#12.4 From Islay with love

A day around Kildaton Riviera

(Day 3)


Our last day on Islay ended with a visit to two iconic distilleries, and checking out the resurgence of another. 

(missed Day 2/Day 1/Prologue/Epilogue?)

The next morning we had an early start (well, “early” considering we were on holidays), and after a good breakfast we took the bus at around 8.15. We needed to cross the island to go to Port Ellen, and the next bus would have been too late (this gives a different perspective about Edinburgh’s public transport service…). The ride was in two steps, Bowmore first, just enough time to take a wee pic of the distillery gate, then Port Ellen. As it was early and wasn’t raining, we snooped around the newly built Port Ellen distillery before walking to Laphroaig.

Port Ellen distillery WIP.

We then took the “Three distilleries path”, a walking/cycling path from Port Ellen all the way to Ardbeg (which we didn’t reach, this time). As we were walking along the building site of the Portintruan distillery (the Elixir Distillers’ one) we wondered if they will rename it the “Four distilleries path”…

Encounters on the Three Distilleries path.

We were super-excited about visiting Laphroaig: it is one of the first malts we remember having and buying, a few years back, and its peat was one of the things that hooked us up to single malt. Even now, despite not connecting with all expressions, it still has a special place. The distillery layout looked very old, with the visitor centre door right next to a beach – really pretty.

Reward after the walk.

When we checked in, we found out that the coffee is complimentary, hurray!!! Our guide was Caroline, and the tour obviously started from the malting floors, where they malt about 10% of their barley, and the kiln, where some of their magic (ie peat) was laying around.

Sun shining on the malting floor.

The tour went through the rest of production, up to the still room, in a separate building. One of the 7 stills is definitely bigger than the others, but we were told that all the spirit produced is mixed together anyway (also the spirit produced with the sourced and their own malted barley is mixed).

That’s a big still room!

In the courtyard, Caroline told us that most barrels are from Makers Mark bourbon distillery, in Kentucky, an old acquaintance of us. Another signature is the use of quarter casks, still made with American oak, but smaller in size and therefore imparting a stronger flavour to the whisky. Last stop before the tasting was the dunnage warehouse (where a tasting was going on…hopefully we’ll be able to catch that next time!) for a sneaky peak of their casks resting.

Back to the visitor centre, it’s time for the tasting. Other than the lanyard and the wee glass, Caroline gave us three tokens each, which we could spend to get some of the available drams: 1 token for the regular Laphroaig 10 and the Select, 2 tokens for the 10y cask strength, etc. An opportunity to custom the tasting experience, we both thought this is very smart. We had 6 tokens between us, so we opted for the Lore (2 tokens, never tried before), the Quarter Cask (1 token, tried a long time before) and the Cairdeas 2021 bottling, finished in ex-PX casks (the only 3-token dram). At the bar, we had some light snacks and a dram from the warehouse tasting cask (the only available to try, not to buy), a 13y which spent 5y in an ex-bourbon and 8y in an ex-PX cask: really delicious!

Such a beauty!

Back on the Three distilleries path, our next and last stop was a very celebrated one (even in an American TV show): Lagavulin Distillery! Right next to the sea, and it didn’t undergo any apparent rebuilding – really beautiful.

Second reward after the walk.

The interior is also very home-y (a friend suggested that it looks like a ship, which it definitely does!) and the shop is quite small compared to many other distilleries. Everything is there however: some distillery exclusives, some past Feis Ile and Jazz Festival bottlings, some limited releases and even the Caol Ila range (this being still closed for renovation). While waiting for the Warehouse tasting to start, we sat in a very cozy room, where among the things on display we saw a bottle of the last Malt Mill run. A guide came to pick us up (a big group of over 20 people!) and brought us to the warehouse, where Ian MacArthur was ready to start the tasting! He was very entertaining, making jokes and passing around some very tasty drams. At some point he also made some people sing, it was definitely one of our funniest tastings. The three samples from the casks were a 10y, a 12y and a 25y, all from refilled casks. This had great educational value, which allowed us to deeply appreciate the core of Lagavulin nature. The fourth was the 2021 Feis Ile bottling, 13y in ex-bourbon and finished for 5/6 months in white port, a type of finish that we encountered a couple of times recently and, so far, didn’t disappoint. So, on paper the tasting was done…but Ian moved on and gave us other two samples: the distillery exclusive, a NAS (a marriage of 8, 12 and 15/16y), bottled at 53.5%, and the 2018 Jazz Festival (marriage of 8, 12 and 25y, refill bourbon and sherry)…what a flight of great drams!

