Islay 2012 Day 3…Bunnahabhain And Caol Ila
Wow…home for over six months now and I’ve still not settled in to jotting out details for more than Day 2. For shame. Fortunately, to keep things fresh and not forget details, I mapped out notes for each of the travel days just after I got home. It’s the connecting of the dots however that is taking time.
Well…we’re here now. Let’s get on with it…
Day three. Off to a couple of the more remote distilleries on the island. This was the messiest of travel days, I might add. Though there wasn’t a lot going on around the island at this time, it seemed getting a cab was next to impossible. As mentioned before, if traveling to Islay and planning taxi travel, I would highly recommend you have your rides booked well in advance. It is often not as simple as calling up and asking for a ride in half an hour. Anyway…much like arrangements for the previous day, our mate, Hughie, came to the rescue. Gallant sort, that he is and all.
S’pose we should step back a bit though. This was a bit of a sleep-in day. Not that I ever actually sleep-in when traveling, but at least a morning where there was no early agenda set. First tour was booked for 1pm at Bunnahabhain. So, with big stretches and bleary eyes, the lads awoke to another great full Scottish fare breakie. John stumbled in red-eyed and under-slept, bumping into things and looking like hammered sh*t. Poor guy, being rather lanky as he is, flipped, flopped and fidgeted his way through the night on a foldaway bed far too short for his frame and wedged in between the soothing snores of Pat and Gord.
Being as we were booked in to spend a few nights here at Meadowside, John said that perhaps he’d leave us and take his chances at another B&B or hotel. At this point, your pint-sized narrator (well…5’10” anyway) offered to swap up beds with him going forward. From here on in…we were golden. Well…except maybe Pat, who now had to contend with the rhythmic snorefest that Gord and I proceeded to offer up each night. He still likes to share with any who’ll listen that at one point Gord and I had such a perfect counterpoint going on that it was like one continuous rumble. Gord…should we tell him now that we were just faking it? 😉
After getting cleaned up and having a bit of a morning wander, we made it back to the B&B in time for Hughie to pick us up. We made our way from the rather central port of Bowmore northeast through the rolling hills to Bunnahabhain on the Eastern coast. As we drove, Hughie filled us in on some of the more pastoral aspects of life on Islay, sharing details of his family’s history in shepherding, the way the island had changed and simply the little bits of insight you only really get by chatting with people as you travel. And…in what would ultimately become one of Scott’s favourite Islay catchphrases (‘aye…no’)…Hughie taught us that ‘aye’ meant not only ‘yes’, but was simply an acknowledgment to someone speaking. As in ‘yeah’ or ‘go on’ or ‘I see’. We learned that sometimes responding in the negative was preceded with an ‘aye’. Uhh…what? Doesn’t ‘aye’ mean ‘yes’ but ‘no’ mean…ahhh…nevermind.
Distillery number four…Bunnahabhain…
Anyway…the winding and bumpy road to Bunnahabhain finally brings into view the Paps Of Jura just across the Sound Of Islay, and we found ourselves rather impressed by the majesty of the scene unfolding before us. We made our way over the final rises and the road began to meander down through the wee village and opened up to a familiar and longed for sight (for me anyway).
I have a bit of a thing for Bunnahabhain. The distillery is nestled in one of my favourite spots on Islay. The malt from Bunna, though neither my favourite from the island nor typical of the Islay style, is a quirky one and one that I also find myself gravitating towards (the OBs anyway…some of the indies are very hit and miss). Bunnahabhain’s 18 year old, in particular, is a whisky I try to always have on hand. Really good stuff, carrying some oily heft and borderline tropical notes.
The views upon arriving at Bunnahabhain are spectacular. As mentioned a paragraph or two above, the road winds down past the old village and opens up to the sight of the Sound of Islay rushing by between Jura and Islay and just across the water, the rather majestic Paps impose their grandeur on the landscape. The distillery buildings are lumbering and beg to be photographed. The pier that runs out over the water is one of my favourite vantages on the island. Sitting out there, with the wind whipping by and the sun shining down…simply awesome.
