Scotland - Day 10: A Bit of History

The history of whisky distillation in Scotland is long, complicated, and in some circumstances difficult to trace.  Hundreds, if not more, of distillers since the beginning of single malt distillation have chosen to remain illicit, favoring the risk of penalty over the taxation they would face were they to register with the government.  Choosing to become a licensed distillery meant serious business.  Because one was taxed on every liter distilled, one had to make sure there was a market awaiting what eventually was produced.  This meant that staying in business was quite difficult, especially for isolated distilleries that were tough to reach with commercial transportation.  In the 1800's, the government passed a series of laws that made it easier for smaller distilleries to deal with the burden of taxation, hoping to persuade them into the system.  I've spent the last few days pouring through some history books, which detail the battle between the industrial distillers of the Lowlands, churning out grain and malt in massive amounts, and the smaller, illicit distillers of the Highlands, who were making better whiskies on smaller stills, winning the favor of true enthusiasts everywhere, despite the fact their product was technically illegal.  Another book documents the collapse of Campbeltown, after the disastrous speculation by one Mr. Pattison that brought down his own giant operation along with the distilleries of many others who had invested with him.  

For all that whisky history on the Scottish mainland, I had found little concerning the islands, particularly Islay, where we have been staying for the past few days.  Granted, I haven't been scouring the internet in search of it, just looking through the available whisky texts.  It wasn't until we visited Kilchoman, a farm distillery much like the ones no longer in existence, that we found some fantastic information.  Part of their visitor's center contains a map of the island, a list of the island's fallen distilleries, and a vague direction as to where we might find what remains.  Because the information is printed onto a giant board on the wall, I was forced to take several photos of the map and the list of distilleries, load them onto my computer, and then zoom in on the text as needed.  I thought it would be interesting just to pass this history on to you readers.  However, after finishing early at Caol Ila and having an entire afternoon in front of us, David and I decided to use our free time to track down the actual sites and document what was left.  We went at it without any real map, directions, or sense of what we were looking for.  Asking people we met along the way proved to be the best and fastest method.  This isn't meant to be a deep, fully-researched attempt to uncover anything new, just a fun and hopefully entertaining attempt to provide some travelogue and photography to some interesting information.

All of the historical information I have re-typed here on the blog comes from Kilchoman Distillery who credit Graham Fraser for allowing them to publish it.  I have taken much of his text directly from the distillery, except for a few instances where I paraphrase him for the sake of editing.  All of his information is presented in italics as to separate his own work from mine.  His historical research allowed us to have quite an afternoon, so we thank him for providing true whisky fanatics with the chance to learn more about Islay.  It's no secret that I'm a sucker for Scotland's lost distilleries.  It's always more exciting to taste something that will never again be produced, but it's always tastier with a little bit of background information.

Leaving Caol Ila, we headed back towards Bridgend down the A846.  According to the map, somewhere east of Ballygrant laid the remnants of Lossit distillery, located upon the farm that still remained.  We only saw one road heading east when we entered Ballygrant, so we took it and kept our eyes peeled.  We eventually decided we had gone too far, so we turned back around to retrace our steps.  Upon our return, we flagged down a local farmer who told us that we had indeed passed the turnoff to Lossit farm.  We needed to make a right up ahead and head another three miles down a narrow, country road.  When we arrived, however, there was a clear sign at the entrance which read "Private Road.  No unauthorized vehicles past this point."  Debating whether we should proceed or not,  we eventually decided not to out of cowardice.  

Lossit Distillery - est. 1826 - Lossit Distillery was located at Lossit Kennels, not far from Ballygrant on the minor road to Lossit Farm, close to Loch Ballygrant.  It was a medium-sized farm-scale operation and in 1826-7 it produced 12,200 gallons of proof spirit.  It was in operation under various men until 1862, making it one of the longest surviving 19th century farm-scale distilleries on Islay.  There is a possibility that Bulloch, Lae & Co used the Lossit warehouses (perhaps to store Caol Ila whisky) until 1867.  Today the house and kennels remain, although where whisky distilling actually took place remains a mystery and there is nothing left of the warehouses.

Further down the A846 were the lost sites of Daill and Scarabus.  We couldn't find the turnoff to Daill and the exact site of Scarabus is still unknown, so we decided to pass on these two, but the information about them is below.