A whisky legend and two of his fans.

This tasting really made clear that Diageo distilleries can actually provide great value and a great experience! Jokes aside, we had other good tastings, but this was truly an experience. At the bar we tried another few drams: the Caol Ila distillery exclusive (finished in wine, awesome!), the Lagavulin 9y Game of Thrones (compared to the first and only other time we tried it, we found it a bit dull… probably because of the comparison), and finally the 12y cask strength from Diageo’s 2021 special release.

We left Lagavulin very happy on a bus towards Bowmore first, then to Port Askaig ferry terminal, ready (but not really) to go back to mainland. During the stop at Bowmore we had enough time to buy a disposable grill, so dinner was sorted. On the ferry we relaxed, and started to address the big elephant in the room: what to do with the campervan on the next morning.

Laphroaig Experience Tour

Price: £15.00 pp (April 2022)

Tasting: drams of choice with token systems, with wee glass and lanyard to take home. Options were: Select (40%), 10y (40%), Quarter Cask (48%), 10y Sherry Oak Finish (40%), Lore (48%), 10y Cask Strength Batch 011 (58.6%) and Cairdeas 2021 PX Casks (58.9%)

Target: casual tourists, whisky novices and enthusiasts

Value for money: Very good

Highlights: token system for drams, free coffee in the shop

Link: https://www.laphroaig.com/gb

Lagavulin Warehouse Experience

Price: £38.00 pp (April 2022)

Tasting: 10y (3rd fill European cask, 56%), 12y (2nd fill European cask, 51%), Feis Isle 2021 (13y + 5-6 months finish in white port, 56.1%), 25y (refill European cask, 52%), Distillery Exclusive (double maturation in ex-bourbon and recharred cask, 53.1%), Jazz Festival (2018)

Target: whisky enthusiasts and geeks

Value for money: Good

Distillery Exclusive: double maturation in ex-bourbon and recharred cask (53.1%)

Highlights: Iain, the bar and the relaxed atmosphere

Things we did not like: nothing really

Link: https://www.malts.com/en-row/distilleries/lagavulin

#12.3 From Islay with love

Kilchoman & Bruichladdich, here we come!

(Day 2)


Finally our plan came together and we visited a couple of very popular distilleries on the west of Islay. We got some sun too! 

(missed Day 1 or the Prologue? Or go to Day 3 or Epilogue)

In the morning,  breakfast at the Skerrols House didn’t disappoint: huge and delicious! We managed to find a taxi to go to the next pair of distilleries and an accommodation for the next day, so our plan finally came together and we didn’t have to take the ferry in the evening!

The taxi driver showed up a couple of minutes early, and at 10.15 we were already travelling westward towards Kilchoman. As we got closer we realised how remote the north-west of Islay is, far away from the other villages. Kilchoman visitor centre is quite large as well, with a dram bar, a cafe, and local crafts on sale. While checking-in, the receptionist chuckled when she realised that our tour had been paid “pre-Covid”…. the tour started in the tasting room, where Breagh, our guide, gave a brief introduction. We soon moved to one of the best parts of the distillery, the malting floor and the kiln.

Beginning and end of whisky production.
We definitely enjoyed the surprise dram!

We learned that Kilchoman produces about 20-30% of their malted barley, with local peat coming from Loch Gorm. Here Breagh gave us a taste of their last 100% Islay Barley 2021 release, the annual expression entirely produced with their own malted barley, and quite a delicious one (but unfortunately also sold out). We moved on to the rest of production. At some point of their young history (the distillery was open in 2005) they doubled their capacity, so the two pairs of stills sit in opposite sides of the building.