How do you make that experience better? Well…last time over I sat out there and simply soaked in the surroundings. This time I had a crew of mates along to share with. We five strolled out, took a few pictures, then huddled in the wind to pour and pass ‘round drams of a vintage Port Ellen I had brought along to save for an occasion. This seemed as good a time as any. Sharing a great old malt from ages past, with good friends, on the island on which it was made…this was one of the experiences that make life worth living.
Ice that cake with a bit of humour and you’ve now moved into that territory that becomes the thing of rose-colored memory in future years. Poor Pat, in trying to take a picture or two of the occasion, set his little plastic dram of Port Ellen on the ground where it was promptly made fodder for the blustery breeze. Sh*t. We managed to redistribute, but I think for a sec all of guys were debating who would be first to start lapping at the ground before it all soaked away. This is Port Ellen, after all.
Our tour guide through the immensity of the Bunnahabhain site was Alison, and while she seemed a little distant and serious at first (maybe that was just me), by the end of the tour we were quite enjoying her company and sharing a few tales. I should add that Alison was infinitely patient with some of us shutterbug stragglers holding up the flow of her tour. Again…what can I say? I love this distillery. The old stills, unpolished and staggeringly monolithic, in particular are truly aesthetically appealing to me.
After winding up the tour just outside the warehouse, we said ‘so long’ to those on the standard tour, before the five of us who had paid the premium followed Alison back to the tasting room. Here we settled in to have a few laughs and sip our way through the ‘Tasting Tour’ range, which was built around sampling four different Bunnas, including the 12 year, 18 year, Darach Ur and the peaty Toiteach (pronounced Tawcheck, if I recall correctly. Hopefully I’m not butchering the Gaelic). Alison pulled out an extra round of glasses and offered to let us sample one more which was not a part of the tour range, called Cruach-Mhona. Being the curious and obliging cast that we were, we happily accepted the proffered dram. Let’s pretend this nifty little ‘extra’ was because we were such charming and stand-up young men. Yeah…that’s it. Still…gotta say…the 18 pips the rest. Love that whisky.
In 2010, you may recall, a gentleman from Philadelphia, Howard, and I had a little two-man tour of the distillery, led by the truly likeable ‘Long John’. I was sort of hoping that the boys could meet John. He had some great stories to tell and was an interesting cat to tour with. Perhaps next time. I think a return visit is already starting to materialize somewhere over the horizon.
Sadly, we had to somewhat rush our sipping here as poor Hughie, who had waited ‘round this whole time, had another run to make, which we couldn’t hold him up for. We drained our glasses and bid a fond farewell to Bunna. I made a quick sprint up the stairs to the shop to say a quick hello/goodbye to Lillian (and purchase a Bunnahabhain Glencairn glass), before climbing aboard Hughie’s ride for the trip to Caol Ila, just a couple of miles South.
Not sure how the fellas feel about it now, but I think the Bunnahabhain experience was initially a little underwhelming for a couple of the lads. Personally, I tend to look at these things a little differently. It all sort of becomes one big experience. Nice drive in…beautiful sunny day…drams of Port Ellen on the pier at Bunnahabhain…staring across the sound toward Jura and out to sea…a few nice drams of Bunna…etc. All in…the trip to Bunnahabhain has been great for me both time over. Leaving the distillery is always a ‘look back in sadness’ kind of experience. You never really know if or when you’ll be back.
Anyway…adieu for now.
Distillery number five…Caol Ila…
Alright. Off to the factory. Caol Ila. This is a Diageo distillery, the largest on the island, and one that produces a rather impressive range of malts that somehow always seem to live in the shadow of the more aggressive Big Three (Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig). If I had to nail down the profile for Caol Ila, I’d have to say it tends toward a delicate character, while still rich in peat and smoke. There is a clean bourbon background and notes of fresh oak, salt and green apple come through. If you consider this the ‘naked body’ of the whisky, you can now think of each expression adorning itself with a different style of clothing.
