Islay 2012 Day 2…A Trip Down To Ardbeg And The Laphroaig Water To Whisky Experience
Day 2 began with a whimper, not a roar. At least for one of our rather sordid crew. The excesses of Islay left Johnny Boy a wee bit…flat…this morning. Though I woke up with a bit of a thumpin’ noggin’ and a less than confident swagger, it was more of an ‘I think I’m still schlitzed’ as opposed to a true hold-yer-head hangover. Either way…it was gone soon enough.
A couple of us were awake and packed up ahead of the others and decided to make our way back up to the Lochindaal under a bit of a drizzle. Uh oh…were we gonna spend a week in this rain? Fingers crossed for a bit of blue sky in our future.
Scott, Pat and I strolled into the restaurant side of the Lochindaal and settled in around the tables – already laid out with juice and coffee and such – to await the others and get a bit of a jump on breakfast. John and Gord finally arrived in time to join us for the full fare Scottish breakfast. Eggs, bacon, blood pudding, toast, beans, fried tomato, etc. As we set to, it wasn’t long before we noticed that one of the Collective seemed to be moving as though wading his way through a mire of molasses. Poor red-eyed John. Hangdog expression…slowly sipping a juice…and eating his breakie one bean at a time. Literally.
As we shared a few laughs and tried rubbing the grime off the reflection of the previous night’s festivities, certain recollections started to pop up. Much was the standard ‘you remember doing…?’ or ‘I can’t believe…’, but Gord’s sudden remembrance of ‘oh sh*t…I think I bought a round for everyone in the bar last night’ was priceless. There was immediate panic and a tentative question to the Lochindaal’s proprietor, Iain… ‘Iain…did I pay for everything last night, or do I still owe you?’ Hahaha. Thankfully all was good, and we immediately suckered Iain into our morning chatter. His suggestion? ‘Need more whisky, boys?’
It was about this time that Hughie arrived. Hughie drives one of the island taxis. His wife, Violet, is the same lady who helped out last time I stayed at Kate’s place, by filling in while Kate was on holidays. I had encountered a few logistical woes in travel arrangements with this trip, and Kate suggested Hughie as a driver. Boy…am I glad she did. Hughie became sort of the unofficial sixth member of our tribe for the rest of the week.
Hughie grabbed a seat along the bar after telling us not to hurry, and joined Iain for a morning coffee and chat. We sorry five finished our morning meal amid much revelry, mockery and laughter, while throwing back the last of our own coffee. Big stretches all around, and then it was time to toss bags on our backs again. We dragged our suitcases out the door and began to load up for the jaunt to Ardbeg.
Now…let me take a moment to share a little bit about how things work on the island. Iain Maclellan is a man I’ve only met a couple of times, but on Islay it is easy to form immediate and lasting impressions. He’s a great guy. Quick with a kind word and even quicker with wit and banter. He immediately makes you feel welcome, and as if his place were your own. Yes, I know that as an Innkeeper that is his job, but Iain has such a genuine air about him that you can’t help but take it at face value and accept that the guy really does like you.
As the last bags were loaded, I said a quick farewell to Iain, at which time he offered me a place to stay anytime I was over, saying there would be no need to pay next time. The gesture was a rather heartwarming one, and I can’t tell you how far these kind of encounters go towards making me want to put down some sort of roots on Islay at some point in my future. Beautiful island…beautiful people.
Anyway…if you’re reading, Iain…cheers! Love staying with you and hope to see ya out that way again soon. 2014 perhaps, barring wife laying down the law? 😉
Man…what a helleva taxi ride from Port Charlotte to Ardbeg. You’ve heard of the Rocky Road To Dublin (“one, two, three, four, five!”)? Well, how ‘bout the the bumpy road to Ardbeg? The rest of us troopers laughed our sorry asses off at ‘One-bean’ Johnny’s discomfort and seeming chameleon act (with every bump he turned a different shade of sick). It did contribute to one of our greatest laugh fests of the whole trip. John’s conversation with Hughie was priceless. A couple of the more memorable quotes from this witty little exchange: “Your cows look pretty much like ours”, and a reference to ‘a good Scottish pounding’. Brilliant. I can only imagine what was going on in poor Hughie’s head at this point.
