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

David Driscoll