Daill Distillery - est. 1814 - Daill Distillery probably operated as a farm distillery after the Small Stills Act encouraged distilleries to go legitimate.  The distilling operation was, throughout its short life, in the hands of the McEachern family from 1815-34.  By 1827, it had an annual output of 6,043 gallons of proof spirit.  It's demise, like that of many inland distilleries on Islay, was probably sealed by the difficulties of transporting the product to the mainland markets.  Buildings in remarkably good condition at the Daill farm exist, and these could well have been the location of the McEachern family distilling operation.

Scarabus Distillery - est. 1817 - One of the most obscure and short-lived farm distilleries on Islay.  A license was taken out in the name of John Darroch  & Co for the year 1817-18.  It seems likely that this was an opportunist attempt at distilling following the 1816 Small Stills Act as records reveal a 76-gallon, single still operation in 1817-18.  Scarabus Farm exists, although whether this was the exact location of the distillery and what happened to it after its two short years remains to be discovered.

When we arrived in Bridgend, we parked the car and took a quick look around the small town.  There were once two distilleries nearby, but their exact locations are unclear.  

Bridgend Distillery & Killarow Distillery - est. unknown - Details of these two (or three) distilleries located at the former island capital, Bridgend, are very limited.  David Simson is on record as operating a licensed distillery at Killarow until 1766 when he moved to Bowmore to establish the distillery that survives today.  It's exact location is unknown.  A Bridgend distillery was custom-built by Donald McEachern in 1818 with a wash still of 146 gallons producing single-distillation whisky.  It was then run by his son Donald between 1818-21, when the company was wound up and ceased operations.  Information exists that suggests a distillery was licensed to a J Macfarlane at Bridgend around 1821, with an annual output of 3,937 gallons (perhaps a new owner for McEachern's distillery?).

Could Bridgend distillery have been located next to where the Bridgend Hotel now stands? I should probably do some more research before positing such a question, but I'm on a buy trip right now and am trying to get this done in one day during my free time!  What do you expect?

Rather than continue down the main A846 into Bowmore, we took the narrow turnoff onto B8106 and headed due south towards Port Ellen.  Somewhere off of this road were the former sites of two smaller farm distilleries – Mulindry and Tallant.  According to Fraser, nothing remains at Mulindry, which would make finding its location a bit tough for two amateur hunters like ourselves, especially with the vaguest of vague maps and only about fifteen minutes allocated to find it.  We didn't see anything that would lead us to the site, so we decided to keep our watch westward in search of the Tallant farm.  

Mulindry Distillery - est. 1826 - This is perhaps one of the shortest lived and unlikely distilleries on Islay.  Built by John Sinclair in 1826, it operated at a site beside the junction of the Neriby Burn and the River Laggan, next to McNeill Weir (the start of the Bowmore Distillery lade) and its machinery was water – powered from the nearby river.  Its output in 1826-7 was 4,332 gallons of malt whisky.  Sinclair, according to the local Excise officer in 1831, liked his own production a little too much, which may account for his bankruptcy that year and emigration to America.  The distillery appears never to have reopened and today all that is left is a pile of overgrown stones and derelict croft.

There was only one turn off and one farm anywhere near the area where Tallant was supposed to be and that road was blocked by a fence halfway up.  I hopped out and snapped a photo of what should be Tallant farm and the site of the lost distillery.  David also found the picture below in a history book, so I snapped it with the camera.

Tallant Distillery - est. 1821 - This distillery was established in 1821 by the brothers Johnston at Tallant Farm, near Bowmore.  Excise records until 1827 show this distillery recorded as one of two 'Bowmore' distilleries.  It appears to have been a true farm-scale operation with Angus johnston listed at one point as distillery manager.  It was never, however, a profitable commercial operation, perhaps in part due to the generous drams John provided to visiting workmen and farmers.  Output was as low as 220 gallons and reached 2,101 gallons in the year 1826-27.  The business folded in 1852, although the Johnston family would go on to become successful distillers at Laphroaig.  Tallant Farm exists today and many buildings from those distilling remain, albeit some in a state of collapse.

