Monday, 8 September 2014

Trip to Islay

Trip to Islay

Well since this blog is all about whisky-related stuff, not solely reviews of bottles that I tried. So let me tell you about my last trip to Scotland, more specifically to the Mecca of whisky.

No not the Speyside, the other one: Westering home of single malt whisky and Queen of the Hebrides, Islay.
Old cemetery of Port Ellen

My gratitude goes out to all the friendly people who helped me along my journey.

Disclaimer: feel free to use these images at all times, click to enlarge


Project "Getting back on track" is on the way

The life of a recent graduate is harder than it looks. So much time and so little to fill it with, endless days  of sifting through job vacancies and sending in my CV with little to no feedback from potential employers.
I needed a break from it all, so how about another hiking trip before I could turn the page and start a new chapter in my life. One week away from all the screening procedures, endless hours of procrastination, one week of doing the things I like before being turned into an actual member of society, who makes a worthwhile contribution to this fellow citizens.

Now the idea to strap on my boots once more and get some more miles on the counter weren't new. My planned excursion to the Mont Blanc (The Tour du Mont Blanc, to be more specific) right after my dissertation defense in late June was cancelled due to bad weather. And in July I completed the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge.

First my mind was set on doing the Isle of Skye trail and an invitation from the SYHA (Scottish Youth Hostel Association) to spend a few nights at their expense and a free excursion to the Isle of Skye came in quite handy.

The only thing holding me back, was finding one or more partners to accompany me, share a tent and a few drams along the way. Well let that just be the problem: last year's rainy adventure along the West Highland Way did not encourage too many people to accompany me back to the Scottish Highlands. Others were too preoccupied with the search for a new job or were still working on their dissertation.

And let's be honest about it, I've never been a great people's person, but I'm doing the best I can. To me, being a charismatic and overall likable person is something that requires a certain emotional investment of time and dedication. And as I spend my last year pouting about being rejected by the girl of my dreams and not making any progress in life, I should not be surprised that nowadays my cell phone rarely rings on the weekend days and few were enthusiastically lining up to become my partner for the road.

So well f*** it, I said to myself, let's just make this a solo-trekking trip, somewhere in Scotland with an easier geography than Skye.
How about a trip to Islay, with enough distilleries to help me fight the elements and sore feet along the way and enough time out in the wilderness to help me rethink my life and become a better person.
And the rest is history...

Inverness and Skye

Actually not the first time that I've been to both regions in Scotland. I had a pretty wild and drunken night back in 2012 in Inverness, on a highland trip with fellow Erasmus students of the University of Edinburgh.
Back in November 2012 at Culloden, picture taken by Adeline Ang

And I was on the Isle of Skye back in September 2013 where I paid a short two-hour visit to Portree.
Now isn't that a face that only a mother could love?

So nihil nove sub sole, though now I had enough time to do a proper walk around the city and with the WOW Scotland tours, I got my fair share of great seafood, whisky (Talisker 10 and 18 at the excellent whisky bar of the Sligachan Hotel) and scenery on our 14h bus trip through the Western Highlands and Skye.
Red Cuillin at Sligachan Hotel

The Black Cuillin

The Quiraing


Travelling from Oban, the easiest way unto the Isle of Islay was the ferry route from Oban to Port Askaig.
Once on the isle, I would have five full days to travel along the coast from distillery to distillery with large stretches of cliffs and beaches along the northern shores.

Seemed like a simple and straightforward plan, but the weather gods and the actual outlook of the isle intervened. 
The five day trip was cut short one day, paths that should have been taken were left untrodden. 
While reconstructing the route, it may look like I might have gone a bit mad, or maybe there is some pigeon-DNA running through my veins.

 The Trip

Day 0: The Journey

My trip to Inverness and Skye remained largely dry, nothing out of the ordinary, with sunny spells and the occasional showers. Though the flood level of the River Ness gave away that the last weeks must have been quite wet.

On the morning of the 16th however the skies turned grey, the mountaintops were covered by clouds rolling in from the sea and for the rest of the day I would experience all different sorts of rain.
Thus the coach ride from Inverness to Oban proved to be a very dull: rain and fog can easily turn a magical place like the Highlands into a bore.

Why Oban? Well as it was the easiest way to reach the isle from the mainland, the alternative: the Kennacraig/Port Askaig/ Port Ellen would require a much longer bus ride. Plus the scenery of the rugged shores of Kerrera, Mull and other smaller islets along the ferry's route are a true sight to behold.
But when I arrived in Oban, it seemed that the four hour ferry trip would not be worth its money. The Isle of Mull was shrouded by clouds, dark rain clouds barred the sun, an orange alert issued by the meteorological services for the high seas and the people of Calmac could not confirm that my ship would eventually set sail for Colonsay and Islay.

The harbour of Oban before departure

The Sound of Kerrera before deparure

Well time to get some shopping done and collect some whisky miniatures in the tourist shops. I managed to find some single malts that I hadn't tried before like GlenTauchers, Glenburgie and MiltonDuff.
Nothing to excited I hear you say and I'll admit, these will probably never appear in my personal whisky-top-10, but as in opinion it is always the best approach to try a new whisky as a miniature, a sample or just as a dram in a pub, instead of buying a whole bottle and regretting it later.
Besides, I wouldn't have been able to fit a whole bottle in my already massive backpack without crushing my spine anyway.
A pity, cause in the Oban Tesco they had 15yo Mortlach and Longmorn from Gordon & MacPhail on sale.
But I probably did manage to find the last Mortlach miniature on sale in Oban.

,  Glenburgie 10yo, Glentauchers 1990, Tullibardine Vintage 1993, Bladnoch 10yo, Mortlach 15yo,
 MiltonDuff 10yo, BenRomach 10yo and Glencadam 15yo

However half an hour before the ferry left port, the skies above the Isle of Mull appeared to clear up and the sun broke trough the clouds. 
And around 16:45, without any further delays, we set sail on the old ferry ship called "The Hebridean Isles" to our first stop on the Isle of Colonsay.

