Friday, 19 April 2013

Distilgrimage... Part One

Good evening! Yes, I’m finally back from Vietnam. I say ‘finally’, as if I wouldn’t rather be there, but believe me… I would. It was awesome, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it (I hope you enjoyed the tweets), but first… I need to get around to writing about it. Don’t worry though, this week’s post is something else I’ve been looking forward to giving you for a while. It’s part one of a two part account of my trip with the missus to the island of Islay. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Distilgrimage (part one).

800+ miles… 2 days travelling, 9 hours each way… 2 days tasting… 6 distilleries… 5 tastings… 3 tours… 19 whiskies… 2 new-make spirits and 1 gin sampled… 3 new bottles… 6 new glasses.

Given those stats, I can only be talking about a weekend on the island of Islay, off the western coast of Scotland. Yes, do you remember me asking in my previous ‘review’ of Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, is it worth visiting more than one distillery? How different can they be? Well, I will come to answer those two questions in the course of these next two posts because, for my birthday, Mrs Cake decided to treat me to a weekend away at the home of several of my favourite whiskies – in fact, the birthplace of scotch whisky itself,  in what would come to be known as our Distilgrimage - a name that makes perfect sense since, like a pilgrimage, it was a long fricking way, and it was a spiritual experience – which is both a pun and attempt to ascribe some kind of poetic significance to proceedings. Just go with it.

I had known Mrs Cake was planning something, and I had an inkling that it would be a weekend away – it’s kind of obvious when you are required to book a couple of days off work. I also remembered telling her that maybe one day I’d quite like to visit a distillery, but I had no idea how much effort she would put into it. If it had been me, we’d have gone to Edinburgh, and I would have found the nearest distillery to there. Not Mrs Cake, she knows I’m partial to the peaty goodness of Islay (Caol Ila, Bruichladdich and Laphroaig were already firm favourites), so she pulled out all the stops and on my birthday presented me with a full colour itinerary (I bet her work is pleased about that) detailing what we would be up to come the 21st of February 2013.


It’s a long way to Islay (from Manchester). It’s a fairly long way to Scotland, and I never expected I’d have any particular excuse to go there again, but it’s a really long way to Islay. That doesn’t matter though, I like a good road trip, and the missus and I had been needing something like this for a while since our working lives hadn’t been seeming to get along with us, and as a result, us with each other. We always have a great time on holiday though.

I jiggled my hours about at work, and arranged for a 3 o clock finish on the Thursday. We’d packed the night before, so it was straight home, load the car, get going.

I’d requested some bangin’ hip-hop for the journey, but Mrs Cake had sadly missed the mark, picking the worst of Ghostface Killah’s albums, and frankly nothing I’d been hoping for. Nevermind – we at least got right into the People Under the Stairs’ Highlighter album.

We set off not long before 4pm. Mrs Cake had booked us a hotel by Loch Lomond to rest up in in advance of an early ferry the next morning. We arrived at the hotel, starving, at 9.30pm. As we approached the entrance, I could see the chef wearing one of those flame coloured chef caps through the window, drinking a can of Special Brew. It turned out though, that the kitchen was already closed, and all they could offer us was soup and a sandwich. They had a well-stocked bar, but all I fancied was a pint and bed, being exhausted from the journey. I had just enough energy to watch Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, and despite having brought my bottle of Scapa (coals to Newcastle?) I didn’t even bother getting it out.

The ferry was scheduled to depart from Kennacraig at 9.45 the next morning, but we had to be there by 9.15. It was roughly a two hour drive from the hotel, so that meant we had to leave while it was still dark, and before our hotel started serving breakfast. That was fine with me, as I feel nervous eating breakfast when I have to be somewhere at a certain time.

On the way the satnav decided to send us down a weird side road that we determined couldn’t be right, so we turned back after a bit and just went the way that seemed logical. I joked that maybe we should change the voice on the satnav to a man’s, since he would probably be better at reading maps.

