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June 10, 2010

Glengoyne

The picture doesn't show it, but I was battling a coach-load of new arrivals and the relentless traffic to gain a clear shot. The distillery sits on a very busy road indeed.

The picture doesn't show it, but I was battling a coach-load of new arrivals and the relentless traffic to gain a clear shot. The distillery sits on a very busy road indeed.

 Dumgoyne, Strathblane, Glasgow, G63 9LB, 01360 550254. Ian Macleod Distillers. www.glengoyne.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      The area around the distillery could be described as semi-Highland. It has grandeur, space and elevation, gradations of colour and mountains, but manageable. It is quite an adorable little place on the edge of the Trossachs national park and very well-serviced by roads. The distillery is on one side of the busy road, the warehouses on the other, technically in the Lowlands. A large, bulbous hill rises behind the distillery, and there is a waterfall walk to take advantage of the beautiful wooded glen that extends towards the hill.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £6.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘A Wee Tasting Tour’: £8.50. The standard tour plus a tasting of the award-winning 17YO. One hour.

‘Tasting Tour’: £15. A tour of the distillery and an in-depth tutored tasting in the Club Room of the 12, 17 and 21YOs. One and a half hours.

‘Master Blender Session’: £30. After a dram of the 10YO and a toour of the distillery, guests are taken to the Sample Room where thyey contruct their own blended whisky. A taste of the Langs Select blend and the Glengoyne 17YO get you in the mood. Your blend is bottled in a 100ml sample bottle and you are given a certificate. One and a half hours.

‘Cask Idol’: £70. The tasting notes and evaluations provided by you over the course of this tour will help to decide the next Glengoyne single cask release. An in-depth tour of the distillery leads on to a visit to Warehouse No. 8 you are taken back to the distillery and tutored through the last three Glengoyne Single Casks, and asked to give your opinion on three samples drawn straight from maturing casks. Whichever one you choose as the best could be bottled with your name and tasting notes on the label. Two hours fifteen minutes.

‘The Masterclass’: £100. “The most in-depth and comprehensive distillery tour in Scotland,” says the website. At this price, and with a duration of 5 hours, it had better be. Following a tour of the distilleries, you are taken into the warehouses, return to the distillery, taste the 12 and 17YOs, three single casks, and six samples of sherry. A light lunch is laid on, which I think is a good move, for you then construct your own blend, 200ml of which will be bottled for you and handed over together with a Masterclass certificate and Glengoyne commemorative book.

‘A Century of Whisky’: £150. An in-depth tour is followed by a dram of the 10YO, the 40YO and the Isle of Skye 50YO, served in crystal copita glasses which you take home. Two hours. 

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The Glengoyne Christmas Cask (see here), and numerous other single cask releases. There is a whole series of single casks to be found; ranging from 15 to 21-years-of-age. The dearest is an 18YO “Robbie’s Choice”, from 1989. This is a Port Hogshead and commands a price tag of £220. There are also the Lost Drams, more single casks for £200 each. By way of a more economical distillery exclusive, though, there is the 14YO Heritage Gold, a 1 litre bottle for £45. There is also the option to buy a whole cask.

My Tour – 21/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      I wouldn’t normally include the detail that the mash tun and stills are in the same room, but on the day I visited it was more like the Seychelles than Scotland and the distillery a sauna. At 2PM, with the sun directly overhead, this was no time to be inspecting heated metal vessels. As Henrik, our excellent Swedish guide told us, it isn’t exactly ideal conditions for making the stuff either. The distillery was besieged by tourists, to compound the truncated, slow pace of the afternoon, and we had to wait around in the baking courtyard, then the mash house, then the tun room, for the preceding group to move off so that we might take their place. The distillery itself is neatness personified, as well as being full of light and charm. The washbacks are all wooden and what better time, with an Indian Summer gripping us and plenty of time at each piece of equipment, to go into some detail about how fermentation in such circumstances must be controlled. On hot days, it is not only difficult to condense the distillate, but if the worts are too hot, the yeast will expire soon after pitching and fermentation will not have occurred optimally. They then add the yeast when the worts have been cooled to 12 degrees Centigrade. This makes for a slower, but more complete and efficient, fermentation. The smell of apples at the spirit safe is extremely pronounced, and Henrik claimed that even if the stillman couldn’t take samples or see into the spirit safe, he would know by the intensity of the Cox’s Orange Pippin aroma that the heart of the run was then in progress. Perhaps for reasons of health and safety, we did not cross the roads to visit the warehouse, which would have been a most welcome relief from the heat. The shop, however, was cool enough. The explanation of the maturation given instead of the opportunity to see it ‘live’ is first-rate, however.

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

An Aladdin's Cave of single cask wonders.

An Aladdin's Cave of single cask wonders.

COMMENT:      After all of the traumas endured earlier in the day, I wasn’t about to miss this distillery, the cover star for Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit. Famous for its tours, I wanted to see for myself. When I arrived, I was stressed, hungry, thirsty and very very hot. The waterfall walk looked tempting, if only so that I might have doused myself under it. There is the distillery, the shop, and the visitor centre at various points on the path up the hill, and of some disgruntlement was the distance between where I had to tie up my bike and whichever building I was required in. I made it for the 2PM tour, and everyone seemed pretty dozy and laid back. The dark and cool of the shop was profoundly welcome, the secluded video room even more so. Trying to stay awake, however, as we shuffled around the site in the clinging heat was not easy, but Henrik chased away any sleep impulses. He is Swedish, but has been in Glasgow for a few months, long enough to become fluent and even cultivate something of an accent. Some words had a Scandinavian inflection, but most were unmistakably Scottish. Bless him, he knew his stuff, and he was exceptionally friendly and thorough, but he suffered. Once inside the distillery, the Glengoyne blazer came off, and with each new piece of equipment, the swallow-and-deep-breath routine before he launched into the next explanation showed just how much effort he was putting in to fighting the noise of operating machinery and the heat. Evidentally passionate, he elevated what was a fairly bog-standard tour. The sheer volume of punters I’m sure didn’t help. At one stage there seemed to be four tours taking place simultaneously, with nearly as many guides floating around as tourists. Everyone was so very friendly, and when I was presented with my personalised 17YO, a service they do for both the 10 and 17YO expressions which comes in a black cannister with your name and date of visit on the label of both bottle and tube, I was rather overcome. I had been chatting with Henrik after the tour, all about my travels and experiences of Glasgow in particular. He seemed to enjoy relating what would almost certainly happen to me if I got very drunk and wondered into a shady area alone. I’d said my goodbyes to him, and was refilling my bottles for the parched journey back to the city centre, when another guide took me back into the shop and asked if Mr Saxon’s bottle was ready. Obviously I had no room for it at the time, but it was a lovely gesture.

