A visit to Islay and Jura is the ultimate adventure for the single malt scotch lover. Islay, Queen of the Hebrides, and her world-class whiskies have come to represent Scotch whisky for so many minds and palates. We love those assertive, uncompromising, smoky single malts bristling with machismo, and we revel in their unpeated drams that produce soft, rich Hebridean beauties bursting with personality. These whiskies ignite passionate dedication and near-religious fervor at times, leading some to commit spectacular acts of single-minded devotion that no other whisky producing area can rival. They are unmatched. No spirit distilled anywhere else in the world is a substitute for Ardbeg or can be taken as a proxy for Laphroaig. If you’re the kind of person who likes to suck the marrow out of life, then simply nothing else will do.
Both islands face the teeth of forceful Atlantic gales through the winter, and bask in the welcoming relief of the Gulf Stream climate in the summer months (well, they do on the good days). Marvel at the wilderness of The Oa, the cloud-smeared summits of the Paps of Jura, and explore the miles of remote coastline dotted with isolated cottages. Ileachs and Diurachs (the people of Islay and Jura, respectively) are resourceful, adaptable, and welcoming; the latest in a long line of men and women who worked the land of their crofts, put fishing boats to sea, ministered over their neighbors, and of course, turned barley into whisky. These days, it is whisky, wildlife, and tourism that drive much of the local economy. That has helped to raise the standards and choices of accommodation, though like most aspects of island life, everything hinges on the frequency and reliability of the ferry and air services.
At its lowest point in the 1980s, Islay dropped to five working distilleries, the whisky tap tightened to a metaphorical trickle compared to the seven days a week, 24 hours a day production of more recent years. The three most significant acts in the resurgence of Islay’s whisky fortunes in a generation have been the deliverance of Ardbeg on the day when the Glenmorangie Company unlocked the warehouses and remarked, “Oh, hello, what have we got here?” followed by the day when Wright, Coughlin, Reynier, and McEwan applied the electrodes to the temples of Bruichladdich’s corpse and bellowed “Live! Live!” shortly followed by the eureka moment when Kilchoman’s Anthony Wills ran a hand through his hair and thought to himself, “You know what this place needs?”
The Isle of Jura is a five-minute ferry ride from Islay. The island has only one road that hugs the southern coast and will take you straight to the distillery at Craighouse, where you will find the only pub, inside the wonderfully relaxing Jura Hotel.
For the thousands of whisky pilgrims who set foot here each year, it’s a chance to live life on Islay time. It’ll happen when it happens, and that’s good enough for me. Drivers wave at every passing vehicle, no matter how narrow the single track road, no matter how tight the squeeze negotiated between the vehicles: the wave is paramount. You will find the faces of like-minded enthusiasts becoming familiar as you navigate from distillery to distillery. You may not even speak a common language, but a grinning smile when the glass leaves the lips is universally understood.
The last time I visited (Whisky Advocate Spring 2015), I toured Jura, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, and Ardbeg. The travelog of my latest visit took in the adventures that unfolded during a three-day trip to Islay back in the spring. It seems that no matter how long you go for, it’s never long enough.
I drive coast to coast overnight, through sleepy villages, zipping through still, dark forests, and skirting under watchful mountain ranges with a singular purpose: making the 7 a.m. ferry to Port Ellen. The MV Finlaggan is moored at Kennacraig, the ferry port for Islay on the Campbeltown road. Her hull looms in the last of the darkness, the sprinkling of deck lights casting shimmering reflections on the water’s surface. The tourists’ cars are first to arrive, unfamiliar with the roads and eager to embark, they park nose to tail in lane one. Dog owners patrol between the lampposts, whispering insistent encouragement to their oblivious charges to avail themselves of the facilities. With minutes to spare, the commercial vehicles, post office van, and an articulated grocery wagon rock up and park in the queue. To them, sailing to Islay is routine, mundane, and everyday. With a wave of a hand, all drivers turn their beams on against the purple dawn and we file into the belly of the ship.
