Islay’s smallest and youngest distillery, Kilchoman.
The VIP tasting here included a whole range of limited releases alongside their core range and, as if that wasn’t enough, after a tasty bowl of Cullen skink in the Kilchoman café we made our way down to the beautiful beach at Machir Bay where Eddie produced a fresh bottle of Kilchoman Cask Strength…
It’s not often that one can justify drinking several high strength drams before the clock strikes 1pm but this was one such time and place, and in commemoration of the moment, The Whisky Lounge flag was unfurled and our glasses were once again raised.
After quickly (and publicly) humiliating Joe in a running race across the fine white sands of the beach, forcing him to relinquish the Beach Olympics title he’d won the previous year (I think he must have been competing against a pregnant sea turtle!), I highlighted the time to the rest of the gang… We were shortly due at Bruichladdich!
When you combine a passionate production team, with a distillery full of idiosyncrasies, some of the oldest kit in the industry, some quirky colour schemes, and warehouses full of every type of cask you can imagine, a trip to Bruichladdich is always going to be good fun.
With stills of different shapes and sizes, barley peated to varying degrees, and so many casks of such exotic provenance, the multiplicity of Bruichladdich facets that this team is exploring is very nearly matched by the number of expressions that they are releasing!
Many of the mindboggling array of whiskies produced by Jim McEwan and his recent successor Adam Hannett are either on display or on sale (and on sample!) in the distillery reception and gift shop, and it truly is a sight to behold!
Once we’d conquered yet another warehouse tasting (or should I say ‘once it had conquered us’!?) we had time to get back to Finlaggan for a quick freshen up before we soldiered on for dinner and live traditional singing and music at The Port Charlotte Hotel (poor us!).
As you’d expect the fine fodder here was scrumptious and wholesome and we were all glowing by the time we retired, ready for another great day of glorious dramming.
Thur 6th – Lagavulin & Laphroaig
Ok, 10:30am for a warehouse tasting is early in anyone’s book, but when you’re dealing with the famed Ian McArthur (aka Pinky!) at Lagavulin, well it’s just another day on Islay!
If that wasn’t enough for some of you, then how about having to draw the whisky from the cask yourself for the very first time, as shown here by our Vicky, and getting an entire mouthful of potent single cask, cask strength Lagavulin for your efforts! Alright, alright, I’ll stop complaining.
Actually, these were pretty impressive drams, with the age of these whiskies ranging from 7 years old to 34 years old and all the way up to 50 years old! Wowzers! For many of us, this was the oldest whisky we’d ever tried!
Back out of the dark, dunnage warehouse and into the bright late-morning sunshine, and our whisky-induced fugue state was made no less surreal and dream-like than the moving rocks in the bay of the distillery… Wait a minute! Those are seals not rocks!
The beautifully rugged, coastal landscape of Islay provides wonderful habitats to seals and sea birds aplenty, but nothing had prepared me for our next sighting on the road to Kidalton Cross.
Eddie and the Hot Rods were up ahead in the turbo-tour-wagon and myself and Joe were cruising along behind (have any of YOU ever tried to keep up with Eddie when he’s driving!?) when we spotted a trio of majestically adorned peacocks. Obviously, I had to stop, and perhaps slightly less obviously, some Hobnob crumbs fell out of my window into the middle of the road!
What ensued was probably the comedic highlight of my trip! Bear in mind this is a single-track road, providing both locals and tourists with the only route from Ardbeg town to the church at Kidalton Cross and the outlying villages… I honestly had no idea that peacocks had such a taste for oaty biscuits, but the next thing I knew, Joe was out of the car either dancing or remonstrating (I can’t be sure which) with these stubborn birds while the traffic built up on either side! In fact, myself and the other drivers were finding all of this highly amusing, and the peacocks were definitely having fun with Joe! “Come on Joe, get back in the car now mate, let’s go and get you some more whisky”. Ha-ha! Thanks for the memory Joe!
Well of course the picnic was all out ready for us when we eventually arrived at Kidalton Cross, and big thanks go to the wonderful people at the Ardbeg café because scrumptious it was too, and what better way to wash down your picnic at Kidalton Cross than with the eponymous expression from the wonderful people at the Ardbeg distillery!?
With sadly little time to tarry, but after a brief stroll to walk off our tasty lunch, we hit the road once again, back along the South coast to Laphroaig. We would eventually be joined in the tasting room adjoined to a veritable museum of whisky in the visitor centre, by our hostess Jenny who would, of course, be taking us through an exclusive range of Laphroaig single malts.
You’d think that by now we would all have had enough whisky, and perhaps the thought had crossed some of our minds(!), but when presented with such one-off opportunities and such awesome selections of top-class malts, I can assure you that the unquenchable thirst returns anew for us all!
This selection was much to our liking and featured a now unavailable 15 year old, a stunning 21 year old bottled at 48.4%, a Cairdeas 12 year old which opened up very elegantly with water, and a single cask, cask strength, distillery exclusive 13 year old… Phew! What a mouthful (or ten) that was!
Fri 7th – Ardbeg. ‘nuff said!
Ohhh yes! And here we are! The Mecca for so many fanatic Smokehead cults the world over… Ardbeg! The ultimate destination for the peat freak inside of you! There could be no other place for us to complete our peaty pilgrimage. Check out some of these great shots to get a taster of what we’re talking about…
This is Ross, and no, he’s not a very small man, those are just VERY BIG bottles of Ardbeg! (I think I’ve found my happy place.) “You can only try two each.”. Ha! Who are you trying to kid Ross?! And so ensued a quite ridiculous amount of friendly coercion disguised with persuasional banter and jovial jibes as we gently but firmly convinced Ross that he simply must keep hefting those there Ardbeg’s into these here glasses!
Just in case you can’t make out which expressions these are, please allow me to let you know what you missed out on:-
- Supernova (BOOM!)
- Alligator (KER-RUNCH!)
- Galileo (THWACK!)
- Auriverdes (PTANG!)
- Ardbog (WHOOSH!)
“What’s that you say Eddie? Howsabout a truly gigantic roast rib of beef with all the trimmings and accoutrements to round out your week just to ensure you go home feeling well and truly satisfied?”
Oh what fun we had on Islay! What a trip! What an island! See you next year my love!
So long, and until then, Slàinte!