We had to go back to Laphroaig anyway because David had forgotten his notebook there, so that gave us a chance to locate the remnants of Ardenisteil, located adjacent to the current Laphroaig site.  According to Fraser, part of what remained was still currently in use by Laphroaig, so we would have a chance to photograph a few buildings.  The woman in the visitor center told us to go back up to the car part and head down a dirt road just a bit further south from the main distillery.  The few buildings left from Ardenistiel would be at the end of the path.  We walked along the dirt track, filled in with lush patches of green grass, and fenced in by old stone walls.  According to the history book provided to us by Laphroaig, the distillery itself was demolished and warehouses were built on its site.  What remained would likely just be surplus housing.   The receptionist told us that these buildings had been turned into a modern house, looking very little like a dilapidated distillery.

Indeed she was right.  A beautiful estate awaited us with views of the water all the way down to Ardbeg.

Next to the house are a few old storage buildings and a shed, which were likely used by Ardenistiel.

Ardenistiel Distillery - est. 1836 - After the successful establishment of Laphroaig in 1816, a farm tack was leased by the financiers for the Ardenistiel Distillery, who then put it in the capable hands of two young distillers.  They ran it until 1847, operating on a site immediately adjacent to Laphroaig.  Ardenistiel was then assigned to John Morrison, a previously unsuccessful manager at Port Ellen.  He was unable to make a go of it and only remained until he was sequestered in 1852.  The management changed hands a few more times and eventually Ardenisteil was only running at half capacity to save money.  By 1866, it went bankrupt and by 1868 the facility was already dilapidated.  The buildings were eventually taken over by Laphroaig and are a part of its offices and warehouses today.

Since we were at Laphroaig, Lagavulin – the site of two lost distilleries – was just a quick drive away.  We were instructed by the receptionist as to the location of the former Malt Mill, which was located in a small office behind the main entry way.  It appears that everyone envied and wanted to be like Laphroaig back in the day.  Read on...

Malt Mill Distillery - est. 1908 - When Sir Peter Mackie lost his bitter legal dispute to retain the sales agency for Laphroaig whisky in 1907, he reacted in charismatic style by deciding to make his own 'Laphroaig' type whisky and in 1908 build a traditional small pot-still distillery within the Lagavulin complex.  Despite hiring staff from Laphroaig and attempting to copy the Laphroaig recipe, it did not succeed, perhaps because it used a different water source.  Malt Mill tried to replicate a traditional style of Islay whisky using only peat dried malt, and it is reputed to have had heather added to the mash.  It was always a small-scale operation producing 25,000 gallons of proof spirit in its first year, compared with 128,000 gallons at Lagavulin.  What is perhaps surprising is that it survived until 1962 when it was merged with Lagavulin and its coal-fired stills moved to the latter's still house for another seven years use.  The Malt Mill distillery building is now the reception center within the Lagavulin site.

Neither Georgie nor the receptionist were clear as to which buildings once housed Ardmore distillery, but Fraser claims that the still house, tun room, and malt barn no. 4 were listed as part of Ardmore, so that's what you see above.

Ardmore Distillery/Lagavulin 2 - est. 1817 - Little is known about the Ardmore Distillery which shared the sheltered bay at Lagavulin with Lagavulin distillery.  It was established in 1817 by Archibald Campbell, although when the name Ardmore was adopted is uncertain.  It opened as a 92-gallon, single wash distillery, but within a year was operating under double distillation with the addition of a 30-gallon low wines still. By 1825, it was being operated by John Johnston of Lagavulin who ran both distilleries using the names Lagavulin 1 and Lagavulin 2 (much like Clynelish and Brora formerly existed as Clynelish 1 and 2).  Johnson died in 1836 and in 1837 a valuation was run.  The still house, tun room, and malt barn no. 4 were all listed as belonging the laird Walter Frederick Campbell, as Ardmore Distillery.  However, Johnson was in debt to a Glasgow distiller-merchant named Alexander Graham who ended up acquiring Ardmore and merged it with what is the present-day Lagavulin site.

The way back to Bowmore leads through Port Ellen, so we pulled over and had another look.  We had snuck into the maltings site last year (completely off limits to us and anyone else not working for Diageo).  You can't really get a good shot of the Port Ellen painted against the warehouse anymore because the ferry, which no longer lands at Port Ellen, offers the best chance for that shot.  All boats land at Port Askaig now, so at some point I'll have to dig up last year's photo from when we landed here.  

There's nothing really left from the actual distillery at Port Ellen even though the buildings are still in tact.  It's now 100% dedicated to malting for the just about every distillery on the island.  The warehouses are still there located along the water.

The pagodas are still there as well, but you have to sneak in the back entrance way to get a good shot.

