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.
As we were heading back to the car to leave, we were met by an absolutely adorable old girl, a dog with a reddish-brown coat and evidently a bit on the venerable side going by the grey in her muzzle. Her friendly tail wagged in wide, flat arcs as she came to greet us, as if she didn’t see many visitors and was determined to make the most of this lot. We said our hellos and goodbyes at the same time and regrettably had to leave her behind too soon as we headed back to the distillery. I hope the old lady is still around when I return soon.
After some spectacular scenery as we took the high road back to Bruichladdich, we were treated to an incredibly in-depth tour by assistant manager Adam Hannett. Adam’s a genial fellow, laid-back and in a constant good humour, and made the tour light-hearted and fun as well as informative. I liked the constancy of Bruichladdich’s themes (even their mill is painted their trademark turquoise), the Victorian-era machinery in their mash tun, the remarkable and aptly-named Ugly Betty pot still they use for their gin, the darkness and mystery of their warehouse, and their creative and meticulous approach to their whisky (some of which we were lucky enough to try).
We didn’t get to meet Jim McEwan this time. Ironically, as we toured Bruichladdich with Kensington Wine Market’s Scotch guy, Jim was at Kensington Wine Market holding a tasting. Andrew did record a pretty hilarious video for him of our group “stealing” a cask from the warehouse, which was apparently shown back in Calgary as they poured the whisky. Would have loved to have been there to see it, but on the other hand I’d really rather be on Islay!
A quick lunch at the Bowmore distillery cafe (quick review: not bad!) and it was off next door to visit the distillery proper. It was nice to finally see the actual place the whisky is made after being surrounded by evidence of the distillery since arriving – we were staying at the distillery cottages after all.
We were shown around by David Turner, Bowmore’s manager since his predecessor Eddie MacAffer moved up to a master distiller job. If anything, this tour was even more hands-on than the Bruichladdich tour that morning. As Bowmore malts some of their own barley, we were able to see the malting floor, drag a rake through the germinating grains laid out on it, and climb up into the smoking area with a deep layer of malted barley in place. That last adventure filled my shoes with barley that I was still finding pieces of a couple of days later! We then went downstairs and into the bottom of the kiln, while large fans pushed the smoke up through the malt above.
I thought that would be my favourite part of the tour, until we passed through the stillroom and then to the famous black door with “No.1 Vaults” painted on it. Another door takes you from the windowed tourist area into the warehouse itself. Here we were treated to two whiskies directly out of casks – an ex-bourbon barrel, filled in 2000, and a sherry butt from 1997 (making them approximately 14 and 17 years old at the time). Individually both were dynamic and wonderful, with the sherried glass being incredibly, indulgently rich, but I actually found them more enjoyable a little later when I mixed together what was left in my glasses. At an even ratio each whisky complemented the other and toned down some of the sherry excess to result in a knockout dram.
Oysters were served for those who enjoyed them (basically everyone except myself) and then we moved up to the impressive tasting room, beautifully appointed with sweeping views of Loch Indaal. Highlights here included the new travel range including the 17-year-old White Sands which I enjoyed quite a bit, the 25-year-old which was probably my favourite of this tasting, and the excellent 23-year-old Port Cask Matured (which sold for some £380 downstairs in the distillery shop).
A pretty indulgent three hours or so, I’m sure you’ll agree. Luckily dinner was just around the corner (both in time and space) to help out the more wobbly members of the group, and we finished the day with an excellent steak at the Harbour Inn. Which, incidentally, is also owned by the Morrison-Bowmore company these days. As the expression goes, they get you on the way in and the way out, and you won’t mind a bit.