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June 7, 2010

Arran

The golden eagles may have been up there somewhere, but I wasn't likely to see them.

The golden eagles may have been up there somewhere, but I wasn't likely to see them.

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, KA27 8HJ, 01770 830264. Isle of Arran Distillers. www.arranwhisky.com

THE APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      Arran is often described as Scotland in miniature and the more in-land portion of the village does evoke the Scottish Highlands to an impressive degree, even down to the thick mist. Mountains, beaches, sea lochs, golden eagles; all are within a stone’s throw from the distillery. The distillery itself looks quite similar to a collection of eco-homes. I’m not sure I like so many separate pieces of architecture, although it is clean, minimalist, and a model for all modern distilling sites.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £5. See ‘My Tour’ below.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 20/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Mash tun and stills.

Mash tun and stills.

Notes:      The tour begins at the end, almost. You are taken out of the smuggler’s bothy in which you watch the obligatory video and out into the grounds. This is where you see a rack of dis-used casks of varying sizes and where you receive the maturation and wood policy talk. At Arran it is quite impressive, with not just the standard ex-Bourbon and Sherry oak employed, but wine casks from all over Europe. The mashing, fermenting and distilling all take place under the one roof. The open-plan layout makes the whole process very easy to follow.

GENEROSITY:      ** (A choice of the 10YO or the Arran Gold Cream Liqueur, then another from the impressive range of wine finishes.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      6/10 *s

Washbacks and stills.

Washbacks and stills.

COMMENT:      I had actually visited this distillery before, but long long ago before I was ever interested in the stuff it produced. This would have been very soon after it opened, though, so one of my parents should have been taking notes in the off-chance that I might become a single malt fanatic. The VC is stunning, there’s no other word for it. Deeply modern with an indoor waterfall and barley field (not growing, I hasten to add). There is the Eagle’s Nest cafe just upstairs which has a very good name. The whole eagle connection is because in the hills above the distilleries there is to be found nesting a pair of golden eagles. Construction of the distillery was postponed for a few months so that the birds could raise young. Allegedly they performed a “fly past” on the day of the VC’s opening but I’m not sure I believed that. Kate, our guide, had had some first-hand experience of Arran’s now vanished illicit whisky-making traditions. When she was a girl, playing in the hills, she came across a secret still hidden away. This personal footnote was wonderfully effective at evoking how things were done when distillers were outlaws and Arran was famous for producing some of the best illegal booze in Scotland. I appreciated the tales of the lengths people went to smuggle it off the island under the noses of excisemen. I was a bit confused as to why we couldn’t see inside the warehouse, though. As a distillery built to capitalise on this age of the tourist, I would have thought that access would have been arranged. I forgave them this oversight because they were very keen on pushing my other whisky touchstone: terroir. Arran’s is supposed to be a combination of sea breezes, mountain air, mosses, heather and rowan blossom although a point I have always made about Arran is that it hasn’t a truly distinctive island (maritime) character. This was a very relaxed experience, and would have endured as such were it not for the cattle grids they have to obstruct ones entrance and exit. The metal sleepers that comprise the contraption are rounder and more widely-spaced than most cattle grids, and so I elected, in my cleats, to walk the bike carefully across for moist metal and thin tyres have never to my knowledge got along. This would have worked a treat had some complete fool not decided in his motor home that he couldn’t wait for me to make the crossing and roared into the grounds himself. The rattling and flexing caused by the progress of this moron could have been enough for me to loose my footing. As it was I avoided a broken angle and experienced the greedy continued nourishment of the hatred I have for the minority of other road users.

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June 4, 2010

Springbank

I apologise, but it is very difficult to find an alternative angle for photographing the distillery.

I apologise, but it is very difficult to find an alternative angle for photographing the distillery.

Well Close, Campbeltown, Argyll, PA28 6ET, 01586 551710. J & A Mitchell. www.springbankdistillers.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ***      I missed the lane that has the distillery at the end of it on the way out of Campbeltown. I didn’t spot the Chinese restaurant the man in Cadenheads had given me as a key landmark. I found out where the Co-op was, though, and on the way back down I saw the sign on the inner wall advertising the whereabouts of one of Scotland’s best-loved and most prestigious malts, attempting to keep the Campbeltown appellation alive by itself with three different malt epxressions and the newly re-fitted Glengyle. It is tucked away in the very heart of commercial and residential Campbeltown, but feels like a pocket of the past, so traditional and functional is every courtyard and space.Springbank Maltings

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Tour and Tasting’: £10. The standard tour but, when you return to Cadenhead’s you receive four malts to taste and a miniature.

‘Silver Tour’: £15. When back in the comfort of the Cadenhead shop, you are taken into the Tasting Room and are met with 6-7 drams, plus a miniature.

