A day around Kildaton Riviera
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.
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”…
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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!
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
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