Mrs Cake was getting flustered, but I reassured her that we still had plenty of time, and if we missed the ferry, we’d just have to get the next one. We made it to the ferry for 9.05, so it was all good anyway.
satnav does not show the boat
The ferry takes around two hours, and it’s comfortable enough. The scenery’s nice, as you’d expect from Scotland, but the wind was blowing cold so I didn’t stay outside for long. I’d wanted to be on deck to see Islay approaching, since I’d heard you can see Laphroaig from the ferry, but for some reason you can’t get to the front of the boat. It wouldn’t really have mattered, as I learned on the way back that the boat comes out of port, then turns 90 degrees left, so you can see Laphroaig on the left hand side. Coming into port of course, it would be visible on the right. Nevertheless, I got a couple of pictures on the way back. I’m estimating the distillery was about a mile away, but you can see it quite clearly.

All the TVs were on on the ferry, and were showing Homes Under the Hammer for some reason. We’d both left our books in the car, so it was a waiting game. Thankfully, time goes quicker as you get older, so it didn’t seem to take that long. In theory that should mean that the faster time goes, the closer to death you are, so you ought to have some kind of clue as to when you’re actually going to die because right before, time will be going really fast.  I’ve seen old people though, and they don’t seem to be noticing. Perhaps you don’t when you’re in the moment, it’s only afterwards, and if you’re dead there isn’t an afterwards anyway…

Where was I? Ah yes, arrival on Islay. Mrs Cake had made a reservation for us at the Islay Hotel in Port Ellen, which is literally on your left as soon as you get off the ferry. She picked this one for two very good reasons:

  1. We wouldn’t have to worry too much about getting to the ferry in time for the trip back
  2. The distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are within a brisk walking distance (of sorts), so that would mean we could potentially get hammered and not worry about having to drive.
Day One

Mrs Cake hadn’t booked any distillery tours for our first day, but on arrival we decided to head straight out and try the triumvirate of classic distilleries that were just down the road. Not actually being sure whether it was walkable (a map suggested it was a distance of 5km between the three), we decided to drive to the furthest first (Ardbeg), just to see how far the others were, and potentially drive back before walking to them later.

Nearly everyone we passed waved to us as we went by, which was certainly a nice welcome, but since we weren’t expecting it we didn’t always get chance to wave back. Sorry about that, people of Islay.

The three distilleries are all on the same road, and Laphroaig is definitely walkable. Lagavulin should be possible also, but the road narrows and winds somewhat before you reach Ardbeg. There’s no footpath and the grass verge was a little bushy and looked heavy going. We reached Ardbeg in just a couple of minutes and headed inside where their café was doing a roaring trade. We perused the gift shop while we waited for a table, since lunch was well on the cards by this point.

A lady told us that for £5 we could have a table tasting alongside lunch if we wanted, and that seemed like a good idea. They have a good range of tours, which you can read about here (, and I forget why we didn’t join one. I think that with it starting at 3pm, we would be waiting around a while, and we thought we wouldn’t get time to get to Lagavulin and Laphroaig that afternoon if we did.

So we had lunch, planning to have our table tasting afterwards. As we ate though, the café continued to get busier, so we thought they might want to use our table. We were told instead that we could have our tasting in what they call The Chairman’s Study. That’s a small room at the end of the bar that houses a wide range of Ardbeg expressions, ranging from standard to very rare. We would only be tasting four current expressions, Blasda, 10 year old, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan.

You’ll be pleased to hear that they are all damn good. I’d only tried the 10 year old before, but had already heard good things about Uigeadail. That one and the Corryvreckan are both cask strength and, along with the 10 year old, are very peaty. Blasda is actually only lightly peated in comparison. You get to learn all about phenols and parts per million, and it’s interesting to think you can taste something that consists of only 8 parts in a million.

I’d just like to note at this point that I added a drop or two of water to the cask strength whiskies, and again at certain other points during the trip, and if you’ve ever read that when adding water, you should ideally try to get the same kind of spring water as was used to produed the whisky… none of the distilleries bother with that – and they’re probably the only ones who could! In fact, if you raise this point, they’re likely to look at you like you’re an imbecile. So that’s something you can stop worrying about. I’m thinking it’s probably best to use your own tap water, since you’re probably used to the taste of that, and therefore you won’t notice it. That’s one to try next time I get something cask strength.

Incidentally, Laphroaig’s water source dried up fairly recently, so I guess it’s wasteful to bottle it when you could be making special whisky with it.