‘Gold Tour’: £20. This involves a tour of both Springbank and nearby Glengyle. Then it is back to the Tasting Room for 6-7 drams.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 19/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      ***

Notes:      This had to be the most interactive tour of the entire odyssey. Obviously, it helped that I was the sole recipient of the tour for the first time since Highland Park. Jim, my guide, said I was very lucky to tour when I did: the Springbank team is comprised of six men who malt the barley over the course of a week, and then distill. I toured at a time when distilling was taking place and malt was to be seen on the floors, as well. The maltings are airy and smart, with artwork adorning the walls. A panel was removed when we got to the mill and this was my first peak at the machinery’s inner workings. There isn’t much to report: it’s as you would expect it to be, but a worthy addition, nonetheless. Then I was allowed to dip a finger into the underback and appreciate just how sugary wort is. From the mash tun, which much of my clothing was propped up against following my hellishly damp ride to the distillery, we moved into the still room and the ajoining tun room. The smell was remarkable, and frustratingly I can’t pin point why. It just smelt more organic and “traditional”; dusty and musty with a real punch of sweet, pungent alcohol. It caught my attention, at any rate, which must count for something after 38 distillery visits. They were making a spirit run using local barley, the first time they have bought and used malt made from Campletown farmers since 1966. Ten years from now, there will once again be a Springbank Local Barley expression, and I got to stick my finger in the spirit safe as the middle cut was running. Again, it was quite powerful stuff, with a steely edge and sweetness. I wasn’t completely won over by it. They ferment for a very long 70 hours and the resulting wash is charged into the wash still which is fired with a direct oil flame. That which runs off the spirit still may not be called Springbank. If it was made using unpeated malt, and distilled three times, it is Hazelburn. Two-and-a-half times distilled with a phenolic count of 12-15ppm is the eponymous Springbank. Longrow is kilned over peat fires for 30 hours, resulting in malt of 50-55ppm of phenols but is distilled only twice. In the warehouses, casks are filled up to three times, and all casks vatted to create an age-statemented bottling will be the same age. This surprised me. As is well-known, when marking on the bottle an age statement, that is the youngest whisky in the bottle but there may well be portions within it that are significantly older. According to Jim, and I double-checked with him on this, your 10YO Springbank will be 100% 10-years-old. The moistening of my index finger hadn’t stopped with the spirit safe. Jim took me deeper into the fecund murk of the warehouse where there was a cask with a bleeding wound on its side. This was a 4YO Springbank, and tasted very authoritative indeed. There is a Springbank whisky school which allows you to come and work in the distillery for a week, gaining a practical insight into every stage of the process. There was a crowd of Americans in residence while I was there who seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely on the malting floors.Springbank Stills

GENEROSITY:      **

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      9/10 *s

COMMENT:      Despite the truly disgusting conditions (both meterological and terrain-wise) I perked up considerbly thanks to my tour. Jim was very enthusiastic and knowledgable and his attempts to fashion a launderette out of the mash tun were admirable, for all they fell a long way short of the Glen Garioch still room. It was a relief to get out of the wet stuff, even if only 40% dried effectively. Springbank is another independently-owned distilling enterprise and is super traditional in its design and approach. Nothing is superficial or unnecessary. The whisky produced is commonly said to be a malt-lover’s malt. Well, for the distillery aficionado, it presses all the right buttons, too. Worth the journey from wherever you happen to be, and as you can see, they have no qualms about amateur photography.

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June 2, 2010

Jura

It might not have the beauty of Laphroaig, or the commingled majesty of Lagavulin, but it is quite a charming place.

It might not have the beauty of Laphroaig, or the commingled majesty of Lagavulin, but it is quite a charming place.

Craighouse, Isle of Jura, Argyll, PA60 7XT, 01496 820240. Whyte and Mackay. www.isleofjura.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      Jura is a gorgeous place. Craighouse is a particularly gorgeous part of Jura. Isle of Jura is a whisky distillery. It’s the law of escalating returns. On the south side of the island, the distillery has palm trees and a lagoon for company. It is full in the face of the Gulf Stream and the juxtaposition of tropical topiary with bleak, barren Highland mountains is quite stunning. I think two of the Paps are visible from the Jura Hotel, and the single track road that vanishes into the hills after Craighouse is a very stirring sight.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: FREE. See ‘My Tour’ below.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The ‘Boutique Barrels’, a trio of single casks released for Feis Ile 2010 and the expressions will be bottled under this rubric for the next five years. A 1993 Oloroso Sherry (54%) for £75; a 1995 Bourbon (56.5%) for £65, and a 1999 bottling of heavily-peated spirit from a Bourbon cask (55%) for £55.

My Tour – 18/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      The distillery you see today is largely the result of a re-build in 1963. In the 19th century, Jura had quite thriving economy and community, but the traditional industries gradually fell away, and so did the distillery. It was salvaged in the 60s in an attempt to revive the fortunes of this little Hebridean isle after the population dropped to below 150. In the olden days of Jura, a heavily-peated spirit, not unlike those produced now in the neighbouring distilleries on Islay, was their trademark. Now they make a lighter, Highland-style malt. For four weeks a year, however, they step back in time and use malt peated to between 55 and 60 ppm. Inside it is a very modern plant, with a large, efficient mash tun manned by a man at a computer screen, stainless steel washbacks and two pairs of stills. All of the malt spirit that will become Jura is matured on-site, any that will head into the Whyte and Mackay blends will most likely be filled on the mainland.Jura Stills

GENEROSITY:      * (Choice of 10YO, 16YO, Prophecy (the heavily-peated expression), and Superstition.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      6/10 *s

COMMENT:      I had to wait for my 11AM tour because there was a load of Dutch sailors expected on the tour. Sure enough, a tall ship appeared in the bay, and a little speed boat shuttled passengers from the ship to the little pier below the distillery. It was very ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. One of their number was a gentleman who organises the Dutch and Belgian whisky festivals, and was performing a running translation into Dutch of our guide’s commentary. The distillery has a very friendly atmosphere and some very unusual distillery smells. The mash tun reminded me of mulled wine and horse riding arenas all at the same time. Our guide was passionate both about the process and about the island, and this kept me largely engaged despite still being woefully fatigued and depressed about reaching a tipping point concerning how many washbacks I can actually look at in the space of a week. When explaining the variability of maturation, she made the point I had never thought of before: wood was once oak, a living organism, and the story and history of that organism must have a bearing on the make-up of the resulting timber. Fascinating. I would have like to have seen some of that timber being put to proper use but there you are. 6,000 visitors passed through the Isle of Jura VC last year, and I don’t think you will be disappointed if you contribute to this year’s statistics. You will certainly fall in love with the island. That I can guarantee.