Diageo distilleries. Sigh. Where to begin. Well…first off…they’re empty. The direction, much counter to our friends at Bruichladdich or Kilchoman, is to mechanize. Everything that can be run or controlled by machine, is. In fact, when we toured Caol Ila this time there was one worker and the tour guide/visitor center host. Yep. Running the biggest distillery on the island. I can just imagine Mark Reynier shaking his head/fist.
But let’s not get bogged down in the anti-Diageo rhetoric. You already know I have a love/hate relationship with this company. (Love to hate ‘em perhaps? I kid. In all honesty, for all their potentially unscrupulous dealings, they do produce some of the world’s great whiskies, and for that we have to be grateful).
The tour at Caol Ila is short and sweet. There is no warehouse to see…no filling station to visit…nothing. Even the visitor’s center, if you want to call it that, leaves much to be desired. It is not much more than a shop with a bench or two in it. You sort of feel like it’s a ‘make your purchase, drink your dram, scram’ kinda deal. Shame really, as this is one of the most idyllic and beautifully situated of all of Islay’s many splendored distilleries.
Not long after I’d toured in 2010 the distillery went through a short closure and upgrading. Some of the more archaic elements and automation, reminiscent in some cases of bad 60s and 70s spy flick/sci-fi computers and such, have now been brought into the modern age. The results were noticeable, but the tour no more interesting for it. Fortunately however, this is where the human element comes into play a little.
Our tour guide for the occasion was Hailey (please forgive me if I am spelling that wrong). As she introduced herself and we started chatting just prior to the tour kicking off it was immediately apparent that something was missing. That beautiful lilt of rolling R’s and deep Scottish brogue we all know and find immediately endearing. Bereft of said accent, Hailey admitted to being A Canadian amongst Canadians. She, being in the tourism trade, had made it to Scotland via France, if I recall correctly. Either way…interesting encounter, especially following on the heels of our other Canadian friend pouring drinks at the Lochindaal Hotel in Port Charlotte on our first night there.
So, how does a Canadian tour guide hold up in an industry from centuries before, storied in history and redolent of national pride? Pretty well to be honest. What she lacked in authenticity (ahem…just being a Scot, that is), she more than made up for in enthusiasm and a deep-seated knowledge of both the distillery and whisky-making itself. Friendly, knowledgeable (especially on the more technical stuff) and full of humour and charm made for a good tour irrespective of its more ‘shallow’ approach than some of the other distilleries. But still…somewhat of an odd experience being led around Caol Ila by a Canuck.
Sadly, where we had tried to upgrade tours to the more in depth ones where could, Caol Ila was one of the few we couldn’t upgrade. Timing and scheduling simply did not permit. Having said that, the lovely lady, Jennifer McIntyre, whom I’d been in touch with at Caol Ila, said that irrespective of whether or not we could time our visit to coincide with a premium tour, she would ensure we got a taste a couple of drams. Sadly, Jennifer was off for the Jura Music Festival when we arrived. We did manage to sneak an extra dram in there, but only one extra. And a quick one at that. We had a very short window for sipping unfortunately. I opted for the latest version of the Distiller’s Edition and the Caol Ila Moch. Now…with a packaging all dark and foreboding, and a name like ‘Moch’ I expected something deep…heavy…maybe carrying notes of dark chocolate or something, but…nope. Just a young, merely ok, Caol Ila. Meh. Oh well.
Last time I visited the distillery there was a Caol Ila Distillery Only release. I didn’t take one, deciding it wasn’t all that spectacular, but regretted it afterwards. This time I had vowed to grab one if available. No such luck, unfortunately. Just the rather standard fare. Oh well.
At this point, with no taxi bookings available, we were fairly stranded at the island’s most remote distillery. Fortunately, Hughie came back to save the day once again by hauling our asses back to Bowmore. As Hailey was heading our way, we offered her a lift back with us. We parted ways downtown Bowmore before heading back to Kate’s place to deposit our bags and such.
