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The Call of the Wort

Perhaps it is the heavy emphasis on the great indoors, induced by the clammy cold, rain, and days which darken before ever having really brightened, that is to blame for my distillery yearning. It struck at the same time last year when glimpses of the snowy Perthshire Hills provoked a pining for the Valley of the Deer, Glenlivet and the delicate camomile tea light of the West Coast as seen from stillroom windows or a visitor centre cafe.

The new, tasteful extension to The Glenlivet.

I long to subsititute the heat of a radiator for a mash tun, the fragrant smoke of a wood-burning stove for the earthy wisps escaping from pagoda vents and their peat kilns beneath. Christmas cake baking in the oven cannot hope to match the curranty richness of a really excellent Oloroso sherry butt. You can see my problem. Life is simply better in a distillery.

Given the choice, therefore, where would I go right at this very moment? If I had my Christmas wish, it would be an amalgam of the very best, most nose-titillating, mouth-watering and compelling whisky-producing spaces, a Franken-distillery tour if you like. Allow me to take you round.

With snow on the higher Braes and a keen, clean wind ruffling the grass and heather, there can be few more stirring distillery journeys than that to The Glenlivet. I would depart from Tomintoul, pass through Auchnarrow and Tomnavoulin, and skirt the Packhorse Bridge over the river Livet itself before launching into the Cairngorm National Park and trundling into the distillery grounds. I would sprint from the car, up the stone steps to the spacious, warm and welcoming visitor centre which combines the scents of wood and whisky so wonderfully. As this is my ideal Christmas, I can stretch to a bottle from the Cellar Collection prior to the tour.

By some miraculous feat of malty teleportation, I troop up a spiral staircase to the heady, embracing sweetness of the Auchentoshan mash tun. Wood-lined and copper-domed, it dominates the room whilst churning that pure, gentle barley.

I have to negotiate a couple of close-fitting corridors and a flight of metal steps before Aberfeldy’s tun rooms appear, some of the washbacks hidden around the corner. Tropical fruits burst in front of my nose, together with a creamy orange aroma. By happy accident, Glen Grant has some of their vessels in the corner which exhale their juicy apple and biscuity cereal breath, too.

Past the chimney into sensory Nirvana.

Clicking my heels together, I duck through another doorway to the whitewashed still house of Lagavulin. Huge burnished onions squat and sweat in front of me, milking the spirit into their condensers. Like a bullock with a ring through its septum, I’m tugged to my right and the spirit safe. I sag against the pillar and do my level best to drown in that heart-of-the-run fragrance: burnt toast, wood smoke and hedgerow berry conserve. When a decent amount of time has passed – say about a week – Malcolm Waring beckons me outside to a bright Islay south coast afternoon before pole vaulting to Wick.

 

Pulteney manager, Malcolm Waring, in a delicious bonded warehouse.

I’m caught in two states of being, here in the Old Pulteney warehouses. The heavy honey and spicy toffee of so many exquisite ex-Bourbon barrels leaves me slack-jawed – seduced – while the cool, violent saltiness invigorates. A few spot lamps breach the fecund darkness as I caress hoggies and butts, alive now to the sizzling thread of citrus in the air.

Finally, say ten days into my distillery tour, I reach the Balblair distillery office. Highland sunshine slides into the room, adding a gloss to the display cabinets and antique table having bounced off the slick tarmac and the newly-corrugated warehouse rooves outside. John MacDonald has poured a generous measure of the 1978 into my Glencairn – and left the bottle – and I can process its marvellous deep floral aromas, together with honey and dried citrus fruits. I toast Scotland and I toast her whiskies and give eternal thanks that a significant imprint of the former can so readily flow out with the latter no matter where you happen to be.

An exterior shot of a great interior.

Merry Christmas, one and all, and may the new year yield many distillery tours.

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Diageo on the Beach (at the Quaich Society)

Diageo at the Quaich Society

The Quaich Society here in St Andrews has acquired a considerable quantity of momentum so far this term. A number of factors put paid to the final portion of last term’s itinerary but so far in 2011 the drams and learned conversation have been liberally flowing. This Thursday (the 10th), Diageo came to town, and I could not miss my chance to appraise how the world’s largest drinks producer goes about conducting tastings. As it happened, they are rather good indeed.

There could have been no more appropriate ambassador to address a bunch of students than a man who looked as if he had only just graduated himself. Duncan opened his talk with an allusion to just this happy circumstance, promising that he was relishing the change in demographic our forty-or-so strong crowd presented.Duncan McRae

With his six key points of discussion, and a special al fresco stunt planned for us at the end of the evening, Duncan’s task was a hefty one. Constraints of time are rarely too strictly observed at the Quaich Society, however, and we lapped up all of the information Duncan put before us. And the prevailing bias of the tasting was just that: information. The only thing ‘hard-sell’ about Duncan was his sincere love for his job and Scotch whisky, and putting the free Talisker scarves and ‘rocking glass’ to one side, gimmickry was notable by its absence. He expressed his personal views on such matters as terroir and centralised warehousing, basing many of his statements on the science of distilling, in addition to the simple realities of economics.

To those six factors, therefore: facets of the Scotch whisky product Duncan felt it most necessary to know. He accompanied each individual whisky with a spiel relating whichever of these categories that whisky could most interestingly illustrate, the first of which was Glenkinchie. Now this little Lowlander receives a fair amount of flak from some quarters, but I happen to be a fan of its sweet, dry, herbal characteristics. On this occasion I found more of the tight spiritiness of younger whisky with a great deal of vanilla and ginger cookie dough. Duncan partnered this with the distillery’s history. When the phylloxera virus decimated Cognac in the 1800s, two Edinburgh businessmen saw an opportunity to supply drinkers south of the border with spirit. However, it had to be different from their past encounters with the potent, heavy qualities of Highland Scotches. Sited close to rail links and raw materials for efficient production and access to market, Glenkinchie today continues to provide much of the freshness and zip in blends such as Johnnie Walker.