The same Sound of Kerrera a few hours later

The views were stunning, though the strong winds were making it hard to move around on the ship's upper decks. But as soon as the ship reached the open seas, we became a toy for the sea gods to play with, heavy waves rocked the ship, setting of the alarms of the cars on the decks below.
It didn't take too long before the first passengers got sick and I'll admit, I myself retreated to the lower decks, as I was sure I would soon join in, as it seemed to have set of a puke chain reaction.

I only left my chair to get some fresh air when the ship docked in the Colonsay harbour and as soon as we got into the calmer waters of the Sound of Islay.
A rainy Colonsay harbour, in the evening

So by the time we had entered the Sound of Islay, dusk had already set in and except for the lower shoreline no further signs of the Ise of Jura could be observed.
Safe to say that none of the pictures that I took on the chilly and wet after-deck were a success. So I'll just post the last two pictures of that day here. One of the Caol Ila distillery and one of Port Askaig's pier.
They turned out to be a lot brighter than I expected, as by the time we docked in Port Askaig, it was already dark.
Caol Ila other than Bunnahabhain showed at least to some signs of life.

Half an hour later than expected we arrived at our destination and by God, was I glad I could set foot on some solid ground. Normally I love ferry trips, but this rough ride was a solid attack on my physical health, guess I don't have sea legs after all.

The plan was to set up camp on the shores of Loch Finlaggan, a short walk from the harbour. But it proved to be quite the challenge in the dark being battered by wind and rain, a foretaste of what tomorrow would bring.
Around half past ten I managed to set up camp near the path to the ruins of the old seat of the Lord of the Isles.
Made a pitch in the dark by torchlight, not a great start.

Day 1: Loch Finlaggan to Port Charlotte (45km total => 36 km walking)

What a first day! Throughout the night, storm fronts kept coming in, but my good old trusty tent kept me warm and dry. Though the rippling water of the nearby burn, the howling of the Northwestern wind and the screeching of an unclosed fence gate kept me up for most of the night.

The morning brought more wind and rain and as I crawled out of my tent (they really didn't think the design of my tunnel tent through), I saw that given the circumstances of utter darkness and rain, I had made a decent pitch.
The main idea was to make a pitch between the ruins of Loch Finlaggan. But in hindsight I don't think that the trust keepers would have appreciated it, if I had caused any damaged to the archaeological remains of the site.
As in the dark I had missed the sign on the museum, which prohibited camping on the domain, so I probably should be glad that my presence remained unnoticed.

The ruins of  Loch Finlaggan in the background

The heavy rains that approached with great speed,  forced me to run for shelter while I was still breaking up my tent. Safe to say that most of the inner tent got wet during this operation, in these circumstances it was advisable to find a hostel or a camping with a drying room  before I could use it again.
Bad luck, as I was planning to wild camp near Loch Gruinart, just within the first minutes of my trip it became clear that this trip was not going to go as planned.
The winds had gained in strength overnight and the Jura to ferry had been cancelled due to the adverse weather.

Caol Ila Distillery

Off to Caol Ila than in the pouring rain, for a healthy nourishing breakfast consisting out of a dram or two.
The old distillery lies a short walk  from Port Askaig down by the shore. In both cases of Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila, a lick of paint would do miracles. They look pretty run down, but I guess that the cost/profit ratio of the upkeep compared to their more touristy southern neighbours would be far too high. This is probably how most Islay distilleries looked a decade ago.
The old warehouses, far too small for a Caol Ila, so most of the whisky is matured on the mainland

The 70's distillery building

I arrived about a quarter of an hour late for the scheduled tour, but was welcomed by a young and pretty girl, whom I guess was about the same age as me.
We chatted a bit about the weather, while she poured me a dram of Caol Ila Moch and the latest Distiller's Edition.

Nose: fresh notes of peat smoke,  aromas of hot tar, a good squash of zesty lemon,  and notes of hay.
Mouth: peat, buttery texture, apple wood smoke and grind pepper, 
Finish: medium long finish, briny mouth feel with hints of tar and smoldering smoke.

Safe to say that I really like the Moch, very similar to the other 8yo Caol Ila (young and feisty) that I tried from Douglas Laing.
Age is no guarantee for quality, but generally they still prove to be the better drams. But young peaty whiskies are often quite the sensation for your taste buts. Just like the Lagavulin 12yo, the young Caol Ila Moch is no immature version of the standard bottling, it is a completely different expression in itself.
A dry lemony whisky with notes of peat and hay. A great start this first dram on Islay and just as I finished my glass, the sun started shining.

Second up was the Caol Ila Distiller's edition 2001-2013 with a Moscatel wine finish. Well it was not a bad whisky per se, but after the Moch it was a bit underwhelming. More waxiness in body, subtle notes of spices and orange.

My hostess closed the shop for a few moments to give me a tour of the still room. The massive Caol Ila stills are a sight to behold and the views across the Sound of Islay are supposed to be amazing, but the Paps of Jura were nowhere to be seen, quite the disappointment. As always, no photos allowed inside Diageo distilleries, but except for the still room the building, there is barely anything worth taking a picture off anyway. 
The 70's building that replaced the old distillery has little to no charm and with an atmosphere similar  to that of the my old school building, "shivers".
No time for romance here, this is an industrial facility with a production of almost four million liters of pure alcohol each year and they do little to effort to hide it. 
Not that it bothers me, it's quite interesting to see the true face of the whisky industry and not the romantic Potemkin villages that most tourists get to see.

With a free tasting glass in my hand, I left for my next target, the Bunnahabhain distillery a bit further along the Coast.


The road up to Bunnahabhain was beautiful and quiet, the sun came out and it stopped raining for a moment. The scenery along the way mainly consisted of views across the water to the Isle of Jura, but the Paps remained hidden behind a thick layer of clouds.
Unfortunately the winds had not died down and it seemed like they were only getting stronger throughout the day. Thus the walk along the coastal road became a true battle against the storm.
Still far from the epic proportions of last years storm in the mountains between Kinlochleven and Fort William, but strong enough to slow me down significantly. Let these pictures be a testimony of the rapidly changing weather that day.

