Day One – Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain
Arrival and Bruichladdich
Evening. Sitting in Duffies (the Lochside Hotel), a bloody amazing whisky bar (feature to follow), with a glass of Ardbeg Still Young (8 y.o.) in front of me. The nose on this whisky is monstrous (in a beautiful Ardbeg manner), and though I have yet to sip from it, I can’t imagine I’ll be disappointed. It is evening now. Thought I’d recap the day as it unfolded. A few back home are waiting to hear some details from this magical land of peat bog, smoke and rain.
It was pissing rain as I lifted off from Glasgow. Sigh. I know this is Scotland and all, but is this what I was in for on this little excursion? I gambled by not bringing any sort of rain gear. Kinda looking like a bad bet after all. Dreary and bleak. The sky was grey and the tarmac looked pale in comparison. My little Hebridean hopper flight was one of those 3 seats abreast kind of deals. One seat…aisle…two more seats. Only a handful of us on board. I think most must have been locals returning home, as while I was spellbound trying to catch glimpses through the clouds, most of them were dozing contentedly.
Taking off from Glasgow was a reward in and of itself. Topographically so pretty, green and uniquely geometrical. Gorgeous to look down on. Clouds soon enveloped us however, leaving nothing more to see than a layer of marshmallow below. Fortunately the cloud cover began to lift as we approached Islay. I began to catch glimpses of coastline and green below. Whitecaps lapped at the shore.
A wide circling approach allowed a fantatsic survey of the island. Stunning really. More than I had hoped for. My arrival at the airport in Glenegedale was met with…sheep. Yep. Sheep. Lots of ‘em. C’mon…this is Scotland, right?
Allan Logan from Bruichladdich met me at the airport and, after a typically dense Western moment (approached the wrong side of the vehicle), he drove me around Loch Indaal to Bruichladdich. The familar turquise barrels were a welcome site.
Allan is a very easy-going guy. a pleasure to talk to. Informative, humorous and honest. Surprisingly young too (27, I believe Mark Reynier said) considering he is Duncan MacGillivray’s second in command. After a few minutes with Allan, I was taken in to meet Duncan, Bruichladdich’s distillery manager. Within moments Ella Edgar, Duncan’s ‘right arm’, came in with coffee and biscuits and immediately inquired about my lunch plans, which she promptly made arrangements for as well. This was absolutely typical of the way Bruichladdich treated me from the first moment I contacted them months ago.
Duncan and I settled in to a casual and comfortable chat. He is the epitome of Islay spirit. A down home guy with an easy laugh, good heart and great stories to share. He is someone that immediately puts you at ease. I could have happily spent the day chatting, but after a coffee with Duncan (and an hour or so of socializing), I headed down to meet Mark Reynier, Managing Director at Bruichladdich.
Mark is a nifty guy. Intensely passionate about what he does and the products Bruichladdich produces. He is sharp and analytical. His enthusiasm is contagious and I found myself getting worked up with him as we chatted about ambient and coastal influence, organic barley, the origins and renaissance of Bruichladdich, whisky writers and much more. Again…you feel like you have hardly scratched the surface after an hour or so.
Allan came by and asked if I was ready to see how the magic happens at Bruichladdich. No arm-twisting necessary. Nifty to see Ugly Betty in the still room (the still they’ve used to create Bruichladdich gin. Watch for this when it comes out. It is a humdinger!). Allan was quite thorough as we went through the complex chonologically, leaving me few questions to ask that he hadn’t covered.
The highlight of his tour was unquestionably being led through the warehouse. Like a proud papa showing off, Allan was happily pulling bungs from casks and letting me sample some phenomenal whisky (and that gin I spoke of earlier). The pinnacle? Octomore 1 straight from the cask. Dear…gawd. Heads up, folks…Bruichladdich has a lot of brilliant stuff in store.
I headed in to the shop and bottled a valinch for my close friend (and member of my Liquorature club) Bauer. For those unaware, Bruichladdich has a cask in the shop from which you can bottle your own. This cask is seleted by Jim McEwan and obviously what you bottle is quite rare. Neato. Bauer now has 1 of 420 bottles of the Music Man cask. Thinking back…I’m a little jealous. Enjoy, amigo!