DiageoWe covered Dalwhinnie next, a preferred dram of mine in the right circumstances. Creamy and peachy with honey and smoke, the flavours did not disappoint or surprise. Duncan illuminated the story of Dalwhinnie with a word on the journey required to reach it. ‘You know when you head north of Pitlochry on the A9, when everything starts to look as if you’re in Mordor? That’s Dalwhinnie.’ Meaning ‘meeting place’, I can empathise with Duncan’s description. Unfortunately this was from the comfort of a car instead of a bike but that is what the next Odyssey is for…

Dram no. 3 was introduced in a highly novel fashion: ‘OK, who has beef with the Singleton of Dufftown?’ Hands shot up. Duncan’s explanation of why Diageo markets three different malts in three different territories in exactly the same style went some way to pacifying the dissenters in the room. Glendullan for the States, Glen Ord for Asia and Dufftown for the UK and Europe are each intended to occupy a given location on the Flavour Map, which was also wheeled out a couple of times during the evening, hence the identical labelling. Duncan conceded that, as a trio, they did not garner the greatest critical acclaim. However, he then dropped in the little nugget that the Singleton was the fastest growing whisky and in the world. Fair enough – Diageo don’t stay where they are at the top of the tree by refusing to give the general drinker, and in this case new drinkers, what they want.

With a word on maturation regimes for the Singletons (almost exclusive Sherry maturation) we arrived at the ‘big boy whiskies’. Duncan’s passion for Talisker and his eloquence on the subject of whisky generally was extremely powerful. ‘Why is whisky favoured around the world? Why is it romanticised in the way that maybe vodka isn’t? Why, when you type Talisker into Google do you come up with endless pictures of dogs?’ We awaited his answer, and – for me – it was the right one. ‘Because of the place.’ Talisker, as I have said before, is the most awesomely-situated distillery in Scotland. Duncan endeavoured to explain how Skye and malt whisky had the power to conspire and embed sensory sensitivity in the overcome visitor. How the locality and force behind the whisky could return to you, when you least expected it, over a Talisker anywhere in the world. That was what the tumblers and scarves were for. Duncan intended to lead us down to the beach, pour out some 57 North and let the magic happen.

Caol Ila and Lagavulin were somewhat hastily guzzled in anticipation of this jaunt – unique in my experience at the Quaich Society. Whilst to describe Lagavulin is superfluous by now (I am deeply saddened that my 20cl bottle is nearly dry), my encounter with the Caol Ila 12yo after what must be nearly two years of hiatus was keenly savoured. When I first entered the room I must confess I had been rather rude to my companions as I slumped on the table with my nose dipped, immovable, in the glass. It is such a magnificent aroma, such a majestic house style: so sweet, fresh, clean, oily and smoky. When Duncan told me that they had recently launched the Caol Ila Moch, I took note. An exclusive for the Friends of the Classic Malts, Moch is non-age statemented, vatting together 8-15 year-old Caol Ila for a medley of qualities. Money, where are you?Diageo

After satisfying his raffle-drawing duties, Duncan marched those of us intrepid enough and devoted enough to Talisker to brave the ferocious wind and cold to the shoreline. In the dark, the cask strength hooch flowed into waiting tumblers. Beneath the stars, we warmed ourselves on malty lava from the Isle of Skye. Unfortunately, I was left somewhat cold by the 57 North. It could have been the temperature, it could have been the lack of water to cut the spirit, but I found it too one-dimensional with a rigid dark oak note which strangled the body of the whisky. Rather than that irresistable Talisker peat fire burn which builds and builds, the whole thing just tasted slightly burnt – like salted caramel left on too high a heat.

Though the whisky was not to my taste, it was a highly innovative idea on Duncan’s part – not something he could have done in Manchester or Leeds, for example. The stars and my fellow Quaich Sockers were magnificent company at any rate.

I think this picture adequately demonstrates our gratitude to Duncan, and the Quiach Society committee, for laying on another fabulous evening.

Raising a toast with Talisker.

Raising a toast with Talisker.

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Sacred Spirit

Will I be a collector when I grow up? Prior to my Scotch whisky odyssey I would have dismissed such a probability with a contemptuous “not on your nelly”.

Perhaps as a consequence of the style of my initiation into the spirit at The Glenlivet, I left the distillery in 2007 with a devout enchanted appreciation of the craft, passion and personality at the core of Scotch malt whisky. That the legacy and struggles of those first amateur distillers bore no relation to predominating concerns for economic fluctuations or sober accrual and display, which motivate some consumers today, was a belief from which I could not be negotiated. Big ideas and big personalities had shaped the fortunes and flavours of the distilleries behind the iconic malts of now. Why had they persevered through economic disaster, World Wars, devastating accidents and destruction; why had they innovated and invested to create the best-tasting spirit possible for us, and in so doing intertwining their own histories, hopes and characters with the drink, only for it to sit on a shelf untouched and incarcerated: an ornament instead of an elixir; a relic instead of a companion?

I may have waited for the opportune moment to open and enjoy the bottle of 18-year-old Glenlivet we purchased that day in 2007, and I liked to read about old and rare bottlings, but my principal goal was connoisseurship: the quest to discover nuance, power, antiquity, youth, to learn how to distinguish the great from the good. What use, then, was a sealed bottle of whisky to me? It fell tragically short by at least 80% of realising its full sensory potential. So synonymous is Scotch whisky, for me, with Scotland and the Scottish, so intuitive and indisputable did that sip of The Glenlivet in the dramming room demonstrate said link to be as I imbibed the distillation of place, history and art, that I could not be content with appearances and myth alone. I needed to experience whisky and all that it related to for myself.

