Islay: All the Peat

Two years ago Morag and I went on a whisky tasting tour with Rabbie's to visit a few of Speyside's distilleries. Now, this August we left the smooth and sweeter whiskies aside, and instead we headed over to Islay. Again with Rabbie's.

Day 0: Edinburgh

Our train up to Edinburgh was nothing special, except that East Coast has now been replaced with Virgin Trains East Coast. No real changes, except for the name. This time however, we got into Edinburgh just as the Fringe was starting. And that made staying in Edinburgh quite a bit more expensive. We thought to be clever and book a hotel near Rabbie's pick-up point, but I had failed to realise that they actually moved it—right next to the hotel we stayed in last time.

The afternoon before the tour started, we had some free time in Edinburgh. We promptly headed to BrewDog's pub to have a beer and play some connect-four, before we headed to The Edinburgh Larder for a nice meal. On the way back, we caught the last sun rays hitting Edinburgh Castle.

Day 1: From Edinburgh to Islay

The next morning we got up quite early, had some breakfast at the hotel and headed towards our pick up point at Rabbie's Cafe. With a tour like this, it is always a bit of a guess on what sort of group you get. This time, we were touring with two Swiss, two Slovenians, three Indians, three Canadians, a very loud Australian, and our tour guide, Doug. On the way to Islay we also picked up two Japanese in Glasgow. On the previous tour, we had a few people that didn't like whisky, but this time one of the Canadians was actually allergic to whisky (and beer).

It is quite a trip to Islay, but luckily we stopped at many places on the way there. The first stop was at Luss, in the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. From there on, we travelled to Islay with a stop at The Rest and Be Thankful on the A83. The slightly funny name comes from the time where you had armies going down the Glen and having to climb up to the pass. They could only rest when they got to the top — and clearly they were thankful for that!

For lunch we stopped at the Royal Burgh Cafe in Inveraray. I had to try one of my favourite Scottish dishes, Cullen Skink, a thick soup made of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. Inveraray itself is a small town on the coast of Loch Fyne. It has a pretty nice castle for which we didn't have time, and apparently an old jail that you can visit.

After lunch we drove for a fair bit and stopped for a quick pint in Kilmartin at the Kilmartin Hotel across from the parish church, before having a good look at a set of standing stones. After another short drive, we took some time to walk up Dunadd, a hillfort and suspected capital of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata.

We made one last stop to stretch our legs at Tarbert on our way to the Kennacraig Ferry Terminal from where we took our ferry to Islay. After about half an hour's drive we finally arrived at our accommodation in one of Bowmore distillery's cottages. On the dining table was a bottle of Bowmore 12 waiting for us! We ignored the bottle and headed straight to the Lochside hotel to taste different whiskies instead. We sampled:

  • Tullibardine 228: Hints of dark red wine. But too young and sharp. 66

  • Tullibardine 500: Sweet smell. Toffee/fudge, and sweet woody sherry notes. 72

  • Amrut: Young and unrefined. Marzipan, vanilla, nutty. 70

  • Kavalan: Light fresh grassy sweetness. Perhaps some tropical notes and some vanilla. 73

  • Royal Lochnagar Muscat Finish: A little watery. Very light fresh berries with nuts. And of course a muscat finish. 78

  • Bunnahabhain 25: Very complex peaty whisky. Rich berries, but I think I like the Bunnahabhain 18 better. Not worth £220 a bottle! 82

Day 2: Touring distilleries on Islay, part 1

We had some spare time in the morning, as we were only going to be picked up at 09:30. That meant we had some time to run in the morning. There are not many paths around Bowmore, but I had scouted a nice route up to a local hill, and back. I ran quite a bit slower, as clearly it was hillier than my normal runs alongside the canal.

After the morning run, shower and breakfast we were picked up for our first distillery visit. But before we started the tour and tasting at Kilchoman we spend some time relaxing on the beach at Machir Bay. After getting our "fresh nose", we headed to the distillery.

Kilchoman is Islay's newest distillery at just 10 years old. It's so new that it misses on many of the maps we spotted all over Islay indicating where the 8 distilleries are. It is a "farm distillery" and by far the smallest. They malt some of their own barley, which goes into their Kilchoman 100% Islay expression. After our tour two years ago we did know nearly everything about whisky production, but it was good to get things freshened up as well as having a look at a malting floor. But of course we really came for a tasting, and lunch. We sampled the following whiskies:

We also sampled their Bramble Liqueur as an alternative tipple.

We also had lunch at the Kilchoman distillery. I think everybody from our group had Cullen Skink :-)

After lunch we popped by Bruichladdich for a quick tasting. They are also fairly new, but quite less traditional than most of the other distilleries. They call themselves "progressive". Of course, Bruichladdich is responsible for getting me into whisky in the first place, as they sponsored an evening event at WhiskyWeb many years ago.

At Bruichladdich, we tried the following whiskies (sorry, no notes as the stop was so short!):

As I already tried an Octomore 06.3 and the Classic Laddie 10, I also managed to get a wee dram of a Valinch, of which I did buy a bottle. We also had a sip of the Botanist gin.

