Scotland – Day 4: The Right to Roam

As I was finishing up breakfast at the Old Excise House this morning, Ron told me about a very special law in Scotland often referred to as "the right to roam." It basically states that you're allowed the freedom to go wherever you want, even private property, as long as you keep moving. For example, you can take a walk through a private beach even if it's owned by someone else, but you can't put down a chair and start fishing for a few hours. 

"That's great to hear," I said, quite fascinated by this new information. Why was that welcome news, you ask? Because on travel days without appointments (like today) David and I like to hunt down former distillery sites and explore them if they're on the way to where we're going – especially if they're related to casks we're interested in purchasing. We tasted through a few Dumbarton grain casks with Stewart Laing on Thursday evening, so we definitely wanted to see what was left of the former grain distillery and its demolished single malt hub Inverleven. Luckily for us, we had the "right to roam" on our side, so we found the abandoned site, hopped over the fence, and roamed on into the decimated rubble.

The town of Dumbarton sits along the River Leven, right about where it feeds into the larger Clyde River. In the background, on top of a large volcanic rock jutting out of the water, sits Dumbarton Castle – a stronghold that dates back to the 5th century. With the light fading fast and tide rolling in we dodged the various bricks and sharp rocks, scaled the piles of debris, and walked around the remaining brick structure that was closed forever in 2002.

Dumbarton distillery was erected in 1938 by George Ballantine & Son to help create the Ballantine's Blended brand in conjunction with Miltonduff and Glenburgie. At the time it was built it was the largest distillery of its kind in Europe. In 1988, Ballentine's merged with Allied Domecq who would mothball the site fourteen years later, switching production to the newer and more efficient Strathclyde distillery in Glasgow. Pernod-Ricard bought the Ballantine's brand in 2005 and continues to use the plentiful warehouse space in Dumbarton just a mile or so down the road from the former distillery.

One rule that David and I have developed over the years during these scavenger hunts is that we are not allowed to use the internet to find our goal. We are allowed to use vague geographical maps, verbal directions from locals, and photos in books to try and match the terrain, but we absolutely cannot Google search directions. What would be the fun in that? 

"Should we try and hunt down Littlemill as well?" David asked. "It's supposed to be nearby, I think."

"Let's see if we can find someone who remembers the distillery," I said, and we drove around looking for the right local to ask. Usually the best candidates for these types of questions are males in their late 40s or early 50s, so when we spotted two blokes smoking a couple of fags out in front of a nearby restaurant I hopped out of the car and went to work.

"Yeah, I remember it," one of the guys said. "It's in a town called Bowling. It's all houses now, but there's at least one building left and there's a bar called the Horseshoe in front of where it used to be."

David remembered having passed the sign for Bowling a few miles back, so we made a U-turn and headed back in search of the Lowland legend. Littlemill had been dismantled in 1996, but the buildings remained until 2004 when a fire gutted most of what was left. We looked for more modern housing, found the bar, and noticed that the new apartments were located on an inlet called Littlemill Place. Behind the sign stood a delapidated frame that matched the picture in our Malt Whisky Yearbook.

We walked up the hill above the old site to get a better look. As the sun went down and the bridge stood starkly in the distance beneath it, we gazed upon what was once a center for whisky production and remembered our old Faultline expression from a few years back. Then we thought about the new cask of Littlemill we had just tasted a few nights back and smiled.

-David Driscoll


Scotland – Day 4: Through the Grapevine

Up early once again. Still can't get through an entire night yet.

While it's great to be away researching and learning more about our industry, there's still a retail world we're responsible for back in California. What's been happening at K&L in our absence?

- Green Spot Irish Whiskey came in. And then it went right back out again. We're trying to get some more for early next week. I think we sold about 200+ bottles in a matter of hours, but I haven't been able to check since coming to Islay.

- We've got our first of a handful of new Elijah Craig 12 barrels in stock at all locations now. If you didn't hear us say it before, Heaven Hill is no longer offering EC12 as part of their single cask program with retailers, so we took the last few available. It's great stuff.

- Bryan Davis from Lost Spirits in Salinas, CA has a new Leviathan single malt release called 111 set for delivery next week. I haven't tasted it, but I'm sure it's very true to character. Bryan doesn't often stray from who he is. Watch for that on Tuesday/Wednesday.