And now, having gone so far to do just that already, one of the results seems to be an urge to acquire, to set aside, to enshrine. It appears I want to start a collection. It suddenly and unexpectedly makes sense. After having visited so many distilleries and spied out further sites diligently, quietly making malt, the proud traditions and idiosyncracies of whisky manufacure in Scotland are more comprehensively understood, more colourfully evoked and more ardently valued. I feel a need to recognise and venerate the industry; the past present and future of which is contained in every bottle. I also want to manifest in precious amber liquid some of my fondest and most unrepeatable encounters and experiences. A bottle of malt is again a distillation, albeit cerebrally, of my favourite malt moments. I will still drink and evaluate the stuff, of course – I love the flavour exploration, a journey in its own right – but I am going to experiment with my new inclination to preserve.

Three months’ ago I would have agreed entirely with a statement found in a Whiskeria (the magazine for The Whisky Shop and full of excellent articles from leading whisky writers, free in-store) article from the Summer 2009 issue. Within ‘To Drink Or Not To Drink…’ the author advanced the drinkers’ creed: “…it’s criminal to take a product that was lovingly crafted using skills honed over generations, put it in oak more than 100 years old, mature it for 25, 30 or 40 years and then stick it under the stairs. It is a drink, they [those in favour of drinking] say, and it should be drunk. Any other fate for it is disrespectful.” Now, however, I can see that this inventory of the credentials of whisky’s heritage and artisanal quality can still stand as supporting evidence for the other side of the debate. I am ignoring for the purposes of this article that the preservation of rare and unusual bottlings can be an altruistic act, making it possible for those with curiosity (and money) enough in the future to taste what whisky was like in the dim occluded past, and I am also going to largely overlook the trade in exclusive whiskies for substantial profit. I think setting some precious bottles aside shows tremendous respect for the time and skill required to create fine malt whisky: it demonstrates, in my view, an appreciation, a reverence even, for whisky’s alchemy, tradition and significance. It is an entity built to last like high art, jewellery and architecture. It is not disposable like so many other things in our culture and collections recognise that. We do not devote rooms and our hobbies to the mundane and mediocre.

Expressions from The Dalmore had appealed to me as the focus of a collection on account of their beauty. After this 15yo the prices spike upwards pretty steeply, though.

Expressions from The Dalmore had appealed to me as the focus of a collection on account of their beauty. After this 15yo the prices spike upwards pretty steeply, though.

Of course, whisky’s shelf life makes it a prime candidate for delayed gratification. If you never rip the seal, release the cork and pour the malt into your tumbler/copita/ubiquitous Glencairn glass you can “savour it, enjoy the anticipation of it.” It will be there for that “very special occasion” or you can pass it on, “sell it to someone else who will get to share in the pleasure of ownership.” (Whiskeria) If you collect and buy rare whisky you become part of a very special chain of human interest and acquaintance stretching maybe decades back in time. You are snagged in a web of connections, for collectors keep exhaustive archives of the history of their star expressions, with one particular bottle of whisky, whose life and character you have contributed to, at its focus. As a recent post about a Ladyburn bottling on WDJK? demonstrated, this web can include us more than once and is always liable to surprise.

But to get specific about my personal ambitions for a collection: what would I rather survey than swallow? What is better in the bottle than my belly? What will get my mental juices flowing but maybe never my mouth’s? It is the final query which harnesses the crux of the matter. I am not interested in stashing away whisky for the sake of its age, its rarity or a slight imperfection in its packaging. The whiskies, or more correctly the distilleries, I wish to preserve all have special meaning for me. The two malts below have especial significance on account of the key dates related to them. The Glenlivet Nadurra was the first malt in my collection and came to be so by accident. I had bought it with the full intention of drinking it but upon getting it home I realised the date of its bottling: the 16-year-old Speyside had reached its full potential and been sealed in glass in October 2007. My own obsession with whisky began at the same distillery in the same month of the same year. The Glengoyne was presented to me unexpectedly when I arrived at the distillery. Its label reads: “Specially bottled for James Saxon on the occasion of his visit to Glengoyne distillery. 21st May 2010.” The journey from October 2007 to 21 May 2010, the penultimate day of my recent single malt adventure, is quite an extraordinary one, and it shall be commemorated by these two bottles.

The Glenlivet Nadurra and the Glengoyne 17YO: the first bottles of my collection.

The Glenlivet Nadurra and the Glengoyne 17YO: the first bottles of my collection.

I want to hunt out further bottles which represent an encounter, flavour or motif of my travels. Single cask Bourbon-matured Aberlours will always take my fancy, for example. I would also happily drain my bank account for cask strength Lagavulin. So perfect a microcosm of Speyside was Aberlour and so picturesque, relaxed and romantic was Lagavulin that their spirit will forever more have the singular spiritual overtones of my journey.

There are two distilleries most of whose bottlings I will aim to source. That Glen Garioch is one of these will come as no surprise to those who read my blog while I cycled round Scotland. As it happens I will be in the Speyside/Aberdeenshire neck of the woods at the beginning of September to take the VIP Tour of the distillery, catch up with Fiona and Jane and make the purchase I promised I would in the presence of these ladies as I clattered back out of the VC into the rain for the return leg to Huntly. I am after a special Glen Garioch, symbolic of my first visit, the hardships faced before and after and of having completed the journey with Fiona and Jane’s notable touching encouragement. Following the re-branding of the distillery’s range, the first two of their new “Small Batch Releases” comprised the 1978 (30-year-old) Cask Strength and the 1990 (18-year-old) Cask Strength. The latter, as it shares my birth year, is a most apt acknowledgement of my greatest achievement to date, some of the most extreme 24 hours within it, and of two of the loveliest people I have ever stumbled upon.

