Oct 112010
 

No visit to Bowmore, or Islay for that matter, would be complete without a stop at Duffies Whisky Bar. Duffies is a part of the Lochside hotel on Shore Street just off the pier in Bowmore. The whisky bar is front and center when you enter, but the dining room toward the back offers a lovely view over Loch Indaal while you enjoy a rich and wonderful menu.

The unimposing facade doesn't even hint at the treasures within.

 After finding the bar, I couldn’t help but put in an appearance three or four times on my recent trip to Islay. Much of the island’s tourism is focused on whisky, and what better way to sample a dram or three while on the island (aside from those offered on distillery tours) than making your way down Shore Street to Duffies? The bar stocks over 260 Islay malts alone, with selections from other distilleries available as well.

The staff is friendly and frequently hilarious. One eve, while sipping an Ardbeg Renaissance near the bar, I overheard a gentleman ask the bartender what a certain coin in his hand was worth. Without hesitation the reply was, “that’s a two pound coin…we use those for tipping barmen”. Resounding laughs well deserved. I only hope that chap did indeed leave behind that coin. I shared a couple of great converstaions with the staff at Duffies. I only hope they can forgive me for not remembering them all by name. I’ll be back, folks. I’ll remember next time.

I sat down with Duffie himself one afternoon to chat about his beautiful bar, exceptional selection and life on Islay. Duffie MacNeill is man for whom a smile comes naturally. His thick Scottish accent had me paying careful attention as we settled into a pair of armchairs for a chat, lest I miss any of the nuggets of humor he dropped. He and his wife Roberta have owned Duffies for 8 years now. Conveniently (and often inconveniently, I’m sure) they live just two doors down. I saw a fair bit of Duffie in the bar while in Bowmore, but he swears most eves he is not there if he can help it. I also briefly met his lovely wife, though she declined to join him in the photo op.

Duffie himself mugging for the camera.

In its present incarnation, Duffies is stunning. The bar boasts gorgeous woodwork on the shelving, as you can see below, where the malts of Islay are proudly and prominently displayed. All local timber, of course. And weighing down these shelves? Well…a brilliant collection of Port Ellen, broad ranges of Laphroaig and Bruichladdich, a nice selection of young Kilchoman releases, Black Bowmore for the high rollers and a locked glass case showcasing an Ardbeg 1965. These are but a few of the offerings, many of which have slowly been migrated over from Duffie’s personal collection. The prices are more than fair. Your wallet may take a denting, but that will simply be from sampling many of the bottles, not because of Duffies’ pricing. A framed award on the wall from Whisky Magazine is almost redundant in confirming Duffies as one of the world’s premier whisky bars. One need only step inside to see for themselves.

The place was fairly hopping each time I dropped in for a dram or a pint of Finlaggen ale, and there was always someone to chat with. I met an engaging chap from Hong Kong, a great couple from England and a few American folks. Duffie says the tourist trade is varied, with a large contingent of Japanese and Swedish visitors. Lots of Fins and Canadians as well. Surprisingly, not so many from the US. He says there is no longer a short tourist season anymore, instead a steady stream visit year round. I visited Islay in late September and can attest I met travelers from all over the globe.

Just a part of Duffies' impressive collection.

It is now mid-October. I have been home for nearly two weeks now. I can honestly say that Duffies is one of the places on Islay I am already missing. Looking forward to my next visit.

http://www.lochsidehotel.co.uk/

Aug 132010
 

Highland Park comes from a land full of mystery and rich in history and heritage.

 Established in 1798 on Orkney, Highland Park is the most Northerly Scotch whisky distillery in the world.  With its windswept moors, craggy outcrops and ancient religious sites, Orkney is a land rich in anecdote.  This, combined with the wind, rain, lightning, freezing ice, crushing waves and hail provide the perfect setting for home of one of the world’s best malt whiskies.

(from the HP leaflet available on tasting night)

Wow.  What a night.  Though Willow Park always puts together quite a do for these tasting events, this was a night of exceptional aesthetics, entertainment and of course, whisky.  We’ll get to that momentarily. 

