Trip Report: Islay 2014, part 5 – Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Lagavulin

Lagavulin Bay


It’s funny how quickly you get used to drinking whisky in the morning. When you’re trying to pack 13 distilleries plus other whisky-related shenanigans into a short week it’s kind of a necessity, but it doesn’t half feel weird at first.


Today’s early appointment was at Laphroaig, the first of the three famous southern distilleries we were visiting today. Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, in one day… that’s like being a motor racing fan and visiting Monaco, Spa and Monza before dinner. Speyside offers similar opportunities but other than that you’d be hard-pressed to visit as many superstar whisky brands so close to one another.


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Trip Report: Islay 2014, part 4 – Kilchoman, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain



Back in the Lochside at the crack of dawn. A full Scottish again. A flash of self-loathing, and then quickly over it.


The first stop today was Finlaggan, the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles. Ruins now, on a small island in a loch. Early in the morning it’s deserted, and maybe because of the quiet and perceived isolation, the senses are alive. It’s windy, and the wingbeats of birds flying overhead are audible. The size of the country that was ruled from this isolated place is incredible to think of. Sites like this remind you of Islay’s larger place in the world, and that its value goes far beyond the whisky made here.


But there is indeed whisky waiting to be tried. Off we went, around the Indaal and up the single-track road to Kilchoman. It’s not just narrow, it has exciting blind bends and hill crests and hedgerows and ditches and huge oncoming trucks and take-no-prisoners local drivers and bunnies and cyclists. At any given moment you’re dealing with three or four of these simultaneously. The road is basically a compilation of extreme hazards designed by a vindictive yet nature-loving driving test examiner. Andrew was at the wheel this time, but I got to do it when I went back earlier this year for a trip with my wife and yeah, it’s lively.


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Trip Report: Islay 2014, part 3 – Bruichladdich and Bowmore



A full Scottish will wake you up pretty quickly as you tuck in to bacon, sausage, eggs, mushrooms, baked beans, tomato, and maybe hash browns. This was the first one at the Lochside Hotel but definitely wouldn’t be the last. They’re delicious but not the most healthy option… I consoled myself with the thought of how sensible it was to fill up before the whisky made an appearance.


That wouldn’t be long in coming either, as the first thing on the agenda was a morning tour of Bruichladdich. When we arrived they needed a little extra time to get ready for us, so we headed for a quick unscheduled trip down to Portnahaven and Port Wemyss (pronounced “weems”) at the most westerly point of the island. It’s about a twenty minute drive from the gates of Bruichladdich so not too far, and well worth the trip.


The two villages are close together and postcard-perfect, with whitewashed houses and beautiful scenery. Two islets sit just offshore, one of which (Orsay) is home to the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse. We parked in Port Wemyss and watched the grey seals lounging around Orsay’s rocky shoreline for a while. The weather was still and the village seemingly empty at this time of day, and the barking of the seals from across the water could be heard clearly.

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Trip Report: Islay 2014, part 2 – Springbank and Islay arrival



Monday dawned and it was straight down to breakfast nice and early at the Ardshiel, and then out to take some photos in the sunshine. Campbeltown is really lovely to look at, surrounded by natural beauty, and has some great history that sets it apart from a lot of similarly-attractive Scottish coastal settlements. Home to a whisky boom that at one time saw 34 operating distilleries in or near the town, those glory days are long since gone and the opulent mansions the whisky barons built for themselves are now variously homes, businesses, guesthouses, and churches.


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Trip Report: Islay 2014, part 1 – Arran

Port Ellen


There’s an old and rather quaint BBC documentary about Islay available on Youtube called Whisky Island. It’s an interesting record of an earlier age; you should go and find it if you haven’t yet had the pleasure. Filmed in the mid-1960s, when whisky tourism was all but unheard of, one of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is not so much the differences but the similarities between then and now. Fifty years on, Islay is still as unspoiled and remote as the one you see in the film, and the Ileachs debate the same topics – transport, jobs, the protection of an old way of life. Even though the whisky is the main draw for many of us, I think that this unhurried timelessness is one of the reasons many people come back year after year.


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Vancouver’s Newest Distillery: Odd Society Spirits

Odd Society Spirits


It can be hit and miss, but this year summer in Vancouver was beautiful. One week of sun-drenched warmth flowed into another seemingly without end, an almost unprecedented stretch of clear weather. It was towards the end of this run that I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the soon-to-open Odd Society Spirits distillery.


Housed in a converted motorcycle garage in East Vancouver, Odd Society is a distillery and lounge developed by Gordon Glanz and Miriam Karp. After being bitten by the whisky bug, Gordon obtained an MSc in brewing and distilling from Heriott-Watt University in Edinburgh. (As an interesting aside, there’s another local connection to Heriott-Watt as the head of brewing and distilling is Professor Alex Speers, a Canadian who got his graduate degree at Vancouver’s UBC!)


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Review: “Distilling Rob” by Rob Gard

Distilling Rob


“Distilling Rob” is a new book from whisky writer, Twitter personality and man-about-LA Rob Gard. I love whisky writing and I enjoy Rob’s blog, so when I saw the book project pop up on Kickstarter it was an easy sale for me.