The other uber-distillery is Mortlach, Speyside’s “secret star” according to Michael Jackson. For the three nights I spent in Dufftown, Mortlach was a stone’s throw from my B&B. When I walked to the shop for supplies each morning, the pagodas, silver smokestack and steam were visible down in the hollow and the smell of mashing and worts intoxicating when the wind was right. It also turned out to be the favourite whisky of the demi-god of my adventure: Sandy from Taste of Speyside. He grew up beside Mortlach, and the 16-year-old is a whisky he recommends to all of his patrons. In my experiences with this malt Before the Tour (BT) I had been impressed but hadn’t raved. Now I find the earthy smokiness and dark Sherried richness nothing short of enthralling. For me, it evokes a more traditional Speyside flavour profile and that it is closed to visitors so that it might better get on with producing whisky adds to the mystery and pure, serious, aura. Its different-shaped stills and complex distillation run is charmingly quirky and the recent release by Gordon & MacPhail of a 70-year-old proves its venerable nature. This is a distillery of antiquity: it is for eternity. Of course, if I wish to amass a complete collection of Mortlach it will mean £10,000 for this last expression. Rather a lot, really.

When back up in Speyside in late summer I intend to celebrate Mortlach’s significance to me with another purchase and I shall return to The Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, my favourite malt emporium run by the unmissable Mike and Cathy, to make it. I’m looking for an independent bottling, 14-20 years old, Sherry-matured and possibly cask strength. Research on their website has unearthed a Douglas Laing, a Dewar Rattray and an Adelphi which fit the description. I shall try and taste each and make my choice as to which shall be a cupboard stalwart, my 70cl Ambassador for Mortlach, Sandy and Speyside.

Neither the 1990 Glen Garioch nor the Mortlach should be over £70. They are not, therefore, unjustly expensive (the key barrier at present for seriously embarking on this collecting business and I cannot afford to buy two of anything so that I might have the best of both worlds, but everyone has to start somewhere) and this is because they are not particularly rare. In my possession, on my shelf, though, they shall exude the pure, complex light and bearing of precious memory and times past. On the subject of “anticipation” and delayed gratification, however, they may yet contribute to magical moments to come, shared with someone I feel comfortable writing in to my developing whisky saga. Never say never.

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New Make News

Since I have returned, there has been further announcements on the visitor centre front, new bottlings mooted and released and an Islay Whisky Festival.

Feis Ile 2010, from what I could read on the various blogs, was quite an extravaganza. More maltphiles from all over the world flocked like barnacle geese to the tiny island in the Inner Hebrides famous for its peaty, seaweedy whiskies than ever before and were rewarded. As per usual, limited bottlings were made available for festival goers but it is not those I am concerned with. Not that there was any evidence of it while I was there, but Lagavulin have released a new distillery-only bottling. In a similar style to Caol Ila’s it is a no age statement cask strength malt and costs £70, so quite a bit dearer than Caol Ila’s. This is only one in a quartet of Diageo distilleries to soon offer distillery exclusives. Check out the press release at John Hansell’s blog.

Glendronach have followed suit, and they offer an exclusive expression in their visitor centre: a single cask from 1996, said to be a classic example of the house heavily-sherried style.

Cragganmore, too, is rumoured to be releasing a 21YO expression in the near future. Though not yet confirmed, a source at the distillery suggested that a new release could be on the cards at that age.

Perhaps more interestingly, there is a new distillery-only tour now available at Glenglassaugh. This recently re-opened distillery on the Banffshire coast in Speyside has completed its visitor centre. There are two types of tour on offer: their standard tour costs £5 and involves a trip to the warehouse; all good so far. There is also a ‘Behind the Scenes Tour’ which will set you back £25 and takes you to the darkest corners of the distillery. Drams are rather special: their new make and also the 21 and 30YO Glenglassaughs.

Of most compulsive and restive interest to me is the news that Glen Garioch are about to release the third vintage in their latest series of limited bottlings. Joining the 1990 and the 1978 cask strengths will be the 1991. I would still expect this to be peaty, their own floor maltings having ceased with the peating in 1994. I will get back to you with a price and strength when I know more.

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The Plaudits Post

I’m back now, and whilst I may miss my simple, if at times seriously debilitating life on the road, I am in a position to appreciate and marvel at the world of Scotch malt whisky on an entirely separate astral plain. You want to know (I assume) what was good, bad and indifferent, and where you can be guaranteed an unfeasibly large slice of chocolate cake should you be pondering an attempt at something similar (and you really should).

Therefore, this is a plenary post, an awards bash, for what really shouldn’t be missed if you are within 100 miles.

AT THE DISTILLERIES

Drams of the Odyssey

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16YO, 54.2% - Floral, honeyed and teeming with butterscotch and vanilla. A superbly bold Speyside from the more delicate side of the family.

Aberlour 14YO Single Cask First-Fill Bourbon, 63.3% – Full and intensely sweet. Freshly-sawn pine, wood oils, toffee. The malt by which I shall judge all other Bourbon-matured whiskies, and indeed single casks.

Benromach 10YO, 43% – Sweetly heathery, malty and peaty. My kind of whisky.

Ledaig 10YO, 43% – Properly, evocatively peaty. The first heavily peated malt I had tasted since Talisker, and an auspicious herald of the peaty monsters shortly to come.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48% – Awesome. Perfectly assertive oaking, seaweed, smoke and power.

Lagavulin 12YO cask Strength, 57.9% – I was assaulted by this malt. It butted me in the ofrehead then kneed me in the groin. But I loved it. Smoke and sweetness. I need to find this again.

Longrow CV, 46% – Oily, wood smoke. Enormously complex.

Guides of the Odyssey

The Longer Shortlist:

Clare at Royal Lochnagar; Chris at Aberlour; Dagmar at Highland Park.

The Shortlist:

Gavin at Tullibardine – What more can I say about Gavin that I haven’t already? He is one of the most enthusiastic and friendly people I met on my travels. I phoned up the distillery once I returned to research exclusive bottlings in the VC and he remembered me after I mentioned that I had been the boy on a bike. He was brimming with admiration and congratulations, and eager for me to head back to Blackford. I’m just as keen.

Jim at Edradour - For being just a very funny man. His jokes were equally appreciated by the other twenty memebers of my monster tour party. As dry a Scottish sense of humour as you could wish to find.

