Friday, 26 April 2013

Distilgrimage Part 2

Good evening, and thanks for joining me for part 2 of my Distilgrimage adventure. It’s all about a trip to the Mecca of scotch whisky making, Islay. If you missed part one, it was last week, so you can find the necessary link to that on the right hand side. Otherwise, let’s crack right on with the next bit.

Day 2

Mrs Cake had made actual plans for day two, so we had a schedule to keep. It was going to be a good day.

Before we’d set out on this trip, Mrs Cake had wanted to make sure the satnav covered Islay, while I wasn’t sure it would - given that the previous September I’d bought the Spanish map for our device only to find that Ibiza wasn’t covered in it, and had therefore had to buy that one too.

A quick work-time perusal of the Tomtom website failed to bear fruit, since it seemed you had to plug your satnav into the PC to access the map store. I decided it probably wouldn’t be necessary, as there were sure to be only a couple of roads on the island. That pretty much turned out to be true. Our hotel had proved to be immediately on the left, about 50 yards after leaving the ferry, and all that was needed after that was a basic tourist map, the like of which any hotel would be likely to provide,  to make sure you started out in the right direction. Once you’d done that, everything was signposted.

We knew then, that our first destination of the day - the Bruichladdich distillery, where we were booked on to a 1 o clock tour (I think) – was just around the bay from the town of Bowmore (home to the legendary Bowmore distillery of course), which itself was just along the coast from where we stayed in Port Ellen.
that's the Port Ellen malting plant in the distance. Be-yowtiful

 We passed the Port Ellen malting plant on the way, and then tootled inland at high speed down the longest, straightest road you’re ever going to see outside of the US or Canada, through marshland, past giant birds of prey and the airport and beauty salon, and before you know it, there we were, pulling into the town of Bowmore.

Did I mention that you can park literally anywhere on Islay? And that it’s all free? That might not sound that amazing to you but, living in Manchester, I’m used to having to pay everywhere you go, while finding a space at all can be hard enough sometimes. Not on Islay. Bosh. Straight in. I’ll have to tell me dad.

We didn’t have any plans to visit the Bowmore distillery, but we had a little time to kill and figured we could see if they’d let us have a tasting. It turned out that there was only the one lady working there that day, and she had her hands full running the shop, so we just had a look at the various bottles they were selling. There was a good variety, including some rare stuff exceeding a couple of thousands of pounds. One was as much as £7000. I didn’t take a photo as I didn’t want to dignify such extravagance. An item is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it, isn’t it? And this bottle was still in stock… I’m planning a post on whisky collecting at some point in the future, so we’ll address that a bit more seriously then, I think.

Off we went, around the bay to Bruichladdich which, on arrival looked to be under construction. The reception and shop though, was warm, spacious and comfortably laid out with a few picnic type tables, and various products adorning the walls. We were still early, so we had a look around. I’d been thinking that I would probably buy a bottle from here, so I was perusing their many different expressions.

The girl on duty said we could taste a few things while we waited to see if anyone else turned up, so naturally we did. She brought out the Bruichladdich Rocks and the 12 year old, both of which I’d tried before, then an Islay Barley variety, which is so called because all the barley is grown on Islay. Islay doesn’t tend to produce enough barley for all the distilleries to source it there, with much of it being imported from other parts of Scotland and (in the case of some of the other distilleries on Islay) even England. I’ve since read that the Kilchoman distillery, which is the newest on Islay actually grows its own barley on site. Bruichladdich on the other hand, deal with a few different farms on the island who grow [some but not all of their] barley for them. Each Islay barley bottling is distilled from barley that comes from only one farm.

Having tasted the wash at Lagavulin, by now I had an idea of what barley actually tastes like, and this particular expression of Bruichladdich tasted more like barley than any other kind of whisky I’d ever had before. It was quite unique in that sense, and was certainly a departure from the heavily peated styles that I’d been trying on day 1.

The bulk of production at Bruichladdich is unpeated. This is apparently because that was the style that was favoured by the previous regime. Once the distillery was acquired in 2000 the new owners decided to remain true to that style, but also started experimenting with different peat levels. I learned on the tour that 75% of production is unpeated, 15%  moderately peated and 10% heavily peated. I could be 5% out in terms of the figures I’ve presented there, but I am providing them from memory. I didn’t make any notes I’m afraid, preferring to see what stuck in my mind, and determining what I wanted to tell you from that.