Port Ellen Distillery - est. 1825 - Established in 1825 by the McKay family, it was operated by John Morrison & Co from 1831-34.  John Ramsay and later his wife ran the distillery from 1836 until 1920, during which time they expanded the distillery.  It was eventually acquired by DCL who mothballed it from 1929-67.  Production buildings were then re-built by DCL and the distillery operated from 1967-83 when it was closed again during the whisky rationalization of the 1980's.  As DCL already had two other Islay distilleries, Port Ellen was tragically thought to be surplus to requirements.  The original distillery buildings remain today, linked to the Port Ellen Maltings complex.

I'm realizing now that we completely forgot to search for the Newton distillery, so I'll include it now.  No photos, however.  Sorry!

Newton Distillery - est. 1819 - The Small Stills Act of 1816 encouraged quite a few individuals to take out distilling licenses and in 1819 Thomas Pattison opened a farm distillery at Newton, located off the Bridgend to Ballygrant road.  Newton produced 6,122 gallons of spirit in 1826-7.  It operated continuously until 1837, by which time most farm-scale distilling operations had closed on Islay.  Little is known about the operation of the distillery although there is still and outbuilding at Newton House that could have been part of the distillery and the metal bars on the windows are perhaps signs of previous use as a bond.

The last two sites we needed to get were located north, across the water from Bowmore, in the town of Port Charlotte just down from Bruichladdich.  We were headed out that way for dinner anyway, meeting with a friend from the distillery, so we saved these two for last.

There's quite a bit left from the old Lochindaal distillery, as the old buildings are still in use by local businesses in the town.  This one looked the most romantic however, so that's the shot we're using!

Lochindaal Distillery (aka 'Port Charlotte & Rhinns) - set 1829 - Lochindaal was a purpose built distillery in the Rhinns of Islay which survived in the 20th century.  Located in the heart of Port Charlotte village, it was constructed for its first licensee, Colin Campbell, in 1829.  He held onto it for two years and subsequently it had many owners.  It was eventually taken over by Bowmore Distilleries Ltd. in 1921 prior to that company's acquisition by the DCL (early Diageo).  That signaled the end of Lochindaal and it closed in 1929. (One of the first of many Diageo closures to come!) Some of it was used by the Islay Creamery until the early 1990's and the shore-side warehouses remain in use by a local garage and the Islay Youth Hostel and Field Centre, while a roadside building is now used for vehicle repairs and the distillery cottage is still inhabited.  The bonded warehouses on the hill behind the distillery site have been in continuous use by other distillers and are currently used by the Bruichladdich Distillery.  This is the one defunct distillery on Islay that has a good photographic history, which clearly records the distillery site during its century of operation.

Just up the hill from Port Charlotte is the Octomore farm, once the site of an old distillery and the current source for Bruichladdich's proofing water.  Bruichladdich has whiskies called both Port Charlotte and Octomore, in tribute to these two former sites.

Octomore Distillery - est. 1816 - This farm-scale distillery on an ancient site behind Port Charlotte was run from 1816 until 1840 by the Montgomery family and licensed to George Montgomery.  It appears to have operated as a single-still distillery with a  wash still of 60 gallons volume with 998 gallons of spirit produced in 1817-18, which rose to 3,551 gallons in 1826-27.  Little is known about its operation until the death of George and his brother around 1840, when it fell into disrepair and the lease was eventually relinquished to the laird, James Morrison in 1854.  Buildings on the farm remain today, although some have fallen down and others have recently been converted into holiday cottages, so guests could well be sleeping with the spirits of 160 years ago.  No detailed plans of the distillery buildings have yet come to life.

Fraser's notes at Kilchoman also talk about a few other distilleries that were not located on the map, just listed by town name:

Other Islay locations thought to have operated as licensed distilleries include: Ballygrant (1818-21), Freeport (c 1847), Glenavullen (1823-32), Octovullin (1816-19), and Upper Cragbus (c 1841).

As far as we know, these are the lost distilleries of Islay that were actually registered as distilleries.  History shows, however, that more than 200 people had been fined for illegal whiskymaking during the 1800's, so obviously there was a ton of action on the island.

