#14 A taste of Campbeltown

Dramming Around moves to Scotland

Our first whisky trip in Scotland: couldn’t have been anywhere else! 

(For a more in depth Campbeltown experience go here: Cadenhead’s Warehouse tasting, Kintyre Gin and Watt Whisky tastings, Springbank/Glengyle visits and Glen Scotia tasting)

September 2018, still the beginning of our life in Scotland: Gianluigi had moved about a year earlier, Teresa not even 4 months. We were coming out our first Fringe as Edinburghers (although someone would use another term), festival that we appreciated but despised at the same time, as the city can become very hard to live in August.

We wanted to have a weekend break somewhere, but for a few weeks we were stuck exploring options, undecided. Then a thought crossed our minds: why don’t we go to that place…the one that is a whisky region by itself…what’s its name…Campbeltown!

As we used to do for our weekends away back in Illinois, we rented a car, and booked a random accommodation on Booking.com (at the time we were not aware of the Ardshiel Hotel), and the holiday was set! The program was very easy: travelling on Friday, Saturday in Campbeltown, and on Sunday we’d visit Oban and travel back to Edinburgh. We had no idea what was expecting us! At the time we hadn’t visited any distillery in Scotland…together: Gianluigi had visited Glengoyne as a side event of a conference he had attended a couple of months before in Glasgow. Unfortunately, the experience was far from great: too many people and one tiny dram.

So, when the day came, Teresa went to work in Glasgow as usual, while Gianluigi picked up the rental car and picked her up for lunch. We followed Teresa’s colleagues suggestions and drove westward instead of north. So, we crossed the sea on ferries twice: first from Gourock to Dunoon, and after crossing the Argyll, from Portavadie to Tarbert, to finally drive down the Kintyre peninsula.

On our way to Campbeltown.

Even if this is not the most popular part of the West Coast, we found most landscapes truly beautiful, and particularly peaceful. We arrived at our hotel quite late, and Gianluigi had to finish off a bit of work. We hadn’t realised how early restaurants were closing in Campbeltown, so we almost missed dinner time. Fortunately, a nearby restaurant allowed us in, at the condition we ordered quickly, which we did, as we were super-hungry (unfortunately, when we were back in 2021 we saw that it’s closed). The night ended with a pint at the hotel’s bar.

After a generous breakfast, we left the hotel to check out Campbeltown. The day wasn’t great (overcast but not rainy), and we just walked around. Someone would describe the town as a bit run down, but to us the atmosphere was relaxing and cosy, almost intimate and melancholic, one that you can only find in far-away villages like this.

That tower bell looks familiar…

The first appointment of the morning was at Glen Scotia Distillery, but when we arrived, everything was closed. We waited a bit puzzled, checking emails and times meanwhile. Suddenly, a man came out of the production gate, asking if one of us was Gianluigi. He was one of the distillers, Archie, who told us that the designed guide was sick and couldn’t give us the tour. However, if that was OK with us, Archie would be the guide for the two of us, although sometimes he would have needed to go check the stills. Moreover, the tour was free as an apology for the inconvenient. We couldn’t believe our ears, of course it was OK with us!!! The tour was really in depth, and the fact that a distiller was our guide made it really invaluable. Even the tasting was very generous: a wee taste of the new-make spirit, then the Double Cask, the 15y, the Campbeltown Festival 2018 (finished in Ruby Port casks), and the Victoriana. Unfortunately, the shop was closed as well (the sick tour guide was running the shop too), so we bought something later at Cadenhead’s.

The beauty of Glen Scotia still room.

After the tour, we had a quick but tasty bite at Café Bluebell, and we then proceeded to the afternoon activity: the Cadenhead’s Warehouse Tasting. At the time we weren’t as nerdy as we are today, so we decided to skip the Springbank or Glengyle distillery tours in favour of a tasting: we weren’t even aware of all the frenzy around Springbank yet. Moreover, at first, the concept of an independent bottler was not the easiest to grasp: why should a distillery sell its product to an intermediary? Now it is so obvious, and we are grateful for that: the variety of whisky that some independent bottlers can offer is truly astonishing, and without them we wouldn’t be able to get our Miltonduff’s, Glen Elgin’s, Glentauchers’, Glen Spey’s, Mannochmore’s, and all the other ones that are rarely bottled by their owners.

A relaxing landscape…

As a matter of fact, it didn’t take long to appreciate the great work that Cadenhead’s do. In the warehouse, a sizeable line-up of casks was waiting for us. We don’t remember much, but in the bunch there were a Strathclyde grain (there are pictures), a Longrow 11y, a Paul John, definitely a speysider, someone said a Lagavulin (probably a Caol Ila) and a 10y rum from Darsa distillery, in Guatemala. We ended up taking the rum and the Longrow, but all the drams were truly delicious. Not surprisingly, we’re in the Cadenhead’s club now!