The trip down South to Ardbeg, and the Kildalton region as a whole, allowed the guys their first opportunity to see Port Ellen. This, one of Islay’s biggest villages, is also sort of like a Mecca. Once home to the famed, and now closed, Port Ellen distillery, the town now boasts the Port Ellen Maltings, an enormous industrial Diageo complex which uses big rotating drums to turn the germinating barley. The maltings supplies malted barley to all of the island’s distilleries at all required peating levels. As we cruised by the maltings, the site of the old Port Ellen distillery’s pagodas came into view. Sigh.
What better time to wax poetic about Islay’s lost (but not forgotten) son. Port Ellen was mothballed in 1983. Two of the three pagodas are still intact. The warehouses are still used to store whisky. But sadly…the stills and such are long gone. In my heart of hearts, I know that even if the distillery were to be resurrected, the malt would likely be of a different character. Yet…I’m a bit of a romantic too. With so much of the distillery still intact, I refuse to relinquish hope that spirit will flow here once more. Whisky’s influence has arguably never been greater, and Islay malt in particular is a hot commodity. I’m certain the island could support a ninth distillery. And even more certain that the consumers would do their best to support sales from the iconic Port Ellen distillery.
Continuing on past Port Ellen, the road meanders along beautiful rugged coastline to the right and rolling green fields to the left. The latter are crisscrossed with miles of handbuilt rock walls. Gorgeous, really.
Arriving at Ardbeg is a feeling of homecoming. At this point we weren’t there for a tour, a tasting or any other formalities. This was a merely a quick visit and meet up with Janey Torrance. With our Ardbeg tour booked for the weekend, when she was scheduled out of office, I wouldn’t be able to run into her after this point. Janey is the lovely lady, you may recall, whom I spoke of last time, when she had managed to track me down a bottle of the Rollercoaster. This time she had considerably upped the ante. Three of the four ‘Path to Peaty Maturity’ bottles were on hold for me (‘Still Young’, ‘Almost There’ and ‘Renaissance’), as were two bottles of the limited Ardbeg Day release, aptly titled… ‘Ardbeg Day’, of course. Brilliant!!! As it would ultimately turn out, we ended up snagging four of The Ardbeg Day releases. One we consumed throughout the trip, a second was a gift for Maltmonster, a third came home with me and a fourth went home with the Ginger Buddha. I imagine if there had been any more we would have happily made off with that as well.
I knew Ardbeg would be the most expensive distillery stop for me, but didn’t realize just how much I would ultimately be carrying out of there. Five bottles (Still Young, Almost There, Renaissance and two bottles of the Ardbeg Day release), a hoodie for me, a jacket, a canvas bag and tshirt for my wife, the big beautiful ‘Ardbeg; A Peaty Provenance’ book, some misc glassware and peat cones, etc. Heavy backpack. Thankfully a couple of the others offered to help mule stuff back to Bowmore for me.
After a brief chat with Mickey Heads, Ardbeg’s distillery manager, we packed up for the next leg of the journey. I was hoping to have a bit more time to chat with Mickey, but he seemed rather occupied and our schedule was rather tight. Oh well. Next time.
Our initial plans had been to take a few minutes to enjoy the stroll from Ardbeg to Laphroaig. Of course, these plans were made while still back in Calgary. Now that we were here the weather had decided otherwise, and refused to let up its chokehold on anything resembling dry time. If we did indeed hike it, we’d be sodden wrecks in no time. Thankfully the ladies at Ardbeg informed us there was a bus en route to Port Ellen, with a stop at Laphroaig, in 10 minutes time. Perfect. I should add that our entire trip to Laphroaig was anything but dry. In all senses.