Fiona at Glen Garioch - Fiona was another guide with an irrepressible sense of humour. Together with Jane, she gave me the much-needed kick up the backside, and in my darker moments thereafter, the thought of being in a position to roll up to Old Meldrum some time in the future and say “I did it,” kept me going.

John at Ben Nevis – It is very difficult to describe where John Carmichael fits in to the architypal breeds of distillery guide. He is  most definitely not the wide-eyed seasonal student; nor the passionate but casual part-timer, nor a member of the production team. He is, however, a complete professional, and a tour with him around the distillery (and he is the head tour guide so chances are good) is not to be missed. He is the second generation to have been in the industry all his days and it shows. His humour (dry), knowledge (supreme) and demeanour (you would think it was his distillery) are all compelling qualities. I learnt more from him about whisky, whisky hospitality and whisky history than from anyone else. It is plain, when he speaks of industry luminaries such as Richard Paterson, that he too enjoys a niche within the inner circle of people whose passion and experience are a good few rungs above everyone else. 

Ruth at Lagavulin - My tour of Lagavulin was perhaps the most relaxed and somehow intimate of my whole odyssey. It was a lovely warm day, the distillery was ticking over nicely and the tour group wasn’t too enormous. Ruth was spectacularly informative and was able to root out a bottle of the 12YO CS, something I’m very grateful for.

Henrik at Glengoyne - Henrik has kept in touch since I met him last month. Another very professional and passionate guide, he took time out of his regular duties to shoot the breeze with me after the tour. He said that he hoped I had enjoyed my tour with the “sweaty Swedish tour guide.” I assured him that these tours were my personal favourites. Michael, the Australian walker I shared a room with in Glasgow, had toured the distillery with Henrik, too, and he praised  his character and performance, as well.

A special mention to Martin at Bladnoch – not technically a tour guide at all but he delivered a top class performance anyway. I don’t think there was a dusty corner of the distillery I didn’t get a glance at. Obviously, his  chauffeuring was an added bonus, but if he does choose to follow his dad into distilling, the future of Bladnoch and distilling in Dumfries and Galloway is in extremely good hands. Thanks again.

And the Winner is…

Robert at Bunnahabhain – As I waxed in my post for the distillery, despite everything that had drained, annoyed and bored me that day, I hung on Robert’s every word. This can’t have been his first tour of the day, but the pride for his plant couldn’t help but shine through so brightly. Hilarious, and with the insight that only comes from actually making the stuff, Robert was by far the best guide of the tour – and he insisted he was “only a stillman.”

Tour of the Odyssey

To win this accolade, it is vital to show the visitor unique insight into the whisky-making process, accommodate them comfortably and stylishly and dram them well. Bowmore, Kilchoman and Springbank would qualify under the first requirement; The Glenlivet and Tullibardine are notably superior exponents of the second, and Aberlour and Glenfiddich are streets ahead in terms of the whisky handed over. There can only be one winner, however.

Highland Park – The emotions triggered when I think back to my visit are wonderful, unique, inexpressible. The location; the unusual logistics of getting there; the typical difficulties with the Scottish weather; the one-to-one tour; the maltings; the spitting, sparking kilns; the warehouses; the video; the beautiful VC; the drams – it was all deeply special.

 Highland Park 2

***

Cafes of the Odyssey

‘The Arch’ in Fettercairn; the wool place on the road between Strathdon and the Lecht Ski resort, ‘Fresh’ in Aberlour; the cafe on the A9 bridge in Helmsdale; ‘Morag’s’ in Wick; the chocolate shop in Tobermory; ‘The Kitchen Garden’ in Oban; ‘The Craft Kitchen’ in Port Charlotte; ‘Fresh Bites’ in Campeltown.

Restaurants of the Odyssey

‘The Ramsay Arms’ in Fettercairn; ‘The Clockhouse’ in Tomintoul; ‘Taste of Speyside’ in Dufftown; ‘Chapter One’ in Forres; ‘The Red Poppy’ in Strathpeffer; ‘The No.1 Bistro at the Mackay Hotel’ in Wick; ‘The Port Charlotte Hotel’ in Port Charlotte.

Locations of the Odyssey – the Best Places to Cycle

Between Gilmerton and Aberfeldy in Perthshire; Angus; Between Forres and Inverness; The North-East coast to John o’Groats; Orkney; Skye; Mull; Arran; Dumfries and Galloway.

Beds of the Odyssey

Stirling Youth Hostel; Pitlochry Youth Hostel; Kishmul B&B in Fettercairn; Argyle Guest House in Tomintoul; Norlaggan B&B in Aberlour; Milton of Grange B&B in Forres; Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel; Netherby B&B in Wick; The Picturehouse B&B in Ard Dorch, Skye; Inverasdale B&B in Oban; The Carradale Hotel in Carradale; Lochranza Youth Hostel; Glasgow Youth Hostel.

To be Avoided

It would be remiss of me to not warn you of the less rewarding components in the Scotch whisky family.

The Distilleries that Could Do Better

Glenturret (too expensive); Old Pulteney (too expensive and your questions won’t be answered); Oban (never mind too expensive, this is highway robbery); Caol Ila (disinterested guide and not much on show).

***

If you have any questions about anything you have read, or there is anything which you feel I haven’t fully described or made clear, just drop a comment and I’ll do my best to help out. Scotland is an unspeakably beautiful, pleasingly accessible and thrillingly complex country made for exploration, just like the unique spirit it creates.

 

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

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Islay and Jura

May 13th, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, 33 miles

It felt deeply odd to wake up and have my mother cooking me breakfast, as opposed to someone else’s mother. I tried not to fight it, because after all, this is their holiday too and they want to see their first-born, even if he is unexpectedly hairy, smelly, unsure of the conventions of social etiquette and eats like a starving lion.

My father has wheeled the bike out of the garage for me, and I have much more sensibly-shaped panniers. It all feels so wrong! At least the Scottish rain keeps me grounded. That, if nothing else, is familiar.

