Islay 2016 – An Anniversary Report
Ah yeah it’s a throw back, a retrospective, a chance to look at photos of me (yeh this is the first person) from a year ago. When I was young…and not nearly thirty. Ah yeah, dreamin’ ‘bout those good times.
Yeh so a year ago my old man turned 60. I say he’s old but if you ever meet him you realise that he’s actually still pretty young at heart – I blame the whisky. As a lover of whisky, and in particular Laphroaig I thought it high time that he undertook a little pilgrimage to that sceptred isle and its clutch of exceptional distilleries. He agreed – with the particular desire to locate his square foot of Laphroaigian peat bog.
It’s a logistical nightmare getting from the south of England to Islay. Selfishly the geography of Scotland is incredibly unsympathetic to the time-limited traveller and it seems like there isn’t yet enough demand for a daily direct flight to an island of 3,000 inhabitants. No, instead of a direct flight from Heathrow (heck I’d even take Luton) there was a 5am wake up, a rendezvous at Birmingham and a hard target of 17.00 at Kennacraig. And all of this for the promise of the following weather forecast:
In the end the drive was uneventful, We hit the border and then skirted round Glasgow before the stunning three hour drive around the Firth of Clyde and down the Campbeltown peninsula to Kennacraig. The CalMac ferry was as punctual as we were and after a brief rest we were under way and to the delight of all on board sailed straight into a storm. The next hour or so passed by with the ferry being lashed by wind rain and waves that crashed over the bow. Between the lone elderly man in the tweed, the group of young Icelanders tucking into their beers, the loud American couple getting overly excited about the waves, and the British father and son on a bonding trip this felt very much like the opening of an Agatha Christie novel.
The hotel that we stayed in was like something from an all together more sinister murder, no horror, story. complete with stuffed bears, claymores on the walls and not a member of staff to be seen we swiftly decided that the local pub was a better option. Oh how wrong we were. Sipping greasy Tennants whilst being stared at by the locals and listening to a juke box that hasn’t been updated since 2001 was neither relaxing nor calming. It was with a heavy heart that we returned to or rooms, made our peace, and sent our last missives to loved ones. Honestly, ending the first day of a holiday by texting your girlfriend to warn her that you might be murdered isn’t a good sign.
The First Day
We were not murdered in the night.
Spurred on by this success and having gallantly made it through the stodge of a ‘full Scottish’ dad and I embarked on the three mile walk along one of the most famous roads in whisky. Romantically (and a little optimistically) named the A846 this is the road that runs from port Ellen to Ardbeg, passing Laphroaig and Lagavulin along the way, at almost equal distances of nearly a mile between each.
At the end of the road is Ardbeg, a magnificent distillery reopened in 1997 and now home to an exceptional cafe. As 11am is never too early to start on the whisky we swiftly ordered a 5 dram tasting to share. This combined five excellent drams, from standard bottlings to those left over from the previous year’s festival. The stand out was undoubtedly the woody and warming Uigeadail which has since become a firm family favourite and of which a full review will follow.
Lagavulin disappointed, they were in the middle of restorations and did not have the full set up that Ardbeg and Laphroaig did. It was a shame but we moved on, heading off the road and trekking down woodland paths as we journeyed back along the coast to Laphroaig. After navigating our way past an abandoned greenhouse – a scene reminiscent of Resident Evil or of some remote science experiment gone wrong – we stumbled down the long driveway towards the bright white walls of Laphroaig.
After the tour of the distillery and a walk through the whisky making process we donned our wellingtons and ventured forth into the rain to track down the long lost lands of clan BibCup. Or, at least, to track down Old Man BibCup’s square foot of bog that he got ‘granted’ to him when he bought his first bottle of Laphroaig 10. Trekking into a Scottish peat bog armed with nothing more than a sketch map on which the only landmarks were a road and a telegraph pole you are expected to locate your square foot in a square mile, and plant a little flag in it. Well, we think we got to within 10 foot. Then we got cold and thought it would be best to get back inside and drink more.
The pick of the Laphroaig offering was the Triple Wood. A rich mixture of the bourbon, quarter casks and Oloroso casks that give it its name this is a smoother, less peat-focussed whisky that crams a bunch of taste into a mellow and delightful dram. Not one for the diehard peat fans but perfect for a lighter mood that still requires that subtle punch of the smoke. Laphroaig was a true delight and it was with great pleasure that we hitched our way back to Port Ellen for a well-earned dinner (and a couple more drams).
The Second Day
On day two we left the safety and comforts of the southern coast and travelled by bus (which arrived eventually) to the bright lights of Bowmore. Bowmore is the largest settlement on the island. It is so big that it has an opticians, a solicitors and even a co-op. It also hosts one of the largest distilleries on the island, the world famous Bowmore. Another 5 dram tasting was ordered and it was here that I found the greatest that I tried: the limited edition Devil’s Cask III. The dram is sweet and fruity, aged in Oloroso and Pedro Ximinez casks it is as dark to the eye as a rich fruit cake. The orange scents dominate and you can really imagine that this is the distillate of a melange of rich berries, fruits, nuts and molasses. It is fantastic and it was with only a little regret that I grabbed a bottle (£195) on the way out.
The second afternoon was then spent attempting to figure out how to progress in the foul weather. Naturally we asked the waitress that served us lunch and of course it turned out that her father was the local cabbie. Eating dessert while we waited we whiled away the time staring across the bay towards our final destination: Bruichladdich.
Bruichladdich is a distillery with a fine and tumultuous history. Until Kilchoman opened it’s cellars this was perhaps considered to be the new boy on the island – despite having first distilled in 1881. Mothballed no fewer than four times in its history it’s latest reopening was in the early 2000’s, swallowing the nearby Port Charlotte distillery, and was then purchased in 2012 by Remy Cointreau.
But all that is well known. What is not so well known is that Bruichladdich’s tasting room is staffed by some of the friendliest barmen on the island. Within minutes the old man and I had the place to ourselves and were the subject of an impromptu personal tasting of some of the finest malts on the island. Bruichladdich is a thoroughly modern distillery, its branding is punchy, bold and a world apart form the yellow labels and crests of the old whisky world. The bottles scream modernity and its a delight to find out they are supported by some of the cleanest and strongest whiskies on the island.
Of particular note here was the rare and mysterious “Dark Art”. As the dram was poured we were told that really we shouldn’t be having this as it wasn’t really for the tasting….but as it was late and the weekend then we could have a drop. The Dark Art is an occasional bottling, made from a blend of the uncatalogued barrels left over from the mothball years. As such it is not aged marked and each run is unique. It is truly a whisky that must be judged by the senses and not by the label. Our dram was heavy, full of peat and smoke and crushed up nutty notes, rough on the throat but wonderfully warming and sensual in the stomach. This was a whisky that required you to see through the initial mask to the beauty that lay below. It was excellent, but a bottle did not find its way into the collection. Instead we grabbed a taster of the excellent Botanist gin for Mrs Old Man BibCup and made our way back to Port Ellen on the ever-reliable buses.
The return ferry was sunnier and allowed some time to get out on deck and watch the island disappear into memories. Islay is a stunning place populated by warm and welcoming people who have a passion for their home and a rightful pride in their work. It is a marvel that such a place could forge itself a place in the world based solely on barley, water, yeast and a little peat, and yet it has done so. I’ll return one day to do Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Bunnahabhain and the others once again. But for now I’ve got memories and photos – and perhaps one more dram of that bloody excellent Bowmore!