Scotland - Day 8: Bruichladdich & Kilchoman

Today's journey began with a quick run along the coast to the west of Bowmore distillery, before we both jumped in the car and headed north, across the bay, to Bruichladdich and Kilchoman distilleries.  Our visit to Bruichladdich was more of a social call as we are quite close with both master distiller Jim McEwan and current operations manager Simon Coughlin.  Jim has been a friend to K&L since our predecessor Susan Purnell helped to bottle the very first post-2001 Bruichladdich exclusively for our store.  Three years after her departure, our relationship is stronger than ever and we're even more passionate about their whiskies than before.  While our Chenin Blanc cask from last year is now a thing of the past, we wanted to stop by and check in on our replacement for this year - a 2003 vintage peated malt aged in refill Bourbon cask.  

The distillery was absolutely packed.  The same gigantic tour groups we had seen over at Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig were all visiting Bruichladdich today.  We couldn't even park in the main lot.  Jim was as animated as ever - always the great storyteller.  We traded gossip with him for a about an hour, tasted some exclusive cask offerings, and eventually made our way over to Port Charlotte for lunch.  

The PC Hotel is a lovely spot for quick bite to eat.  Plenty of whisky and a fantastic lunch menu.

The local Islay ales are also fantastic.  Just ask my liver.

After stopping back by the distillery to meet with Simon, we headed up into the country to Kilchoman distillery, a small farm outpost we had yet to visit.  While the other Islay distilleries lay right on the main island roads, Kilchoman is really off the beaten path.  They call it the "farm distillery" and it truly is.  The current owners don't actually own the land outright - they lease it from a nearby landowner.  Word on the street is that their relationship has gone sour as of late (gulp!).  They've got a fifty year lease, however, so they won't be going anywhere for a while, thank God.

We weren't quite sure what awaited us at Kilchoman.  David and I are both big fans of their whiskies, but the American market has been slower to warm than the Europeans.  The prices have been quite high and Americans have a reputation for buying numbers rather than whiskies.  We're known in Scotland for caring more about age than quality, a stereotype that I can't really argue.  The high prices for Kilchoman whisky have been a problem for some domestic drinkers, but I think we can clear that all up by the end of this post.

We were met by distillery manager John MacLellan, who worked as the head of Bunnahabhain distillery for the past two decades.  His story is much like that of Jim McEwan from Bruichladdich, in that he left a long-time employer to take over a new and entirely risky adventure.  So far, we think his decision has paid off greatly.  Also missing from my earlier list of distilleries who self malt is Kilchoman, who use their tiny floor to malt about 1/5th of their total production.  The other 80% comes from Port Ellen who peats the barley to their own specifications.  The malting room is so small it almost seems like a joke!

John showed us the kiln and talked about peating phenols.  At the distillery they peat to about 25 ppm while at Port Ellen they order 50 ppm.  The blend of the two grains results in the overall formula.  When Kilchoman orders peat from Port Ellen, they don't have the buying power to purchase in bulk.  Port Ellen is owned by Diageo, so Lagavulin and Caol Ila get a free pass.  Kilchoman, on the other hand, must operate like a corner liquor store.  They can't buy as much Lagavulin 16 as Costco - in fact, they have to order just a case at a time.  So while Costco continues to sell Lagavulin for dirt cheap (further destroying the overall value of the brand, by the way), the corner store has to charge a hefty $90.  Kilchoman faces the same issue when it comes to barley.  For those who wonder why it costs what it does, this is a major reason why.

The spirit still at Kilchoman is teeny!  The delicate nature of the spirit derives its nature from this small, yet elongated neck.  We were fortunate enough to taste the new make straight and it is without a doubt the best new make I've ever tasted.  It's fresh, citrusy, and sweetly smoky.  Absolutely wonderful.  There's no doubt as to why their young whisky tastes so good!  

We tasted some samples straight from the cask, including the soon-to-be-bottled Islay festival release - a local barley whisky in sherry butt - amazingly full of cinnamon peat and earthy freshness.  We were transfixed.  I can tell you this - we will be buying a cask from Kilchoman.  Their whisky is insanely good.  They're doing all the right things.  Their new make is light years ahead of everyone else and the young whisky shines already.  There's no doubt that their whisky is worth the extra expense.  It's going to be a showstopper soon.

We'll be getting a medium-priced, feature release very soon called Machir Bay that will be a full-time item.  The price should be right and it tastes great.  Such a great visit from John and much to be excited about!