Man at work and the only female on the tour.

We then visited one of the dunnage warehouses, and admired the variety of casks, colour coded depending on whether the spirit inside is from their own malted barley or not. They are one of the few Islay distilleries maturing all their stock on site, understandably so given the available space around the distillery. The only discordant note of the tour was caused by some of the crowd, which were a bit annoying and disrespectful: we couldn’t believe that Breagh had to repeat more than once not to touch anything! She managed it incredibly professionally, politely but firmly…the tour guide job must be really hard, especially with a certain type of crowd. Back to the tasting room, we had four drams waiting for us: Machir Bay cask strength (bottled in 2015 to celebrate their tour to Europe), the recently released UK batch #3 (a vatting of ex-bourbon, ex-sherry and ex-Sauternes casks), a Madeira matured expression, and finally the distillery exclusive, this last one finished in Marsala casks.

The tasting.

While waiting for the taxi we had a very tasty soup, and of course a couple of drams from their Comraich range, which is only sold to partner bars (or Kilchoman “sanctuaries”).

The next stop was Bruichladdich, but before the distillery we first checked-in at the B&B, and happily realised it was a minute walking from the distillery gate. Before the tour, we got some food in the near (and only) shop. We didn’t have a reservation for the night, so some backup was definitely needed. Our guide for this tour was Leslie, and while at first she seemed knowledgeable but shy, she soon revealed herself as funny and entertaining. The tour started in the courtyard, to quickly move to the mill room. No malting floor here, but apparently it is in the plans (delayed by Covid). That would be very convenient because about 52% of their barley comes from the neighbouring farms, but it is then shipped to Inverness to be malted according to their own specifications. We were surprised by how the production is still very manual, somehow contrasting with their progressive mindset on some aspects, like sustainability and cutting-edge packaging.

The open mashtun at Bruichladdich.

After checking out the open mashtun and the wooden washbacks, it was the time for the still room, where we finally met the legendary Ugly Betty! This is the Lomond still used for their gin, the Botanist, and used to be at Inverleven, a short-lived distillery in the now demolished Dumbarton grain distillery complex. In contrast with almost all other distilleries, their wash and spirits stills are very dark and not shiny at all, giving almost a steam-punk vibe!

Ugly picture of Ugly Betty.

We moved to the main warehouse, which sits in front of a yellow submarine! This is a remotely operated vehicle owned by the navy. When a fisherman rescued it close to Islay, the Bruichladdich marketing team was quick in reacting and made a special release for that, which is now very sought after. In the warehouse, we spotted the set-up for warehouse tastings…We will definitely go back for that. Back to the shop, the tasting consisted in their three main single malts: the Bruichladdich (Classic Laddie), the heavily peated Port Charlotte (10y) and the Octomore 9.2. Except for the Octomore, we already knew the other two, so we decided to save them for later and try a few others: the two distillery-exclusive bottlings and the Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2011. They were all delicious, but because the half-litre bottles for the distillery exclusives were sold out, we took the Bere Barley with us. It’s the second time we try one of their whiskies made with this ancient barley strain, cultivated on Orkney, and to both of us it reminded the home-made bread baked into traditional wood-fired oven, like our respective grandmothers used to do.

The sky can be blue!

Contrary to the day before, it wasn’t pishing down rain, so after the distillery we walked from Bruichladdich to Port Charlotte to get a pint and a gin tonic in one of the local bars. The walk was very nice and relaxed, even some sun came out! We tried our fortune in the only restaurant we spotted on the way, but it was booked until late…we were wise to get some food at the shop. After a light dinner, a quick wash of some clothes and a couple of leftover drams, we went to bed. Finally, we slept like rocks!

Kilchoman Limited Edition Tasting & Tour

Price: £35.00 pp (April 2022…same as March 2020!)