The dark waters of Loch Ardnahoe colored purple by the strange sunlight

The Bunnahabhain distillery is something out of the ordinary, it is an enormous complex of warehouses, hangars and living quarters for the staff.
The site was completely deserted, during the silent season it appears that only two members of the staff are running the premises. 
Not many tourists drive up this far, though to my astonishment the shopkeeper, who looked suspiciously like the captain on the distilleries emblem, told me that about a hundred people made the trip to the distillery each day.

Now back to the distillery, while the seafront buildings got a nice white paint coating, the rest of the tall buildings are grey and in need of some repair. Some people abhor the "prison"-like outlook of the buildings. But I believe it fits perfectly with the atmosphere of pure isolation. One could easily believe that this is the last outpost of mankind,  beyond lies nothing but an endless uninhabitable wilderness.

The entry to the shop, is well hidden, you'll have to enter the atmospheric courtyard and climb the stairs to the first floor. The shop has been furnished like a small cosy living room, a sharp contrast with the cold desolate surroundings outside.  Inside the Captain and two female colleagues from the Deanston distillery were chit-chatting as I walked in.
Of course, I was once again too late for the tour. Before my departure I had collected all the info available on tours at every Islay distillery, but with the elements working against me, my progress that morning had been far too slow.

It may look like it, but this is not the shop

The Captain poured me a dram and offered to show me the stills as soon as the other tour returned.
"What Bunnahabhain expressions have you tried?", he asked. "The ten and the eighteen year old", I replied.  They all had a laugh: "It's the twelve year old!"  
What a shameful rookie mistake, no luck trying to present myself here as a true whisky-connaisseur.
"Well I'll let you have taste of the Bunnahabhain 18 than", the Captain said, while he poured me a dram from a bottle of Bunnahabhain 12 (at least i know my bottles!).

The Bunnahabhain XII, is the opposite of what most people would define as a classic Islay whisky. It's unpeated, yet not light or lemony in any way. It's an excellent single malt, briny on the palate, rich body that always reminds me of some syrupy old-style Belgian Dark beers like Westvleteren, Westmalle or Maredsous. Hints of coffee, black pepper, orange and vanilla. This is a complex dram with a lot of layers for an entry level dram.

Unfortunately that was the only dram I got a t the distillery, a pity, it won't stop me from ordering some other Bunnahabhain expressions in the near future.
I discussed my itinerary to the north with the shopkeeper: up to the Rhuvaal lighthouse and the walk along the northern coastline. He advised me that this weather was unsuited to traverse alone along the cliffs with these high winds. (The weather services had given the Amber alert)
One of the things I would hear very often during my trip on Islay was that I just picked the wrong week.

View from the pier

The people from the previous tour walked back in and their young female guide was told to show me the still house. 
Well where do they keep getting these girls, are they trying to convince the world that distilleries are nowadays run by young blonde amazons?  
The trip to the stills turned into an almost complete tour of the empty distillery. It was interesting to have a peek inside the empty mash tun and pot stills. 
Though I do not believe my guide actually worked at the distillery, she had a desperate look on her pretty face when I asked her about the absence of a pagoda on the roof (It never had one) or when I asked her in what way their stills were the "largest" (they are the tallest not the largest).

The stills were indeed impressive, the interior of the distillery does not have the sterilised look of other distilleries open to tourists. In fact the stills and wash backs are pretty dirty. They may claim that it improves the flavour, but I have my doubts that the stains on the outside help in the development of the flavours inside.

No further comments here, Bunnahabhain is the only distillery on Islay that you can still give you that impression that you are indeed a traveler who crosses the rugged seas to discover the purest of flavours at distilleries forgotten by the rest of mankind. While at the other distilleries, you do no longer feel like an adventurer, you're just one of the many tourists joining the distillery tour that day.
Bunnahabhain, the last home of the Islay single malt pioneer, never ever change.

The wreck of the Wyre Majestic engulfed by the rough seas

When I tried to get close to the Wyre Majestic, I was simply blown of my feet by the harsh winds. It made me realize that it would be for the best if I abandoned my plans to travel further north. 
Venturing on my own, along ill-defined paths in an uninhabited area with no cellphone coverage, behind on schedule and along the cliffs with high winds, rough seas, against all warnings of meteorological services & locals and with a wet tent, would probably not be the stupidest thing that I've done this summer, but certainly the most irresponsible.
My decision to aboard the planned route was therefore a decision of the mind and not of the heart, as I still regret  not crossing the Margdale river and heading out to that lighthouse.

So I decided to head of to Port Charlotte to spend the night at either the youth hostel or the Port Mor campsite. I took another way back, through the forests west of the distillery.
The scenery along these paths was mainly unexceptional, but the trees provided some cover against the wind.

Back on the main road that connects the eastern and the western part of the isle, I headed towards Bridgend. Along the way I was constantly battered by harsh side-winds and gusts of rain. After several hours out there in the rain my trousers and coat started to absorb the water and cured my own foolishness.

It was a Sunday, so there was no coach service on the isle. Fortunately a mile or two out of Bridgend a local elderly woman with a dog called kiwi took pity on me and offered me a ride up to Bridgend.
After the storm had passed I headed out again on foot along the surprisingly busy road between Portnahaven and Bridgend. Two miles out of Bruichladdich it started raining again and I was picked up by a couple of friendly locals, fierce Scottish nationalists, who brought me to the Youth Hostel. 
One thing that I learned on Islay, is that the Ileach  are generally good and helpful people, most tourists cruising at high speeds along the Islay roads however are selfish pricks.

That night I stayed at the Port Charlotte Youth hostel, located in the warehouses of the former Lochindaal distillery,  where I was able to dry my cloths and tent. 

I concluded that evening with a couple of Islay Ales at the Port Charlotte Hotel ( they served their whisky at tourist prices).

