Pouring down rain…and drams
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
*NC: not artificially colored, NCF: not chill0filtered, CS: cask strength