We were also able to try some of the peated varieties, that Bruichladdich call the Port Charlotte expressions. If you look online for Bruichladdich products, you’ll see that there are a number that come under this title, and I’m afraid I can’t recall exactly which ones we tried. I can tell you that they were good, and would be seriously considered when it came to be time to make a purchase.

Pretty soon we were joined by three Dutch guys and a Scottish couple for the tour, where once again we were taken through the production process, allowed to try the wash and shown the stills, but this time we were allowed to take photographs, both of the two wash and two spirit stills and a unique Lomond still that they use to make their own brand of gin, The Botanist.
Stills! No, not you Stephen. Guh back to sleep
 While in the still room we were allowed to try a sample of the new make spirit, too. It came in at about 69% ABV, was obviously clear, and actually surprisingly tasty. I could probably drink it as it was, tasting as I thought it did, not unlike grappa.

I was hoping once again that we’d be allowed to see the casks, aging away in the warehouse, but sadly not.

After the tour was over, we also had the opportunity to try a few more products, including the Organic expression, which to my nose had a very cheesy aroma that put me right off, despite tasting decent enough. Mrs Cake liked that one. There was also a special variety that they kept in a cask in the corner. We were told that they create a special variety every year under a different theme (this one being Four More Years, inspired by Barack Obama’s success in securing a second term in office), that they keep casked in the shop, and allow visitors to fill a 50cl bottle for themselves for £55. Again, they let us have a taste.

Finally, we got a chance to try the gin, and that was pretty good too. It sure made a refreshing drink with tonic, and by this time, a refreshing change from all this whisky. It was just the thing needed to refresh my enthusiasm before the Premium Tasting Tour at Caol Ila.

On the map it looked like Caol Ila was on the complete opposite side of the island, so it was something of a surprise when we saw the distillery signposted after what couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes’ driving.

Being an hour and a half early, we decided to go into the shop and take a look around – mostly to see whether they had a café or anything to eat. We were informed that there was a tour starting in half an hour, which we could join for free, if we wanted (since we had our Classic Malts passports), and that we just had time to pop down to Port Askaig and pick up some food before getting back in time.

They’d told us the pub would be able to knock something up real quick, but they were fairly unceremonious about telling us we’d have to wait as 20 people had just arrived. We went to the shop across the road instead for chocolate and crisps. The relevance of this might escape you right now, but it will probably make more sense later…

The Caol Ila tour was easily the most technical of the tours we took that weekend, the guide ably filled in any gaps in our understanding and reinforced things we thought we’d learned, but didn’t really understand. We were allowed to try the wash again, but this time from four separate washbacks, each a little less sweet than the last as the sugars became alcohol. They were nearly completely full, so I was encouraged just to stick my finger in (oo-er).

The still room, as you may have heard before, is particularly impressive. The six giant stills stand in a row, by big windows that look out over the glassy water to the Isle of Jura. In terms of scale and production it is easily the largest distillery on the island, working 24 hours a day (if I remember rightly), yet considering its industrial scale, production is eerily quiet.

Given the quite beautiful setting, it would have been nice to have been able to take a photo for you, but again, being owned by Diageo, that wasn’t an option. We did remember though to ask this time whether we could see any of the spirit being aged. We know of course, that Caol Ila is aged on the mainland, but a small quantity of Lagavulin is aged here. The answer was no, but we were told the reason this time, which presumably stands for all the distilleries – unless some do let you see their product; you can let me know about that. Anyway, apparently it is because of tax laws and customs and all that. I said we’d brought our [Classic Malts] passports, but they weren’t having any of that. Ok, I said we were told the reason, not that we or you would necessarily understand it. Just take it from me; you can’t see the barrels.

I asked next about how they ensure each bottle tastes the same, and that is done by chemical analysis apparently, though obviously there is a tasting element also. The guide actually told me that the only expression they make any effort to regulate in terms of consistent flavour is the 12 year old. All the others vary according to what batch they are drawn from.

