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.

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