The Cairngorms meet the Caribbean.

The Cairngorms meet the Caribbean.

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June 1, 2010

Bruichladdich

It sits there, very prettily, glowering across Lochindaal at Bowmore, which glowers back.

It sits there, very prettily, glowering across Lochindaal at Bowmore, which glowers back.

Bruichladdich, Islay, Argyll, PA49 7UN, 01496 850221. Bruichladdich Distillery Co. www.bruichladdich.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      It is a very smart distillery, and according to my parents had been freshly repainted earlier in the week. Its situation is a little further back from the shores of Lochindaal, but only in that it isn’t squashed right up against it. The road passes between the sea loch and the distillery, offering some run-off and safety from the wild Atlantic storms, none of which materialised on the day of my visit.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £5. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Special Tour’: £45. Lasting 1 and a half hours, this sounds like quite a tour. The specifics are mouthwatering enough: six malt tastings and a visit to the larger bonded warehouses at the rear of the distillery. Better than all of that, however, is the increased likelihood of crossing paths with master distiller Jim McEwan, who everyone has assured me is a living whisky legend.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      26 archived bottles of various Valinches to browse, as well, with prices ranging from £100 to £250. The bottle-your-own Valinches: while I was there they had “The Italian Job”, an 18YO single cask finished in Italian wine wood. £55 is very very competitive for this kind of service.

My Tour – 15/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

A Lomond Still: not famed for their looks.

A Lomond Still: not famed for their looks.

Notes:      Everything about the actual equipment of Bruichladdich screams of tradition and antiquity, even of the stuff made by it is then packaged and treated in a manner right at the cutting-edge of the industry. They are still using some of the equipment from 1881, the year of the distillery’s founding. One of these is the mill, the only belt-driven machine of its kind working in Scotland. This operates twice a day to produce the grist for production, and is still going strong. The distillery itself was built deliberately for the purposes of large-scale distilling, a rare approach in its time. The courtyard and separate buildings were designed to act as fire defences, for these were a common and ruinous problem for distilleries at that time. Bruichladdich is unpeated, and shows only 3ppm of phenols in the malted barley. They do, however, produce two other chief expressions: Port Charlotte (40ppm), and Octomore (80+ppm). In the mill room, as you munch on your grains of Octomore white malt (a thick, almost blue peatiness, but with a fair amount of sweetness), there is a laminated sheet detailing the provenance of all the barley used at Bruichladdich. Many are from Islay farms. There are four waters per mash and this is chiefly because of the antique mash tun with its open top. Evaporation during the first three waters means that a fourth ensures maximum sugar extraction. There are live webcams throughout the site, so while they were in the middle of one of their silent seasons while I was there, I could log on to see the process happening live. Two breeds of yeast are used, one slow-acting and the other fast, and the washbacks are left for three days to contain the fermentation. In the still room you gain a greater sense of the “crazy scientist” element around Bruichladdich. Here you meet ‘Ugly Betty’, a Franken still. It is in fact a Lomond Still, with plates and plumbing within it that can be manipulated to produce different styles of whisky from the one piece of equipment. They were going to put it in their latest distillery project: to re-open and recreate the old Port Charlotte distillery. Progress is, however, slow, and they couldn’t wait to see what it can produce so have been fitting it in to the spirit stream on the Bruichladdich premises. The warehouses weren’t open on Saturdays, sadly; something for any warehouse-addicts to bear and mind, as Islay warehouse-bagging is a tricky pastime.

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

The latest Valinch, Bruichladdich's bottle-your-own service. There are bottlings from previous single casks on sale, too, which other people have bottled themselves.

The latest Valinch, Bruichladdich's bottle-your-own service. There are bottlings from previous single casks on sale, too, which other people have bottled themselves.

COMMENT:      I might have enjoyed this tour more had I not done seven other distillery visits in the previous 50 hours. I was, whisper it, but it’s true, whiskied out. Our guide was young, female (already a big hit with me) but also very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. In fact, she is not far away from being on the stillman team. I suppose we have to say stillperson team, now. As was the case with Ardbeg, only in a more extreme sense, I missed the noise, smells and temperatures of live production and that together with the masses of people throughout the place made me rather retiring and defeatist. The premises are neat and tidy, and you could not ask for a better view of how distilling was traditionally done. No trip to Islay would be complete without a tour of ‘Laddie, but try and go for the earliest weekday slot you can find. 2PM on a Saturday is not conducive to effective distillery touring.

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May 31, 2010

Kilchoman

A more mountainous and wild-heathland setting than you might have been expecting. No sea spray here.

A more mountainous and wild-heathland setting than you might have been expecting. No sea spray here.