Sundown at the Port Charlotte Hotel

The Port Charlotte Youth Hostel, located in the warehouses in the rear.

Day 2: Port Charlotte Circuit (31km total => 27km walking)

Port Charlotte Lighthouse

As promised by the hostel keeper, the weather would improve. At least the winds would die down a little and there was a significant decline in the amount of rain that fell that day.
It's only a two mile stretch of coastline that separates Port Charlotte from Bruichladdich and even though it was pleasantly warm and sunny when I closed the hostel door behind me, by the time I reached my destination it started raining again.
With all that rain, those highland cows probably mistook me as one of their own.

Two remarks, first of all every morning on Islay was wet, with rapid interchanges of sunny spells and gusts of rain, every ten minutes the weather would change. So after a rainstorm you knew you had a ten minute interval to break up your tent and get everything in your bag.
So you always had to keep a watchful eye out for the next cloud front on the horizon, while packing up.
Secondly, the main roads on Islay are completely unsuited for those few who travel on foot. There are rarely alternatives for the main roads available. For instance, why is there no footpath connecting Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich? One would expect it to be possible to travel along the coast, but most areas are simply fenced of.

But I digress,...


From the inside, the Bruichladdich distillery is a sight to behold. The Victorian equipment is in running condition after all these years, it is living history. 

Our tour guide, once again a lovely young lady, gave us a tour of the mill, mash tun, wash backs, stills and warehouse.
The open mash tun is an iron cast survivor, instruments such as these are what makes this distillery stand out. 
I had my first taste of the wash and I have to admit, it doesn't taste that bad. For those who know it, it comes very close to a sour Belgian white beer, like Hoegaarden. And it stills tastes better than any British beer that I've tried thus far!

Inside the wash back

The still house is a lot darker than most of its counterparts and the dark coloured stills are true beauties.

But of course the eye catcher is the "new" lomond still from the old Inverleven  distillery, now being used for the production of their "botanist" gin.
Ugly Betty was meant to be used in the future Port Charlotte distillery, but it has luckily been taken out of the cold and found a new destination.
I forgot to ask if she still has her rectifier plates, or if she had been lobotomized like the one in the Scapa distillery. 
Ugly Betty, a pretty small still, but a true beauty.

 The classic haversack pose, hard to believe but I was actually having fun.

Of to the warehouse than, where a wide variety of casks were on display. Bruichladdich was for some time known as the Willy Wonka's chocolate factory of single malt whisky, where anything could happen. 
And given the wide variety of casks here in Warehouse Two, they still have some excited experimental casks laying around from the McEwan-Renier period.  Which will probably be released as pricey limited edition bottlings, better get your wallets out gents.

At the end of  the tour there was a visit to the bottling plant.

After the visit they lined up six or seven bottles for a wee taste, but you only got to pick one. Wait and you can't keep the glass? That's a bit meager wouldn't you think so?
I picked a dram from the Vallinch available in the store. 
That thing had caught my eye as soon as I came in, it was leaking pretty bad, a sad thing to see so much good whisky going to waste.
£75 for a 50cl bottle was pretty expensive, but hey you can not put a price on a limited edition, 24yo single cask whisky. A 50cl bottle still might have fitted in my backpack, so why not give it a  try.

The Andy Ritchie Valinch 07 is a cask picked out by the (bottling hall manager?), who's going on retirement. A 24yo (1989/2014) cask, matured in a bourbon cask, finished in a rioja winecask at 51.4%ABV.
Rich and smooth, fruity on the nose: hints of cherry, peat, red fruits and iodine on the palate, with a peppery finish.
A good and complex whisky, an interesting take on the classic Bruichladdich whisky, but not convincing enough to go through the trouble of buying a bottle.
Added some water from the large water jug, a slightly bit too much, but not more than 20% or so. Causing the other Belgian visitor to cry out that I was doing it wrong. 
If there is one thing that I hate, than it are these so called experts. Mind your own glass, I thought while keeping a smile on my face, there is no wrong or right way of doing it, just keep it to yourself . 

Plenty enough other good Bruichladdich official bottles available in the shop, but nothing except for some older leftover valinches that I couldn't find in Belgium at a better price.
At the counter I asked for a taste of the Octomore 6.1, as I really enjoyed the 5.1 a long while ago.

This is not the same peaty beast as its older brother, a lot of the power and roughness had gone. The 5.1 was a true powerhouse, a iron fist in a velvet glove that would kick you right in the nose.
I expected so much more from this one.
Nose: Leather, medicinal peat,  notes of sea spray, strong hints of tar with underlying notes of lemon.
Mouth: Rich and fruity on the palate: white fruits, pears, teaspoon of honey, cinnamon, with powerful notes of vanilla and peat of course.
Finish: A long and smoky finish, with hints of dark chocolate and berries.

Good, but.... not as great as the 5.1. But as there are more Octomores on the way, even more powerful than their predecessors. So I keep, my hopes up and wait for an Octomore that can outclass the 5.1.
Oh well, the 6.3 will soon become available and I saw a flask with Octomore 7.2 in the warehouse, good times ahead people. 

Definitely in the top 3 of all the distilleries that I've visited. 
Now that they are focusing more and more on the "terroir" aspect of their whiskies, how about a malting floor and a proper kiln? I guess that they would swimming against the tide, but wouldn't it be great if the Octomore was made with Islay peat, instead of the Biards of Inverness malt smoked with peat from the Orkneys(so I have been told).
No stab at the good people of Bruichladdich, but just a hint for improvement, making this distillery even better?
Maybe an idea for the new Port Charlotte distillery, if that projects gets of the ground someday.


I went on my merry way, along the main road until somewhere halfway between Bruichladdich and Bridgend I reached the road to Loch Gorm and Kilchoman.
At the crossroads I came across my future guide who was loading, what looked like sandwiches into the back of the Kilchoman truck. 
I didn't ask for a ride as I wanted to get some serious walking done as I felt bad about the previous day, taking  those rides out of the rain felt like cheating.
On top of the ridge, you could see both Loch Indaal and Loch Gruinart. almost touching each other Who knows maybe in a couple hundreds of years the Rhinns of Islay may become a separate island.