Tasting: 100% Islay 2021 Release (during the tour), Machir Bay CS* Europe Tour 2015 (58.9%), UK Small Batch (49.1%), Madeira Cask (full hogs maturation, 5y 3 months, 50%), Distillery Exclusive Marsala cask, all NC and NCF*…and a glencairn to take home

Target: whisky enthusiasts and geeks

Value for money: Very good

Distillery Exclusive: single cask, 8y ex-bourbon, finished 7 months in Marsala cask (54.8%, £102)

Highlights: seeing the malting floor while sipping a dram

Link: https://www.kilchomandistillery.com/

Bruichladdich Distillery Tour

Price: £10.00 pp + £1 service fee (April 2022)

Tasting: Classic Laddie (NAS, American oak, 50%), Port Charlotte 10y (1st and 2nd fill American oak, 2nf fill French wine casks, 50%), and Octomore 9.2 (5y, 4y in American oak and 1y in French oak, 58.2%), all NC, NCF*

Target: casual tourists, whisky novices and enthusiasts

Value for money: Great!

Distillery Exclusive: two fill-your own – Port Charlotte The  Distillery Valinch (SYC: 03 2009, 61.7%, £95 half litre) and 59 Robert Mceahern (single cask, ex RVS, 11y, 60.8%, £75 half litre)

Highlights: the still room and the great guide

Link: https://www.bruichladdich.com/

*NC: not artificially coloured, NCF: not chill-filtered, CS: cask strength

#12.2 From Islay with love

Pouring down rain…and drams

(Day 1)

 Despite the campervan breakdown we made it on the Isle of Islay! Not a postcard day (euphemism…), but that didn’t prevent us to enjoy some awesome drams! 

(missed what happened first? Here’s the Prologue. Curious to know how it continued? Day 2, Day 3, Epilogue)

In spite of the bad luck with the campervan, we were on Islay! , On the ferry we managed to book a taxi to get to our first destination. This distillery is a very favourite of ours, so much that their 12y is the only bottle we replaced: Bunnahabhain!

We made it to Bunnahabhain!!!

On the way to the first distillery, we could admire the Port Ellen maltings and some piles of peat. We were a few minutes early, so while Teresa arranged the payment with the taxi driver (we found out at our destination that they didn’t take card…note for next time: bring cash), Gianluigi started browsing the shop, which featured the core range, some limited releases, and to our surprise last year (still) and this year (already!) Feis Ile bottlings. As the time for the tasting arrived, we followed Colin through the distillery to the mythical Warehouse 9 (although there aren’t 9 warehouses on the site now, only 6).

The Warehouse 9 line-up!

We were quite a large group, 13 people, which coming out of 2 years of pandemic seemed even bigger! But of course, there was place for everyone on the benches around the 4 casks. The mood was already up to the sky and we both had smiles larger than our faces. Colin was very knowledgeable and funny, he definitely played a big part in our experience. We later found out that he is the co-host of the Attic Islay podcast… we wish we would have known before that! (We also learned from his social media that he moved on soon after, so the best of luck to him!) The first sample was one of the last few bottles from a cask that was just replaced: a beautiful and pale 17y malt from an ex-manzanilla sherry butt. As a starter dram, it set the bar quite high! Second off, a weirdly pale ex-PX Noe which was extremely silkie and sweet, another belter. According to Colin, the reason why the whisky came out so pale after 17 years in an ex-PX cask is because this might have been the one on “top” of a solera system “pyramid”, so the sherry might not have had the time to give the typical dark colour, which in some cases can be as deep as coke (note: solera systems casks are not necessarily physically on top of each other, but it’s easier to explain it this way). Teresa won a sample of the ex-PX Noe by being the closest to guess the year in which the Bunnahabhain flagship expression 12y went on sale: 1979 (Teresa’s guess was 1981, Gianluigi’s 1972). The last couple of casks were very new in the line-up, and since Colin was still recovering from his Covid-caused loss of smell and taste he told us he had no idea about how they tasted… what a shame for him! The third dram was a peated matured for 17y in an Oloroso butt, this time a dark, very earthy and oily dirty dram, like chainsaw fuel but in a good way. The final dram was truly one of the best whiskies we tried: 19 years of age, the first decade spent in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, the final 9 years in an ex-Heaven Hill barrel. Truly wonderful stuff.

