I’m not going to write too much about what I did on the Sunday on Islay. I intended to use the day for hiking as the public transport doesn’t run there on Sundays, but the weather had other ideas. Instead I took a nice long walk along the Three Distilleries path. I stopped at Laphroaig and had a dram of the 10-year-old Cask Strength, then went to Ardbeg for some lunch at the Old Kiln Cafe. I walked back to Port Ellen and went for a pint at one of the local pubs.
The next day was unfortunately my last day on Islay and I had two more distilleries to visit. First on the list was Bruichladdich. Bruichladdich has quite an interesting story, there’s an old, but good video about it here. It had since been sold to Rémy Cointreau for a healthy profit. The visitor centre was really nicely laid out, with lots of space to sit and plenty of nice stuff for sale, including a very good range of distillery only bottlings. I was very warmly welcomed by the staff but was told that I couldn’t try any whisky until 10am as per British law. They pointed me in the direction of a little coffee shop and told me to come back at 10 and try all the whisky. I went off, had my coffee and returned at 10. The people at the shop were very generous with what they let you try and it included everything they sold except for the Black Art, which was sad because I’ve been dying to try it, but understandable.
I started off trying the two “Valinch” or Bottle-Your-Own casks available, a 13-year-old Bruichladdich Bourbon Cask named for the warehouse manager Dougie MacIntyre (as far as I understand the distillery employees help select valinch casks now and then – EDIT: I was told that the casks are picked by Adam Hannett the master distiller), and a 9-year-old Port Charlotte aged in a Viognier cask, part of a cask type experiment, which Bruichladdich is always doing. The Bruichladdich was nice, but there’s a actic note in their whisky that I don’t like unless mixed with peat. Nothing bad about the whisky, just my personal tastes. The Port Charlotte was absolutely amazing. I haven’t tried many white wine finished whiskies, aside from Sauternes, which I don’t really like, so this was very interesting. I was debating between buying the 2016 Feis Ile bottle which was still available there and this one, so I had another taste of the Feis stuff and went with the Port Charlotte Valnich. What I kind of liked at Bruichladdich was that the valinch casks had a convenient tap instead of a valinch. While this feels less ‘authentic’ or whatever, it’s a hell of a lot easier. There were also some Valinch bottlings from previous casks available, but at 100 GBP for a 500ml bottle, I stuck with my choice.
I had a bit of time before the tour still. I post a lot in reddit’s /r/Scotch subreddit, and every month we do a community review where everyone reviews a selected whisky and posts their notes. July’s review was Port Charlotte Scottish Barley, the NAS, base expression of Port Charlotte, so I figured it would be really cool to do the review at the distillery. So I got myself a dram. The community review can be found here. I found it alright, but not as good as some of the other Port Charlottes. I thought it was a little a unbalanced and sharp.
I went back inside and had a taste of the Bruichladdich Organic Scottish Barley as a warm up for the tour.
Bruichladdich Organic Scottish Barley
This one is a NAS travel retail exclusive made from organically grown barley. The vast majority of distilleries use the same high-yield, hardy species of barley, but Bruichladdich is very into experimenting with the effects of different strains of barley and growing environments on the taste of their spirit (they’ve adopted the term ‘Terroir’ from the wine industry), and this is one of them.
Aged 3 years * . 50%ABV. No colourant added and non-chill filtered.
*for lack of age statement
Nose: Creamy porridge. Tropical fruit. Camphor. Light wood shavings. Sandalwood. Nail varnish.
Palate: Honey. Bitter wood. Floral. Coconut.
Finish: Long. Coconut. Fruits. Creme brulee.
Would I buy this: No
Would I order this in a bar: Yes
Would I drink this if someone gave me a glass: Yes
This was an interesting one. It tasted quite creamy and light, perhaps a little less sweet than the standard Bruichladdich. I’d need to try more of these barley experiments to see if it really makes a difference (and am fully willing to do so, purely in the name of science of course), but it is quite interesting.
I was doing a distillery tour and then a warehouse tasting. The tour was quite interesting. Bruichladdich likes to be a little different and part of that means using refurbished 19th century equipment, and it was really cool to see a lot of that in action. Our guide Ashley was very good and was full of distillery history and some odd anecdotes as to how things are done there. We could also photograph freely which was great. The still room was interesting, aside from the nicely decorated wash and spirit stills, Bruichladdich has an interesting oddity, Ugly Betty, a Lomond Still (thanks /u/rednail64 on reddit for the correction) which they use for making their gin, The Botanist, made from botanicals harvested on Islay. We also got to see the warehouse with all of their odd selection of casks and a really cool cask with glass ends so that we could see the maturation affecting the spirit.
After the tour we went back to the visitor centre and waited for the warehouse tasting. In the meantime, I noticed a few bottles being offered to a group of visitors and sidled up and asked for some of the Port Charlotte 2007 CC:01. This is a travel retail only Port Charlotte aged in cognac casks. It’s quite different to the regular profile. I found it a deal spicier and dryer.
After that our guide for the tasting, Connor, gathered us all up and off we went to the warehouse to taste some (more) whisky. Connor was great, he gave the tasting a very informal atmosphere and really made it feel like we were all just sharing a dram together. The tasting involved 3 (very generous) samples drawn from a Bruichladdich cask, a Port Charlotte cask and an Octomore cask. Again, I’m not adding the parts of my review concerning buying and purchasing because these casks will never be bottled.