Finally then, it was time for the event I’d been waiting for… the Caol Ila Premium Tasting Tour. If it isn’t obvious already, I’m a massive fan of Caol Ila – the 12 year old is my favourite and the cask strength is awesome. I’m not put off by the fact that all the product is aged on the mainland (our guide maintained that the insides of warehouses are sheltered from any particular atmospheric conditions and that experiments with aging on Islay hadn’t produced any improvements in quality), that production is industrial and certainly modern in comparison to all the other distilleries we visited, that they are owned by Diageo, or that the vast majority of their product is made into Johnnie Walker. All that bothers me not a jot because their single malt is fucking special. You can age it in Coventry for all I care, as long as it tastes the same.

Nevertheless, some people balk at Caol Ila being called a true Islay malt. If you’re going to go that far, most other Islay malts get their barley from elsewhere, so where do you stop? Just stop, ok? The water’s from Islay, the distilling is done on Islay. Just stop.

Where was I? The tasting, what specific delights would that bring? Well first off, we were teamed up with three friendly Norwegians with whom we had crossed paths at Laphroaig the previous day, and who in fact were making their own Islay distilgrimage, though not for the first time. I think this was their third, as it seems they had a share in a cask at Bruichladdich that they visited every year. A nice, friendly bunch they were. I was a little cagey at first, but the more special Caol Ila I consumed, the friendlier I became. Once again I was in the enviable position of pretty much having two of each sample instead of just one, thanks to Mrs Cake being designated driver. The Norwegians had hired a driver, it seemed for the duration of their stay, who they were constantly tormenting by inviting him to nose their samples.
and you will know me by the trail of empties

We had been led into the big white building you can see in the picture there, and seated at a large table, each behind a row of six ready-filled Glencairn glasses, covered by giant contact lenses to hold the aromas in. We were directed by a nice lady in a hi-vis vest.

So… what did we have? There were five bottles in front of our guide, but 6 glasses in front of each of us, so it transpired that there was a special one in the mix that we wouldn’t be able to anticipate. First up was the clear, new-make spirit, which I can confirm was very nice, and again, not unlike grappa. Then there was your standard 12 year old, the un-peated 14 year old, the Distillers Edition, which is the 12 year old, finished off in Moscatel wine casks (and as a result, delectably sweet), the 25 year old, which was fruity and contained many multiple layers, and then finally there was a sample that had been aging 20 years in a sherry cask, and that had never been, nor ever would be bottled.

I was surprised at the special one, since we’d been told at one of the other distilleries that they don’t tend to age scotch in sherry casks for more than 6 months because it has such a potent effect on the flavour, so to do so for 20 years you would think would be far too much, but no, it was good.

Unlike one of our eccentric Norwegian friends, I wasn’t making any tasting notes, so I can’t give you a blow by blow account, but that’s not what this reportage is about anyway. I can tell you though, the tasting was a fun and illuminating experience – once I had my tasting faculties back after that packet of crisps.

I was well on my way by quarter past three, when the tasting was finishing, and we all headed over to the gift shop to make our purchases and taste a final sample – the Moch expression. I’m usually the least enthusiastic about free stuff, and tend to hang back until last, but the booze had me in buoyant mood, and I was practically elbowing Norwegians out of the way to get there first.

That pretty much ends my whisky travelogue, though there are still a couple of things I want to get through with you. First…

What did Mrs Cake like?

I thought you might like to know how the whole experience played out to someone who isn’t already a whisky enthusiast. I always say, there’s only room for one whisky drinker in my house, which isn’t strictly true – at least while Mrs Cake isn’t as obsessed with it as I am. If she gets to that stage, she’ll have to start buying her own. So she came to Islay purely for the purpose of indulging my enthusiasm. She didn’t get to drink as much as I did, but she did at least try a sip of everything, and she professed a liking for quite a few of the samples – this being from someone who had never actually drunk a glass of whisky before. If I’d had a particularly delicious smelling dram, I might have encouraged her to sniff it, but she rarely did, and when she did she would recoil in horror. We tried a good variety on Islay though, and it certainly wasn’t all peaty.

So what did she like? As any whisky connoisseur might suspect, she particularly liked anything that was finished in a sherry cask. The sweetness that adds transforms the whisky from a purely masculine drink to one the ladies can enjoy. So the first thing to tickle the missus’ fancy was the limited edition Lagavulin. At Caol Ila she claimed to like the new make spirit as well as the Distillers Edition (which I already told you was aged in moscatel wine casks) as well as the special sherry cask aged 20 year old, while she said she enjoyed everything she tried at Bruichladdich, including the gin.
I think the peat of Islay malts is a bit of a stumbling block for Mrs Cake, so it is telling that she enjoyed the lighter peated output of Caol Ila and Lagavulin over the heavier stuff from Ardbeg and Laphroaig. Obviously, most of Bruichladdich’s expressions are unpeated, so that follows, too.