Rockside Farm, Bruichladdich, Islay, Argyll, PA49 7UT, 01496 850011. Kilchoman Distillery Co. www.kilchomandistillery.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      They dub themselves “Islay’s Farm Distillery” and they really aren’t exaggerating. One half of the site is a farm with lots of cows and horses, the other is the distillery with its idiosyncratic modern pagoda. It is a very different location to the other Islay distilleries: set high on a hill with farmers fields all around it. You can see from the road the waves and dunes of the north western shores of the island, but Kilchoman is definitely removed from the aggressive maritime battle zones that characterise the other distilleries.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £3.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 15/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      ***

Notes:      Only Bowmore can match Kilchoman for showing visitors the full spectrum of the whisky-making process. What is abundantly clear throughout the tour, however, is that Kilchoman is using converted spaces and buildings, and is not a purpose-built plant. The malting floor is plagued by birds and takes place in a mdeium-sized barn, the mash house/ still room is very cosy, as is the tun room with its four stainless steel washbacks. The maturation warehouse has the feel of a more industrial garden centre: steel roof and walls, lots of light seeping in from the translucent panels above our heads. Production is a tiny 100,000 litres of spirit a year, and the stills in which those litres are born were designed to make a sweet but full-bodied character in the finished whisky with as much peat retained as possible. I think this is why distilleries such as Kilchoman and Arran are so exciting: they come on the scene in burgeoning industry with a boutique-style and innovative approach, aided by a distilling tradition which has been evolving for 200 years and at the forefront of which, with all of those lessons learned, they now emerge. We have the opportunity to scrutinise the developing character and identity of these malts, and that is very very exciting, I think. In the future, they will bottle not just malt under the ‘Kilchoman’ name, but also under ‘Kilchoman 100% Islay’. The present expressions of Kilchoman use Port Ellen malted barley and 70% of requirements are bought from the commercial maltsters. They needed to assess the initial character of Kilchoman with the consistent malt before they invested to heavily in batches made using their own barley, grown locally and malted on-site. They dry the malt in their kiln for 10 hours using peat, then dry further without. This results in a malt with a peating level of 30-35 ppm; a proper Islay monster, then. The foreshot run from the spirit still is only 5 minutes in length, after which they have their middle cut. They use predominantly Bourbon wood, but 20% is filled in to Sherry. In the warehouse, as well as the #1 cask , there were a handful of Sherry butts on the floor between the racks. These were previously used at Cooley distillery in Ireland and there is an experiment underway to see how these refill casks interact with Kilchoman spirit. Being another independent distillery, there are understandably close ties to Bruichladdich. Some Kilchoman (including those butts) is to be matured there, and Bruichladdich also bottle Kilchoman.

An Australian woman nearly got locked in "accidentally". I think she had quietly snuck to the back.

An Australian woman nearly got locked in "accidentally". I think she had quietly snuck to the back.

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      7/10 *s

COMMENT:      What a lovely little distillery, and completely at odds with the rest of the Islay whisky scene. As I picked my way between barns and silos, looking for the VC with its superb cafe, I saw horses being tacked up: Rockside do their own pony trekking. Inside the VC, there are more offices and tasting and meetings room under construction. The VC, not being full of whisky of course, contains many other little odds and ends, jewellery and clothing. As I waited for my tour to set off, the previous one arrived for their drams. There were about 20 of them, and it was a bit of a squeeze. Considering that they have 20% of their 2006 stock remaining in bonds, so many thristy tourists wanting a free dram must have a more detrimental effect on their product’s proliferation into whisky shops if it can’t make it off the premises intact. It is perhaps a surprise, then, that we were only charged £3.50. Anthony Wills himself, the founder of Kilchoman, appeared to give a little talk about the complexion of the newest releases. I felt a bit shy about going up and introducing myself, and not just because I was a little peeved that he had simply ignored my email of 18 months ago, when I had made initial enquiries about finding seasonal guide work on Islay for my gap year, when the whisky odyssey premise was looking especially unlikely. I would recommend everyone to go and visit Kilchoman to appreciate the contrasts that are inherent in this industry. Be warned, however. When I next hear anything about Kilchoman I want it to be in relation to the tarmacking of their track from the mainroad to the distillery. As it is, I would describe this track as 100% Islay death for bicycles. The road surface is a mixture of compacted earth and dust below, and egg-sized lumps of loose gravel on top. I walked the bike the 200 metres back to the mainroad. It was much safer.

It sends shivers down my spine (and my wheels' spokes) just looking at it.

It sends shivers down my spine (and my wheels' spokes) just looking at it.

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May 30, 2010

Ardbeg

This was a giddyingly stunning, breathtaking sight. I had made it to the cult home of Islay single malt.

This was a giddyingly stunning, breathtaking sight. I had made it to the cult home of Islay single malt.

Port Ellen, Islay, Argyll, PA42 7EA, 01496 302244. Glenmorangie Co. (LVMH). www.ardbeg.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      Ardbeg’s immediate environs are a little flatter and less knobbly than the other two, but there are even more little islands in the bay. There are cliffs if you walk down between the kilns towards the sea that look out towards Northern Ireland and have all sorts of seaside flora to admire. You can also marvel at the clear, gently lapping sea at the foot of the rocks. I came to this spot twice, once where I joined the German family who took a photo of me before the warehouse that has “ARDBEG” emblazoned on it and whom I had met at Lagavulin, and at the end of my tour when I scoffed some food ahead of my ride back to the holiday cottage. Each time the malt whisky-specific significance and more general beauty of where I was ensnared me. I was at Ardbeg!

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £4.

It is possible to arrange a more in-depth tour if you phone up in advance.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A single cask, 11YO, refill Sherry hogshead bottled at 55.6%abv. There are only 270 bottles and that, together with the fact that it is an Ardbeg, mean it is yours for £180.

My Tour – 14/05/2010

Me at Ardbeg!

Me at Ardbeg!

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      If you want to see a lot happening at Ardbeg (and by this I mean on the production side, not the hoardes of people side) then don’t come for a tour on Friday afternoon. At lunchtime on a Friday the production staff are either cleaning things or they’ve ran home for the weekend. We saw the stills running, and a half-full wash back (they can only charge the wash still with the contents of half a washback at a time). It felt a bit dead, though: like the prolific tourist attraction it is. There is a long, although very interesting, talk on the distilleries chequered history before the tour. The maltings stopped in the seventies, and whilst everyone salivates at the idea of starting up the process at Ardbeg again, in is nigh on 100% certain it won’t happen. The intermittent production in the later part of the last century has meant that a lot of the older stocks have gone. They have two casks from 1975 left and after that it will be that spirit produced under the Glenmorangie reign which began in 1997. Casks are chiefly ex-Bourbon, although Sherry is used in some expressions and they have been experimenting with French wine casks, of which the Corryvreckan (voted Scotch of the Year in the latest Whisky Magazine) is the primary result.