On board, travelers gorge upon bacon rolls and make short work of demolishing stacks of hot buttered toast. I spy a cluster of fishing boats west of Gigha bringing in the catch of the day. Two hours later, our arrival in Port Ellen is greeted by a cloudless blue sky, the sun picking out a panoramic assortment of painted houses beyond the marina.
I make the short journey to Laphroaig distillery and book the first tour. I’m asked if I’m driving when handing over my tour fee, a responsible development at distillery visitor centers since the introduction of Scotland’s stricter drink-driving laws. The tour moves swiftly, and Megan, our guide, packs in a great deal. Laphroaig produces 20 percent of its malted barley requirements on-site, aiming for a phenolic content of 55 parts per million (the remaining 80 percent comes from Port Ellen Maltings at a lower peating level). The two malting floors are laden with barley for six days and nights. Plunging a hand into the grains makes you appreciate the warm glow of germination beneath your fingertips. On the slotted floor seventeen feet above the peat kiln, seven tons of green malt will be spread out. A suffocating fug of peat smoke will rise up to envelop the grains in its smoky embrace. Laphroaig burns 1.5 tons of peat a day, and those blocks of fibrous, chocolate-colored turf smolder on the fire for nineteen hours before air-drying completes kilning.
Back in the visitor center, a number of the 800,000 Friends of Laphroaig members are printing off their certificates and claiming their annual rent (a Laphroaig 10 year old miniature) next to a rack of green wellington boots. Picking one of the small flags from around the world, they depart to squelch through the sodden field over the road to triumphantly stake their plot for the nation.
Up the road, bicentenary stencils have been painted around the Lagavulin distillery site, I notice, but the Lagavulin 8 year old, inspired by Alfred Barnard’s visit, has still to arrive on Islay, and the islanders are itching to taste it and buy some. I pick up a Jazz Festival bottle from the shop instead and keep traveling east.
Inescapably, a colossal Ardbeg symbol has appeared in the courtyard since my last visit. I’m here for lunch in the Old Kiln Café, something I try to make time for on every trip. The delicious Scottish seafood linguine in a sherry and herb cream sauce is packed with morsels of crayfish, salmon, and haddock, with fat, yolk-colored mussels hanging out of their glistening bivalve shells. As I’m beginning to feel the effects of the overnight drive, this is a welcome feast. My plate is soon spotless.
I retrace my route to the town of Port Ellen and take the Low Road past the Islay airport to Bowmore. This long, straight route can look like a bleak moorland wilderness to the unfamiliar eye, but it is laid over a rich habitat of deep peat bogs. It is far from featureless; geese peck the grasses by small lochans, channels of black water run in strips along the worked peat banks, then, with a silvery flash, a ghostly hen harrier breaks cover above the horizon, haunting the landscape on whispering wings.
Disappointingly, Bowmore is not running full tours today, I’m told, as the distillery is not in production. As a consolation, I view the slowly turning bottle of Bowmore 1957 on display. The last time I saw one of these bottles was at Bonhams, New York when the distillers attempted to auction it for charity (no takers for the $160,000 reserve that day). During the sale, my flight home was canceled due to the impending arrival of Superstorm Sandy. On this sunny afternoon, I count my blessings that our reacquaintance seems to have brought me better luck with the weather.
The epic view over Loch Indaal from the dining room of the Lochside Hotel makes it hard to concentrate on the menu. Over an early evening pint, I leaf through the Ileach, the local newspaper, spotting the help wanted ads for seasonal guides at Caol Ila and Lagavulin, and jobs in the Bruichladdich bottling hall. This suggests that the whisky industry on Islay continues in rude health. A haggis tower appetizer with an apple and whisky jus arrives and is substantial and satisfying. The seafood platter that follows is an impregnable tangle of langoustines, plump mussels, and ridged scallops in a half shell. Delicious. Finger-lickin’ good!