-David Driscoll


Scotland - Day 7: The South of Islay

We boarded the ferry in Kennacraig at 6:45 AM, still groggy-eyed and without food in our stomachs.  After a proper Scottish breakfast on the boat and a two hour ride across the straight, we landed in Port Askaig and tore off in an attempt to make our 9:15 Lagavulin appointment on time.  We were scheduled to meet with local legend Iain McArthur first thing and he was to take us on a peat cutting adventure.  After our infamous altercation at the distillery last March, we were eager to start off on the right foot and get a fresh start at Islay's most popular destination.  No sooner had we pulled into the car park and checked in at the front desk, when Iain came tearing out of the back, shovel and digger in hand.  He jumped right into the backseat of our little Vauxhall and directed us out into the Islay countryside.  With over 40 years of experience at both Port Ellen and Lagavulin, Iain is a firecracker of Islay personality.  I think I had more fun in those ten minutes driving than on any other part of the trip so far.  Suddenly, he ordered us to pull over, turn on the hazard lights, and sally forth into the wet, muddy landscape.

After giving us a quick lecture on the different types of peat, Iain had us digging out blocks like professionals.  You can't use the earth without the roots because it won't burn right and it's important to take the high peat in order to keep a proper kiln fire smoldering.  We extracted a few more chunks before the wet and windy weather forced us back to the car.  Iain is a straight-shooter and he won't dodge any questions, which really endeared me to him.  He's an old time good guy - humble, respectful, and always positive.  He admitted that Lagavulin does in fact use caramel coloring to darken the 16.  I had always thought it came from sherry-aging, but apparently Lagavulin doesn't see any fresh or first-refill sherry casks (they specify American or European oak).  Shocking!

Back at the distillery, we left Iain to his tour groups and set off with operations director Georgie Crawford for an insider tour.  I can safely say that I learned more on this visit with Georgie than on any other distillery appointment previously.  She is a wealth of information, but she's of an entirely different mindset than I am.  She thinks about the distillery with great personal pride, as she is in charge of its day-to-day duties.  However, rather than boast about the quality of the whisky at Lagavulin or her role in its legacy of greatness, Georgie seemed more happy about the amount of single malt it was able to produce, how she was able to increase that efficiency, and how the distillery was able to function smoothly with as minimal a staff as possible.  These were business achievements, accomplishments that have helped boost revenue, rather than the passions of a true whisky lover and at first I wasn't quite sure how I felt about them.  

Our first trip was to the old malting floors.  Lagavulin hasn't malted any of its own barley since the early 70's, now sourcing its grain from Port Ellen just down the road.  Even though we couldn't watch the malting take place, Georgie explained the process with clarity that I had never before received.  The toughest part of making a peated whisky is controlling the level of phenol in each kernel.  Apparently, you could use the exact same amount of barley every time and smoke it with the exact same amount of peat, but you wouldn't end up with a consistent phenol level.  The smoke actually clings to the outside of the husk and it can be knocked off with movement.  When the barley is transported from Port Ellen to Lagavulin in a truck, the phenol ends up on the bottom of the container, much like the salt in a bucket of popcorn.  Therefore, when you think you've got a ppm of 36, you may be down to about 20 by the time it gets to Lagavulin.  For that reason, they no longer peat the barley to what their end goal is.  They peat everything to 70 ppm and then just mix it with unpeated barley to cut the percentage down.  What really fascinated me was her statement that most whisky can never really be unpeated.  She said that phenols get everywhere, especially in distilleries that make peated whisky.  The Caol Ila "Unpeated" for example has got to have some peat in it because phenol is like dust on the floor or yeast in the air.  It's part of the terroir.  

Never have I tasted fermented wort from a washback this delicious or this much like the final product.  The beer at Lagavulin is a smoky brew that really tastes great on its own.  Georgie credits this quality to the introduction of liquid or cream yeast - sort of like a starter for malt whisky.  Like most bread bakers, Lagavulin uses a starter culture to ferment their wash now rather than dried yeast in a bag.  Beginning with live, productive yeast allows for a more efficient ferment and a consistent flavor, making the job easier for everyone as well.  It's allowed Lagavulin to increase the size of their wash, helping to produce an extra week's worth of spirit by the end of the year.