I fight the rain and a stiff Westerley to Bowmore, take some pictures and sniff like a solvent-abuser the peat-laden air. Then I have to rake around Bowmore village because they can’t fit me on a tour until 11AM. I pop into the local Spar, which double sup as the Islay Whisky Shop. There were lots of delicious malts I wanted to take home with me. Which would be my favourite by the end of the week? I was seduced from afar by a bottle of Ardbeg Lord of the Isles. A snip at £400.

After my tour of Bowmore, I had to battle the rain and slightly increasing temperatures to Port Askaig and the impossibly rutted, then steep road to Caol Ila. I was so thrilled to be here, though: the home of my very favourite malt. Hidden by name, or at least in the marketing of Diageo, hidden by nature, with the steeply falling cliff ensuring that only its smokestack can be seen from above.

A very very special moment. Indescribable.

A very very special moment. Indescribable.

Regrettably, it wasn’t to be the glorious validation of my pilgrimage. As you can see in my review, it fell a good deal short of expectations.

I was fortunate that it had stopped raining by the time I exited, because nothing had had the chance to dry. Running a little on empty (the lunch my mothe rhad packed for me may have been delicious, but it was maybe half the requirements for the day) I flogged myself along the merrily undulating single track road to Bunnahabhain. I encountered a car travelling in a contrary direction, but none of the terrifyingly huge Carntyne lorries. Having said that, they were loading one with casks when I bumped over the cattle grid into the distillery complex, another one squeezed onto a shelf of flat land before some very un-flat cliffs.

Upon leaving Bunnahabhain, I discovered that the reverse end of the barrel which had acted as a sign post on my way to the distillery broadcast a rather entertaining joke, which you may find below.

The other side, the one you see first as you head to the distillery, says 'Distillery'.

The other side, the one you see first as you head to the distillery, says 'Distillery'.

  

***

May 14th, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, 28 miles

There's nothing like being stunned by the ebauty of your surroundings first thing in the morning.

There's nothing like being stunned by the ebauty of your surroundings first thing in the morning.

Laphroaig demanded an early start of me. Trying to organise my day such that I could visit all of the Kildalton distilleries in the one day was a major head ache. Initially, I had wanted the visits to be kiltered the other way around: with Ardbeg first and Laphroaig last. Due to their tour times, and some being fully booked, I had to rotate my itinerary around the fulcrum of Lagavulin.

Therefore, I was up and out in the lifting mist at 8AM, due for Port Ellen and the unexplored south shore. The mornign was quite stunning, with rain always threatening to the east, and a beautiful, sun-kissed western view of sea and sand. At one stage, I passed through an area where the wind blew the still-smouldering heather blazes (started illegally) into my face. Wowee! It was that triad of distilleries in one breath of wind: peat, heather, earth and smoke, with a view of the sea to boot. Islay in my nostrils.

Smoking Islay: uncannily reminiscent of the real thing.

Smoking Islay: uncannily reminiscent of the real thing.

By the time I reaached the south coast, it was a treat for the eyes. Few places I had encountered were as gnarled, cramped and rugged as Islay’s south shore, and to find three world-class distilleries within three miles of each other: amazing, mind-boggling.

Laphroaig was first, and how lovely it was. The buildings are utterly precious, and everyone else with a camera seemed to think so, too. A warehouse would have been nice, but what with all this interaction with the developing spirit and my running rather late for Lagavulin, it was probably just as well there wasn’t.

What should greet me as I hurtled back on to the main road but road works! This didn’t help. Once clear of the men in hi-vis jackets, the landscape became fractionally softer and more wooded in time for Lagavulin. I caught the tour by the skin of my teeth and just as well: it was magnificent.

Buoyant and fed, but very very warm, I made more serene progress to Ardbeg. When I got there it was as if the Festival had begun early for this particular distillery. “It’s always like this,” said one of the ladies rushing about. “Everyone wants to eat NOW.” There wasn’t a table to be had, and after some folk took the pouring of whisky into their own hands (glasses, really, but you know what I mean), there were no sample bottles, either. Pandemonium.

By the time the tour departed, everything felt rather wrung out. It was the last tour of the week, everyone on the production side had gone home, and their were some giggly young Germans as part of the 20-strong tour group. It might have been the heat, it might have been that they had had similarly intensive encounters with whisky that day. Soporifically, the tour wended its way to the filling store, I felt like a nap. I wasn’t allowed that. What I was awarded instead was an hour and a half of pitted, ruptured, buckled and destroyed Islay roads, into a head wind.

I was similarly broken by the time I returned to the holiday cottage. Once showered and dressed for our parting meal in the Port Charlotte Hotel, I began to feel the effects of six distilleries in two days and the impending desertion of my parents. The exceptional fare on offer at the Hotel recovered my spirits for the remainder of the evening, but what would break and engulf me the following afternoon had been awakened.

***

Bridgend to Port Askaig, Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, 36 miles

Another food parcel is being put together for me as I wolf down my breakfast. It isn’t an early tour of Kilchoman, but it is on the other side of the island. With regards to the food parcel, I’m wondering how I am supposed to readjust to buying food for myself once Ma and Pa depart this afternoon. It sees a return of the full compliment of baggage on the bike, too. 

The amazing thing about relatively low-lying islands in the Atlantic is that you can see weather coming long before it actually hits. I therefore had a lot of time to prepare myself for getting wet before the black and hevaily-laden cloud finally burst upon me. It wasn’t especially cold, though, so I resisted putting on the overtrousers. However, the rain grew heavier and I decided that getting soaked wasn’t liable to be much fun. On went the over trousers, and just as I set off again, the rain abated. I could then watch it as it bounded away to terrorise Jura.

Stormy weather.

Stormy weather.

The weather remained wonderfully fine for the rest of the day. I could only complain about the wind, and did I? I had agreed to meet my parents for lunch in the Croft Kitchen, Port Charlotte at 12.30. After a few minutes on the road to Kilchoman, I appreciated that such a time was ambitious, even if my tour was a scant half-hour.