Old and new delicious stuff!

At the end of the tasting we were kind of tipsy (ehm…), so we decided to leave the bottles at the hotel and have dinner in the most far-away restaurant we could reach walking, on the other side of the harbour (which is now closed too…are we bringing bad luck??). We went back to the hotel, not before having an extra dram, the last one in Campbeltown…for now.

The Sunday morning was again overcast turning to rain, so we checked out and started driving south, towards the Mull of Kintyre (“Oh mist rolling in from the sea, my desire is always to be here”…), to finish our exploration of the peninsula.

Slightly better weather on the way from Campbeltown to Oban!

Then we drove north, towards Oban, the last stop in our trip. Although the sun came out while driving, it started pouring rain as soon as we parked in Oban (experiencing the 4-season in day). Oban is a nice village but looked a bit too touristy for us (and indeed we haven’t been back yet, unlike Campbeltown). The tour at the distillery was nice but a bit dull, probably it suffered in comparison to the previous day experiences. Still, it was interesting to see how this distillery, unlike many others, is nestled in the village, with no space for potential expansions. At the end of the tour we were given a dram of the flagship, the Oban 14y, and one of the Oban Little Bay. We ended up not buying anything, as even then we were aware that distillery prices sometimes are not competitive. We would have bought a bottle a few months later.

Oban right in the middle of the flavour map.

As a baptism into scotch distillery visiting, we couldn’t ask for more: a magic place, and magic whisky. With the pandemic and all we weren’t able to go back to Campbeltown for a while, so when we managed to do it in 2021, it was a very welcome return, with more whisky knowledge and experience in the pocket! Now it’s time to plan our third trip… 2023?


Glen Scotia Distillery: https://www.glenscotia.com/
Cadenhead’s: https://experience.cadenhead.scot/
Oban Distillery: https://www.malts.com/en-gb/distilleries/oban

#13 A weekend on the Isle of Arran

Arran, the beautiful


Back in 2019, when you didn’t have to sell a kidney to rent a car, we organised a last-minute weekend on the iconic Isle of Arran. 

The Autumn of 2019 was a very different time. Thinking of that period makes us feel a bit naïve and unaware, a bit like pigeons pecking on the road before being run over by a bus.

Things were different also regarding our whisky journey. It had started, but it was still at a larval stage. We had already visited a few distilleries in the US back in 2016 and 2017, in Campbeltown (a year earlier) and up in the Highlands (a few months earlier). We were still in our first year of SMWS membership, and we had barely just found out about their awesome tastings in the city venues. A few months earlier Gianluigi had found out about Mark Gillespie’s WhiskyCast, which became the soundtrack for his runs on the Pentlands. The idea of starting a blog wasn’t there yet. So, we were getting there, slowly but steadily. Things were definitely moving at a much slower pace with respect to the pandemic first wave when, ironically, our knowledge and awareness sped up quite a bit.

Ready to go!

It’s in this context that one day, we decided on a whim to book a mid-November weekend on the isle of Arran. At the time renting a car was much cheaper, so we got a compact (we are quite compact ourselves), we booked one night in a B&B (it wasn’t exactly high-season) and, more importantly, the tours to two distilleries: Lagg and Lochranza! These distilleries are both owned by the Isle of Arran Distillers Ltd. While Lagg was very new at the time, we were already familiar with the Lochranza’s Arran 10yr, having tried it once or twice in bars before. To be completely honest, we hadn’t connected with it right away. We think it was (past tense, very important!) because, as beginners, we were chasing big and bold flavours such as peat or heavily sherry influence, rather than gentle and balanced drams like Arran or Deanston. Nevertheless, it sparked enough curiosity to jump in a car and get to see them!

Teresa studying Ardrossan Castle’s ruins.

The drive from Edinburgh to Ardrossan on a Saturday morning was easy and smooth, not too much traffic. We stopped briefly to check out the Ardrossan Castle ruins (not much is left, to be honest), before getting to the pier. On the boat, we got that melancholic feeling of visiting an off-season tourist destination. And indeed it is, as many people from the mainland, Glaswegians in particular, choose it for their holidays.

The Isle of Arran is called “Scotland in miniature”, because of the very different landscapes in the north, resembling the Highlands, and the south, more similar to the Lowlands. It is roughly shaped like an oval and its main roads draw an “8”, which we intended to drive all along to explore the island. So, as we landed in Brodick, we drove first north, then west, then towards the south-west corner of the island where Lagg is located. This distillery was very new at the time, they had started producing only a few months earlier. They focus on peated spirit, and while their single malt was not available of course (it still isn’t at the time of writing), the available peated range Machrie Moor was produced at the Lochranza distillery.