GENEROSITY:      * (1 dram as part of the tour, although you are given a choice: either Uigeadail, Blasda or Corryvreckan. In the VC, you can also request to try either the 10YO, Uigeadail, Blasda or Rollercoaster (while stocks last).)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

If you go to Islay's distilleries, brace yourself for a wealth of human company.

If you go to Islay's distilleries, brace yourself for a wealth of human company.

COMMENT:      Tragically, this was another disappointment. Of course, it was always going to be difficult to live up to my experiences at Lagavulin, and maybe I was beginning to succomb to washback over-exposure. Whatever, I was largely tired and irritable during the tour. It was hot, I was hungry, and there were 20 other people with me. All men, interestingly enough. The place when I go there was heaving. It was like a circus. Staff were red-faced and smiling weakly. The cafe was overflowing and the whisky shop had something of a lotting atmosphere. I had thought that the four different Ardbegs on the table were to be poured by yourself. “No no,” a lady said. “Please ask and we will pour one for you.” It was pandemonium. I asked how busy they got during the festival, was it possible to fit anymore in? The manager gave me a wry smile lacking in humour: they get busier. The cafe is excellent, from the looks of the plates of food and drinks that were being put down in front of hungry tourists and islanders alike. My parents tried to get in for something earlier and were defeated by the busyness. It seems being on a little island in the Atlantic is no barrier for the attentions of global whisky drinkers and they will come in their millions. Some fellow members of my tour had plainly been sampling the Scottish hospitality and their hijinks were a bit of a distraction. I felt I had been robbed of this very important moment with Scotch’s maverick and rockstar. The Islay distilleries, with the exception of Lagavulin and Bunnahabhain, had no time for me personally. This was a shame because the mainland distilleries had all welcomed me and made me feel very much at home. Hitherto I had been lucky enough to receive one-to-one tours at seven distilleries: even Highland Park! Not on Islay, though. Here it is a mass of young men from the continent wishing to grab what they can and thrust whatever amounts of money is required back across the counter in exchange, and the VCs are geared up to maintain this conveyor belt of supply and demand.

The only place where peace was to be found. Such an inspiringly, achingly romantic setting. I could have done with a few more seaweed-flecked waves to satisfy my terroir cravings but beggars can't be choosers.

The only place where peace was to be found. Such an inspiringly, achingly romantic setting. I could have done with a few more seaweed-flecked waves to satisfy my terroir cravings but beggars can't be choosers.

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Lagavulin

It is most idyllic at Lagavulin when the weather is kind, and it was very difficult getting myself off the premises.

It is most idyllic at Lagavulin when the weather is kind, and it was very difficult getting myself off the premises.

Port Ellen, Islay, Argyll, PA42 7DZ, 01496 302749. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/lagavulin/

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      All of the south shore Islay distilleries shall receive five stars for this category, and for my reasoning see the Laphroaig post. Lagavulin has a slightly broader bay, with Dunyvaig Castle, one of the earliest headquarters for the Lords of the Isles and simultaneously it is hotly contested to be one of the oldest distillation sites on Islay, and even Scotland, at its head. The art of distillation is often attributed to Irish missionaries, and Islay must have been one of the nearest outposts of heathen Scots in the 13th and 14th centuries. They chose well. The architectural layout of the distillery hints at its past lives as several plants, most recently Malt Mill which was set up in an attempt to replicate the character of Laphroaig and ceased production in the 1960s. Lots of buildings and the little avenues between them are visited over the course of the tour.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £6 (or free if you toured Caol Ila previously). See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Premium Tasting Tour’: £15. A tutored tasting of five Lagavulin single malts including the new make. As there are only three ‘regular’ releases of this outstandingly rich whisky (16yo, Distillers’ Edition and 12yo Cask Strength) expect an exciting cask sample for the final dram.

‘Warehouse Demonstration Tour’: £15. These take place at 10.30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays and it is best to book ahead. The price includes entry on the 9.30AM tour and a free Lagavulin tasting glass. You will then be let loose, figuratively speaking, in Lagavulin’s warehouses. Most is matured elsewhere, it must be said - either at Caol Ila or on the mainland – but they hold a couple of casks back for a consistently highly-praised visitor experience.

NB: Again there is the promise of constructing a tour to suit you to be found on the website. Contact 01496 302749.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      Hurry if you want one, a distillery-only bottling was released in tandem with the Feis Ile 2010 edition at the festival this year. ‘Double’ matured in Pedro Ximenez-treated American oak casks, 51.5% abv, £70.

My Tour – 14/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      The tour begins with a very good explanation of the malting and peat-cutting traditions, and expands to include the less glamorous modern method of malting. We get a taste of 35ppm barley malt from Port Ellen. The top layer of peat is generally used in the kilning process because it is very fibrous, not yet having been broken down. This produces lots of smoke for flavour, but not much heat. They use a full lauter tun with a rake that can move up, down, left and right, but must never scrape along the bottom, for the husk in the grist acts like an extra filter for the sugary wort. They have 10 larch washbacks and all are about the same age: 65-years-old! They are coming to the end of their lives, though. Into the still room, and this was where I fell in love. It is so neat and self-contained. Every year, coppersmiths come round and perform an ultrasound on the stills to check the levels of copper thickness throughout the vessel. They have the longest distillation run on the island at 10.5 hours. This long and slow approach ensures that as much of the peat smoke character is retained in the final spirit and smooths out the new make. To the filling store, then, and I learnt that casks can be used at Lagavulin five or even six times. All casks come to the distillery as refills, 85% Bourbon, 15% Sherry. As you can tell, Ruth imparted a lot of Lagavulin wisdom, which I lapped up.