While traditionalists lament the loss of Duffy’s bar at the Lochside (fear not, you can find it installed in the Ballygrant Inn), the new Lochside has dark wood paneling and strong uplighters showcasing their finest Islay malts. There are still heavyweight classics here, such as Ardbeg Lord of the Isles, Sherriff’s Bowmore, Bunnahabhain 1966 35 year old, and Black Bowmore 1964 42 year old. Stay and drink a while.
After a good night’s sleep, my destination today is Caol Ila distillery, but not before a hearty full Scottish breakfast. The largest distillery on Islay, Caol Ila produces 5.5 million liters of pure alcohol annually (lpa), which requires 200 tons of malted barley every week. The 2012 refurbishment saw the installation of an enormous new stainless steel semi-lauter mash tun and two extra fermentation vessels, commonly referred to as washbacks (there are ten washbacks in total; eight tan-striped wooden vessels and two stainless steel tuns). The scale is mind-bending; the contents of the 58,000 liter washback will fill all three wash stills. In the stillhouse, six plain-shaped copper stills face the Sound of Islay and the Paps of Jura through huge picture windows, widely acknowledged as the best stillhouse view around. No surprise to spot a sturdy pair of binoculars in the stillhouse control room. Distillation is run quickly over six hours to promote the collection of light, fruity flavors (Lagavulin takes more than ten hours by comparison). Furthermore, I learn that every tanker departing up the narrow single-track road carries away 24,000 liters of new make spirit, or one day’s production, bound for filling and maturation on the mainland. It’s very impressive indeed.
Caol Ila’s old cooperage, where the tastings are held, is a veritable treasure trove of discarded distillery equipment: copper cask stencils, an iron cask stamp spelling out “YALSI,” old ledger books from 40 years ago, boxes of rusting cask-hoop rivets, and old advertisements for White Horse and Old Rarity De Luxe in the shape of copper stills. An adze and stirrup, wooden handles worked smooth by the cooper’s palms, lie abandoned on the bench as if their owners had just downed tools for lunch.
I retrace my steps back to the wiggly little road that runs to Bunnahabhain distillery, the most northerly distillery on Islay, and dart through the archway to join the Warehouse 9 tour. Dave Brodie leads the whistle-stop tour, explaining the origins of the unpeated style introduced in the 1960s when much of the current equipment was fitted. The malt bins can hold 900 tons of malted barley, a throwback to the days when boats bringing 500-600 tons of barley would dock at the pier. Nowadays, it arrives in 40-ton articulated lorries picking their way along the same winding single-track road.
It’s a deliberately brisk tour, leaving more time for the tasting, well suited to seasoned whisky fans that have toured more than a few Scottish distilleries, but it’s well worth seeing the giant 15-ton copper-topped mash tun and the 100,000 liter capacity Oregon pine washbacks. What made me connect with Bunnahabhain was the stillhouse, for it is unlike any other on Islay. Delightfully, neither the stills nor condensers have seen any copper lacquer in years. The copper is a patchwork of burgundy, earthy browns, verdigris, and cuprous tones; splattered leaks streak the flanks from wash still windows and yawning manway covers, and the skins of the stills are scarred where the copper has worn thin and the coppersmith has stitched in a replacement section. I love the gutsy authenticity of the place, the grimy dullness of the four gigantic pear-shaped stills with their lyne arms stretching out horizontally to encourage plenty of copper conversation. I think this may be my new favorite stillroom on the island.
Warehouse 9 was once a malting floor, which explains the concrete floors and low ceilings, but after reinforcement, two floors are now full of maturing casks. Most years, Bunnahabhain splits their production into 90 percent bourbon and 10 percent sherry casks, though in 2015 they casked more Bunnahabhain into sherry than bourbon casks. From 24,000 casks maturing at the distillery, three sherry casks are selected for the tasting. These casks contain unpeated and peated styles for comparison, all drawn by valinch (the tube used to draw whisky from a cask through the bunghole) in the chilly depths of the warehouse.
Earlier this century, Bunnahabhain distillery was not even open to the public. The visitor center guides here have fought hard to promote the range of tours, making it highly rewarding to spend time at this Victorian distillery, even if it feels like little has changed internally in the past 50 years. Distell, the brand owner, is sitting on a nugget of gold here, and I hope the team receives the support they deserve in their endeavors to share their pride and passion.