As a result of the whole experience, Mrs Cake is now much more likely to have a sip of anything I proffer while I’m drinking at home. It’s nice to be able to share a little of my pleasure, but also a relief that she hasn’t gone full-blown malthead.

What did I buy and why?

On the drive up, Mrs Cake turned to me and said, ‘no arguments, I’m going to buy you two bottles of whisky.” Honestly; she tells me I drink too much, then she wants to buy me two new bottles. Talk about mixed messages!

I nearly choked. Two! Blimey! I don’t think she knew how expensive whisky was likely to be, but I discovered that, in her head, she had budgeted for £30 each, so a total of £60.

I told her she might struggle to get two, but that would be ok, because I had decided I’d allow myself to buy one, and resolved the issue of being skint by picking one for her to buy me, then if there were any budget left, I’d use it to top up a second purchase.

As things transpired, I actually came home with three bottles, and I’m about to tell you how that happened and what my choices were.

Being a fan of the heavily peated style, and having tried Ardbeg only once before, I had planned all along to get one of that variety. Not only is Ardbeg renowned as one of the best distilleries in the world, its output scores very highly in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible – one particular variety achieving 97.5 out of 100. My brief tasting experience only deepened my intention, but being that it was the first distillery we visited, I didn’t want to blow any part of my load straight away, and instead decided I’d try a few more before returning to make my purchases the next day.

Unfortunately, Ardbeg isn’t open on Saturdays in the winter (best laid plans and all that), so I would have to distribute my buying power elsewhere. That was never going to be a problem on Islay though, was it? No frickin’ way.

Mrs Cake checked for me whether Ardbeg was open while we were at Bruichladdich. I had already decided I didn’t want to get a Lagavulin or Laphroaig this time though, so there was no need to find out whether they were. It meant I would have to rely on finding something I wanted at the last two distilleries on our tour – Bruichladdich and Caol Ila. I suppose there was always the option of going back to the Spar in Bowmore (called The Whisky Shop), which has the best selection of Scotch I’ve ever seen in any Spar anywhere. It’s got a better selection than most specialist off-licences. That seemed a bit wrong, though.
best... Spar... ever
 Bruichladdich had a wide variety of expressions that I found tempting, but many were outside of my realistic price range. I would have loved to have picked up a bottle of the super-peated Octomore, but at around £95 for the cheapest one, it would severely limit the possibility of future purchases. Correction; there would be no future purchases.

Then there was the special Four More Years, which was nice, but I wanted more than a 50cl bottle for fifty five quid. The Port Charlotte varieties also were tempting but oddly, by the time we’d gotten to the tasting at Bruichladdich, I was starting to tire of wall to wall peat flavours, and was looking for something a bit different.

I opted then, for one of the unpeated Islay Barley varieties. At £38 it seems a little expensive for a malt that has only been aged 5 years, but I did enjoy the sample, and as I say, it was different from any whisky I’d tried up to that point. It’s also a healthy 50% ABV, so that helped cement the decision in my mind.

There was another Islay Barley variety that I had to consider, but I hadn’t tried it and it wasn’t as strong. It probably was a little older, and it was £2 more expensive. It was the strength that made my decision in the end.

I have to say, I was tempted to get a bottle of The Botanist gin, but at £29 I figured it was money I’d rather spend on whisky.

I did make another purchase at Bruichladdich, and I had (and indeed to this point) have no idea what it is like, but they were selling a blend for £13. Symphony no 1, it’s called, and it is attributed to master blender, Jim McEwan. Another guy was already buying a bottle (apparently on recommendation from a staff member), so I figured for £13, you can’t really go wrong – especially when you find out that a bottle went for £25 on Scotch Whisky

Mind you, if you thought that was surprising, check this out:

Perhaps I should have bought two.

Look at that picture, though! Is that the worst label you’ve ever seen or what? It’s like one of those budget compilation CDs you get for £1.99 in Tesco or Wilkinson. I’ll let you know how the content turns out when I try it.

So my last chance to buy from a distillery would be at Caol Ila. I was almost certain to find something special there, but while I would have loved to have picked up a bottle of the 12 year old, it seemed like a long way to go to get something I was already familiar with.