As I got closer to the dark waters of Loch Gorm, the landscape changed from heathland to farmland with fields of golden barley, I was getting close to the Rockside farm, famous from the Bruichladdich bottlings.
Tempering with the modes of my camera

Loch Gorm with the cliffs of  Ardnave Point in the background

After a short walk, I arrived at the Kilchoman distillery and oh my goodness me, this might actually be the busiest distillery  judging from the amount of traffic that past me by on that small road.
It was not that easy to find the entrance of the distillery, you'll have to go around the back, past the casks from the Buffalo Trace distillery to make your way to the shop.

The shop and restaurant where  they offer locally prepared food were quite crowded, though the possibilities of getting on a tour were limited.
On thing that  you'll immediately notice is that the visitor center is larger than the distillery and a lot of the stuff that they'll sell is not whisky related.  
With an hour to go till the next tour, I left my bag behind in one of the distillery's offices and headed out again to see the old Kilchoman parish church, which now lays in ruins.

Kilchoman parish church in the distance

Celtic Cross in the Kilchoman kirk yard 

The decaying parish church of Kilchoman

Back at the distillery, there was a visit to the malting floor, which is also is used to storage facility. A good example of how cramped the small distillery actually is. They already had to give up their cask warehouse in order to create room for a bottling plant. (their casks are stored at Bruichladdich)
A handful of green malt from the Kilchoman floor

Kilchoman is slowly excepting some modest technological upgrades. New machinery like a conveyor belt to transport the malt from the floors to the kiln and a new corking machine have been introduced to make the lives of the crew a bit easier. 
But most of the work is still done in a manual fashion, the sole fact that they have to climb to the top of the smoking kiln with a ladder in order to turn the barley manually, earns my respect.
Kilchoman uses Islay peat for their whisky, but unlike Laphroaig, it is mechanically cut. 

Just like with the Laphroaig distillery, they use stainless steel wash backs to create a sweeter taste. And in the stillhouse both the wash back and a set of small stills were installed.

All sweaty, after a sprint to get back to the distillery on time

The tour ended with a taste of the Kilchoman Machir Bay 2014 and Kilchoman 100% Islay.

Machir Bay 2014: A lightly peated expression born out of 5yo bourbon and  oloroso sherry casks.This is the Kilchoman house-style expression.
Nose: soft on the nose, prominent notes of citrus and freshly cut grass, with a few layers of ashes and peat underneath.
Mouth: sweet on the palate: fruitiness from the sherry vanilla from the bourbon, spiced up with soft notes of black pepper and aniseed.
Finish: Long and lingering with aromas of vanilla and oak.
I must admit that I liked the Machir Bay 2013 edition better (although, it has been some time since I last had a taste), but there is a high consistency in taste between the two batches.

100% Islay 4th edition:
A whisky that only uses locally produced barley, aged in first fill bourbon casks and bottled at 50%ABV. Only lightly peated and going by the introductory remarks of our tour guide, this is what's supposed to be their ultimate product.
Nose: notes of citrus, biscuity malt, figs, brine and a fairly soft layer of smoke.
Mouth: sharp on the palate, a body that is both creamy and briny  fruity notes of pears, some vanilla and wood polish
Finish: medium long finish: peat, lime and elements of oak

No taste from my favorite Kilchoman expression, the Loch Gorm, but I did get a delicious piece of sponge cake from the cafeteria and a free glass.

It was time to return back to Port Charlotte, this time using the passage along the cliffs and the beaches of Machir Bay.
A slight change of plans was required due to the presence of a bull in the fields.
More like a field full of young bulls 

The sands of Machir Bay, more rain on the horizon

I made my way back trough the hills past the the Kilchiaran farm and back on the road to Port Charlotte.
The Rinns of Islay are an exquisite part of Islay, quiet and almost completely void of tourists. Not a living soul to be seen, except for some kettle. 

It started raining again, but somewhere along the way, the brother of the owner of Kilcherian farm gave me a ride. 
Apparently he was a former engineer at the Rolls Royce factory in Glasgow, who returned to Islay after his retirement. And the Kilcherian farm is one of the local barley suppliers of Bruichladdich.

I got to the Port Mor campsite, put up my tent, just in time before the next rainstorm hit. Had a drink at the Lochindaal Bar later that evening, which is probably the best pub of Port Charlotte.

Day 3: Bowmore-Port Ellen-Laphroaig-Oa-Kintra (68km total=>47km walking)

The toughest day on Islay for me, not because of the weather or the terrain, but because of the long distance I covered with my heavy backpack that day. I've covered longer distances before, but this was the first hike with  15kg backpack  over 40km. By the end of the day, I almost suffered both a physical and mental breakdown.
Last sights of Port Charlotte

The previous night had been a cold one, the Port Mor facilities were excellent, though no drying room was provided, which would have been helpful given the Scottish climate.
However the location on the shores on Loch Indaal, more particularly the flat open grass field along the coastline caused the temperatures to drop significantly during the night.
The only option left was to close all the tents ventilation flaps and curl up  inside my sleeping bag.

Of course it started raining again around 6am. So I had to wait for a bright interval to pack up.
Therefore I was only able to leave the campsite at about 9am, though I had been up for almost three hours.

I had made up my mind about my future trajectory: the general roads were unsuited for hikers (every five minutes or so you had to jump unto the road's shoulder to evade cars), plus they didn't provide me with that satisfaction that I normally would get out of hiking. I prefer the scenic small trails over challenges of distance. (the isle has some entrancing places, but by doing it this way its beauty remained hidden)

Plus I had received a job offer in Belgium and had to make sure I'd be back on time, thus had to leave the isle a day earlier. (PS: I did not get the job)
After a tip to visit Portnahaven from my generous chauffeur yesterday, I decided to take the bus from Port Charlotte to Islay's western point. But as my ride hadn't showed up some thirty minutes later, I abandoned my plans and headed out again, along the all too familiar road to Bridgend.