A lot of people don’t like or trust Kickstarter, which I can understand after the public implosion of some large and lauded projects, but for me that’s like saying you’ll never shop at Sears again because your new TV didn’t work. It comes down to critically rooting out the best and most-likely-to-succeed projects; Caveat Backor or something like that.


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Scotch Malt Whisky Society – Queen Street

SMWS Queen Street SampleRoom


One of the perks of a Scotch Malt Whisky Society membership is that members-only bars and lounges in the UK (and elsewhere) become open to you. That was hardly on my mind when I joined, but if you do happen to travel to Edinburgh or London as a member it’s a nice little benefit you should try to take advantage of.


Not having an abundance of time on this brief trip I decided to forego The Vaults, the grandly-named original Society HQ, in favour of the newer location on Queen Street. Unlike the slightly further-afield Vaults in Leith, Queen Street is right in Edinburgh’s busy city center where you’re more likely to find yourself as a tourist.


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Trip Report: Edradour Distillery

To Edradour


Recently, I was lucky enough to have a couple of days in Scotland at the end of a family visit to the UK. Based in Edinburgh, we had a day to explore the city and a day for a trip beyond. Initially I really wanted to return to Speyside, or else head up to Balblair north of Inverness; but both of those are  just too far to be comfortable for a day trip, especially if you have a 7pm table booked at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society HQ!


Luckily you have a few closer options for distillery visits when staying in Edinburgh. Just south of the city is Glenkinchie; you could hop over to Glasgow and visit Auchentoshan; or you could do what we did and head up to Pitlochry at the entrance to the Highlands, where you’ll find not one but two distilleries within a mile of each other – Blair Atholl and Edradour. Knowing Blair Atholl is a Diageo-owned distillery, I was more interested in the tour at Edradour.


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Bushmills Black Bush Review

Bushmills Black Bush

Ireland has long been believed to be the probable birthplace of whiskey, despite those upstart Scots stealing the limelight these days. And appropriately, the Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim is claimed to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world, said license having been granted by King James I in 1608 (though the distillery wasn’t actually registered until 1784, so that seems like it may be a nice bit of blarney!).


The location of the Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland

The location of the Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland

In common with many other distilleries, Bushmills has had a bit of a chequered past, suffering through lengthy periods of silence during the 19th century. After changing hands a few times in the last several decades though (most recently going to Diageo), it happily seems to be on a significant upswing these days.


As well as boosting output, quality seems to be heading in the same upward direction. My personal experience with their whiskies is limited, but a colleague brought us a bottle of their sherry-cask matured 12-year-old single malt from the distillery for a Scotch Club meeting recently and I enjoyed it quite a bit, the soft sherry tones suiting the light, aromatic spirit. The local liquor store sells a bottle of 21-year-old, tempting apart from the somewhat eye-watering price of $185.


But we’re not here for that today! At almost the opposite end of the Bushmills price spectrum lies the Black Bush, a gentle blended whiskey priced for the mass market. Even here in BC it’s only $38 for 750ml, which feels like something of a miracle with our local tax-gouging liquor board in control. Of course, that’s 60% higher than the UK price.


(Dammit, I promised myself no more complaining about local prices!

Only kidding, of course I didn’t. What else would I have to write about if I put a stop to that?)


The Black Bush is a blend of Bushmills’ single malt, triple-distilled of course, and externally-sourced grain whiskey, in a proportion of 80% malt and 20% grain. It’s unusual for a value-priced blended whiskey in that it’s partially matured in Oloroso sherry casks, lending it a decidedly fruity character (though not, I suspect, its dark amber colour; nowhere does it claim “no added colouring” and so I remain suspicious). This page claims that the expression has been around in one form or another since 1934 and that the name is due to the distinctive black label; if that’s true then presumably “the black Bushmills” got shortened to “Black Bush” somewhere along the way. There doesn’t seem to be an official story so I’ll just go with that!


Bush LightThe colour, artificial or not, is very attractive and gives a good first impression in the glass. Nosing, the positive mood is continued; dried fruit, candied orange peel, brown sugar, maybe a touch of red apple all come across on a pleasant gentle alcohol base. It’s only when tasting that things fall down a few notches. First off, I find the mouth feel and the general taste and overall impact on the palate to be quite watery – I’d love to try this at a higher alcohol strength to enhance both. Even 43% would be an improvement. The promise of the nose doesn’t fully translate to the mouth, with muted reflections of the hoped-for fruit being all that comes through for me.


I’ll admit to not being the world’s biggest fan of blended whiskey in general, and so even the 20% of grain spirit in the Black Bush is too much for my liking. Give me my “rough” single malts any day! The softening effect of the grain further undermines the fruity character and dilutes the flavour. And despite the overall gentleness of the whiskey, the finish is short, bitter and a little metallic.


Despite my complaints, I have to say that as an overall value proposition I don’t think the Black Bush is too bad. I certainly can’t think of any Scottish or Irish whiskey around the same price point I’d pick over it. Personally I’d rather spend a little more and get a good single malt, but if you’re looking for a blended whiskey with a little sherry influence at the lowest possible price, the Black Bush might just be your dram.


(I’d like to say thank you to Johanne McInnis, the irrepressible WhiskyLassie, for setting up this flash mob project and inviting us all to be a part of it! Three cheers, Johanne. You can find the excellent whisky blog Johanne runs in conjunction with her husband Graham at