That tasting became the first of a number of freebies that the various distilleries threw our merry way over the next few days. On its culmination I asked the young girl who had done the hosting if I just gave her the £5, and she said don’t worry about it. ‘I won’t tell anyone,’ I said, but I just have. Anyway, it seems to be standard practice, so nothing to worry about.

When it came to buying souvenirs, I was considering buying a bottle from Ardbeg (I’ve been wanting one for some time), but decided to wait until I’d been to a few more distilleries before making a choice.

Before getting back in the car, we walked down to the sea to get a picture of the building that has ‘Ardbeg’ written on the side. We also saw quite a few barrels sitting out there, and got some photos of those too. Of course we were tempted to reverse the car up, and try to get one in the back. That would actually be the only time we would see any barrels on the trip (aside from one other – the cask that Bruichladdich lets you fill your own 50cl bottle from for £55). For some reason, none of the distilleries would take us into their storage facilities. Caol Ila would later tell us that it was for Customs and Excise reasons. I know they don’t have many on site at that particular distillery, but other than the still themselves, thousands of barrels of whisky, peacefully aging in a warehouse is what I want to see the most! Could they not have a big glass window or something, that you could look through?

On with the crawl. Mrs Cake isn’t into whisky, so driving duties passed to her. She was able to have a sip of each sample while I finished the rest, so I left with a happy buzz and we headed over to Lagavulin, not bothering with the driving back to the hotel and walking thing after all.

We were greeted at Lagavulin by a lovely lady called Marjorie, who informed us that a tour would be starting in half an hour, if we would care to wait – just in case some more people turned up (no one did). It would be £6, and we would receive a free branded Glencairn glass and a sample of the expression of our choice at the end. Alternatively, we could have a tasting of the three expressions, which would also be £6. Well, there were two of us, which meant we would be able to sample two of the three expressions between us if we took the tour, and Glencairn glasses were £5 in the gift shop (and indeed in the gift shops of all the various distilleries we would eventually visit), so the tour seemed like the best deal – especially since I’d tried the Lagavulin 16 before, so I only needed to taste two. We decided to wait, and had a nice chat with Marjorie while we did.

Marjorie led the tour herself (in fact, all the tours we took were led by women), and it was informative, friendly and conversational. Mrs Cake asked a ton of questions and Marjorie proved her knowledge to be extensive. We saw the old malting fire which isn’t in use anymore as the grain for all the distilleries on Islay is malted at the large Port Ellen plant – where they also used to make whisky, but sadly no more – as well as the mill, the mash tun, wash back (?) and finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, as the French would say, the still room.

Marjorie let us taste the wash out of one of the tubs, which is essentially warm beer, and quite tasty, before throwing the remainder back in the tub. We wondered about hygiene, but apparently it literally makes no difference, as all this is going to be boiled at the distilling stage anyway.

Lagavulin and indeed Caol Ila are sister distilleries under the authoritarian father-figure of Diageo – the giant company that also owns Guinness, Smirnoff, Gordon’s, Captain Morgan and a whole slew of whisky producers – and as such are subject to the ‘no photographs on any part of the tour’ rule, which explains why I’ve no pictures for you here. The reason apparently, is that a lot of the other distilleries owned by Diageo get many many times more visitors, and it causes delays to their tours. Quite why they should make this a blanket policy to cover tours that consist of just two people doesn’t really make sense to me, but there you go.

I heard also that in the past, tour guides had been known to allow sneaky photos, but ended up getting in trouble when the same tourists went to another distillery and complained when they weren’t allowed to take photos there, stating that they had been allowed to at Lagavulin. Why anyone would want to get their guide in trouble like that, I couldn’t say – I certainly wouldn’t. Knowing that I was going to tell you about all this, I didn’t even take a sneaky photo, but don’t worry, there will be a photo of a still in part two of this travelogue, thanks to Bruichladdich where they aren’t subject to such strict discipline – yet – and a couple of pictures of the giant stills at Caol Ila… through a window.

Finally then, we were led into a comfortable drawing room and invited to select which of the three expressions we would like to try. We passed over the 16 year old (which is reputed to be the best), instead selecting the cask strength 12 year old and the limited edition that was finished in sherry casks. Mrs Cake liked the sherry finish, but I wasn’t overly fond of either on this occasion. Not that they were bad! No, but let’s just say I hadn’t found one of my purchases yet.