By the time I had reached Bruichladdich, the weather gods decided that it was time again for a nice portion of rain, but I carried on as usual.
A mile out of Bridgend a lorry driver from W&M Currie and son from Port Ellen pulled over and got me out of the rain.
I asked for a ride to Bridgend, but the kind man was willing to take me as far as Port Ellen.
As per my request, he dropped me off right at the front door of the Bowmore distillery.
As I got out of the truck the sun broke through the clouds and it would stay dry and sunny the rest of the day.

Bowmore Distillery

I payed a visit to the rather small visitor centre and enlisted for the next distillery tour in two hours.

Time enough to get some food from the local Co-op, visit the small shops, walk up to the church and seafront. First time that I found a shop selling some proper fruit on Islay, enough to still my sudden and inexplicable appetite for apples.

Bowmore distillery: a lot smaller than I expected

The famous round church of Bowmore

The distillery buildings are a true architectural beauty

When the bus arrived I made a decision to abort my planned visit to the Bowmore distillery. Of all the Islay distilleries, Bowmore is probably my least favorite. Bowmore is one of those distilleries where the official range leaves me largely indifferent, but I love some of the independent releases. (in other words I'm not convinced that their entry level whiskies are the best that they can offer for that price).
Plus as Bowmore was in its silent season, there would be so much less to see and to do. With only one day left to visit distilleries on the Isle, I decided that I preferred a visit to Laphroaig over a tour of Bowmore.
So Bowmore is the only distillery on Islay that I didn't properly visit (maybe next year?)

The road from Bowmore to Port Ellen is almost completely straight, by my experience a unicum for Scotland and Great Brittain.
Thank god that I chose the bus here, the road was unsuited for pedestrians and it was a way to avoid the alternative, a long walk across the sands of Laggan bay.
Plus, from the bus you got a good view of fields where the peat is harvested from.

Laphroaig Distilery

From Port Ellen it was a short walk up to the Laphroaig distillery. They constructed a new footpath along the road to the distillery to keep the drunks and tourists off the road. Though most of them continued to use the old way.
Guess that it would be wise to put up some signs to guide them to the path. The path for some reason stops a few hundred meters from the distillery's entrance, so you had have to get back on the road anyway.

The Laphroaig distillery is the first of the Kildalton distilleries (well Port Ellen not included) and a classic beauty.
These distilleries are like white pearls shimmering on the rocky Islay coast. With all the classic ingredients to make a whisky lover drool: white washed  buildings, pagodas crowning the kilns and a seafront warehouse proudly displaying their eloquent names, like a statement to the world: "we are  Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, the ancient homes of the most exquisite of peated whisky, hear us roar!"

Due to its proximity to Port Ellen, this is probably the most visited distillery on the isle (though by my experience that would be Kilchoman).
When I arrived and asked to be part of the next session, the following two tours were already fully booked.
But they managed to get me in on one in the early afternoon. I made use of the spare time to dump my rucksack behind the counter and walk up to Lagavulin, to make sure there would still be a spot on the warehouse demonstration the next day. 

Had to make a run for it to get back on time at Laphroaig. Back at the distillery, a group of New Zealanders, joined the tour.

Our guide appeared to be an Ileach, though I've never been very good at making out accents and at times I had trouble making out what he said.

The tour started on the malting floors, where the barley was almost ready, and the kilns were smoking. Laphroaig still gets 25% of their malted barley from their own floors, a laborious work that earns my respect.
The green malt almost ready for drying

Got a look inside the smoking kiln and a taste of the dried barley, which proved to be an excellent snack, or was I just getting a bit too hungry?
That smell, oh that godly smell of peat phenols!

The first look at a burning peat oven, there were a lot more flames than the photo reveals as they just fired up a new peat fire.
Normally you won't find any flames on a peat fire as the distilleries only use the upper layers of the peat, which contains more remains of the vegetation (so this not the high quality peat that is being used by locals in their stoves), creating a fire that releases more aromatic smoke than heat.
The goal is to dry and smoke the barley, not to burn it.

The fires send large thick white clouds of phenolic smoke across the bay, filling the surrounding area with that divine smell of burning peat.
A few meters below the kiln, a smoldering peat fire

The mash, wash and still houses with their steel skeleton structure are no original 19th century installations, they are modern additions, but far less notable than the Caol Ila rebuilding.

The mash tun and wash backs are made out of stainless steel, a bit unusual for a classic distillery like Laphroaig I guess.
But let's believe the usual argument that stainless wash backs create a much sweeter whisky, than this might actually be considered as an improvement by some people.
Like before, we were offered a taste of the peaty wash, which in my opinion was inferior in taste to the Bruichladdich or Kilchoman wash. (I guess that's the reason why there aren't any popular peated beers)

Off to the still room than, where three wash and four spirit stills were boiling away and we got a taste of the new make spirit from an opened spirit safe?
I was expecting the "new make" to be a bit warm yet, even after it left the condenser, but was surprised to find it quite cold.
The still house: spirit stills on the foreground, the wash stills on the background

The author, in dire need of a shower

The tour of the distillery ended with a quick glimpse of the warehouse and the Prince Charles cask that they're so proud of.
Laphroaig, keeps their casks carefully locked away. 

And you should know the drill by now: a wee dram and a free glass at the end of the tour. 
As the 10yo is no longer the introductory malt, we only got a taste of the now notorious Laphroaig Select, an NAS release that was designed to appeal to a wider crowd.