Georgie was also quite proud of the cleanliness of the fermentation process because it would eliminate any wild yeast or bacteria that might be living inside the distillery.  I thought that was actually quite a pity because sometimes these local organisms can provide a distinct character to spirit, making it special and unique.  However, it definitely wouldn't keep the flavor the same. When we got to the still room, there was only one person, Kevin, running the production.  In fact, Georgie was happy to announce that he was actually single-handedly running the entire distillery at the moment.  The process at Lagavulin has become so efficient that it's possible for one skilled person to do it alone.  While we were watching Kevin at work, Georgie gave us a fantastic description of what makes Lagavulin's stills so special.  The lyne arms at the top of the stills slope downward, which does not allow the heavier solutions to fall back to the bottom for redistillation.  This would result in a heavier, oily malt were it not for the copper condensers that allow the spirit more contact with the metal to tame that texture.  The quicker the distillation, the more spicy and heavy the spirit will be, but you can counteract that profile a bit by giving it more contact with copper.  A slow distillation will also do the same, but like Oban taught us, it takes a very long time.

We met up with Iain again later for some tasting in the warehouse.  A few casks were opened (a 1966 among them) and we were able to sample some of the older Islay festival releases.  They were all very impressive and the alcohol allowed us all to mellow out a bit and chit-chat.  Georgie rejoined us there and we had a great conversation that really got my mind thinking.  Lagavulin is a Diageo distillery.  It's a small production compared to some of the other company outposts and it is finding its recent popularity quite difficult to handle.  They were forced to increase production in 1997 from six months a year to fifty weeks a year to keep up with demand - basically non-stop now.  In order to keep things rolling smoothly, Georgie and others have been forced to find the most efficient way to do things.  Despite the increased output, they're still running short on the 16 year until 2013 when the 1997 barrels from the increase will finally be old enough to bottle.  Georgie's mindset is that she needs to keep moving forward, meeting the company goals, while keeping the whisky consistent.  I can't really blame her.  She's got a job to do and she's doing it exceptionally well.  We've done the same thing at K&L, taking out the handles of Ballentines, ditching the liters of Smirnoff, and keeping our selection streamlined.  While Lagavulin may have taken away some of the tradition, we've done the exact same - sacking the legacy of old time Scotch in favor of the modern gravitation toward single malt.  I can't help but feeling it's somewhat like the smartphone invasion.  It's great to have email at my fingertips and my wife only a dial away.  My life is more streamlined and easier to manage, but what are the consequences?  People talking when they drive, when they eat, at the register, etc.  Anyway, I could go off here forever, so let's drop this for now.  I will say that if you need a tutorial on how to run a distillery in the modern age, Georgie is your gal.  Again, I learned more from her in an hour than I have on most other tours combined.

We did pop in for a quick lunch at Ardbeg, saying hello to our friend Mickey Heads.  We had a great visit and discussed some new projects in the works, but soon we had to shoot over to Laphroaig for our appointment with distillery manager John Campbell.  

I was completely wrong in my previous post about floor malting.  Springbank and Bowmore are not the only ones.  Laphroaig uses in-house malting for 15% of its production, and apparently Balvenie and Highland Park do some as well.  It was great to see the old traditional methods still being used.  John said that he wasn't willing to go down in history as the man who changed Laphroaig, which gave us all quite a chuckle.

You know who else loves Laphroaig and its old, traditional malting floors?  The Prince!  He told them, "Don't ever change from the traditional methods."  They haven't!  

The great part about a distillery that does it's own malting is the peat kiln!  You can't see peating in action unless there's some malting going on.  An interesting fact - Laphroaig was actually available in the U.S during Prohibition because then-owner Ian Hunter convinced the government it was medicinal.  The smoky, herbal, briny flavor had to be good for you, or why else would it taste like that?  If you were an Islay lover in 1920's America, you were in luck!

After watching the barley soak up the smoke, we headed down to the kiln itself to shovel some peat of our own.  All three of us took turns stoking a new fire for the boys upstairs.  The door behind John opens out to the sea and the salty air comes whipping in wildly, sending the embers into a frenzy and filling the building with the maritime aromas.

In the 1980's, Laphroaig was purchased by Whithead Brewery who believed that stainless steel was the best way to make beer, as well as whisky.  They remodeled the mashtun and washbacks, installing all metal containers to keep things clean and sanitary.

Unlike Lagavulin, the lyne arms at Laphroaig slant upwards, allowing the heavier alcohols to fall back down into the pot for redistillation.  The smaller stills create a fruitier spirit due to the reflux.

