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.
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!