Aidan and Jackie's Trip To Islay Back to Islay 2006
Day 1 - January 23, 2006
We flew from Glasgow Airport to Islay on January 23, 2006.
We left Glasgow airport at 9:00 am. The flight was less than half full, and was fast and efficient. There is a bus service on Islay, but the buses are few and far between, and don’t run in the evenings, at least at this time of the year. There is a taxi service available…..we used Fiona’s Taxi and it cost £8.00 to get to the hotel in Bowmore from the airport. We stayed at the Harbour Inn, a beautiful character hotel, absolutely charming. We drop our bags and head to the Tourist info to get a bus timetable.
Our first distillery tour was booked for 11:15 am at Lagavulin. The bus to Port Ellen left 2 minutes before we got to the bus stop, and the next one wasn’t for half an hour and we'd have would miss our tour (there is a bit of a theme here…). But who’s that pulling out from in front of the Co-op grocery store? It’s Fiona! £12.00 later we are at Lagavulin 15 minutes early. It worked out very well for Fiona, who got paid both ways, and very well for us because we got there in time. Synchronicity.
Our Tour Guide, Marjorie was very well informed and we had a wonderful and educational look at what makes Lagavulin so special. There are just nine men employed there, and only two at any one given time; a Mashman and a Stillman. Talk about a way to make money !
There are so many factors go into creating such unique Whiskies. It truly is an art.
Lagavulin purchase 4.5 tons of malt per batch of whiskey. It’s a five hour mash to remove the sugars, and a 55-hour fermentation process. They produce 21,000 litres of wort from a single batch, and do 28 mashes per week, resulting in 52,000 litres of spirit (post-still) per week. This works out to 2.3 million litres of spirit in a year! The present shortage of 16 yr Lagavulin can be attributed to the recession in the early 1980s when Lagavulin was operating only three days per week at a fraction of its capacity.
The distilling process: they distill for 5 hours in the two wash stills, and 10 hours in the spirit stills, the longest distillation in Scotland. 90% of Lagavulin is bottled as single malt, 10% goes into White Horse blend.
At the end of the tour, we went into the cosy lounge area, which where they historically had the floor maltings. Nowadays Lagavulin get 100% their Malt from the Port Ellen Maltings, as do most of the other distilleries on Islay to varying degrees.
We enjoyed a dram of Lagavulin 16 yr and chat with Marjorie. Jackie reminded Aidan that their first “date” included a tasting of the 16 yr and the Distiller’s Edition (a 16 year old that spends an additional 1 year in a sherry cask) in Aidan’s apartment in Yaletown on December 10th 1999. Marjorie has a soft spot for the Distillers Edition and says; “Let’s see if we can get some from the Manager’s Office”. A few minutes later, we are enjoying the best of both worlds.
Our second tour of the day was at the Laphroaig Distillery. It was a cold blustery day in Islay; but not raining as we walk the mile or so back down the road to Laphroaig. We arrive 45 minutes early for the tour we booked and the Visitor’s centre is locked up. After ½ an hour in the cold Islay wind our tour guide arrives and we head in.
Being both recent “Friends of Laphroaig”, we gave her our certificate numbers and waited for the tour. As a side note, January is a great time of year to go to Islay as the tourists are few and far between. Laphroaig has over 8,000 visitors a year, but there were only the two of us that day.
At Laphroaig, they use 7 tons of malts per batch, and malt 10% of the barley on-site. The remainder comes from the Port Ellen Malting. They dry the malt for 15 hours in peat smoke, followed by 19 hours of oil-fired “blow drying”. The phenol count is 55 – 60 ppm for their own maltings, and 45 ppm for the Port Ellen malting. They use 2 tons of peat for each peat fire and fire only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (plan your tour!). The wash tubs were replaced with stainless steel tanks in 1985. Some purists say this affects flavour, but the official line from Laphroaig is that it has not affected the taste at all.
At the end of the tour we were presented with our Certificates confirming that we have been to Laphroaig and received payment for the lease of our square foot in the form of a miniature 10 yr.