The really interesting fact about Laphroaig is the barreling.  They do everything in first-fill Bourbon barrels.  The quarter-casks are used for the Quarter Cask release, but those whiskies still begin in ex-Bourbon cask first.  Because of this, there's no real master blender at Laphroaig - it's just a formula really.  They use x number of ten year old barrels and then dump them into a container, allow the whiskies to marry, and then bottle up the result.  What use is a blender when it's all the same juice?  All the barrels are filled at 63.5% because it's apparently scientific fact that new make soaks up the most amount of wood when casked at that proof.

Our tour ended with a quick food and whisky pairing, which was simply fantastic. I would recommend everyone to try this once.  The Laphroaig 10 with a bit of blue cheese, the quarter cask with a slice of orange, and the 18 year with chocolate-coated coffee beans.  It's not really a food pairing, as much as a flavor enhancement.  We were both quite impressed how well it worked (especially with the 18 - my God!).

Our usual lodging at Bowmore was booked this weekend, so David ended up finding us this cozy little house just around the corner.  Our baby Vauxhall fits nicely in the driveway and I about died when I saw the comfy back porch.  There's no internet, so I've been sitting at Duffie's bar for the last hour drinking beer, using the free wifi, and typing this opus.

I'm beat.  Time to eat.

-David Driscoll


Scotland - Day 6: Springbank

The road to Campbeltown is lined with spotted cattle, ancient stone walls, and rolling green hills that follow the coastline down the peninsula.  We loved our visit to Springbank last year and couldn't wait to get back down for another meeting.  Purchasing casks wasn't on the table this time around, but we still wanted to get an idea of what was happening at the distillery.

We met with Jenny and Ranald at the front office before taking a walk through the malting floor.  The whisky school was in full swing at the moment, so there were numerous students preparing the barley for the upcoming malting process.  We had done a full-scale tour last year, so we mostly just chatted and discussed the current industry gossip.  We got a chance to taste some of their new bottlings, including the new limited edition Rundlets & Kilderkins.  It was fantastic, simply packed with butterscotch and sweet toffee.  

With the exception of Bowmore (who only do a small percentage themselves), Springbank is the last distillery in Scotland to make 100% of their whisky from barley malted within the building, using the old traditional floor malting method.  It's entirely inconsistent, not at all cost effective, and completely outdated, yet they soldier on in the name of their heritage.  As we all know, Springbank doesn't really care about the best way to make money.  Seeing a giant tank of barley going through a steep is something you probably won't see anywhere else.

The stills are still magnificant.  Big, fat, flame-powered stills that use a rummager to keep the barley from sticking to the bottom.  There's a little bell that rings every time the rummager makes a rotation.  If that bell stops ringing, you know you're in big trouble.

Even though we couldn't purchase a cask for K&L right now, that didn't mean we couldn't mosey on through the warehouse, pop a few casks open, and make sure our friends at Pacific Edge imports were up to speed on the latest selections.  David sniffed out a cask of 1980 hiding in the corner.  Mmmmm......

The warehouses at Springbank are a terroir of their own.  The local white mold is everywhere including all over the muddy ground floors, covering your shoes at every step.  The flavor of that earthiness often finds its way into the whisky like it does bleu cheese.  Only Springbank can have this particular flavor, which to me makes it quite special.  

This was more of a social call than a true business appointment, but we did get to stay on top of the latest news and happenings in Campbeltown.  Springbank remains one of my favorite destinations and I'm glad we were able to stop by on our way to Islay.  We both really wanted to get into the jewel rack and open the super rare Alfred Barnard book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, which contains the history of the 30+ Campeltown distilleries no longer in existence.  Unfortunately, it's a relic and it's completely off limits.  Right now we're in the small fishing village of Tarbert, just a few miles down the road from the ferry.  We're off at 7:45 tomorrow morning to catch the boat and cut some peat with Lagavulin.  We won't have wifi at our rental, so I'm hoping I can walk over to Bowmore and use their internet as needed.

Now it's time for some fresh fish!  We just saw the boat come in and the word on the street is that our hotel is one of the premier destinations for sea candy in all of Scotland.  I'm ready to eat.

-David Driscoll


Scotland - Day 6: Leaving Oban

Behind Oban distillery (where that long chimney pipe is sticking up on the bottom left) is a large cliff, upon which sits a colosseum-like structure built by a wealthy resident looking to provide the town with employment.  As bizarre as that sounds, it's quite a beautiful spot to snap a photo of Oban and the bay into the North Atlantic.

