Islay 2012 Day 6…Bowmore Craftsman’s Tour & Off To Campbeltown
Some none too speedy souls in our ranks this morning. Guess that kinda seems like a theme throughout this narrative, huh? I promise there is much more to both Islay and touring with me than simply barbaric drunkenness. It just sorta worked out that most nights there was one individual who went a little further than the rest of us. I was a’ight this morning, as were a couple others, but our good friend Pat was lower than Barry White’s bedroom voice. For shame, really, as this was bound to be a special day. We were booked in for the Craftsman’s Tour at Bowmore.
The Bowmore distillery sits right along the waterfront in the center of the village. Picturesque, perfectly situated, iconic. It’s sort of humbly monolithic in the way in which it sits as the oceanic gateway to the town. So many of the distilleries on the island are beautiful, but I confess I have five times more photographs of Bowmore than any other. Especially in light of the way in which the sun sets to west, bathing the distillery in incredible and ever-changing shades. Gorgeous.
We arose this morning in leisure for a change. Our tour was booked for 10:00 or 10:30 am, but being as the distillery was only a five or ten minute walk from our B&B, we were in no hurry. We had a nice relaxed breakfast, got cleaned up, and strolled through the invigorating Islay morning air. Knowing this was our last few hours on the island had us all walking slowly and soaking it up as much as we could.
We arrived at the distillery a few minutes early and, while we circulated amongst the goods in the distillery gift shop, eyeing in particular a bottle of Black Bowmore that would have fit perfectly well in my suitcase (sigh), some obnoxious prat began arguing with the lasses at the counter about how he was staying in the cottages and should therefore be allowed to take the Craftsman’s Tour with us. No amount of discussion explaining that this was a private tour reserved only for our group would get through to this guy. His argument was along the lines of ‘well, I’m staying here, I can’t believe I would have to book a tour. As a guest it should be easy to fit me in.’ F*cking windbag. I felt bad for the ladies who did their best to be polite and diplomatic, when I’m sure they would have much rather called a couple of the bigger warehousemen to heave this guy out. Well done, ladies. You’re cut from finer cloth than I.
After this situation was finally dealt with, our guide Heather came ’round and introduced herself with a great big warm smile. We immediately headed off into the distillery as excited as the five golden ticket holders in Wonka’s factory. For those of you contemplating, or actually booking, your own trip to Islay I would highly recommend the distillery tour upgrades. The prices and quality invariably differ, but all are certainly worth paying more than the standard fare for.
The Craftsman’s Tour, in particular, is a great one. It provides a fair bit more than what is generally considered the standard tour at most distilleries, and is a much more relaxed and behind-the-scenes experience. The clock kinda seems to stop and you feel like the distillery is your playground and that the guide is happy to spend the day with you. In short…it’s a much more immersive experience. While you don’t ultimately hike out to a water source or bottle your own malt or anything, there is one particularly iconic experience associated with this tour. We’ll come to that in a minute.
Bowmore is a pretty distillery on both the inside and out. From the waterfront setting to the gated entry. From the big red mill to the washbacks, each named for former Bowmore owners. From the shiny copper stills to the beautiful lounge. I could go on and on, but instead…I’ll simply recommend you pay a visit yourself. Of course, it’s important to remember that each distillery is as unique as a fingerprint. Bowmore just happens to be a diamond among gems and is as photogenic as Gisele Bundchen.
There are a few truly magic and iconic images from our trip; ones that will live on amongst the five of us for ages beyond the actual duration of our time together. Arguably the best of the bunch though is a shot of Pat down in the warehouses of Bowmore. I can’t recall who took the photo, but as you can see for yourself, it is the absolute personification of heartbreak in the face of a hangover experienced during one of life’s sweetest moments. Classic.
Pat’s a good looking guy, but I gotta say that green isn’t his best color. When we passed around a sample of the wash (you’ll recall this is the distiller’s beer that is made from the malted and fermented barley, prior to distillation) for everyone to taste (supposed to be a great hangover cure!), I thought Pat was gonna yark all over the floor.