What's our plan for today? Well, things have changed a bit. I haven't seen any mention of it online, but Bladnoch distillery is no longer in the hands of the Armstrong brothers. I heard from both Raymond and Colin on Friday and they've allowed a liquidator to come in and take control of the company. We were set for our appointment Tuesday to select new casks, but we're not sure if the new director is on board with the idea yet. That remains up in the air at the moment. 

Our next appointment isn't until this evening in Glasgow, so we're going to do some day tripping to a few whisky locations on the way back for young Kyle's professional growth.

I didn't get to it yesterday, but we swung by Bruichladdich to say hello to our friends at the distillery and learned they have yet to begin distilling in 2014. Apparently they're replacing some of their ancient copper equipment and have yet to get the distillery back up and running since moving forward with the repairs. From what we heard, completion of the project is still a ways off, so it might be a while before they can get going again. This surprises me because every other distillery I've visited is currently pumping out whisky 24/7 to meet the demand of the current market. With Remy's deep pockets it seems like they would want to invest in speeding things along.


-David Driscoll 


Scotland – Day 3: Machir Bay

Just around the bend of Loch Indaal from Bowmore is the road to Kilchoman and Rockside Farm. You head north across the Rhinns of Islay peninsula until you can see Machir Bay and the expanse of the North Atlantic. The distillery is situated directly next to the farm, which is equipped with cattle and fields of barley that stretch away towards the hills in the distance. It's a quiet location, just down the road from Bruichladdich, with little pomp or evidence that you're visiting one of the best whisky producers of single malt whisky in Scotland. It's a simple homestead. A quaint enclosure that feels as cozy as it sounds.

Inside the main building a man named Anthony Willis is malting some Rockside barley the old fashioned way. He's still learning about the process, making adjustments after milling, but his team is getting better at it. They've managed to increase the volume of liters produced for their 100% Islay distillate and the quality seems to get better with each run. Every week two tons of barley from the farm next door are soaked and spread out on the floor until the husks are nice and dry. Every Tuesday they're shoveled by hand into wheelbarrows and transported into the kiln for peating.

Anthony Willis isn't a distiller. That's why he hired John McLellan away from Bunnahabhain. However, Anthony was formerly an independent bottler of single malt whisky and, as the industry began to lock down, refusing to barter its whisky the way it once had, he was able to read the writing on the wall. He needed to control his own supply, so in 2001 he began raising money for a distillery. He had the location in mind, he knew the farmer he wanted to work with, and he knew the style of whisky he wanted to make (being a big fan of Ardbeg). He also realized that, due to the financial hardships of founding a new distillery, he needed to create a spirit that would taste better in its youth. So he got the money, brought in an expert consultant, and designed a compact distillery with a special still that would create a lighter, sweeter, fruitier style of whisky meant for drinking sooner than later. He wouldn't know if the design had worked, however, until actually operating the machinery.

Being someone who sourced single barrels of Scotch for a living, Anthony also understood the importance of good wood. That's why, upon founding the distillery, he immediately struck up a relationship with Buffalo Trace in the U.S. and Miguel Sherry in Spain to being purchasing their left over casks. Quality whisky could only be created through maturation in quality cooperage and today Kilchoman still uses barrels from both producers exclusively (80% of its new make goes into ex-Bourbon, 20% into the Jerez butts). 

In 2005, Anthony's team fired up their very special spirit still and began producing whisky at Kilchoman – Islay's farm distillery. Almost ten years later they're slowly gaining recognition for their hard work. It hasn't been easy and many consumers still don't believe that what they're doing is worth the price, but at five and six years of age Anthony's single malt whiskies are beginning to beat out more mature Islay malts in head-to-head competitions and award panels. Every batch they distill is more polished and each release tastes better than the previous one.

"It's definitely coming together," Anthony told us as we stood together in the still room. "We're almost where we want to be."

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the Kilchoman whiskies. But I'm also an admirer of Anthony himself. Kilchoman is the distillery that we would have built if David and I could have developed our own K&L spirits facility. Anthony's goals, viewpoints, and philosophies are completely in tune with our own. He's a guy who gets whisky, who gets the business, and who understands what whisky fans want. He's smart enough to know that the only way to breakdown the consumer dependence upon age statements is to simply provide better whisky without one.

"Ten years ago this wouldn't have been possible," Anthony said. "We're succeeding because of a much more open-minded view from drinkers who are more educated than ever."