Inexperienced whisky enthusiasts at Lagg distillery.

The building is beautiful, with the shop on the ground floor and a good café upstairs from which we could see young orchards (we found out later that they were planning to produce cider). Before starting the tour, we admired old pictures showing how life on the island used to be. Then the guide welcomed us and, after covering the history of the distillery and the island, made us try the new make – that was a nice surprise! The tour of the production was good and fairly short, mostly because everything was in one large room, one of the first (but definitely not last) times we had seen this.

Lagg stills.

From the big window behind the mashtun, the view on the sea was just stunning. In the tasting room, we tried some Machrie Moor (the main expression and the cask strength), but the guide also kindly gave us a wee sip of the sherry-finished Fingal’s Cut.

Sorry you can’t see the sea behind the mashtun!

Tired but happy, we took the south road to Whiting Bay, had dinner and, finally, a couple of drams in a bar before going to bed.

It was very sunny when we woke up in the morning. This and a generous breakfast with sea view put us in a very good mood, and we were ready to explore the island! We decided to take full advantage of the nice weather and go for a short hike. We first drove along the coast to get to a car-park where we could take the path to Machrie Moor (yes, it’s not just whisky).

Encounters on the path to Machrie Moor.

The walk was easy and the landscape just beautiful, and at that stage it was so warm that we took our jackets off (who said that the weather is always bad in November?!?). It was fascinating to walk around the archaeological site dating to between 3500 and 1500 BC and admire the circle and standing stones.

Circle stones…
…and standing stones.

Back in the car, we headed north towards the last stop of the day, Lochranza distillery. Formerly known as the Isle of Arran Distillery, it can be considered the trailblazing distillery in this new golden age of Scotch whisky, dating back to 1995. Other than being the first to open on the island in a very long time, it was built in a period when, elsewhere in Scotland, some distilleries were still being decommissioned or demolished following the whisky loch of the 80s.

The same inexperience whisky enthusiasts at Lochranza distillery.

The visit started with a short video about the history of the distillery, its connection with the location and a bit about production. While watching the video, we enjoyed a dram of Arran 10yr. After that, our guide Richard gave us a very entertaining, informative tour. He also spent some time in the courtyard to show us the variety of casks they use, thanks to which we finally started to understand the difference between barrel, hogshead, butt, etc. (again, it was the early days of our whisky journey).

Washbacks at Lochranza distillery… and a wee guest!

At the bar, we were given a sip of their cream liqueur (great gift for non-whisky drinkers), but then we separated from the rest of the group to do a more in-depth tasting. We enjoyed having the tasting room all to ourselves while Richard talked us through an excellent selection of drams: Amarone and Port finishes, Bodega (sherry finish), the Bothy (ex-bourbon quarter cask finished), 18yr….

After the tasting (and the purchase…), we sat at a table outside the distillery for a bite (Italian salami, cheese and bread), with Richard joining us for a few minutes. We would have stayed more, but it was time to get the ferry back to mainland.

And there it happened, we connected with Arran whiskies, confirming how a good distillery experience can make a difference: now we always have an Arran on our shelf! The quarter-cask expression also made us realise how good bourbon-matured casks can be, a type of flavour that since then we have been chasing more and more!

Beautiful Arran, we’ll be back.  

Links :
(No distillery box because we visited these distilleries more than two years ago.)



#12.5 From Islay with love

Back to mainland… Au revoir, Islay (Epilogue)


A straight return to Leith and some reflections about our first trip to Islay. 

(missed Day 3, Day 2, Day 1 or the Prologue?)

We woke up a bit sad: we weren’t on Islay anymore. The night before we had made good use of the disposable grill (in the parking lot…) and, exhausted, went straight to bed. After breakfast we called AA right away, still puzzled about what to do with the campervan. Another guy came, again from the super helpful Stag Garage, and helped us turn the van on. One objective now: drive straight to Edinburgh, without turning it off! It looked like one of those challenges in the old ads of Amaro Montenegro (at least the ones on Italian TV), but we could do it, fuel was enough. And yes, we made it: four hours later we successfully drove it to a garage in Leith previously agreed with the owner, stopping only once for a leak and once for Teresa to unload our stuff (Gianluigi stayed in the van… we don’t feel comfortable enough to leave a running vehicle around Leith yet)! After a celebratory coffee and pint, we finally went home.

So that was it, our very first trip to Islay, and hopefully, the first of many! It didn’t go as we planned it out, and we definitely didn’t like being moved from one distillery to another like cattle. We like doing things our way, and it’s not just about the whisky: taking our time, exploring the roads and the places, enjoying the changing landscape and feeling the community. But setbacks happen, so we feel lucky that we still managed to somehow visit the island, at least! Anyway, visiting six distilleries in three days made us reflect on a popular topic in the whisky community: what makes a good distillery tour?