At one point we got to step into the heated confines of the dark and scorching space beneath the kiln, where poor Pat made it just far enough into the room to be able to say he’d done so, before quickly turning tail and making for the cooler hall outside. Poor lad. The same again when we stepped into the deep grain and swirling smoke above the kiln. It would have been funny if I didn’t genuinely feel bad the guy was missing out on the full flavour experience. Guess we’ll need to return for a do-over.
After walking through the full production process, the moment had come for that aforementioned special treat that the Craftsman’s Tour is known for; a visit to the legendary Bowmore Number 1 Vaults. This is the very same space where magical drams like the Bowmore Black, Gold and White slumbered on for ages until reaching maturity. It’s a place that seems to somehow coerce irreplicable flavours from the cask into the whisky. And yes…as you may have heard, the warehouse butts right up against the forces of the sea which pitch and tumble against its outer walls.
Heather led us to the door and pulled the lock free while we five waited with hearts racing.
I don’t want to share too much here, lest I spoil it for any fo you who may soon be en route, but let me set the imagination to racing by saying it is beautifully dark, cramped and delightfully mysterious. The walls sport a growth of spongy mold and the floors are barren and dusty. The casks are short racked in dunnage style and the smells are…well…the smells are simply inexplicable.
We spent the next while pulling bungs from casks and sampling a few different drams, from both bourbon and sherry casks, in this most hallowed of all whisky environs. While we may not have been drinking the Black Bowmore, it really didn’t matter. The setting alone made each sip taste like a drink from the fountain of youth sipped from the holy grail. Once more…utterly magic.
After a brilliant couple of hours working our way through the inner trappings of the distillery, and finally locking the doors to the Number 1 vaults behind us, Heather led us back up to the Bowmore lounge for cookies, coffees and…yeah…a couple more drams. Fine. If you insist. Even Pat was beginning to come ’round by this point. Think he even had a dram or two. Each of us was given a little Bowmore souvenir pack, complete with a glass and a few other little goodies. When we finished our drinks, we thanked Heather, grabbed our packs and headed back out.
With the last of our tours now done, and time winding down before our ferry ride over to Kennacraig, we wandered through a couple of shops in Bowmore, picking up the last of our requisite souvenirs and such. I finally caved and bought myself a quaich; some jewellery for my wife and daughters; a couple more UK-centric snacks to take back to Canada for the kids, and…well…that was about it. Time to head back to the B&B for our things.
Hughie arrived right on time for our final jaunt and helped us load up while we did a final sweep of the rooms. It’s just a short drive from Bowmore to Port Askaig, and with traffic being light (bad joke) we were down at the ferry port in no time, bidding a sweet farewell to our new mate, Hughie, and wishing for a speedy return to this peaty haven.
With some time to spare before our sailing, we went into the Port Askaig pub for a quick bite and a coffee. We ordered up a round of BLTs, which, being rather small, left a couple of our lads still munchy. Two or three of ‘em ordered burgers to go. Blech! By now it was departure time. We walked over to the ticket booth and were told that, weather being what it was (choppy, rainy, windy and nasty), there was a ferry delay from Port Askaig to Kennacraig. ‘Oh f*ck’, was the thought that immediately started to circulate in our heads. Our ride to Campbeltown was a tight connection, with only a few moments to disembark from the ferry and clamber aboard the bus at Kennacraig. All you can do in travel situations like this is say ‘oh well’, and start looking for the next best option if need be. As it was…we remained optimistic we’d make it. We boarded up and crossed our fingers.
And with that, we were off to Campbeltown. It was a sad farewell to all things Islay. Looking back through the gray mists, light drizzle and sea spray at the island is it faded behind the ship was a bit heartbreaking. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s one of those ‘not sure if you’ll make it back there again’ moments. Being as I’m as emotionally tied to the island as I am, this is a hard thing. Yeah, yeah…I’m a sissy. So what of it?