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram) (* if you also shelled out for a tour of Caol Ila.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      * (** if you take advantage of the two-for-one deal on Diageo Islay distilleries.)

SCORE:      5/10 *s (7/10 *s when toured with Caol Ila.)

COMMENT:      I enjoyed this tour immensely. I almost didn’t catch it, although I sense that Ruth kept the tour party out in the glorious sunshine before heading into the cool of the kiln long enough for me to lock the bike up to the fence and hastily join the group. She was magnificent. We received oodles of local history and the whole affair was relaxed, informative and just lovely. She asked, when we were in the tun room, if anyone would like to draw the wash sample. My hand was the first up so I lifted the two-pint tin of steaming wash out of the most mature washback. A very special moment, for me. Unfortunately, I had first sip, which was mostly head! If you want to tour Lagavulin, phone up to find out when they plan to be taking the middle cut. I just slouched by the spirit safe, watching this clear liquid pass through directly into the receiver vat below. I don’t know whether it was the ambient conditions or not, but the smell is in the top 3 most wondrous aromas I had the good fortune to savour over the course of my travels. Lagavulin new make smells HEAVENLY. I was taking tasting notes of the air: fruity, like toast and jam, but rich and smooth. Some dry earth and sweet, moist wood smoke. UNBELIEVABLE. If they had a bottle of the new make in the shop I would have bought it there and then. Several of them, in fact. I had to nip to the facilities (three sips of wash in the morning is not something I would recommend) and then returned to my tour party who were lounging in the lovely dramming room. The whole VC is very open plan, and this space had the feel of a vintage country hotel. We were given a choice of the 16YO, the Distiller’s Edition and “I’m sure we have an open bottle of the 12YO Special Release.” I and a couple of other gents took her up on her offer and was I glad I did. Leave that new make for 12 years and do next to nothing to it and you have one of the best drams I have tasted; period, let alone on my travels. It is a truly aggressive whisky, butting you in the forehead and then kneeing you in the groin. It was spectacular. A faultless tour (I wasn’t even that sore about this continuing trend of no warehouses) and Lagavulin now has a very special place in my heart, even though it may have been the fall on the pier that knackered the bike… That I will never know.

Unfortunately the strong Westerly winds blew the bike to the pier deck! Not Lagavulin's fault, though.

Unfortunately the strong Westerly winds blew the bike to the pier deck! Not Lagavulin's fault, though.

 

One last whimsical look back at "the mill in the hollow".

One last whimsical look back at "the mill in the hollow".

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Laphroaig

I know, I know; it is quite a cliched view of Laphroaig. But you can see why, can't you? I had to find the vantage point from which those photos were taken.

I know, I know; it is quite a cliched view of Laphroaig. But you can see why, can't you? I had to find the vantage point from which those photos were taken.

Port Ellen, Islay, Argyll, PA42 7DU, 01496 302418. Beam Global. www.laphroaig.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      You would have to construct your case methodically and passionately for another distillery to replace this one as the most gorgeous in Scotland. That said, Lagavulin and Ardbeg do come close. Its siting on a spit of land into the Atlantic (you can see Northern Ireland on a clear day, which Friday 14th of May certainly became) with its little sandy beach in front of its own stridently-painted warehouse front is simply lovely. The south coast of Islay is a deeply dramatic place: sea and rock collide, often with shrapnel sprinkled in the shallows. Behind the distilleries are rising hills of more rock and short grass. The peat fields are further in-land.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £3. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Source, Peat, Malt Tour’: £20. This two hour tour is a must for those who want to see how the “most richly-flavoured” single malt combines land and water to produce the legendary dram. There is a hike to the Kilbride Dam, Laphroaig’s water source, where you are given a dram, I believe of the Quarter Cask. You are then driven to the distillery’s peat bogs near the airport, where you receive the 10YO Cask Strength, and then it is back to the distillery and the floor maltings where you are given a third expression of Laphroaig. Six persons max, for this tour and book in advance. Tuesday and Thursday at 9AM.

‘Tutored Tastings’: (Standard): £10. Four Laphroaigs: 10YO, 10YO Cask Strength, 18YO and the Quarter Cask. (Premium): £25. Three old and rare Laphroaigs in addition to the standard 10YO.

NB: You can become a Friend of Laphroaig, which involves your taking the flag of your nationality onto the field at the back of the distillery and plotting out your own square foot of Islay, which is now yours. Every time you return to the distillery you can “collect your rent” for that piece of land, as well as make use of the Friends of Laphroaig lounge. Special bottlings for the Friends also appear from time to time.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A – you just have to be one of the lucky ones there for the festival.

My Tour – 14/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **1/2

Notes:      My second day and my second malting floor. The ones at Laphroaig are very light and airy, and we had the opportunity to stand in one of the empty kilns. It is astonishing how soot-blackened all of the beams were, and how fine the metal mesh floor. The smell of cereals was just delicious, too. This was one of the most interactive tours of the whole trip, during which we (and there were many of us) were encouraged to stick our fingers in as many things as possible (in a whisky-making context, you understand). While we were in the maltings we were asked if anyone wanted to take home a bag of Laphroaig malted barley. Some people do. I would have done, but I didn’t want to arrive home with grain throughout my panniers. We enjoyed another taste of the wash: richer, fuller and fruitier than Caol Ila’s; we could dip a finger in to the stream of low wines tumbling through the spirit safe, and stick a digit into the bung hole of a newly-filled cask of Laphroaig spirit. This earns them an extra half a star. This last lucky dip was in the filling store, not the warehouse, sadly. That being said, the smell of fresh Bourbon wood was intoxicating. It was just as well there wasn’t a warehouse visit as part of the tour, because I might have had to miss it so late was I in getting to Lagavulin. Danielle was anxious that I should enjoy my dram of Quarter Cask so phoned them up on my behalf.Laphroaig Maltings

GENEROSITY:      * (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      7.5/10 *s

COMMENT:      Now this is what I call a proper distillery tour, from a proper distillery. The site, as I have mentioned, is beautiful and the smells playing about the buildings are simply magical. The shop (and before too long there will be an exhibition space; building was going on while I was there) is housed in the lower level of the maltings, looking out onto Laphroaig bay. Never have I seen so many photographs taken of a wall: everyone was standing before the sea-facing warehouse, smiling for a camera.