We hung around Ardbeg for a couple minutes, snapping a few pictures before making out for the stop at the end of the lane. A short ride later we were let off by the narrow tree-lined road down to Laphroaig. Even the short walk from the bus let-off to the distillery had us drenched in no time. We stumbled into the visitor center (some of us wearing suddenly quite weighty backpacks) and shook off the rain. Not two minutes after walking in…while still pulling off our coats, to be honest…a gent walked over with a bottle and five glasses. ‘You lads look like you could use a dram’. Voila! A glass of Triple Wood in hand.
Distillery number three…Laphroaig…
So…five sodden, dripping Canadians walk into a distillery…
Is there any better way to be greeted when coming in from the inclement weather than with drams of Laphroaig, hot coffee and cold water to soothe the savage remains of the collective hangover? Well…yes. All of the above plus the opportunity to relax in the big comfy chairs in the lounge at Laphroaig. The five of us were plenty early for our tour so took the chance just to relax, soak in the surroundings and simply enjoy one another’s company.
Poor John. The lad was all shades of green. You have to understand that there was simply no way we were letting him off easily for this one. The guy sat dozing in and out of consciousness amid our laughter for the better part of 10-15 minutes. Just in sitting around the table for this short period he’d managed to hurt both his knee and head. After clumsily knocking himself about a couple of times, we decided to take matters into our own hands and help him out a bit. When he got up to hit the loo, we slid the whole table over a few inches and carefully positioned his chair right under the hanging light fixture. Sure enough, when he returned to the table and went to take his seat…‘wham!’
Sadistic, I know, but funny as f*ck.
Not long after this, a lovely young lady named Emma Boyle came round to have a bit of a chat with us. She introduced herself and let us know that she would be the one leading us through the Water To Whisky experience today. This upgraded tour is the whole hog. Donning wellies, hiking out to the water source, cutting peat, turning barley, etc. All accompanied by drams along the way, an outdoor picnic and the opportunity to bottle your own Laphroaig to take home at the end. Sadly, due to the ongoing monsoon, the prospects of a trip to the water source and peat banks (not to mention the accompanying outdoor picnic) was simply not in the cards. Emma suggested knocking the tour price back by twenty quid, having an indoor picnic and just seeing what kinda hijinx we could get up to in the distillery itself. Sold! Though disappointed to miss out on some of the experience, this wasn’t a bad decision. Man…that was a heavy rain!
So…to kickstart things, we were led to a beautiful little lounging room. The nice loooooong board table…cushy leather chairs…great view to the sea…and bottles of rare Laphroaig used as decoration throughout the room. Yeah, I could have happily settled in for a nice long afternoon of dramming in a leather armchair while watching the ocean roll in.
The table was laid out with all the trappings of a lovely picnic. This was sort of like yuppie picnic’ing. Much like my parents believing they can still call it camping while lounging in their great big tricked-out trailer. Hmmmm….not so sure about that. Either way…this was a treat. Very enjoyable. Lunch was tasty, particularly the soup…sweets were great…and the drams delicious.
Two other gents were on the W2W tour with us, Christian and Peter. These two Danish gents were a blast to hang out with. Super friendly…knowledgable…and as full of excitement and whisky nerdery as the rest of us. This was our first meet with them, but wouldn’t be our last. We thoroughly enjoyed their company.
At the end of lunch (and our malts) Emma pulled out one more whisky. I believe her intent may have been just to show it to us. A few minutes later we were all sipping a dram of this whisky too. Funny how that works. This last bottle was the latest Laphroaig Cairdeas release called Origin. Nice whisky, which I think Emma said was sold out. Fortunately not long after getting back to Canada, the same expression arrived on our shores in limited numbers. I did manage to snare one, and know where there are more. Perhaps a second bottle would be a good idea before it finally disappears. This really was a nice Laphroaig.