I halt the car at the proposed site of Hunter Laing’s Ardnahoe distillery, where I walk down the track to inspect the lay of the land. Next, I call into the award-winning Ballygrant Inn, the longest-running bar on the island under the same management, and home to the largest collection of whiskies. Ewan Graham, the bar manager, oversees a giddying array of Fèis Ìle bottlings from past festivals, prized limited editions, and independently bottled goodies. The bar is lined with wood from a former Bruichladdich washback and staves from Bowmore casks are incorporated into the bar. This bar should be as essential a part of your visit as any distillery.
Tonight I dine in the Port Charlotte Hotel, on a trio of cured Loch Fyne salmon, followed by the braised Octomore beef brisket. Replete, I retire to the bar to work through more of their real ales, chased down by drams of Black Bottle amidst the toe-tapping jigs coming from the accordions and banjo. Graham Allison is behind the busy bar, as always. Traditional sessions are held on Wednesday and Sunday evenings and I get to chatting with the musicians. Conspirationally, they confess to being from the south of the island and joke about being caught this far north on a Sunday night! It transpires that the Hohner accordion player is David Adams, a warehouseman at Laphroaig, Ciara MacTaggart on the Manfrini accordion once worked as a distillery tour guide, and the banjo player is none other than Donnie Mackinnon, former head brewer at Lagavulin. He’s the man who famously made the last filling of Malt Mill new make spirit in June 1962. David invites me to return to Laphroaig the next day before I catch the ferry.
While walking off my substantial Port Charlotte Hotel breakfast, I spy the Port Charlotte warehouses used by Bruichladdich, once the proposed site of their second distillery. In the only youth hostel on the island, I learn that this is where Bill Lark, the Australian distilling legend likes to stay. For just £18.50 a night, you get a private room, towels, access to a self-catering kitchen, and free WiFi—not bad!
At Bruichladdich I fill a valinch bottling of Port Charlotte Cask Exploration 07, called Eolas An Deididh, a belter of a dram bottled at 64.7% from a Rivesaltes cask. The Kilchoman distillery shop café is packed solid with hungry visitors when I get there. Kilchoman has just started selling the latest batch of their Kilchoman 100% Islay, a remarkable whisky made with barley grown on the farm itself; malted, distilled, matured, and bottled at the distillery.
I return to Bowmore and stand agape in the face of the vast whisky selection in the Bowmore Hotel. Just past the Bowmore warehouses, I swing right and travel to Gartbreck. The road gets pretty rough a few miles in, but I make it to the Gartbreck distillery sign, with its announcement that they plan to start production by the end of 2015. Unfortunately, there is no sign that any work has begun. The eerie farmhouse lies abandoned, and it’s a sorry sight; a giant tractor tire, a fallen freezer spotted with blistering rust, and an upturned wheelbarrow lie scattered around the yard. Let’s hope Gartbreck gets the green light to begin soon.
My final stop of the day before catching the ferry is Laphroaig, where David Adams, as promised, is waiting for me. He introduces me to Billy Johnston, stillman, who gives me the most fascinating technical tour around the pipework behind the stills: the heat exchanger, the olive green tank for spent lees, the silver low wines and feints receiver, and finally the cooling tower outside.
Leaving Islay is never easy. Tonight, one of those familiar Carntyne Transport tankers is parked in the ferry queue. I like to think that it is brimming with Caol Ila new make spirit. The Port Ellen pier doesn’t just exist for ferry traffic. Beside us, the barley boat Islay Trader is berthed, with her hatch covers wide open to admit a thick pipe that sucks up tons of barley into the silo for transportation to Port Ellen Maltings. As Finlaggan’s engines thunder into life, I reflect that those grains are the seeds of the future of Islay whisky, liquid that we might not drink until the end of the 2020s or beyond. Yes, leaving Islay is never easy. I’ll just need to keep coming back again and again.