Bruichladdich 27 Bourbon Cask
Aged 27 years. Didn’t write down the ABV. Drawn straight from the cask.
Nose: Coconut. Pineapple. Balsa wood. Banana. Cedar wood.
Palate: Cream caramel candy. Creme brulee. Sandalwood. Honey.
Finish: Long. Honey. Caramel. Slightly bitter aftertaste.
This was a nice whisky, but to sweet and lactic for my tastes. It was a bit aggressive for its age but you could still tell you weren’t dealing with a young whisky here.
Port Charlotte 12 Oloroso Cask
Aged 12 years. 62.94%ABV. Drawn straight from the cask.
Nose: Boiled sweets. Pears in wine sauce. Wine gums. Liquorice. Cinnamon. Sweet peat. Marzipan. Wine cake.
Palate: Farmy Peat. Anise. Grass. More wine gums. Nutty wood. Cream.
Finish: Long. Honey. Grapes. Earth. Caramel pudding. A cinnamon bun with a crazy amount of raisins.
This was more my style. A really fantastic example of a Port Charlotte full of winey notes, an excellent result of the rich sherry combining with the sweet notes of the peaty spirit. Unlike the Bruichladdich this one actually felt quite mellow despite its age and ABV.
The last whisky we tried was a really amazing one. For those who don’t know, Octomore is born of an experiment to try and and constantly increase the peat levels of the barely. They’ve achieved well over 200 ppm by now. Octomores have developed quite a following and have become very collectable so they’re very expensive, but I actually prefer Port Charlotte. I’ve found in my experience that once you go above about 50 ppm, you can’t really differentiate the various tastes anymore, the peat becomes a little overpowering.
This particular one was especially old for an Octomore, 11 years to be precise and peated to 159ppm. The cask type is unknown. I started taking notes for this one but I got a bit absorbed in it and stopped. It was truly an outstanding whisky. The peat was strong but there was a lot more going on here. I picked up dry grass, lots of fruit and marzipan.
After the warehouse tasting I stumbled back to the visitor centre and somehow managed to clamber into the taxi to take me to Kilchoman. Kilchoman really is out on a farm and is really tiny. It’s not a marketing gimmick. It’s made up of a lot of prefabricated structures and doesn’t look like a classic distillery, but it has a special air to it, it feels almost cozy. I was still quite wobbly from all the sampling at Bruichladdich so I walked off into a field and had my packed lunch of cheese and oatcakes which did a great job of de-wobblifying me.
I walked into the shop which has an attached cafe and had a look around. The shop was only selling the standard range unfortunately, and I’d tried all of them, but in this case I can understand why as Kilchoman is quite new and is trying to build up a reserve of older casks, so they’re not selling everything now. The shop also sold quite a lot of local crafts. I made my presence known and was told that I was the only one on the tour and tasting that day. Private distillery tour number 2! My guide Leha was great, she knew all the ins and outs of the distillery and could answer all of the geeky whisky questions. Again apologies but due to the individual attention I got I was very absorbed and didn’t take any pictures.
We started off with their malting floor. Kilchoman malts about 25% of the barley that they use on site and that barley comes from the adjacent farm. I was really surprised to see how small the malting floor was and it really gave some perspective to the scope of operations after seeing the maltings at Bowmore and Laphroaig. After that we went to see the mash tuns and washbacks. Again the small scale was very interesting. Everything was all in the same little area. The stills themselves were not as small as I expected, but there were only two. They were running so I could smell the new make, and it was lovely. We moved on to see the filling station where casks are filled and eventually emptied and what was really fun was to see the bottling station. Kilchoman are the only distillery on Islay that does bottling on-site so that was quite a unique thing to see. A batch of Sanaig was being bottled at that very moment.(EDIT: I was informed that Bruichladdich also do on site bottling)
After the tour we went to the tasting room. Again I was alone so I was a bit too engaged to take notes, so I don’t exactly remember what there was. I felt a bit bad that my guide couldn’t have any as well while I was there enjoying all the lovely whisky, but to be fair she gets to work there every day. I do remember that the tasting started off with 100% Islay, and that the majority where expressions that I’ve previously tried (Loch Gorm and Sanaig). One interesting thing was a Sauternes finished expression, which wasn’t a single cask, so we could possibly be seeing a new expression or limited edition some time soon. Sauternes isn’t my style, but I didn’t mind this one so much. It was still very much a Kilchoman.
And so ended my final distillery visit. I had a long taxi ride back to Port Ellen and then packed up my bags, trying to make sure all my bottles were well padded. After that I still had some cash left and walked next door to the Islay Hotel, whose bar has a huge collection of whisky, and ordered myself a Bunnahabhain 17, which I’d seen around at various whisky bars on the Island and been interested to try. I didn’t take notes, I sat outside with my dram and reflected, on my trip, on the wonderful people I’d met, the friendliness of the people on the Island, the beauty of the place and on how grateful I was to have been able to go there and have such an amazing experience.
I usually have a rule to always travel somewhere new when I can, but Islay just might require a revisit. Truly a special place.