Well, I hope that was somewhat enjoyable.  That's the best we could do in the time allotted for visiting, and I've typed up all the info as fast as my fingers would fly.  I had a good hour and a half on the ferry to do most of it and now I'm at the desk in my Glasgow hotel room finishing it up.  Thanks to Kilchoman for letting us use the information and to Graham Fraser who hopefully won't mind either (I'll take it down if you do!).

Tomorrow we meet with Rachel Barrie to look at some Glen Garioch casks before heading out to meet with a new bottler.  See you all tomorrow!

-David Driscoll


Scotland - Day 9 continued: An Addendum

Because we're always in a hurry, rushing from appointments to dinner, from town to town, distillery to distillery, I don't always have time to type a thorough report of every location.  This has been especially true of Islay, where we don't have internet at our cottage.  I've been posting up amidst the crowds at Duffie's bar in Bowmore, milking the wifi for as long as I can until they need the space for someone actually looking to eat.  As I've gone back and re-read the posts, I've realized some important points that I forgot to report.  Here's a quick list of significant statements about the distilleries on Islay.

- Laphroaig has managed to increase their production significantly without moving completely away from the older traditions.  Whereas Lagavulin no longer malts any barley or fills any barrels on site, instead using the Diageo facilities to carry this out, Laphroaig has decided to keep up the pace by focusing on doing one thing well.  Every single drop of their whisky goes into first-fill Bourbon barrels and that's it.  There's no blending or mixing necessary and they don't make any other expressions.  Jim McEwan over at Bruichladdich discussed with us the difficulties in creating several different spirits and having to blend various types of barrels.  Laphroaig has decided upon one course and its a very simple one - one type of spirit, one type of barrel, full speed ahead.  While they do partake in secondary maturation, such as their quarter cask release, that's only after it goes into first-fill Bourbon.  There's not a ton of selection between their malts, but at least they haven't changed much concerning the way it's made.  

- Kilchoman is known as the "farm distillery," something that other distilleries on Islay hardly resemble, however there used to be mainly farm distilleries on the island.  In the 1800's almost all distillation on Islay took place on a farm, much like it does today at Kilchoman.  It's the only distillery to do everything locally and it's the most traditional in every way because they've embraced what whisky making on Islay actually used to be.  There are so many expensive craft whiskies which justify their cost by claiming they use "local ingredients, organic products, craft-distillation," and other tag lines that resonate with today's curious drinker.  However, my question has always been and will remain: SHOULD YOU BE MAKING THIS?  If it doesn't taste any better than whisky at half the price, and it's more expensive to make, and it brings nothing interesting to the table, then maybe you shouldn't be making it.  This is not the case at Kilchoman.  Their new-make is unbelievable – I could drink a bottle of it on my own.  Their dedication to the original tradition of Islay and impeccable quality is unmatched.  They understand that the prices are high, but they have very good reasons as to why – namely because they're a tiny operation that chooses heritage over efficiency.  If someone therefore asked me, "Should Kilchoman continue on even though their whisky costs a fortune to make?"  the answer would be YES!  It's definitely worth the extra money if you can afford it.  If you can't, or don't want to pay for it, that's fine too.  Just don't blow it off, however, as overpriced young whisky.  Quality is important.  Heritage is important.  After visiting the distillery, tasting with John, and sampling through the casks, I think I can safely say that Kilchoman is my favorite peated whisky in the world.  That's my own personal opinion and I know that others won't agree, but it's been a long time since a single malt made me as happy or excited as Kilchoman. The local barley sherry cask we tasted was f-ing unreal.  Unlike any other peated whisky I've ever had, and definitely something that should be in production, no matter if it's expensive to make.  When their barrels get to ten years we're all in for a real treat.

- We're still unsure as to what we should call the casks for Lagavulin's maturation program.  Because all the barrels are filled in mainland Scotland, no one at the distillery is actually sure of the specifics concerning each cask – say if it's second or third-fill.  If you ask the distillery, they'll say that their whisky is aged in American and European wood.  Iain said that their sherry and bourbon casks are stripped, re-charred (or re-toasted in the case of the sherry) and then either used as is or re-coopered into a hogshead.  He told us they didn't use sherry casks, but when we arrived in the warehouse it was full of sherry barrels and puncheons.  We laughed and said, "I thought you guys didn't use sherry!"  What he meant, however, was that these "sherry" barrels have little to no actual sherry residual left inside the wood, therefore it's more accurate to talk about the wood rather than the sherry, or the size of the actual barrel.  True, some of the whisky at Lagavulin is sitting inside a sherry butt.  However, because this is perhaps the fourth or fifth time this particular butt has been used, the actual sweet sherry is long gone and what we're tasting according to Lagavulin is the re-toasted wood, not influence of the sherry wine.  Therefore, they don't say "sherry" because that would imply that the whisky is soaking up the actual sherry residue.  It's really confusing, but I think we understand it.  David is still convinced, however, that there is some serious sherry influence in those whiskies.  Until Diageo lets us visit their barrel program in central Scotland, I guess we'll never know for sure.