The extreme western third of Islay is profoundly unstable. The road sinks and soars dispiritingly regularly. When fighting a vindictive Westerly, this is not a good thing. It wasn’t until I came to Kilchoman, however, that I could appreciate what a not very good thing was really all about. “You don’t like cyclists, do you?” I put to my guide. The farm track to the distillery cause my upper body into spasm as it endeavoured to execute minute turns of the handlebars so that I might avoid the biggest rocks whilst inching along at 6 mph. Nevertheless, the back wheel was regularly pitched into unexpected directions by pieces of gravel and I’m faintly amazed that I didn’t fall off or puncture. Maybe I’m a born cyclocross rider. I walked the bike back to the main road after the tour.

The bike with Lochindaal and Bruichladdich in the background.

The bike with Lochindaal and Bruichladdich in the background.

This act of self-preservation cost me time. The frankly wilful winds ensured that my race against time to Port Charlotte (all the while raging internally that this was my last lunch with my parents before I left and I also had to get food before touring Bruichladdich at 2PM) was frustrating to the point of actually screaming. This doesn’t make me feel better, but succombing turns anger into embarrassment.

A chicken bacon and mayo sandwich, some chips, the hand-over of miniatures and food, the vanishing blue bumper of the car. It was all very upsetting, more so because I didn’t think I was going to be and didn’t want to be upset.

Bruichladdich had a similar feel to Ardbeg the day before: more sedate fairground exhibit than distillery. I ate some food, and headed towards the hotel at Port Askaig, trying to look at this change of scene, a reversion to old ways, as a good thing. This was me returning to those austere self-sufficient days which had done so much for me. Mum and Dad leaving was only an unusual, temporarily complicating factor.

Well, it was temporary in that I only struggled with it and a number of other issues for the following three days. It could have been worse.

I sat on my bed in the hotel, making a passionate attempt to label my accommodation as quirky; quirky that the door wouldn’t lock, quirky that the TV didn’t work, quirky that my bike was sharing the covered open garage at the back with a number of picnic tables, quirky that there was no-one in the place, quirky that everyone, to a man, had a Polish accent, quirky that Port Askaig seemed to comprise only this hotel, the ferry terminal and the shop, quirky that I was booked in for three nights, quirky that this seemed to surprise the Polish girl who showed me to my room, quirky that I felt suddenly completely alone and abandoned on this little island in the Atlantic. I tried desperately to maintain a sense of humour, but that I could see the ferry terminal from my seat in the dining room, my escape route but 72 hours hence, was too tragic an irony.Port Askaig

I was desperately hungry, but had no appetite when my very uniform-looking breaded haddock fillets arrived. That night and the next morning was the worst I had felt all trip, including the first three days and my equipment worries in Huntly and Keith. I battled with doubts that the appearance of my parents had dropped me right back at square one, that my passion for single malt, for Scotland, had been exhausted, and that I was dragging myself to Glasgow and its myriad new threats for no good reason. Compounding these anxieties was the accusation that I had no right to feel as I did. Five weeks in, and more than 1000 miles, I should have been able to take it all in my stride. Well I couldn’t and this sheltered cove within the cliffs felt like a prison, the scene of manifested madness and despair.

I turned the light out long before 9PM, and slept until what would class as late for me on this trip.

***

Port Askaig, 25 miles

Rest enjoyed, I could appreciate the lunacy of my recent itinerary. How could I expect to feel anything else after touring all 8 distilleries in three days? I was exhausted. Recenvening with familiarity only to have it leave was a risky move, but the end is approaching and the peripheral issues on this score are the most pressing. I have pushed myself beyond what I had thought I was capable of and my biggest challenge was still squarely in front of me, drawing nearer each day. Quite right that this evaluation of priorities and my own exact physical and emotional location should take place now, with the resolution of my goals and ambitions so very close.

I tried to chivvy myself by engaging in small tasks: making lunch from the rolls, butter, cheese and ham left for me, doing some laundry in the sink. With these little objectives completed, I decided that I reall wanted to get up and out. I packed my panniers, changed into my gear, retrieved the bike, and broke free of Port Askaig. It was, as I said in a text to my mother, a raod to nowhere. I looked at Finlaggan, central seat for the Lords of the Isles, bummed around Bowmore for a bit, visited the little retail/craft village just outside Bridgend, bought some groceries, and returned to the hotel. Despite a very suspect Spaghetti a la Carbonara (that ‘a la’ is crucial), my spirits had lifted.

Reading Iain Banks helped hugely, perhaps even vitally. His vitriol and invective at the political climate of 2003 when Raw Spirit was researched together with his hilarious anecdotes and experiences in distilleries that I had already visited lifted me forcibly out of my gloom. Without his ‘company’, I’m not sure how I would have passed the stickily-slow time in Port Askaig. Had I not been able to draw off some of his enthusiasm and attitude, day 35 might have ended with my seeing if I could swim to Jura, or something equally wrong-headed. Thank you, Mr Banks. As a writer, too, I only hope my work can have such a sustaining effect on someone.

***

 Port Askaig to Craighouse, to Port Askaig, 17 miles

It is a very exciting, and speedy, crossing to Jura. This little boat is captained with real skill, shuttling back and forth over the treacherous tides and currents of the Sound.

It is a very exciting, and speedy, crossing to Jura. This little boat is captained with real skill, shuttling back and forth over the treacherous tides and currents of the Sound.

I should have known by now that no matter how close I may be to a ferry terminal when I wake up, at least an hour must pass between the first anguished yelps which is how I greet the new day in response to the brusque herald that is my alarm and finally exiting my accommodation, Lycra’ed to the max and ready to go. Consequently, as I ate poached eggs at 8.15, I accepted that I would miss the 8.30 sailing to Jura and had to shuffle about for the 9.30 boat. This, at least, gave me the opportunity to get in touch with Bladnoch distillery, as it appeared that there was every likelihood that I would make it to Dumfries and Galloway, after all. 

