It’s a running joke at the distilleries about the large groups of Swedish men–unfortunately out of shape and gray ones, not boyish blondes–who come to Islay. Like us, they are on pilgrimage for peated malt, and indeed every distillery tour we were on had a Swedish contingency. There were smaller groups of Finns and French, Americans and English, Italians and Indians, Canadians and Japanese.
|Our global group of whisky tourists cutting peat|
We arrived on the island by -seater Saab turboprop, a more nauseating journey than expected. The only commercial flights to Islay are from Glasgow, where we passed a kindergarten whisky exam at the Bon Accord bar. Amused by my note-taking, a friend of the owner asked the bartender to pour us two drams for a blind tasting. One was a Macallan , the other was plonk. It was an easy test, and we both passed.
|At the Bon Accord|
Our Islay adventure began by getting stranded at the airport. The only taxi had already left and there were no busses. All three of the airport staff did their best to help. The woman at the cafe asked the other two, “They are staying at the Oystercatcher. Do you know her number?” (as if one of her coworkers would know the owner’s number by heart). When we finally got a hold of the B&B owner Lynn on the phone, she suggested that we drive her car to town. It was parked at the airport with the keys left inside. How’s that for small town island life?
The day was bright, and the scenery left me with mouth agape. The hills and vales are mostly treeless, with craggy rocks jutting out from a blanket of peat and purple heather. White-washed houses from the early th century line the crescent-shaped harbor. The malting company dominates the skyline of Port Ellen and emits a continual plume of peat smoke.
After some mad photographic moments, the distillery touring began with Ardbeg. This was a proper pilgrimage for Josh, who has been a member of the Ardbeg society for some – years. We walked from Port Ellen but wouldn’t recommend that until they build a proper walking path. As it is now, the only way is on a shoulderless asphalt road that the trucks use to tote their tons of barley. We did take a short detour through the fields to see one of the many ancient standing stones on the island. Islay has been settled for millennia by Neolithic farmers, Christians, Celts, Scots, and Vikings.
|standing stone nr. Port Ellen|
Day two we took the special Laphroaig “Source, Peat, Malt” tour in the morning, likely one of the last of the season they will offer as the weather is starting to turn. We walk to Laphroaig’s water source, drink a dram, walk to Laphroaig’s peat bog, cut peat ourselves, drink a dram, smell and watch the smoke penetrate the barley in the distillery kiln house. A terroir lesson par excellence. We also become “owners” of a piece of distillery peat land, and we can stick a flag on our plot.
|Sunshine cutting peat|
|the Laphroaig peat plot|
On the tour we met an American couple, Karen and Carl from Raleigh, who were on the Ardbeg tour with us the day before. They invited us first to do the Premium Tasting at Laphroaig, which we all loved. The Year Old Cairdeas was so delicious that I was almost ready to plonk down the ￡ for a bottle…
|Laphroaig special tasting|
Luckily for the bank account we had to leave in a hurry, as Karen and Carl invited us to tag along on their distillery plans for the rest of the day. We went first to Caol Ila and then to Bunnahabain. I thought we would get bored but each distillery tour offers some new information, and each one is slightly different.
For all the distilleries, the first half of the tour is basically like visiting a brewery. There is a mash tun holding the wort, followed by the pitching of yeast. At Caol Ila and sister distillery Lagavulin, the tour includes a taste the pre-distilled fermented wort called “wash.” The name “wash” is appropriate. It tastes like what beer must have tasted like before the discovery of hops: yeasty, sweet, sour, dirty, and in this case, a little smokey. It sounds better than it tastes, but the experience of imbibing the source produce is fun.
|Josh drinking the wash|
On day we took a quick tour of Lagavulin, unfortunately missing out on the connoisseur tasting in the barrel room because of our tight schedule. Something to leave on the table for next time (there will be one). Before heading to the airport we squeezed in one more distillery: Bowmore. Josh and I agreed that Bowmore was the biggest surprise of Islay. The standard expression has loads of chocolate and cocoa butter along with the subtle smoke, and we also opted to try a few more expressions with a bottle of Islay Ales Single Malt beer we got at the grocery store–they kindly let us open it in the distillery. Our last moments on the island were technically spent going through the ridiculously tight security the airport, but our last spiritual moments on Islay were at Bowmore sipping on a dram and a beer in the upstairs lounge overlooking Loch Indaal.
I took tasting notes on almost all the whiskys I tried. Among the highlights of Islay included the Ardbeg Uigeadail, and pretty much everything from Lagavulin and Bowmore. A Lagavulin double matured in Jimenez casks is not available at the distillery. We were introduced to it at a friendly bar in Port Ellen called White Hart. Unlike some of the other sherry barrel matured whiskys, the sweetness never overpowers the peat. We also had Bruichladdich -year at the White Hart and found it exceptionally smooth and filled with delightful hints of peaches and licorice. Bruichladdich was one of the two distilleries we did not get around to visiting on this trip; the other was Kilchoman.
At the distilleries I particularly enjoyed the entire set of special Laphroiag expressions including the year; the Cairdeas, and especially the -year–which was that ￡/bottle gem that blew me away and might have changed my whisky palate forever. The Bowmore from the barrel was also memorable.
Distillery offerings are called “expressions,” and am trying to incorporate that word into my vocabulary without sounding pretentious. I learned that some of the readily available and inexpensive expressions of Islay malts–the Lagavulin s, the Ardbeg s, the Bowmore s–should never be considered lowly. In some cases they are just as good if not better than some of the fancier and high priced limited releases. Some of the high prices reflect not quality but just rarity. All the distilleries are owned by a large liquor company (Laphroaig by Jim Beam; Ardbeg by Louis Vitton; Lagavulin and Caol Ila by Diageo). Signs of clever marketing are everywhere, and as with anything else it’s important to be an educated consumer. It’s heartbreaking to consider the amount of people who purchase high-end bottles for status purposes only and never even open them. It is probably most important to make lots of friends at distilleries and whisky bars because that’s the best way to get to a wee nip of something you wouldn’t typically buy.
Everything on Islay (pronounced Isle-le) is touched by whisky, and the distilleries are the center of village life. The situation was more intense in the early th century, when there were schools, churches, and housing at the distilleries. Even today, business and daily life on the island revolves around whisky. The cows eat the spent barley, the kids are raised by parents who work at a distillery, the malting company, or in local inns catering to whisky tourism.
In spite of the high-profile whisky from Islay, the island makes for a blissful retreat. The distilleries only recently opened visitors centers and they are not on the tour bus circuit. Our B&B had only rooms. The largest hotels are still run like like guesthouses. Distillery tours are relatively small.
Everyone knows everyone on Islay. They are different from the mainlanders. They say “Aye” instead of “Yes,” and they speak with a natural instinct for storytelling and poetic turns of phrase. Like the other Hebrides islands, Islay is a destination in itself for its stark beauty and quietude. Whisky adds an extra special dimension to Islay’s culture and spirit.