Luckily, as you’ve already read, the sampling at Caol Ila was exemplary, so it just came down to whether anything was in my price range. I went in the end for the Distillers Edition, which they were selling for £50.30. I would be getting £6 off because they give you a £3 discount with their tour (which for us was free), and I could use Mrs Cake’s discount.

I think there was some confusion because I bought a bottle for my friend too, and they were going to charge me £60 for the two bottles and for the two tastings that are supposed to be £15 each. Being borderline drunk and also an honest citizen, I informed them of the error, and they adjusted the charge. I found later though that instead of a £6 discount, they’d given me an £18 discount, so thanks good people at Caol Ila! Your Distillers Edition tastes that little bit sweeter because of you. And it does taste sweet. In fact, it’s delicious. It’s the only one of the three bottles I bought that I’ve opened so far, and it’s the holy grail for me – a scotch that insists I savour every drop, and want to go back for more. I could probably drink the whole bottle like cola. Beautifully balanced, delicate and sweet – just how I like my women… as I always say – probably too often. But that just makes it funnier… to me. I’ve forgotten what I was saying.


I suppose all that’s left is to throw all this together and give you some kind of conclusion to take away with you.

What would you like to know, do you think? Obviously, depending where you live, it could be further for you than it was for me to go, or it could be nearer. From Manchester it’s 9 hours each way – the return journey we did in one stint. I was pleased to be able to knock 15 minutes off the estimated arrival time that the satnav gave us, but I threw it all away at the last by missing an exit and having to drive in the wrong direction for seven and a half minutes.

Given how far it was, was it worth it? The answer to that is absolutely. It was a very fun and memorable excursion. It would have been quicker and cheaper to have had a weekend on mainland Europe, but that would be something different altogether. A good couple of hours before we reached our hotel on the way there, I turned to Mrs Cake and said, ‘If we’d gone to Barcelona, we’d have finished dinner by now’. And it would have been warm.

Barcelona though, isn’t the cradle of the Scotch whisky industry. If you like whisky and if you can make it, I’d definitely recommend that you go. It’s probably like that film Sideways, only better, and not just because whisky is better than wine. Yes it is.

I asked at the beginning, when it comes to whisky distilleries, how different can one be from another. Well, from the six I have now visited, I would have to say they aren’t much different from one another, and the tours are almost identical. You see the same things, learn the same things (admittedly lots), and while there are slight differences, I think you could get away with visiting one if you wanted to leave it there.

The surprising bit though, is that having been to a few, I’d now be much more inclined to visit more. It’s fun, they are friendly places to visit (if this random sample is anything to go by) and you get to sample some expressions that you might not be able to afford, or necessarily ever get around to buying.

I mean, you get some people who have been to all 92 football league grounds. That’s quite an achievement, so why should you not make it your goal to visit as many scotch whisky distilleries as you can? There are 96 according to Wikipedia, and it’s probably a lot easier if you live in Scotland, but I would definitely like to go to more. It’s better than seeing the ruins of some castle.

It’s an all round enjoyable experience. I was particularly surprised to find that despite the competition between distilleries for market share, the ones on Islay almost seem to work together. None of the ones we visited were disparaging about any of the others, and they all referred to each other in fond ways – no sneering or snarky comments. I suspect this is down to the importance of the scotch industry to Islay’s economy. It’s a small population, they have to rely on the industry to some extent – and they probably all know each other personally.

You hear some whisky enthusiasts for example, being disparaging about Caol Ila, but none of the distilleries led us to think there was anything to be disparaging about. Similarly you hear the Bruichladdich are unpopular because of their slightly unorthodox marketing methods, but again, they were friendly and appeared to fit in harmoniously with the other distilleries on the island.

So in conclusion: Islay – do it; distilleries – do it. Beautiful place, lovely people, awesome whisky. What (other than the likely distance – just forget about the distance!) is stopping you?

That’s it for this week then. I’ll be going to Nottingham tomorrow for a friend’s birthday. His present is a bottle of brandy. Hopefully I’ll get to try it. As for tonight, I thought I might do a taste test between two brands of gold rum, and maybe another between two kinds of brandy. No doubt the results of those will be showing up on this blog at some point, so please keep coming back.

Whatever you’re up to, have fun. See you next time.

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!