Our tour guide was a gracious host and poured us the 10 yr (40%), 10 yr Cask Strength (55.7%), 15 yr (43%) and the Quarter Cask (48%) for comparison; all very different and each very enjoyable in its own way.
Aidan enjoyed the 15yr and the Cask Strength; Jackie favoured the Quarter Cask and the Cask Strength.
On hearing we are traveling on foot, Caroline the Tour Manager offers us a ride us to Ardbeg, which we were pleased to accept to save a two mile walk in the wind.
Our tour Guide at Ardbeg is Jackie, the Wife of the Distillery Manager, Stewart. She is really passionate about Ardbeg and had some great stories and about the place.
The Ardbeg Distillery was closed between 1981 and 1989 – some feared permanently. It was owned between 1989 to 1996 by Allied, then purchased by the Glenmorangie group. In 1997 the distillery produced 200 nine litre cases (an industry standard measurement), by 2000 they were producing 40,000 cases. Certainly some of this jump could be attributed to the passion of Whisky writer Jim Murray, who simples adores this distillery and its product. He was instrumental in the blending of the 17 yr (as we found during the Tasting he ran back in Vancouver last year). Within the last few months Ardbeg has been sold yet again, this time to the Louis Vitton Group.
Although 85-90% of Ardbeg is being bottled as Single Malt, the remainder is used in the Ballatines, Stewarts Cream of the Barley and Long John blends.
There is presently a blend available called Serendipity, which as the name implies was made due to an unfortunate error in the Allied bottling plant on the mainland. Somehow a sizeable batch of Ardbeg (rumoured to be the 17yr) was mixed with Glen Morray. Not wanting to waste a drop, the incident was used as a chance to make something a little different, hence Serendipity.
At the end of the tour we headed to the lounge area where we are poured the classic 10 yr (43%), the new “Very Young” 6 yr (58.3%), the magnificent 17 yr (40%), the odd “Serendipity” (40%) and a very rare Single Cask bottle made for an Italian group called VELIER. It is Cask 2782 filled October 27, 1972; bottled May 5, 2003 (49.9%).
The Very Young was indeed a pleasant surprise for its age and perfectly drinkable; the Serendipity was also an enjoyable dram, but without the character of the Single Malts.
We are all familiar with the “foot stomping” peatiness of the Ardbeg 10 yr and the refined elegance of the 17 yr. The big surprise was the Single Cask. It was absolutely magnificent, but regretfully not for sale. A truly beautiful whisky, if you ever have the chance to try it.
As we had missed the last bus back to town, Stewart very kindly offered to drive us back to Port Ellen and dropped us off at the Ardview Inn.
The Ardview Inn is a real local’s local. Lots of character and almost as much smoke. Aidan tried the local Micro-brewed ale from Islay Brewing called Nerabus. An apt name as we’d been “near a bus” several times but hadn’t actually caught one yet. The bar was out of the draft, but had a few bottles in the cooler. The barmaid let Aidan pour the beer as it is Bottle Conditioned so there is a lees (sediment) of yeast. The beer was very cold and poured flat. Aidan left the last ½ inch or so in the bottle. We chatted for a minute then just as Aidan was about to turn to sit down the barmaid grabbed the bottle and dumped the dregs into his glass with the comment “I didn’t know there was so much left in the bottle”. Aidan winced visibly, but smiled politely and took his beer over to the coal fire to help get warmed up; both him and the freezing cold (and now cloudy) beer. It was not a good micro-brew ale experience and he will give it another chance before passing comment.
Harbour Inn, Bowmore
We called Fiona again and £10.00 later were in Bowmore enjoying a pre-dinner drink in front of the wood burning fire at the Harbour House.
Dinner was spectacular. For starters, Jackie had a Haggis and Venison Tureen served with potato and beets, drizzled with a raspberry coulis and balsamic reduction. Aidan began with 3 pan fried local oysters served with diced leeks and smothered in cheese.
For the main course Jackie enjoyed a beautiful Islay lamb shank with sweet potatoes, green beams and carrots. Aidan had an Islay steak with a local garlic cream cheese drizzled with whisky sauce.
The presentation was magnificent and worthy of any five star hotel. The portions were generous so there was no room for dessert.
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