Lo and behold, a couple of the lasses that had been part of the last big night at Duffies (including one affectionately referred to by the guys as ‘slutty pants’) were aboard with us. I hadn’t really spoken to them the night before, but the guys who had, hung around and shared a few words before we went and grabbed seats for the sailing. Gord and I immediately headed topside to take it all in. We were the only ones foolhardy enough to brave the elements for a few pictures and a quick ocean spray shower. Very cool stuff. Wet and windy, but something about being out in the tumultuous rocking of the ocean is indescribably thrilling for me. Well worth the drenching.
So…after a great ferry ride, we landed in Kennacraig only to learn that…yep…we’d missed our bus. After a bit of bouncing around between different transit employees trying to find an alternate ride, we finally got pointed in the direction of another bus that would take us at least part way towards our final destination. This bus would run us down to Tarbert, where a couple hours later we’d be able to hop aboard another bus bound for Campbeltown. So be it. Any port in a storm, and by this point it was a storm. We hopped aboard and most of us wee weary souls immediately drifted off amid the soothing lull of the bus’s engine and the thoughts of miles rolling away beneath us.
By the time we pulled into Tarbert it was a good hard rain. Pulling your suitcases out from the undercarriage of a bus, in the middle of nowhere, in the pouring rain, and watching its taillights recede in the distance is a phenomenally disheartening experience. We trudged a ways in the downpour into the heart of Tarbert in search of a pub. By this point I was starting to feel fairly sick. The first stirrings of what would ultimately become a truly nasty cold which took me weeks to kick when I got home. We ordered a round of beers and began the slow process of drip-drying. I chatted with the barman for a few moments about a rather spectacular old Brora he had on an upper shelf, but it wasn’t dram o’ clock. It was dinner time. This gent was kind enough to allow us to leave our bags behind while we went looking for a bite to eat. A few windows further along the way we found a nifty little cafe where everyone could order what they liked. Sort of a mixed bag of a menu. I had a fantastic chicken curry and chips. Just what was needed to cut the cold from my bones and help burn off whatever illness was brewing away in my chest.
Afterwards we returned for our bags and made the long trek back to our soggy l’il outpost of a bus stop to await our Campbeltown chariot. Seeing that second bus pull up was a sight for sore eyes, lemme tell ya.
Now…if there’s anything better than having to pull your suitcases out from under a bus in the pissing rain, it’s having to do it a second time mere hours later. The walk from the Cambletown bus platform to our B&B could have made for a great rafting trip if only we’d had the foresight to bring along the right gear. By the time we arrived at Earadale, our B&B, we were thoroughly soaked and could have been poster children for the Wikipedia entry ‘drowned rats’. Not sure, but I hear this kind of inclement weather is great for those teetering on the edge of a wicked flu bout, no? FML.
So…in all our sodden glory (much like our arrival at Laphroaig a few days prior), we stumbled into Earadale Bed and Breakfast, David’s place, at about 10pm, much later than initially promised. My emphatic apologies for the lateness of arrival were immediately brushed aside, and our gracious host led us to our quarters for the eve. Earadale is a heckuva nice B&B and proprietor, David, is a great guy. I look forward to a return visit and stay there. After he gave us the quick tour and led us to our two suites, he left us to our own devices.
The room Gord, John and I shared had a great open room with a couple of big inviting beds and a comfy sitting TV area. While I felt like flopping face first on the nearest, I took the little room off to one side of the big one. Small, with bunk beds, it was at least quiet and private. Let’s face it…there was no way one of the other two chaps was gonna fit on the lower half of a bunk, and while watching them struggle get on the top would have been priceless, I’m too nice a guy for that. Sometimes you just gotta help out a bit and take the bullet.
We sat and chatted for a few minutes, but I think most of us were simply wracked. Not long after taking our rooms, everyone just kinda crashed out. Well earned rest at this point.