I recently had the good fortune to travel to Scotland. Included in our itinerary (at my aggressive urging) was a visit to the whisky island - The isle of Islay. This article is a summary of my visit to Islay and more so my tour of the Bruichladdich distillery. Here Goes...
How'd you get there?
We flew from Calgary to London, Heathrow and connected to a flight to Glasgow. Our timing and desires worked out such that we spent the rest of our first day in Glasgow and the night as well. Next morning, we were back to Glasgow International to catch a Flybe Loganair flight to Islay. Yes, the plane is pretty small but definitely not the smallest I've been on. The flight was a very smooth 30 minute deal. Alternative was to take the ferry but my wife doesn't like boats. We got off the plane and were welcomed very quickly by our bags and some really neat whisky displays. We picked up our rental car and were on our way.
First impressions of Islay?
Rugged beauty. It feels like the heart of Scotland. The people are very friendly (everyone waves in the car and on the street and they are very warm).
Where'd you stay?
We like self catering situations mostly so we stayed at the Claggan Farm house which is a big house about 5 minutes driving from Bowmore and 15 minutes from the airport. The Cooperative in Bowmore is a solid grocery to get everything you need. Oh, and if you walk down the hill from the grocery you can get your picture right in front of that oft photographed white wall with the word "BOWMORE" on it in big black letters. I have the picture here somewhere...
Another cool thing, drive the other way and you are about 12 minutes from Bruichladdich and 13 - 14 from beautiful Port Charlotte. A little further is the West side of the Island where you can see for your self the sandy dunes of Machir Bay, the large Loch Gorm, and Kilchoman. Your also about 20 - 25 minutes driving from Port Ellen and the famous heavily peated distilleries.
Preparing for Bruichladdich
As anyone who reads this blog regularily knows, I'm a fan of Bruichladdich. I arrived on Islay on Monday and had a tour booked on Wednesday (thank you @Davescotchguy and @SelectwinesAB). We were on a wee drive on Monday and low-and-behold there is that unforgettable Blue. So I pull into Bruichladdich and walk into the distillery shop. The people in there are very friendly and poured me dram of the Port Charlotte Islay Barley and chatted with me. Fantastic!
So I had a distillery tour booked at 10am and a warehouse tasting booked at noon. This is a great way to do things. I showed up a hair early to get signed in with the gift shop and look around. I have to tell you, I visited a few distilleries while in Scotland but I never got the feeling from any that I did from Bruichladdich - the place is sizzling like an isotope. If feels alive!
Our distillery tour guide, Ashley, was very nice and did a great job taking us through the Victorian equipment from the mill house to the mash tun to the fermenting vats to the stills. It was all very cool. A great thing was getting to taste the new make Bruichladdich spirit right from the stills - 69% alcohol and suprisingly sweet and fruity (like kiwi, melon, etc.) and a little floral and also surprisingly soft.
The thing that amazed me most, though, was the walk through the dunnage warehouse (#1?). Amazing for the simple fact that Bruichladdich must have a million different combinations of spirit and cask type in there. Spirit that is two times distilled, four times distilled, heavily peated, super heavily peated, from different barley types, etc. and then they are any kind of cask you can imagine - Y'Quem, oloroso sherry, PX sherry, bourbon from all sorts of differnent Kentucky distillers, Mouton Rothschild, Haut Brion, Petrus, etc. etc. Unbelievable. They have no excuse to run out of new release possibilities! This was hard for me because I wanted to spend the rest of my life in there tasting it all!
After the distillery tour, we got to try a number of products available at the distillery including the two valinch barrels in the shop - all for research purposes only, of course :)
Onto the warehouse tasting, our guide Duncan was again very friendly and relaxed. It was very pleasant and it really was a neat tasting. They have three casks on the floor - 1989 Bruichladdich in bourbon cask, a 2005 Port Charlotte fully matured in a wine cask, and a 2008 Octomore fully matured in virgin oak. Duncan tells some stories and uses the valinch to draw whisky directly from the cask and deposit directly into your glass. It is such a nice way to taste and connect with the whisky. I felt kind of like we shouldn't be doing this. A good feeling here.
Some quick notes: the 1989 Bruichladdich was so soft and lead with loads of vanilla cream lightly dotted with lemon and honey. Very nice 25 - 26 year old Bruichladdich.
The 2005 Port Charlotte was classic PC but focussed more on the dark cherry and current flavors with an drying, evaporative finish. It was smokey and punching its weight.
The 2008 Octomore had sort of bourbon like qualities but with classic Octomore smoke and power. A truly interesting whisky. Really rich and sweet and smokey.
As a side note, I thought the drams might be bigger than I wanted to drink all at once and didn't want to waste anything so I brought some empty water bottles to dump excess whiskies into and then I savoured the rest later. So good!
Oh, by the way, you get a fantastic Glen Cairn dram glass along with the Warehouse Tasting that you get to keep.
Back at the shop...
I filled a bottle of each of the PC Valinch 02 Gorag and the Bruichladdich 23 Year Old that spent most of that in bourbon casks and then decanted into an Italian Barbaresco red wine cask. I'll be reviewing those shortly, but they are very good.
I also picked up a rarity - a bottle of The Laddie Sixteen that some of you may remember is one my desert island drams. Very exciting!
For me, this was equivalent to a religious experience. Bruichladdich is special and it feels like a living thing when you are there. I can't wait to see what comes in the future!