-David Driscoll


Scotland - Day 9: Port Askaig

Today has been an absolutely stunning day for weather on Islay.  The sun is out, the rain clouds are gone, and the landscapes are clean and vibrant in the distance.  Our little cottage in Bowmore has proven quite restful, seeing that both of us went down for over ten hours last night.  We awoke refreshed and ready to tackle the day.  Our appointment this morning was at Caol Ila, just down from the ferry terminal Port Askaig and a stone's throw from the brooding mountains of Jura across the straight.  There's something quite powerful about those peaks – almost like the monolith in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or the effect Mars is said to have upon the earth.  They're hypnotizing and seem to emit a kind of frequency upon the mind, causing one to simply stare in awe.

Speaking of gigantic entities, the distillery of Caol Ila, situated beneath the hills on a breathtaking cove, pumps out more whisky than any other distillery on Islay – 23,500 liters of spirit are loaded onto a tanker every day and travel by ferry back to the mainland.  Currently, there are no barrels filled by Diageo on Islay.  While there are barrels aging at the distilleries, everything is now filled, blended, and created in a facility in central Scotland.  The Caol Ila warehouse on the left is actually full of Lagavulin whisky!  Ironically enough, there's no actual Caol Ila whisky at Caol Ila.  In order to increase production, the original distillery was knocked down in 1972 and then rebuilt in 1974 as a more efficient plant.  Diageo closed it again last June for another upgrade.

Jennifer from the distillery HR department took us for a quick tour around the building.  Because Caol Ila needs to produce as much whisky as possible for Diageo blends like Johnnie Walker, they need a humongous mashtun.  This thing mixes up 324 tons of barley a week before it's sent over to one of eight wooden washbacks or two of the stainless steel containers for fermentation.

The six massive stills at Caol Ila sit on the water, with a magnificant view of the mysterious Jura in the distance.  Both Jennifer and I stood their silently for minutes, transfixed by the mountains, until David snapped us out of our trance.  Three wash stills and three spirits stills of similar sizes facilitate a quick distillation that results in a snappy, fruity distillate that actually tastes similar to blanco tequila.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the visit was the tasting flight.  David and I had both tasted each of these whiskies before, but it had been a while.  Caol Ila simply seems to get dwarfed by the other giant names of Islay.  However, we both left with our enthusiasm for Caol Ila malt quite rejuvenated.  The standard 12 year is so soft and fruity with just a bit of smoke compared to its peers.  David remarked that the 12 might be the perfect peated whisky for a newcomer to cut their teeth on and I had to agree.  It's a very manageable level of smoke along with plenty of round textures.  The Unpeated is always a treat and this time was no different.  The 18 and 25, both currently unavailable in the U.S., were knockouts – both low on smoke, having graduated to an integrated flavor of stewed fruit and oily petrol.  Neither sees any sherry, only Bourbon cask maturation, so the softness comes from the inherent fruitiness of the spirit.

Just up the road from Caol Ila (a very long and winding road), northward along the coast, sits Bunnahabhain distillery, which is not open on Saturdays.  We wanted to just have a peek anyway and see what it looked like.  It was completely deserted and felt like a ghost town.

Some of the eerie, older buildings seemed vaguely familiar.  Then I realized where I had seen them before – in the Resident Evil survival-horror video games I had played in high school and college.  Bunnahabhain distillery would be the perfect place to film a zombie movie or a slasher flick.  It could easily be a former asylum or laboratory.

After leaving the Port Askaig area, David and I went hunting for the lost distilleries of Islay, which we will report on in our next post.  We have a special dinner tonight on the island with friends, but tomorrow we're back on the mainland, heading towards Glasgow for some of our final appointments.  Since there's nothing happening tomorrow but travel, I'll try and do a historical post about the forgotten whiskies of Islay.

Until then!

-David Driscoll


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