Sunday, 4 July 2010


A trip to
Islay, for a whisky lover, is a pilgrimage of religious proportions. My four-day trip, with drinking buddies T and J, took in seven of the eight distilleries on the island - and many more whiskies besides.

We started off, almost by accident, at Laphroig (above), while waiting for an appointment at Lagavulin. A 'quick peek' turned into a distillery tour, and a dram, and we got to see the floor maltings (right), where the barley grains are laid out to germinate in the early stage of the production process. The other distilleries in Islay - with the exception of newbie Kilchoman - all use Diageo's maltings facility, and even Laphroig only produces about 15% of its malt on site. But it gave us a good sense of how it used to be done in the olden days. As for the dram, I believe it was their Quarter Cask, which I preferred to the slightly rougher, and medicinally pungent, 10-year-old standard.

Then on to Lagavulin, where we went on another tour and I began to appreciate the process: soak the barley, turn it, dry it over a peat fire, grind it, ferment it with yeast and water, distill the mixture twice (in pot stills, pictured left), mature it, drink it. Here we were fortunate enough to sample some terrific whiskies, as follows:

Lagavulin Distillery Only
Only 6,000 bottles produced. No age statement. 51.5% ABV.
This was essentially the classic Distillers Edition (almost 16 years in bourbon before being finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks), further matured in a PX sherry-soaked bourbon cask for an additional three to six months and bottled at cask strength.
Note: White chocolate and smoke on the nose. Vanilla-sweet and rich on the palate with a long, sweet finish. A great after-dinner dram.

Port Ellen 30-year-old

The distillery ceased production in 1983, and Lagavulin are looking after the remaining stock, and looking after it well by the evidence of this whisky (right).
Note: Slightly minty aroma, with pepper. On the palate, tangy lemon, like sherbert; slightly medicinal with a sweet nuttiness at the end.

From Lagavulin, we caught a cab (public transport not being what it might be) to Bruichladdich, the island's renegade independent distillery. An enjoyable tour finished with a generous tasting session, where I tried a few of the 30-odd expressions, a rather bewildering array of options that left me intrigued but not buying.

Sunday was Ardbeg day, and a chance to try a few of theirs too, including my favourite, the sherry-finished Uigeadail, a bottle of fruity, sweetish peat so beguiling I had to take one home with me. (Full Ardbeg write-up to follow).

Then, on Monday, we visited Caol Ila, which I confess I knew little about before our visit. A further tour was rewarded with one of the tastiest drams of the trip, a Caol Ila 25-year-old (left), which I recall hazily as offering creamy caramel fudge side-by-side with gentle peat.

Caol Ila enjoys the most beautiful setting of all the island's distilleries, looking out across the sea and beyond to the island of Jura (below right). They need to set up a cafe down there. Or a bar, at least.

Then to Bunnahabhain, whose wares are the least peaty of the Islay malts. Not that this was a problem, having had just about my fill of peaty potions and phenolic tonics: Bunnahab's fudgy 18-year-old was just the dessert drink I'd been craving for.

Finally, and just as our taste buds were giving way, we popped into Bowmore, whose visitor centre was the most obviously impressive. As we shared a couple of drams on the balcony, overlooking the sea, we felt decidedly well whiskied.

Kilchoman was the only distillery we failed to visit. Established in 2005, it's also the newest - and the first to be built on Islay for 124 years. Being so young, its only product so far is a three-year-old, which we sampled at a pub one evening and found to be showing much promise.

The biggest surprise of the trip was the state of the water used to make the whisky. For some reason, having read distilleries' tributes to their magical lochs and springs, I'd always imagined the liquid itself would look cleanish, if not crystal clear. Then I was shown a mug of the stuff (left - that's Ardbeg's finest, from Loch Uigeadail, yellow-brown from the peat). Still, as Woody Allen says, whatever works.

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