Happy kids in the Bunna’s warehouse!

Because their cafeteria at their visitor centre is still closed, we decided to move on to the next distillery, despite we had the tour booked for much later in the afternoon: Ardnahoe. The distillery is only a half-hour walking distance, so we went out to take a few pictures before moving on. The cloudy day, which earlier dissuaded us from pursuing other walks, turned into a downpour. As we walked in Ardnahoe, we were totally wet: excluding the times we were physically inside a body of water, probably the wettest we had ever been. The visitor centre is unusually big (it almost makes the distillery looking like a side feature), with a shop and a cafe. In spite of its size, the first available table was at 2pm, a good hour and a half away. During this time we browsed several times the Hunter Laing collections (including Old Malt Cask and Hepburn Choice, among others) and did a few trips to the restroom to try dry ourselves under the hand-driers. The soup and the chowder (we needed to warm up!) were quite tasty, and after a good coffee we indulged in a couple of their very fairly priced drams: an independently bottled 9y Talisker (first time we tried an independently bottled one) and a 25y North British, both 5 quids each.

Ardnahoe still room (on a very dark day)…try to picture Jura’s Paps behind the fog!

Finally, 4pm. The tour started in a room adjacent to the visitor centre, where our guide explained the history behind the distillery, which started producing new make spirit only in 2019. We quickly moved to the production area, where we admired their Bobby mill, one of the very few existing. It was followed by the copper covered mash tun, their wooden washbacks, and in particular their stills, which have the longest lyne arms in the Scottish industry (they are really long!). These arms take the distillate to worm tubs condensers, a unique feature among Islay distilleries. Unfortunately the tour didn’t include the warehouse. We were brought back in a tasting room, where we could choose a dram among four: the Islay and Highland Journeys (two regional blended malts), a Hunter Laing Glengoyne and the Scarabus single malt (from an undisclosed Islay distillery). We chose the two blended malts, which were ok but not very memorable. More interestingly, we got offered a taste of the new make spirit: on top of the usual pear and green apple aromas we tasted in other mew makes, this one also had lot whiff of bananas and, of course, smoke.

The tasting at Ardnahoe

After the tour we unsuccessfully tried to call a few taxi companies to pick us up. Fortunately, we spotted a father-and-son duo, and asked them for a lift to the hotel. Fortunately, they accepted, as the hotel was on the way to their camping. That really saved us, as the rain didn’t seem to want to stop any time soon (we were again very wet just crossing the Ardnahoe parking lot!). We rewarded their kindness with a tasting set of the Scarabus once at our destination: the Skerrols House hotel.

We were very warmly welcomed by Thomas, the hotel manager. He showed us the amenities of the hotel (including a warm room where we could dry our clothes and shoes!) and offered us a cup of tea. As he learned about our trip, and that we wouldn’t have left the hotel before the next morning, he and his wife offered us a couple of sandwiches for dinner. The hotel was quite great, just outside our house there was a small “reading room”, and downstairs, where we had the tea, a very comfortable hang out room (with TV). Everything in the room was great too: soft towels, comfy bed and pillows, and a nice view. We are not definitely used to such fancy places! We couldn’t relax as we wished however, and we had again little sleep, because of the uncertainty around our plans… but there was nothing to do until the morning.

Bunnahabhain Warehouse 9 Tasting

Price: £40.00 pp (April 2022)

Tasting (all samples from the cask, so NC, NCF and CS*): 17y unpeated ex-manzanilla butt (56.5%), 17y unpeated 2004 ex-PX Noe cask (52%), 17y peated Oloroso butt (52.9%), 19y double ex-bourbon maturation (10y hogshead, 9y 1st fill Heaven Hills barrel, 53.7%)

Target: whisky enthusiasts, geeks, and experts

Value for money: great

Highlights: the drams, the distillery scenery and Colin’s enterteing tasting

Distillery exclusive: most of the above (they decided to stop selling the Warehouse 9 releases on their website, as tour re-started)

Link: https://bunnahabhain.com/

Ardnahoe Distillery Tour

Price: £15.00 pp (Apr 2022)