Upon arriving early Pat and I wandered through the groaning shelves of whisky and rum.  (Should note…everyone’s flavor favorite in rum is back in stock – EH5 at $29)  After needling David a bit, he was able to get in the last laugh.  I made the mistake of asking him what was new in store.  As we wondered around, him pointing out exciting new product, my eyes hit a rich green tube on the top shelf.  I’m sure Pat will attest, I nearly leapt for it.  Laphroaig 18 year old (48%).  Dear gawd.   Without hesitation, David reached up and scooped the other two bottles for himself.  And just like that…gone!  As I debated spending the $102 for this gem, a few eyes followed me and a gentlemen came up to ask where I’d found it.  I knew if I set it down I’d never see it again.  I put it on hold at the service desk until after the tasting.  More momentarily…

At this point we headed down to the ‘ballroom’ below.  J. Wheelock, of Highland Park, our host for the evening, outdid himself.  The room was nicely done up in blacks, slates and greys.  Large visuals and a solid powerpoint iced the cake.  J. was an engaging speaker with a soft voice and a quick wit, prone to self-deprecation and humility.  Humor was splashed over much of his presentation.  The presentation itself focused largely on history and tradition.  Indeed Highland Park are a very traditional distillery. 

For those that have tried Highland Park, you should have an idea as to just how bold and beautiful a dram it is.  Believe me when I say that nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to taste.  Highland Park 12 has, of late, become my go-to bottle.  Beautifully balanced with just the right complexity.  It seems to please almost all of my moods and cravings.  After making our way through the six whiskies we tried this evening, I was blown away with how meager the 12 seemed in comparison to some of its big brothers.

What we tried:

Highland Park 12 y.o. – Balanced, bold and full of character.  Honey, fruit and smoke.  A little sherry and a bit of tobacco.

Highland Park 15 y.o. – More flowery than the 12.  Peat, hay, sherry, and orange.  Seems quite fresh for a 15 year old whisky. 

Highland Park 18 y.o. – Fantastic.  Peat and smoke (though not too much), creamy and sherried.  Fairly mellow.  Both Pat and I got a hint of Dill Pickle chips on this one.  Odd, but delicious.

Highland Park 25 y.o. – Stunning.  Truly Stunning.  Caramel and chocolate, smoke and fruit, toffee and salt.  Lots of sherry…and a hint of rich unlit cigar.  A favorite, for sure.  48.1%

Highland Park 30 y.o. – Again…amazing.  Peat and smoke, caramel and rich chocolate.  A bit of spice and wood.  Arguably the best nose of the night.

and as a special treat (from Jay’s personal stash)…

Highland Park Earl Magnus – Wow.  Bloody brilliant.  Buttery…rich in caramel/toffee/butterscotch.  Warm and smoky .  Some fruit and nut and hay.  A hint of sesame on the nose.  52.6%…but what a beautifully balanced whisky.  J. said it well…this one “has some personality”.  Only 5,976 bottles of this.  I don’t imagine it will go cheap, but worth every penny.  A true collector’s item.

As another class act on the part of Highland Park, we were told to take home our water glass from the evening.  This was in fact a nicely etched HP glass, perfectly shaped for whisky.  As a few guests opted not to take their gift home, Pat and I each ended up with a set.  As yet another bonus, in a room full of people, there just happened to be a couple empty seats next to us.  We were able to lift a couple extra drams of our favorites from the evening. 

I can say, in all honesty, this was the best tasting I’ve been to. 

Now…back to that Laphroaig…

When I returned to the counter to pick up this bottle (with wife’s permission…happy Father’s Day to me) I actually had to show ID before they would release it to me.  I was told it is the hottest thing they’ve had in store and has sold out everywhere.  As you know, tickets to the tasting are good for $5 off every $20 spent.  I managed to end up with four tickets, thus knocking $20 off this prize. 

This little gem is now at home, awaiting a day when (if?) I break down and open it.  This one will be beautiful.

A great end to a great evening.