By this point we were a handful of drams deep and ready for a bit of a bellyful. In getting out to Bunnahabhain for 1:00pm, we had neglected to take into account the need for lunch. The handful of snack foods wasn’t cutting it. So…off to Lucci’s (Bowmore Hotel) for dinner. Five rumbling stomachs wandered in and were met with a bloody good meal. I went for Linda’s Steak Pie this time around and was not disappointed. Wow. Sooooo good! Everyone ordered their entrees and, as we were all sort of having a mishmash of sides, Peter just brought out a couple of enormous plates full of various potatoes and veg. Awesome stuff. Fantastic home cooking and utterly delicious.
Taking a bit of a reprieve from the world of malts (with which it is hard to wash down your dinner anyway), we ordered pints of John Smith and Ember 80. Yeah…cause of course that helps with an already stretched waistline. Now…with stomachs full and purchases unloaded, we were ready for a night out. Duffies, of course.
Ok. Wait a minute. What the f*ck happened to my favourite whisky bar? Did it just get more awesome? Yup!! Think so. It was sort of like Islay nightclub night. WTF?! Our sleuthing managed to uncover the fact that there was a young local lass’s birthday (20-something) being celebrated that eve and Duffies was the location designated for the pre-party party. Good times. Join in? Don’t mind if we do!
Unfortunately Johnny Boy begged off a bit early, but the rest of us shut the place down. Hey…someone had to do it. Our dedication is to be admired, no?
The tunes this night were a blast. David, the bar manager, tried his hand at the turntable (or iPod or CDs or whatever) and rawked the joint. This had to have been the oddest of odd musical mixes, and we loved every f*cking minute of it! We went from Neil Diamond to ‘The Rodeo Song’ to One Direction to Men At Work to LMFAO to ZZ Top to the Beach Boys to Tom Jones…it was endlessly entertaining. A couple of highlights were the s3xiest Macarena I’ve ever seen…a tune by the Pogues…and a quirky and fun cover of John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’. But the best…absolute tiptop…was David hooking up my iPod and cranking up a little Eastern Canadian sentimentality: Spirit Of The West’s ‘Home For A Rest’. A rather fitting anthem for our trip if ever there was one. “You’ll have to excuse me…I’m not at my best…I’ve been gone for a week…I’ve been drunk since I left”. This will forever be emblazoned in my mind as an Islay trip song now. Now when I hear it I see the five of us clinking glasses in the warm embrace of Duffies close and comfortable atmosphere and can’t help but get a little nostalgic.
Oh man, was this a peat-heavy night at Duffies. I mean c’mon…this is Islay after all. Why not get smoky? We worked our way through most of the Ardbeg ‘Path To Peaty Maturity’ series. All but the Almost There, which was sadly sold out. A couple more Ardbeg releases as dessert, not to mention a mixed bag of others. Think we were coughing smoke rings by the time we left, which is exactly as it should be.
When they finally booted our sorry arses out of Duffies, the last men standing took a walk down to the pier and sat under the stars passing a flask of Ardbeg Day back and forth. We watched a couple of shooting stars, told some tales and took a few long exposure night shots of the starry sky. After that…the stumble uphill to Meadowside and oblivion, peaty oblivion.
Some of the drams I recall from the day…
Bunnahabhain 12…Bunnahabhain 18…Bunnahabhain Darach Ur….Bunnahabhain Toitech…Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition…Caol Ila Moch…Bowmore 18…Bruichladdich 16 Bourbon (John’s baby)…OMC Laphroaig 1985 15yo ‘Laudable’…Big Peat…Ardbeg Serendipity…Ardbeg Very Young…Ardbeg Still Young…Ardbeg Renaissance…Ardbeg Alligator…Ardbeg Corryvreckan…PC9…Octomore 5_169
Toss in a couple of pints, the damage our flasks of Ardbeg took and the multiple pours we had of one or two of the above. Heckuva recipe for a throbbin’ ‘ead in the morn.