First, the tour guide, definitely. An experienced, engaging and enthusiastic guide always makes the difference, even when the distillery doesn’t have much to offer (for example, because whisky is not ready yet or because the site is not the most beautiful one). We always admired the ability of a guide to set the tone of the tour depending on whether the crowd is knowledgeable or not, and to answer questions at a depth which felt just right for the audience. Most of the guides we found on the island were great, and were a big component of our experience.

This was outstanding!

Second, the type of visit matters too. We always have fun visiting production, but warehouse tastings are becoming more and more our favourite whisky experience. The trip on Islay only confirmed it: the feeling, the smell, the dampness…there is really no other place like a distillery warehouse! We already did some excellent warehouse tastings before coming to Islay (Deanston, Cadenhead’s twice…). Among the ones we did so far, Bunnahabhain Warehouse 9 was definitely one of the best ever. Next time we’d like to do the distillery tour, but we’ll likely do the warehouse tasting too (yes, again!). Similarly for Lagavulin, with a slight difference: Bunna’s drams were clearly chosen as outstanding ones, all very rich and showcasing the influence of both cask and spirit; Lagavulin’s drams were cleaner and spirit-forward, and this gave to the tasting a very valuable educational angle, it was like following the spirit in its maturation journey. We loved both!

Happier and more knowledgeable after the Lagavulin warehouse tasting.

We know they have warehouse tastings at Laphroaig and Bruichladdich too, but while we couldn’t fit them in this trip, we’ll definitely check them out next time. In both distilleries we did the “regular” tour, although we were pleasantly surprised because in both cases the tour was definitely whisky geek oriented, and nothing like the quite dull regular tours you can find sometimes on the mainland. Probably being in a distillery on Islay is definitely a sign of whisky-geekery, you cannot stumble there on your way to Loch Ness we guess…

Laphroaig malting floor.

Having a good experience definitely makes you connect deeper with a whisky, but in these two cases we already liked them both. Laphroaig was one of the drams that got Gianluigi into whisky in a first place, although now we moved away from the main range (the Select and the 10y), trying solid drams like the Lore and the Cairdeas was a pleasant discovery. The basic Bruichladdich range (Classic Laddie and Port Charlotte 10y) is very solid already, but unfortunately getting special releases or and single casks can be a bit pricey…in particular the whole Octomore range.

Bruichladdich still.

Finally, every distillery has its own features, and even just this makes the visit worthwhile (ok ok, we accept this might only apply to enthusiasts like us). While some of the distilleries might seem similar at a first glance, ultimately they are very different in their philosophy, style and, more importantly, their malt. For example, we were very curious about Kilchoman, being one of the youngest distilleries on the island, but still built in a moment when the whisky frenzy wasn’t as high as it is now. The fact that this tour was supposed to happen over two years ago only made us more eager. It did not disappoint, and we both really liked everything about the distillery, from its mix of modern and traditional features, to their philosophy. A truly farm distillery, something we hadn’t seen many times.

Kilchoman warehouse…Oh the smell!

Ardnahoe tour was the only one we found a bit basic, in particular compared to the others on the island, but we have to consider that it’s much harder when you are such a young operation (from 2019…and with 2 years of pandemic in between) and don’t have well aged stock to showcase. Still, it was very interesting to see a perfect example of how new distilleries are clearly built with visitors in mind. Also, their new make is very promising, so we’ll look to go back after their single malt releases.

At least this time we have bad weather as an excuse for our bad Ardnahoe pictures…

The only thing a bit off was some of the crowd we encountered in a few distilleries. It’s understandable being enthusiastic, but when that becomes rudeness it’s not ok: touching things you’re not supposed to touch, making the party wait for you, not respecting personal space, bothering the guide with questions about other distilleries (…why?), talking over the guide and reply to question directed to them…Please don’t be that guy! We had already witnessed some of these previously, but not all at once like on Islay…We were a bit shocked, so shocked that we thought the whole thing was worth a bingo card! Big shout out to the guides that, kindly but firmly, kept the undisciplined visitors straight!

Here a bingo card for your leasure!

Well, we will need to go back to Islay, hopefully sooner rather than later: first to visit the other distilleries (Bowmore, Caol Ila and Ardbeg, plus the close-enough Jura…and of course one day Port Ellen and Portintruan), and probably to revisit some. Hopefully next time things will be much smoother (not that it would take much, to be honest…), so we’ll have a chance to have a more fulfilling experience!

As you might imagine, we are already starting to planning it out!