After fond farewells to crew at Bruichladdich (unfortunately Duncan was tied up…catch you next time sir), Allan generously drove me around the loch and up to Bunnahabhain. I’m telling you…they treated me like family there. He took me on up to the office where I met Lillian. Details from Bunnahabhain to follow below.
A quick aside here…Ella is set to retire at the end of this year. The team at Bruichladdich made no small secret of just how sorely she will be missed. Ella was responsible for my airport pick-up, arranging lunch (which I felt terrible for not finishing, but man…was I stuffed!), coffee and all sorts of hospitality. I can see why she will be missed. All the best, Ella.
With no rest in between (and going on 24 hours without sleep) Allan graciously drove me from Bruichladdich to Bunnahabhain, the opposite side of the island. The drive to Bunnahabhain is stunning. Gorgeous ups ands downs meandering through greenery. The views as you approach, overlooking the Sound of Islay are spectacular, with the paps of Jura looming just off to the right. Man…what a location. The distillery itself, like most on Islay (the exception being Kilchoman), is situated right on the shore. The current rushing by through the Sound is quite something, and I spent a fair amount of time just staring out to sea before heading in for my tour.
I met Lillian, who I had been in contact with before my trip. Though understaffed and busy, we had a brief chat and I left her to it in order to meander around the grounds. A stroll out onto the pier let the wind buffet me around a bit while a snapped a few pics and breathed in the ocean air. Crisp and exhilarating.
As I wandered the site through the sharp winds blowing in off the Sound, I met a couple from Philadelphia, Howard and Rita. A super sweet couple who, immediately upon hearing that I had been dropped at Bunnahabhain, offered me a lift back to Bowmore. This was absolutely typical of my time on Islay. I had made few internal travel arrangements, leaving it all to chance, and was never left without options.
(One quick aside here…at the risk of offending anyone out there…apologies in advance. There is an unfortunate pervasive stereotype about American people and the standing they are held in abroad. I can honestly say, in all my experience, this is utter rubbish. I have never…repeat never…met an American I didn’t like while traveling.)
As Rita had been kind enough to indulge Howard by tagging along on several of his distillery tours by this point, she elected to have a coffee and wait for him to finish up. Turns out it was just Howard and I for this tour. A tall smiling gentleman by the name of John was our guide. I later found out from Lindsay (? …I think…apologies if this is wrong) at Caol Ila that he is affectionately known as ‘Long John’. Affable and charming, John was knowledgeable and honest with our queries.
It was neat seeing the tarnished old green stills at Bunna, a glaring contrast to the polished copper in the other distilleries on the island. The warehouses tantalized. Uh…John…can I borrow those keys for a few minutes?
After the tour, we headed back to the shop for a dram of the revamped (thank you, Burn Stewart!) Bunna 12, at a respectable 46.3% abv, and a nip at the much more heavily peated Bunna Toiteach (nifty). I revisited the new 12 twice more while on Islay. Quite digging this dram. Nabbed a couple minis of the Black Bottle (produced by Bunnahabhain) which we have yet to see on our shores, to sample upon my return. Debated that Toiteach, but opted to hang on to a few pounds until I knew what else was out there. Hey…at this point I’ve only been to two distilleries.
Though not my favorite Islay dram, I am now a much bigger fan of Bunnahabhain. This has to do with both my visit there and the newly rolled out improved Burn Stewart line.
Shared a nice chat with Rita and Howard on our way to Bowmore. They are a great couple, and if ever reading this, folks…wish you well and hope our paths cross again.
Now…as I said, sitting in Duffies in Bowmore. I wandered the town for a bit, looked at some potential gifts for the family and decided it was time for another dram. I can now honestly say that this Ardbeg Still Young is delicious. Young and crisp though quite rocky. Review to come here on ATW.
Tomorrow is Ardbeg and Lagavulin. I should get some rest.