On our way back to Bowmore, we stopped at Islay House Square to visit the Islay Ales brewery. We picked up some local beers to take home with us.

The tour at Bowmore started with a film after which we went through yet another distillery. The tour started with eyeing a £100.000 bottle of whisky, and ended with the most interesting part: the whisky tasting. This time, we tried four expressions:

After the last tasting we dropped by the local Spar, which has a wall full of whisky. I guess that's why "Spar" was tagged onto the big sign saying "The Islay Whisky Shop". We bought a Classic Laddie 10 to share with the group. Some of it made it home.

For dinner we had booked at the Bowmore Hotel. The food was good, and there was plenty of it. Actually, there was so much that we went straight to bed afterwards, without another dram!

Day 3: Touring distilleries on Islay, part 2

We had to get up a little bit earlier today for our pick-up, and slightly longer drive for our visit to the Whisky Coast. But first, a stop at the Kildalton Cross and church, for some history. The Kildalton Cross is a Celtic cross over 1200 years old. The weather was rather gloomy though, and there was a bit of rain. We were quite happy to get back on the bus and head back towards the Whisky Coast. On the way there we saw two peacocks on a fence.

The first distillery of the day was Ardbeg. The distillery is 200 years old this year, and they had "upgraded" their visitors centre for this event. Everything looked brand spanking new. During the tour it was not allowed to take photos because of "health and safety". The tour at the distillery was certainly the best one. Instead of the (now boring) process, our guide told lots of stories - even throughout the whisky tasting. Some clearly made up. During the tasting itself, we tried five whiskies:

  • Ardbeg 10: Very light, but slightly peppery and a little "burnt". A little peat, and a little sweet. 10-15 years in a Bourbon cask, 46%. 77

  • Ardbeg Uigeadail: Toffee, plum and raisins. It is aged 8 years in a Bourbon cask, and 2-7 years in a sherry cask. Apparently it goes will with dark chocolate or cheese. 54.2% 83

  • Ardbeg Corryvreckan: A lot of vanilla because it is finished in a new French oak cask. "Ice cream soda". 8 years in a Bourbon cask and 2-7 in a new French Oak Cask. 57.1%

  • Ardbeg Perpetuum: This year's festival whisky. It is a combination of many different casks to commemorate their 200th anniversary. Complex, light fruity. Would go well with cheese cake. 47.4%. 79

  • Ardbeg Auriverdes: Aged in Bourbon casks with heavily charred ends. It is dark and sugary and made with the football world cup in mind. It is a bit oily, and there is light hints of vanilla. 49.9% 82

After lunch at Ardbeg we headed down the coast towards the next distillery, Lagavulin, for a tasting only. We tried:

Just a few kilometres down the coast we can find Laphroaig. We did another tour there, and it was clearly the largest operation that we have been to. Lots more automation than Kilchoman for sure! You can just rock up for a tasting, but I failed to write down notes this time. If I remember correctly, we tried the following whiskies:

  • Laphroaig Select: "Entry" level whisky. It is meant to get people into Laphroaig and peatier whiskies, but frankly, it had the flavour and texture of water. There was very little to it. 63

  • Laphroaig Quarter Cask

  • Laphroaig 18: Clearly the best, but I don't remember much of the actual flavours!

After all the tastings, we made a little side trip to walk up the old castle of Dunnyvaig, with lovely views over the bay and Lagavulin. Back in Bowmore, we tried another run along the beach. But this was not such a great success as the pebbles were a bit too large to run on.

We had booked at the Harbour Inn for our "date-night". A posh dinner looking out over Loch Indaal with the Sun setting. Before bed, we nipped into the Lochside Hotel for a last dram on Islay.

Day 4: Back to Edinburgh

On our last day, we had to get up early so that we could make the ferry out of Port Ellen back to the mainland. We were plenty of time for the ferry, so we stopped for a photo op at the old Port Ellen distillery and the Port Ellen maltings, where Diageo produces malted barley for most of Islay's distilleries.

The ferry itself was uneventful, but extra tasty due to the availability of Bunnahabhain 12 on offer. The drive was quite long, with not much spare time. We stopped at Oban for an excellent lunch at Ee Usk and a quick trip to the Oban Distillery to taste a dram. We borrowed a tasting glass for the good reason to be able to taste a few extra drams on the bus back.

We made another stop at the The Green Wellie Stop, after which we had to make a long detour because of some accident. We dropped off the Japanese at Balloch station, saw the battlefield at Bannockburn, The Kelpies, and the Forth Bridge.

We arrived in Edinburgh just on time for our dinner at the Skerries restaurant at our hotel, The Dunstane. We finished the day with a last dram at their extensive whisky bar before retreating for the night, exhausted from another great trip to Scotland.

You can find high-resolution and more photos on my Flickr set.

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    : ppm stands for Phenol parts per million, a measurement to indicate how peaty a whisky is

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