Now, with stomachs comfortably topped up, and John’s hangover abating just the tiniest bit, it was time to move on into the tour itself.
Now let me share a cautionary tale with ya. I’ve toured each of Islay’s eight distilleries a couple of times now. I’ve toured a couple others in Scotland, as well as a couple in Canada. I’m not new to this. I’m also not naive or ignorant as to some of the precautions to take in the distilleries. I do however have to concede that I got absolutely humbled at Laphroaig.
The washback in a distillery is a place where magic happens. This is where the wort is mixed with yeast in order to allow those microbial little buggers to begin devouring the sugar and spewing out alcohol. The result of this little process is a confined tank wherein an excess of CO2 lies in wait. Y’never wanna stick your head right into a washback.
The fumes that come off the liquid roiling and bubbling away in these immense vats is sharp and rich. And noxious. I’ve smelled it many times. Lean in (though not too far…), grab a quick little sniff and pull back. No problem. Dozens of times. This time however…WHAM!! Like a donkey kick in the head. I literally think I lost half a second. Had trouble clearing my mind for a moment, and developed an instant headache. Holy f*ck. See how quick this stuff can happen? I was knocked legless in one quick (and abbreviated) breath.
The effect passed after a few minutes, but…wow.
Anyway…what better way to cure the ill effects of alcohol (even if it is just the vapours) than to have another go at it. Emma pulled a sample of wash for us to try. The dense, opaque, smoky beer still sits ok with me, but I know some others find it rather…uh…vile. And John…care for a taste? No way.
It’s neat how you can see the character of the endproduct even in this low-alcohol, rather unrefined ‘beer’. After a few distillery tours you begin to see how each distillery’s wash has its own flavors and aromas. If the opportunity affords, I would highly suggest always trying the wash, new make spirit and the final product. Sampling the full triumvirate allows you to really get to the heart and character of both the distillery and the whisky. If nothing else…you can at least say you’ve done so.
To close out the tour we headed down to the warehouse, where three casks were laid out on their sides. A ’97, ’99 and 2001 Laphroiag. Emma pulled out a valinch (the long slender tube used for extracting the spirit from the casks), and a bunch of tasting glasses. There is nothing…nothing…like drinking good whisky straight from the cask in an old dunnage warehouse. It is simply magic and one of life’s richest experiences. The whisky is cool and strong…the air is damp and chill…the smells are ethereal and nearly impossible to explain. If ever asked about my favorite whisky experiences, sipping straight from the cask in a warehouse is probably the best of ’em all.
Anyway…this was coming to the tail end of the tour experience. We now had the opportunity to try all three casks, before selecting the one each of us liked best, and bottling our own Laphroaig. These take-aways are short, squat and square 250ml bottles. All of us (our Danish friends included) took a turn at the valinch, and at filling our bottles with the precious amber liquid, full of cask char and bits of particulate. I can’t tell you how cool this experience was. Much more enjoyable than simply filling a bottle from a cask in a giftshop or anything. Certainly a trip highlight. The only labelling is a hand-marked tag that we wrote cask details on and tied around the neck of the bottle.
I should mention…it’s possible we did a little more than ‘try’ each cask. The big clear container you see Pat holding below was full to a rather hefty level at a couple of points, so it just made sense to put it in our glasses rather than back in the cask. Or so we thought at the time.
When I got back home to Canada, I wax-sealed the top of my bottle to keep the cork in place, and save this special whisky for some future eve with a few close friends.
After all bottles were corked, all photos snapped and the warehouse locked up once more, the lot of us made our way back to the visitor’s center and settled back into our cozy chairs. And yes…more drams were brought ’round almost immediately. Cask Strength Batch 004, this time. As well as more of the Triple Wood and one or two others. Some nice warming whiskies, well suited to the challenges of the day in keeping the chill out of our hearts and bones.