He credits Ardbeg for paving the way, but I think Kilchoman's recent releases have done more to convince drinkers about the potential of young peated whisky than any other distillery's efforts. Case in point: the new edition of Loch Gorm headed our way in the near future. is good. We all sat there looking at each other, nodding our heads. 

"It's much better than our last batch," Anthony said, reading the expressions on our faces.

"No shit!" I replied. "It's twice as good. The sherry is more integrated and everything is much more in balance."

Kilchoman is doing so well that they're running out of space for warehousing. They recently erected a new dunnage site down the road from the distillery, on the way towards Bruichladdich, to help ease some of the pressure and provide more room for extra casks. They've increased their capacity for fermentation as well and they'll be adding another mash tun shortly to help maximize the distillation potential.

Since we just received two incredible Bourbon casks of 2008 distillate from Kilchoman, we decided to focus on tasting some new 100% Islay casks from Rockside for possible K&L exclusives. More on that later.

For now all we can think about is that amazing new batch of Loch Gorm! Lucky for those of you coming to our sold out dinner in a few weeks, Anthony told me as we were leaving that he plans on bringing a few bottles with him when he comes. It looks like he'll be debuting it at the event. 

Lucky for you, indeed!

-David Driscoll

NOTE: Read Kyle's take on Kilchoman here at the main site.


Scotland – Day 3: Morning Views

I get notoriously bad jet lag when I travel over more than a few time zones. I don't necessarily tire out or feel sluggish, as much as I just don't sleep for the first few nights. I'm usually up at around 4 AM during the initial mornings before settling into a more normal schedule towards the end of the stay. For that reason, when I learned that two of us would have to share a room at the Ardbeg house, I panicked. Not because I mind sharing a room, mind you, but because I knew that I would be up stomping around at ungodly hours, disturbing the poor soul with the misfortune of bunking with me. All of us were having trouble sleeping, and I didn't think a lack of privacy was going to help things, so I took one for the team and decided to get a room down the road at the Old Excise House – a bed and breakfast run by golf pro Ron Goudie, who accommodate guests along with his wife Emma.

Up until the 1960s, all of the distilleries on the island had an excise officer – a government employee living nearby who would ensure that all proper duties were being paid by each producer. It was up to each distillery to provide lodging for these officials, so in 1906 Laphroaig built a house along what is now the road (A846) running between Ardbeg and Port Ellen. The house stands less than a hundred yards from the sea and is surrounded by picturesque views. 

I got up around 5 AM (happy to not be disturbing a roommate), answered some emails, did some stretching and then went for a run up the hill behind the house where the small loch that feeds Laphroaig its water is located. It was a beautiful moment – staring at the pond, with the dark, brooding sky above me and the fierce wind whipping through my hair. There were geese, plenty of sheep, and old stone walls along the way. I couldn't help but wish I had my camera with me, but not every moment in life needs to be preserved, does it? Some things are better left to memory. I eventually headed back down the hill and into Port Ellen where I trotted through the malting site and along the warehouses before making my way back home. 

After showering and getting dressed, I walked out to the dining room and found a beautiful array of breakfast foods awaiting me. Emma bakes homemade scones and bread, topped with her award-winning orange marmalade made with Laphroaig Quarter Cask. If you're considering a trip to Islay, this is definitely the place to stay if you want an authentic experience. Bowmore is more central to bars and restaurants, but there's something magical about staying on the southern coast. It's more mysterious.

I'm ready to hit the road in a bit. We're off to Kilchoman to see Anthony Willis.

-David Driscoll


Scotland – Day 2: Components

Alright, alright! I'll tell you what we drank at Ardbeg last night. Normally, I'm not the type to brag when I get to taste amazing whisky (mainly because I hate it when other people do it), but since fifty people emailed me after the last post (and I'm not going to answer fifty separate emails right now) I'll show you a close-up of the photo.

In my honest opinion, the best whisky in the group was the first: a 1999 single Bourbon cask. Even compared to the 1974, I thought the 15 year old was better. I could drink that whisky for the rest of my life and be happy. It's really a dynamic experience tasting single barrel Ardbeg samples because most of what Ardbeg releases are marriages of various ages from various barrel types. Getting the chance to isolate one of those components is really eye-opening – the fruitiness on the nose, the phenolic elements, and the hint of vanilla and butterscotch from the wood carrying through the finish. 

I now badly wish Ardbeg had a standard 15 year old expression.

-David Driscoll