Before she left us, Marjorie also gave us our Classic Malts passports which entitle us to free tours at 11 other distilleries – one of them being Caol Ila. Mrs Cake hadn’t actually booked us a tour at Caol Ila in advance, instead opting for the Premium Tasting, so we thought these might prove useful. They did, but much more on that in part 2!

Don’t go anywhere just yet, there’s one more distillery to go before the end of day 1, and while there’s less to tell about this one, I’m sure you’ll want to stay and find out because it’s the legendary Laphroaig.

Laphroaig was probably the first single malt that I ever truly loved, though the early romance has cooled somewhat over the last few years as I came to explore so many other styles and products. Even so, I still hold the distillery in some reverence.

It was about 4.15pm when we arrived, and we’d missed any tours but that didn’t mean we couldn’t pop into the bustling gift shop and see about having a little tasting in the last 15 minutes they were open, which we did, and they allowed us to for free.

I’d tried the 10 year old and Quarter Cask expressions before, and figured they probably wouldn’t want to let me try the 25 and 30 year olds they had there. Mrs Cake asked anyway, and they said they didn’t open them. That left the Triple Wood and 18 year old, that they did let us try, though I barely got a dribble of the 18 year old! I didn’t make any notes, and it is difficult to give a full appraisal from a single taste, but I’d have to say I liked the 18 without being sure whether I’d like to shell out £70 for a bottle, while the Triple Wood had a strong and not particularly pleasant finish that I remembered from my own bottle of Caol Ila 18 year old – an expression we later learned is quite rare now. Check me out.

I thought then, that I probably wouldn’t make a Laphroaig one of my purchases on this occasion either, though I will return at some time in the future. I did make sure to get a branded Glencairn glass though, as well as some cheese that is made with Laphroaig. I don’t recall now, but I thought that cost £2.50, while Mrs Cake says it was £3.50. There was also a pair of spectacles on the counter, black with a large white L on them, that given the breadth of branded products you can get, made us consider that maybe they were official Laphroaig spectacle frames, but no, they belonged to one of the Belgian or Norwegian tourists who were busily getting their expensive purchases in.

I’ve tried the cheese now, and despite the fact that it is made of only 1.6% whisky, you can really taste it. On numerous occasions in the past, Mrs Cake and I have tried a product like this and found traces of the special ingredient nowhere. The bad news though, is that in my opinion, the cheese isn’t particularly nice. I’m sure some people will get a lot of enjoyment out of it, but sadly not I. Nevermind.

Well, that concludes part one of the Islay Distilgrimage Adventure. We had dinner and whatnot that evening, but it wasn’t particularly whisky-related, so not for inclusion here. I may as well give the Islay Hotel its due though, and say its restaurant was pretty good. I’m not a food blogger, so I’m not going to get all specific or glowing on you, but I’d recommend it if you’re staying on Islay one of these days. Come to think of it, the bar was fairly impressively stocked...

Join me next week then, for part two, in which we’ll be visiting the distilleries of Bruichladdich and Caol Ila and making some purchases. It will most likely be a quiet weekend for me – feeling the strain of holiday expenses – but with all the booze I’ve got, that doesn’t mean I can’t have a party. Tonight I’m thinking I’ll compare the bootleg longan wine that I bought in Vietnam for £4 with my £48 bottle of Domenis Blanc e Neri grappa, so that will be fun. Tomorrow will be, you know, similar. I er… forgot that I’d splashed out (£5.99)  on the premium Ballycastle Irish Cream from Aldi before I went away, so I might give that one an airing. Then there’s always other things burning a hole in their bottles…

Other than that, it’s time to get back to normal life after the holiday – shopping, cooking and all that. I’ve promised Mrs Cake I’ll make her a birthday cake, so along with my first round of golf since the first week in January, that’s Saturday taken care of.

There’s still plenty to look forward to and to blog about, so keep coming back and inbetween times, follow me on twitter (@alcothusiast) where I’ll be giving you tasters of what’s to come and generally trying to be funny.

Have a good one, and see you later!

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