The crucial, famous quarter casks. I can attest that they make quite a difference. The dram I had after the tour was quite astonishing.

The crucial, famous quarter casks. I can attest that they make quite a difference. The dram I had after the tour was quite astonishing.

The tour is highly involving and I could not fail to pick up on what makes Laphroaig what it is because Danielle could really project her voice. You could be standing by the working mill, deaf in one ear and still hear that they only use 1.5 tonnes of peat a week. It is obviously a finite resource and all distilleries that kiln their own malt do their best to use this natural product sparingly, without compromising on flavour. 99% of the casks used are ex-Maker’s Mark and are only used for one fill of Laphroaig. Outside in the yard we could see the peat shed, as well as used quarter casks. They are very dinky indeed, especially when seen beside the butts and puncheons.

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May 29, 2010

Bunnahabhain

Bunnahabhain from the ferry.

Bunnahabhain from the ferry.

Port Askaig, Islay, Argyll, PA46 7RP, 01496 840646. Burn Stewart Distillers. www.bunnahabhain.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      Bunnahabhain has a bit more room to spread out than Caol Ila, a mile or so down the rocky, bumpy coast. This is still tucked in to a cleft in the cliffs but is greener and a little tamer than the site for its peatier neighbour. This is another distillery with a treacherous, frankly dangerous track leading to it. From the main road at Keills, it is single-track, twisting, descending and ascending. If you meet a Carntyne articulated lorry, you had better hope their is a sizeable passing place nearby. As my guide said, drivers arrive often very much in need of a restorative dram.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £4. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Manager’s Tour’: £25. Robert didn’t give me a name for it, but if you phone up and book you can have 2 and a half hours of the manager or one of the senior members of staff’s time, a nip into the warehouse and four drams, including the 12, 18 and 25YOs and a Festival bottling.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 13/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      Bunnahabhain is dubbed the “gentle giant” of Islay. Robert, the guide, says that this is due to the size of the distillery’s equipment, and not its employees. The mash tun is huge, the washbacks ginormous. The stills are almost bronze in colour and the biggest onions you will ever see. Yet it all makes one of the lightest, most easy drinking whiskies I’ve come across. Tragically, and in some irony given the news at Caol Ila earlier in the day that they were about to start full 24/7 production, Bunnahabhain has been reduced to only three mashes per week. Burn Stewart is less able to ride out the effects of the recession than Diageo. As such, we didn’t see any production actually taking place. Robert, our guide is also head stillman, and has been working at Bunnahabhain for ever. He doesn’t run his stills based on a given temperature or time, but on flow rate. The middle cut, therefore, runs off the stills at 10 litres per minute. The flow rate for the low wines is twice that at 20 litres per minute, and the low wines strength is incredibly between 28 and 35% abv. I also received my first explanation of how the mash tun/underback pairing actually works. There are two floors in your typical mash tun, held apart by a layer of water. The waters in the mash tun are drained off slowly, so that this layer is maintained and a vacuum isn’t created, which would affect the quality of the wort drawn off and hence the sugars extracted. Four waters are used at Bunnahabhain for the mashing of of the 12 tonnes of grist they can fit into the vessel. Amazing.Bunna Stills

GENEROSITY:       (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      6/10 *s

COMMENT:      If you are off for a tour of Bunnahabhain, pray you get Robert Morton to take you round. Initially it seemed I was the only one on the tour, having phoned up from Caol Ila worried I wouldn’t make it along the four bumpy miles to the distillery for the last tour of the day, the 3.15PM. I did, and I had this big, genial, moustachio’ed and boiler-suited bear of a man waiting for me. I had a cup of tea and we discussed the efforts of another worker to help repair the bike chain of a damsel in distress. 3.15PM arrived, and we left the little reception area with all the Black Bottle merchandise (Bunna is the “heart if Black Bottle”). We encountered a continental couple and then a party of Americans were making their way along from the car park. It was quite a full tour, then, but did Robert care? He was in his element, this despite having said (and I thought it came across as modesty and self-deprecation at the time) that he was a stillman, not a guide. On this basis, every stillman should be obliged, by law, and with considerable pay bonuses, to do tours. He was brilliant. I was cold, wet and tired, and this was my third tour of the day, but I hung on that man’s every word. The anecdote about the Japanese tourist’s expensive camera coming to grief on the steep metal stairs descending from the tun room to the still house caused much hilarity: “he tried to take a picture on the move, lost his balance, the camera fell to the grating at the bottom of the stairs, smashing into a million little pieces and he landed on his backside. Being trained in First Aid, I laughed my head off because it looked so funny.” The moral of the story was, hold on to the bannister, and if you have to take a photo, stand still. Little gems of information tripped off his tongue. As he said, he’s been working here so long he knows his plant. It is this insight, from the people who actually make your dram, that adds real value to visiting precisely where they make it. His company over a dram in the shop at the end was fantastic, too, and his opinions about the industry, how whisky should be drunk and why a lot of people come to single malt a little later in life , usually against their vow that they would never touch whisky again following unfortunate nights of excess in their younger days, were all not in the slightest condemnatory or prescriptive, but had huge doses of humour and common sense. He wished me luck on my travels, and I left profoundly glad I’d fought my way over the lumpy terrain and through the rain.

It might not have been beautiful weather, but this spot on the pier was one of the most peaceful settings I had yet experienced. It didn't want to go!

It might not have been beautiful weather, but this spot on the pier was one of the most peaceful settings I had yet experienced. I didn't want to go!

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