One of our favorite things to do when staying in small distillery towns is hit the bar scene to see if we can score some expensive whisky on the cheap.  No one at the pubs ever seems to charge what older bottles are actually worth.  We think it's because no one ever orders something like Talisker 25.  Most of the customers are drinking beer or vodka.  At our dinner stop, David scored a glass of that 25 year old Isle of Skye elixer for a mere six pounds.  I later went through a glass of Glen Elgin for about three pounds.

We're about to check out and drive south.  Should be good weather and some beautiful scenery.

-David Driscoll


Scotland - Day 5: From Pitlochry to Oban

We knew today was going to be packed, so David and I both got up early, went for a run through beautiful Pitlochry, had a hearty breakfast, and pulled up to Edradour early - just as they were putting the final touches on a new pagoda roof for the malting house.

Dez met us out front as he tried to help navigate the forklift.  We were ready to get started.  No need to tour the distillery, no need to taste through the newest expressions - we'd been here before.  Signatory used to be one of our biggest independent brands, but we haven't carried anything new for almost eight months.  The warehouse at Edradour is like a giant candy store.  They have thousands of casks tucked away and David and I were ready to run like two little kids up and down every aisle.

As always, Dez was a great sport.  He's incredibly patient and I think he secretly gets a kick out of watching us jump up and down and scream.  I don't think the other retailers who pass through are nearly as fun (or as loud and obnoxious).  We went through a ton of amazing casks.  Of course, as soon as I start writing about how value is now leaving the single cask market, we find a few gems at what should be an affordable price.  Barrels of younger Longmorn, Braeval, Benrinnes, and Glentauchers showed impressively.  All were under fifteen years of age and all were quite lovely.

The crazy thing about Signatory is that they seem to have casks from the absolute rarest of the rare.  I've never even seen a bottle of Glenlochy before, let alone a cask.  Part of the 83 Diageo shutdown that wiped out Port Ellen, Brora, and Banff, among others, Glenlochy was a neighbor to Ben Nevis on the isolated northern west coast.  This barrel of 1980 was probably one of the best whiskies I've ever tasted.  David and I were practically crying.  Can we pry it loose from the warehouse? We also went through a few North Ports and some other Diageo sacrifices before heading to more practical selections.  There are so many casks to think about it almost makes my head spin.  Can't wait to get the pricing!

After leaving Edradour, we began our three hour drive west towards the coast and the town of Oban.  While we knew we were going to be late for our appointment at the distillery, the sheer beauty of the drive helped relieve the stress quite a bit.  This picture above doesn't do the scenery justice.

One minute we were driving next to a giant mountain and it was snowing, the next minute it's sunny and we're coasting along a glorious Scottish loch.  What a crazy place.

Oban distillery is tucked right into the town center, blending in seamlessly with the local businesses.  It's an integral part of the downtown area and it's quite small.  Because there's absolutely no room to expand, the distillery produces less than 800,000 liters of whisky per year.  We were excited to get inside.

The distillery manager Ronnie took us around the facility, beginning with the four wooden washbacks.  He explained that the soft fruitiness of Oban is primarily due to a very slow fermentation that takes up to ninety hours.  Compare that with the fifty hours at Glenfarclas and you're looking at a whisky that takes twice as long to make.  A more rapid fermentation results in a spicier character in the malt.

Oban distillery is really tiny on the inside.  Taking pictures was quite difficult because you can never get far enough away from anything to capture it in the frame.

I had to hike up a steep staircase to take a photo of the two stills.  One spirit still and one wash still that, like the fermentation, run at a snail's pace.  Oban makes little whisky compared to other Diageo distilleries, which is why it is the only malt in their portfolio of over thirty distilleries that does not go into Johnnie Walker or any other blend.  Diageo's head was recently quoted as saying that the company does not make single malts for the single malt drinker, but rather for their blending team to make their Johnnie Walker selections.  Oban is the exception to this rule.  It is not featured in any Diageo blend.  It is the only distillery entirely devoted to single malt, hence why you'll never see an independent cask of Oban.  They have no reason to trade or sell it and precious little of it for themselves.

Even though Oban is roughly a rogue within the Diageo system, there's always a friendly reminder from the empire nearby.

We had a fantastic time with Ronnie and got to actually sample some young 2003 Oban straight from the cask (our first time since there's absolutely nothing at the independent warehouses).  Our hotel over looks the waterfront and the bay leading up to the town center.  It's time to walk into town, grab a bite to eat, and take a load off.  It's been a long day.

Campbeltown tomorrow!

-David Driscoll