The ladies in the shop took our hand-bottled gems to the back and packed them in some of the best bubble-wrap packaging I’ve ever seen. At this point I was offered the opportunity to have my Ardbeg bottles packaged similarly. Thankfully I took them up on this offer. One of the releases (think it was the Almost There) was actually open. The bottle still looked full, but the seal was ripped off all the way ’round the bottle. A lovely lady at the counter got on the phone and connected me to Janey at Ardbeg, who, of course, was a friend of hers. Janey said not to worry, she did have another bottle that I could pick up in a couple days when we returned to Ardbeg. Love this lady.
So…with bellies full, blood warmed and contented grins on our face we hopped a cab back to Bowmore.
Man, what a monsoon. The roads were flooded so deep that we finally had to turn back from the route we set out on. We had reached an impasse where one car was mired up to its door handles in a low-lying stretch of road, and the rest of the vehicles approaching from either side, ours included, knew enough not to follow suit. I’d seen a lot of rain in Scotland in my three trips over, but this was crazy.
After our prolonged little detour, we finally arrived at Meadowside, Kate MacAffer’s place. Kate has two places in Bowmore she lets out for those of us visiting the island from afar. The first is her own house, in which she has a couple of guest rooms upstairs. The second is a ‘self-catering’ home a few blocks away. On my last trip over I spent a couple nights in each of these places. The latter being a bit more accommodating for a troop of five guys, I thought for certain that is where we’d be bunking in. Not so, however. As I’ve mentioned already…a couple of these lads are big guys (topping the 6’ mark). The sleeping quarters that seemed quite spacious to me last time now felt a little…errr…congested to say the least.
At some point after leaving us, while we were out gallavanting and dramming it up, Hughie was kind enough to swing by Meadowside and drop our bags off. We arrived slightly damp, but infintely content. We threw packs down and made the only logical leap we could. Pile on some Ardbeg! After months of anticipation, I finally got to break open the Ardbeg Day and proceeded to decant the entire bottle into our flasks. Yes, yes…we had planned ahead. Flasks being a necessity on a trip like this. I mean, c’mon…what would have happened if we had been separated? Should we have just NOT had a dram of Ardbeg? Pshaw! Ridiculous!
First nosing of this new Ardbeg? Oh wow. The green team never seems to let me down. We all toasted and savoured our first sips of this limited (and sold out) one-off release by the greatest operating distillery in the world. Sighs of contentment all ‘round.
So, what next? Uh, drinks, of course. Off we went for our first run at Duffies.
Duffies has changes a bit since I was there in 2010. First off, Roberta and Duffie sold the place to a gent from off-island. Some of the staff is the same, including barman, David, who has been running the place as manager for some time now. It was good to see him again. Down home kinda guy with a quick wit.
The changes were more to do with the whiskies themselves. It seemed like a bit less of a selection from the time of my 2010 trip, and slightly higher prices. The outlay for certain drams seemed fairly high even if we were looking at dollars. When you stopped to think these were pounds, and did the currency conversion…f*cking ‘ell! Some pricey bevvies. Can’t say that stopped us though. Oh…and one other difference. Availability. A lot that was listed in the menu was sold out, especially the Port Ellen indies and such. Oh well. Just means we had to branch out with our selections a little more.
We settled in to some decent pub grub. Fish n’ chips for this guy. Pretty sure (and I may correct this if I recall otherwise) this was also the night we had bacon-wrapped banana for an appetizer. WTF, right?!? Can’t say I’ll need it regularly, but for what it was…s’ok, I s’pose.
After dinner we hung around for a drink. Then another. Maybe yet another.
A couple of the guys left earlier than a few of us hardcores. Or John, at least. Can’t remember if there was one other that bailed. The rest of us weren’t willing to give in quite so easily however. Lack of sleep be damned.
A couple of drams I recall from that eve: Bowmore Mariner, Macbeatha (A Bowmore from Kilchoman), Ardbeg Serendipity
More to come…