Laphroaig Select:
Nose: notes of oak, vanilla, hints of mint and citrus and a whiff of chocolate
Mouth: coconut, strong layers of vanilla, vague remnants of medicinal smoke
Finish: bitter and drying with notes of oak and strips of leather

One thing is for sure, it did not appeal to me. Do not get me wrong good people of Laphroaig, I'm not going to whine about the good old days or the introduction of yet another NAS whisky. Even that it lacks the classic recipes that make Laphroaig work: the medicinal smoke and saltiness. My quarrel lies with the overabundance of vanilla flavours in this whisky. I don't mind a touch of vanilla here or there, but as more first-fill bourbon or even virgin casks of american oak are used for the production of this whisky (In my humble opinion), the prominence of these soft and creamy vanilla notes ruin it for me. Get me some older refill casks, or add some more oloroso or PX sherry casks to even it a bit out, thank you.

Not satisfied with the whisky I got, I asked for a taste of the Laphroaig 18 in the shop.

Laphroaig 18: now we are talking
Nose: fruitier than expected, notes of toffee, delicate scents of smoke and medicinal peat, a touch of vanilla, coastal notes return: seaweed and iodine, 
Mouth: slightly floral, big round body, oily on the palate with notes of lemon, honey, earthy tones, black pepper, a touch of ginger, walnuts, but mainly big on the dark oak, 
Finish:  long and smooth

Age is not everything, that is not why I would say that the 18y is the obvious superior to the Select, it has more to do with the palate of displayed flavours. Though I prefer the 10yo and Quarter Cask over this particular whisky, as they more prominently exhibit the rough and raw nature of the Laphroaig malt. 

Probably slightly intoxicated by the excellent dram, whilst trying to take a picture of the distillery from the rocks across the bay, I dropped my camera and only got it working again the next day.
Had to rely on my phone on low batteries to take any other pictures that day.

Port Ellen and the Oa Peninsula

Back to Port Ellen, a nice seaport town and second largest settlement on Islay, in the shadow of the Port Ellen maltings.
Those were smoking barley and the streets were covered in a thick white smog as there was barely any wind. It smells of the phenols was terrific, but I can't imagine it to be healthy for the villagers.

Along the way I passed by the old warehouses of Port Ellen, which are currently being used to mature Lagavulin whisky and presumably there might still be some barrels of Port Ellen left inside. Guess only a few people in the world know how much still remains of the ever dwindling stocks. 

Views across the bay to the lighthouse 

The kilns look like they have seen better days, the lead roofing of one of the pagodas is starting to come loose. I still have my hopes up that, if the renaissance of single malt whisky leads to a stable market with high demand for high quality whisky, this distillery will get another chance. In the end a lot of the buildings are still more or less intact, there is still plenty of space to build a new stillhouse on the site that is still actively being used by Diageo. (A pity though that the large red kiln has gone)
The Port Ellen maltings are rarely featured on Port Ellen postcards as they are a bit of an eyesore

Next stop, the unconventional Port Ellen lighthouse, better known as the Carraig Fhada from 1832 and the singing sands.
I came across the beautiful old cemetery of Kilnaughton, centered around the ruins of the old chapel and some rogue highland cows were blocking to road.
As I had dinner on the rocks, a scuba diver suddenly surfaced from one of the rock pools and walked right past me. He greeted me with the message that the water was warm and than disappeared. Probably on of the most surrealistic moments of my life.

Kilnaughton cemetery

View across the bay to Port Ellen and its smoking maltings

My point of view before the scuba diver emerged from the pool on the right

It was already half past five and I still had to get up to the American monument on top of the Oa.
In hindsight I'll admit that I underestimated both distance and terrain. What I should have done was to set up my tent and call it an early night. Instead I embarked on a trip that would lead me to the the top of the cliffs and than on to the Kintra campsite.

The Oa is exquisitely beautiful and it was only afterwards that I realised that it would probably have been more satisfying, to just hitchhike from one place to another and see some more of the unspoiled nature: the hills and the coast, maybe I just needed some more time.

The route that I took  along the southern cliffs initially followed hardened roads along a surprising lot of new housing developments, until it simply ceased at the last farm building.
The path that I planned to follow (as indicated on my map) simply did not exist or maybe it had fallen into disuse, so I had to cross a boggy field with a very uneven surface, significantly slowing my progress.

The monument for the Americans on the Oa is dedicated to the two tragedies near Islay during to the First World War, that cost the lives of some 640 American souls. The monument and the views from the cliffs are breathtaking. Far too few people who visit Islay make it up to this point. Let me tell you they missed something beautiful.

Afterwards came the long way back down to Kintra. And I'll admit, by the time I got to the Kintra farm, I swear I could just cry, it felt like I had broken the all the bones in my feet. And though I tried to catch a ride on the road to Kintra, no cars actually pulled over.
As good-natured as most of the locals are, so ill-mannered are the mainstream tourists.

The sundown going behind the Rinns of Islay at Kintra Farm
I only arrived at Kintra farm at about 9:45 pm, I set up my tent in the dunes and tried to cool down my feet by paddling in the refreshing seawater. Something I would have to do once more later that night in order stop them from swelling.

Kintra was an excellent campsite, dare I say better than Port Mor, the scenery here was great and except for the cafeteria they offered almost the same services (maybe a bit less modern though).

Day4: Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Kildalton (24km total => 22km walking).

What a day! As usual it started to rain in the early morning. The Lagavulin warehouse demonstration was taking place at 10:30 am and I had a 10km walk ahead of me. The rain was delaying my departure and I still had to find the camp site owners to pay for my overnight stay.

Lagavulin Bay and Dunyvaig Castle

Half a hour later then expected I left for Port Ellen. By the time I reached Laphroaig I knew I wasn't going to make it on time, but just like the day before, no tourist were willing to give me a ride.
By the time I was already ten minutes late (are you seeing a tend here as well?).
Luckily for me Iain McArthur had only just started his demonstration and I could still join in.

No photos from this tasting exist as I thought the usual Diageo policies applied. The demonstration consisted of seven drams of Lagavulin from various ages and casks. 
I'll just list them here, I did not take any notes, but let me tell you this, for about an hour I was in whisky heaven, an orgy of peated scents filled the warehouse as golden liquid was pulled from one cask after another.