 As I waited and cars began to queue, William and Sue rolled down from the hotel. I had met them the previous afternoon as I walked the bike back down in to Port Askaig (saving the brakes on the ruthless hill). They had been cycling the other way, and the reversal of accepted bicycle locomotion with regards to negotiating inclines was remarked upon: it should have been them pushing their bikes up, not mine down. William asked, in a wonderfully broad accent straight from the North East of England, if I’d had a mechanical failure. I had replied that I was just nursing my equipment whenever I had the opportunity. Over breakfast we had met again, and had discussed my travel adventures and their own. As it turned out, they had completed almost exactly the same route to get to Port Askaig as I would take from Port Askaig to Glasgow. Reconvening on the pier, they asked if I knew about the Sustrans network. Phyllis in Dufftown had first put me on to them as we tried to work out a possible route from Nairn to Tomatin. Sue now told me that there was a very well-signposted National Cycle Route from the ferry port in Ardrossan to the middle of Glasgow, the 7. This was music to my ears. My Multimap print-outs and 21-year-old OS map (far older than some of the whiskies I had been tasting) were not at all compatible, and I sensed would not keep me off the very busy roads in Scotland’s most densely-populated area. That they had put before me an alternative already allayed some of my monumental fears concerning the stages at the end of the week, and which had grown from molehills into Cuillins of problems and anxieties over the course of my travels.

We boarded the Jura ferry, and what a charming and informal operation it is. On go the pedestrians and cyclists, who tuck themselves closely into the sides of the vessel, the n the cars board – far more than you would have thought possible. You buy your tickets, blink, and you are swinging into Feolin, Jura. A herd of cows represent a welcome party of sorts, and then you cannot wait to explore the interior of this tiny, sparesly peopled island paradise.

Glimpses to the heart of Jura.

Glimpses to the heart of Jura.

The road follows the coast, essentially, although the mountainous nature of Jura is inescapable. With the Sound of Islay on your right, there are tiny dells and glens with streams and steep-sided gorges to your left, heather and grass and misty mountain tops. It felt the most island-like, somehow, of anywhere I had yet been to. The one single track road I suppose helped with the feeling of separateness and seclusion. I couldn’t help but think of Orwell, and whether it was his influence or not, I found my thoughts rising in an attempt to meet the grandeur and serenity of the landscape about me.

In the distillery visitor’s centre, I asked how far away Orwells old house was. It was only a little after 12 and I had not much else to do once I returned to Port Askaig. The lady looked sceptical. It is at the point of the tear-drop that Jura forms, and requires a fair walk once the suspect road finally peters out. Maybe next time for another breed of pilgrimage.

On the way back, the threat of rain vanished and cloud and light entranced me. The Sound itself was like glass, and a tanker slid along in utter silence. I stood opposite the point at which Islay and Jura form a bottle neck of sorts for the wild seas and create the Sound itself. It was gloriously warm and I had another Highland cow for company.

It is places like this that make anyone look like a good photographer.

It is places like this that make anyone look like a good photographer.

I’d been able to claim a couple of sightings of Jura’s famous deer on the way to the distillery, a head or two on a ridge line. As I headed back to Feolin, I disturbed an army of the creatures, grazing on the land below the road. Upon seeing me, they bunched together and sprinted up the hill, amassing again and turning to assess my level of risk.

Back at the ferry terminal, I was one of a peloton of cyclists. There was Dad and son on a tandem, and Mum and daughter on their own bikes. I learnt from William and Sue when they arrived, having completed their exploration of Jura, that they had encountered this family on the Arran ferry. What an amazing thing to do with and for your kids, although I suspect you would need full co-operation and approval prior to departing. As I can testify, some of the greatest moments possible can come in the saddle, but there is massive potential for days of unmitigated  misery, too.

Back in Port Askaig, I had a drink on the lawn outside the hotel with my two fellow North Easters. They were due to leave for Bowmore shortly, but before they did William showed me his “tool kit” with everything a touring cyclist could need, and by rights shouldn’t be without. Having none of what he showed me, I felt rather ashamed. He then reminded Sue of the Sustrans map. This was excavated from a pannier and would be invaluable when, three days later, I headed in to the big smoke, and every one of my darkest fears.

Pure serenity. The vista is completed courtesy of the Highland cow.

Pure serenity. The vista is completed courtesy of the Highland cow.

When they left, I felt almost as bereft as I had on Saturday with my parents’ departure. The afternoon was still young, however, I wanted to see a bit more of Islay and Caol Ila was walking distance away. I then decided to hike to Loch Nam Ban, the water source for Caol Ila.

This was a very good idea. I panted up the hill to the main road and turned right for Caol Ila. The maps in the hotel had suggested a track of sorts that lead off the carriageway to the distillery itself, up into the hills where the loch lay. I passed the stone cairn/sign for Caol Ila, enchanted by the hot, citrussy and eminently peaty smells of mash and wort blown to my quivering nostrils by the breeze in the Sound. I turned left through a bank of trees and found the capped well, under which flowed the process and water, piped from the invisible loch above me. My shoes may not have been at all appropriate, and the route may have been rather unnecessarily circuitous after I headed up the wrong hill first, and had to fight my way through barbed wire, thick mosses, bog and grass to regain the road, only to find that there was a well-worn quad bike track up to the infamous loch. Standing on the shore of the lapping, energetic waters, I felt more at peace. It helped that its situation, in a bowl in the hills looking out to Jura, deflected all wind so the only sound was the faintly luxuriant and very soothing ‘blop’ of wavelets breaking against the loose stones of the shore. I picked up one of these stones and slipped it into my pocket. That was my most solid and significant souvenir of the tour.

The long hot walk back, during which I watched a thick hairy caterpillar speedily cross the road, was rewarded by some battered chicken and more Iain Banks. Tomorrow I would be on my way again. Progress couldn’t come soon enough.

Wild and soft, remote and welcoming. My favourite malt's very core and DNA.

Wild and soft, remote and welcoming. My favourite malt's very core and DNA.

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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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