Tasting: one dram from the following, the Islay and Highland Journey (blended malts, NAS, 46%, NC, NCF), Scarabus (single malt, NAS, 46%, NC, NCF) and a Hepburn Choice Glengoyne

Target: casual tourists and whisky novices

Value for money: Good

Highlights: the distillery scenery (still nice despite the weather)

Things we did not like: very “vanilla” tour

Distillery exclusive: 11y Jura (NC, NCF, CS*) from Hunter Laing

Link: https://ardnahoedistillery.com/

*NC: not artificially colored, NCF: not chill0filtered, CS: cask strength

#12.1 From Islay with love

Breakdowns and smoke


Finally, after just over two years of delay, we made it to Islay! Not as easy as you might think, however… 

(Want some distillery action? Go to Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Epilogue!)

Finally, THE day arrived. It was a matter of time, not “if” but “when”… our very first trip to the mighty Isle of Islay! But let’s go in order: it’s not the first time we booked a trip there. Last time we had rented campervan for 10 days, booked the ferries, booked tours in all 8 available distilleries (Caol Ila visitor centre was, and still is, closed for renovation), a trip to Jura, and a couple of other distilleries on the way. But that trip was due to happen in March 2020, so you can guess how things went down…

This time we took things a bit easier, we only booked 3-4 weeks in advance. We were able to get a campervan for an acceptable price (unfortunately the price of most accommodations on the island was more than the van alone), but this time just for a long weekend: 3 full days on the island (+ 2 half-days for the travel back and forth), and 6 distilleries, still pretty good! So, when the day came, we woke up super early: run, breakfast, packing, a bit of house cleaning, lunch and, finally, picking up the van near the Leith Links.

This was still the happy part of the day.

The company we used works like an “AirBnB of campervans”: they are an intermediary but vehicles are privately owned. Our “host” was very nice and she explained carefully all the features of the camper, which was definitely an upgrade compared to the one we used in Speyside and Highlands last summer, having a little sink and the hobs. We jumped on it, a quick stop home to get our stuff, and then straight towards the West Coast!

The trip was smooth, we took the highway to Stirling, then drove west towards Drymen, and kept going along Loch Lomond. We stopped at the Rest and Be Thankful area to stretch our legs, and again at the Lochgilphead’s Tesco for gas and some groceries.

Rest and Be Thankful, aka the calm before the storm…

When it was time to restart the vehicle, plot twist! The campervan just wouldn’t start. We called the assistance, which said that they would take around 2 hours to come. Was it the battery? That was what we hoped for, but by turning the key the radio and lights were working, very bad omen. The assistance arrived (meanwhile, we had already changed our ferry ticket for the next morning), and the verdict was ruthless: the starter motor broke down, no way to replace it in the evening nor on the Saturday morning, we’d have had to wait until maybe Monday, but more likely Tuesday for something to happen (the perks of a bank holiday weekend). For a moment we were speechless, thinking “is this really happening? Does it mean we won’t be able to go to Islay, AGAIN?”

But an idea crossed our minds: if there was nothing to do until Tuesday anyway, we could just go to Islay on foot for the weekend, couldn’t we? The assistance guy turned on the campervan, fortunately the parking lot was on a slope (Gianluigi still remembered how to push things from his rugby years). So, back in the campervan we drove to the parking lot at the Kennacraig ferry terminal.

Plan B mode ON

We spent the night in the campervan, not really in the mood for drams and not sleeping much either. In the morning we packed the only backpack we brought (we didn’t take two with us because… “We have the campervan, why would we need two backpacks?” So naïve!) with the very minimal: laptop, a change of underwear and t-shirt each, toothbrush, the Malt Year Book 2022 (fundamental), some food in a tote bag. During the ferry trip we found an accommodation on the island for the night and arranged some taxi rides (of course, the first distillery was the farthest away from the terminal). Our arrival in Port Ellen was very emotional and for a moment we forgot all of our worries and starter motors: we were finally on the Isle of Islay!

Almost there…
Islay, here we are!