The line-up:
  • New make spirit at 72.0% ABV
  • 10yo Cask Tasting from a 1st refill bourbon cask at 58.0% ABV
  • 16yo Cask Tasting from a  2nd refill bourbon cask at 52.0% ABV
  • 21yo Cask Tasting from a  refill sherry cask at 50.0% ABV
  • 32yo Cask Tasting from a  refill Dewar’s sherry butt (used at Aberfeldy) at 48.0% ABV
  • 48yo (1966/2014) Cask Tasting from a refill Johnnie Walker (???) cask at 45.0% ABV
  • NAS. Triple Matured Edition (Friends of the Classic Malts) at 48.0% ABV

The spirit was surprisingly fruity and delightfully tasteful, not what you woud expected from an unfinished product. I believe it could easily outsell many vodka's available on the market these days.

As we moved towards the older drams, the phenol levels of the peat decreased and were replaced with bolder layers of exotic fruits like papaya and honeydew, tea, spicy like aniseed and tones of dark hardwoods like red cedar and sandalwood.
In my experience, Lagavulin reached its ultimate top with the 21yo.

A video of Iain McArthur of  Lagavulin

To me, this was the ultimate Islay experience, a thorough tasting of various expressions of my favorite whisky: the Lagavulin.
It was a joyous moment to finally be here, at the Lagavulin distillery, the home of the whisky that sparked my interest for single malt whiskies.

The distillery has a rich history that is probably  best reflected by the fact that the present building is composed of three different distilleries: Lagavulin, Ardmore and Malt Mill. (the latter onces were incorporated in the Lagavulin distillery)
Though it is probably one of the most visited distilleries on Islay, it still has an old school feel to it, with no large (noticeable) renovations or improvements to the interior and all technological aids well hidden. 
It's in that romantic-shabby-cosy atmosphere of the visitor center ( located in the old Malt Mill distillery buildings) with its green painted interior and old doorbell, together with the living room outlook of the waiting/tasting room, that the true secret lies.

Lagavulin, it was a true pleasure and my visit was all I hoped and dreamed it would be!

Lagavulin's  Village hall

Incidently I met a nice Australian couple during the tasting, after pouring down a 32yo whisky down the wrong hole and setting my longs on fire.  
They too were going to the Ardbeg distillery afterwards, so they offered me a ride, which I gratefully accepted. With a a warm belly full of whisky and the first signs of inebriation I stumbled into the backseat of their car.

"I've got to warn you, I've been drinking" the guy said. "I know", I replied: "I was there, remember?", "but don't worry, I don't think that they have a police force on Islay".

Of to Ardbeg than, my driver probably started to feel the alcohol kicking in too, as he took the wrong turn and drove back to Laphroaig.
By the time they dropped me off at Ardbeg, I was drunk off my ass and decided that my breakfast that consisted of two energy bars was probably inadequate to get that amount of whisky processed.


Fortunately the Ardbeg distillery has a restaurant and by the looks of my waitress, she had dealt with my sorts before. So two adequate meals later and I was back to the old me.

I booked for the afternoon tour and left for Kildaton.

Later I came across the Australian couple again,  half way between the distillery and the chapel, they offered me a ride, but I kindly declined. After all, one might almost forget that one of the main purposes of my visit was to do as much on foot as I could.

The road back and forth to Kildalton was busier than I expected, but the 1200 yo celtic cross was well worth the trip.

The 1200 yo cross, miraculously well preserved

Afterwards I returned to Ardbeg for my final distillery tour. 
Ardbeg is somewhat a mix between Bruichladdich and Laphroaig: a distillery that somehow managed to preserve the old and coat it with a modern commercial layer.

Incredible to think that back in the 90's they were still considering to tear these buildings now, little did they know that Ardbeg would grow out to become one of the best known and most identifiable producers of premium single malt whisky.

However the 2000's have been kind to the distillery, that was transformed from a rundown shanty into a highly profitable tourist attraction.
Everything surrounding the distillery radiates wealth and profitability.

The tour however was pretty standard and short: mill, mash tun, wash backs and stills. No peak into the warehouse, no tastes along the way.
The stills with a purifier

You all may now the famous Diageo no pictures allowed policy, well get this, they got that at Ardbeg too, but at least they give an excuse: the flash might ignite the alcohol fumes. (???)
Hadn't heard that one before,
The still house was pretty cramped compared to other distilleries, well maybe that can be said about almost every room of the Ardbeg distillery, the visitor centre + restaurant are larger than the actual distillery.
Nice side note here, the condensers are on the outside of the building.

Afterwards we were given the opportunity to try one of the whiskies.
The final tasting on Islay consisted of a choice between the Corryvreckan or the Uigeadail.
A bit disappointing when you're sitting in front of their whisky wall, but apparently those are the only bottles that are left at the distillery, they had to repurchase expressions like the Blasda from foreign distributors as they ran out of stock.

Most choose the Uigie, I picked the Corryvreckan for a change.

The Corryvreckan: a fellow whisky reviewer called this one a whirlpool of flavours,..

Nose: notes of seaweed, grapefruit,  peat smoke, a touch of roasted nuts' aroma, and the smell of bread, fresh out of the oven.
Mouth: rich and oily body, hints of aniseed combined with notes of salt, lemons, peat, coal smoke, maple syrup with a more spicy addition of black pepper and savory elements
Finish: long and full with salty tones , black pepper and coffee, 

A French man on our tour kept insisting on getting a taste of the Blasda and when most of the group had already left, our guide agreed to pour us some drams.

Ardbeg Blasda:

Well there is no nice way of putting this, it is just vanilla liquor, like drinking a liquid twinky. I perfectly understand why hardcore Ardbeg fans abhorred this expression.

It was getting late and I walked back to Port Ellen for the last strech of my journey.
That night I camped on the stretch of grass in front of the White Hart Hotel in order to catch the early ferry.

The Loch Finlaggan (and the circle is round) ferry took me back to Kennacraig on a calm and open sea

Last views of Islay before it disappeared in the mist