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.
Kilchoman itself is actually a distillery on the grounds of Rockside Farm. At the time we visited they were a tenant but they announced earlier this year that they’re buying the place, which is excellent news. The distillery is adorably wee, with a malting floor smaller than some corporate distilleries’ gift shops and a compact stillhouse that holds all of the production equipment under one roof. One surprise is that they have a bottling plant on site; that’s extremely rare these days but it provides extra local employment and gives the distillery more control over their product.
Our tour with Anthony Wills (the founder don’t you know) was engaging and informative. One thing that stood out for me was that their new make spirit is delicious, notably so. Clearly their process is a good one even before the wood gets involved. Not that you need to be told that, with the way their whisky flies off shelves as quickly as it arrives. Anthony and his staff have built an enviable reputation for Kilchoman in a very short time and it’s easy to see why, though I’m sure not nearly so easy to pull off. I wonder how Gartbreck will do in comparison?
A quick lunch in the well-regarded Kilchoman cafe and we were immediately off to Caol Ila. With probably the best view of an Islay distillery (and that honour has some stiff competition), Caol Ila sits in a stunning location on the narrow body of water between Islay and Jura that gives the distillery its name. The Paps of Jura lie right across the water; yachts bob in the fast-moving current. The modern stillhouse has huge plate-glass windows looking across the sound. I mean, of course it does; it would have been criminal to hide that view.
Being Diageo, Caol Ila is as much rules & regs as it is romance and history, all high-viz jackets and no-photos-in-the-facility-please. Yet with all that it’s still run and staffed by Ileachs and our guide Jennifer was lovely company. The scale of Islay’s largest distillery is impressive, especially coming straight from the diminutive Kilchoman. I like to think Andrew deliberately planned the perfect visiting order for maximum contrast but I suspect it’s more likely that a butterfly flapped its wings in Bowmore and that’s just how things turned out.
The tasting after the fairly brief tour was spectacular, as I remember, taking place in Caol Ila’s draughty warehouse of a tasting room. Sadly the exact line-up is lost to history as my phone at the time was a vicious, ungrateful bastard, and ate my carefully-poked notes. Never trust a computer, especially one less than six inches across the diagonal.
And with that silicon betrayal we were off to our final call of the day, the northernmost outpost of Bunnahabhain just up the (winding, hilly, single-track) road. If you’ve never seen it, the distillery looks like the prison in the movie ‘Papillon’ without all of the cheerful greenery. It looks like it was designed in the rain by an elderly accountant with tuberculosis. It’s distinctly, aggressively ugly in its drab pebble-dashed severity. I love it.
I really do. It feels authentic, like nobody’s got any time to waste on a dog and pony show for some bloody tourists. Even the stills are filthy. I imagine that this is what all distilleries looked like before they had marketing interns and HR departments. If you wander away from the painted tourist-herding lines in some modern glass-and-steel facilities and peek behind the curtain, you’ll see blocky, mouldy old warehouses like they have at Bunnahabhain. But here, its all unashamedly on display, front and center, and it’s kind of glorious.
And please don’t get the impression that they’re an unfriendly lot either; that couldn’t be further from the truth. I immediately endeared myself to manager Andrew Brown as I attempted to force my way into the ladies bathroom just as he appeared to meet our group. “It’s no’ a kilt”, he explained helpfully, referring to the little dress-wearing pictogram on the door I hadn’t previously noticed. I told you the tasting at Caol Ila had been a good one.
An extremely thorough tour followed, which lasted well over an hour without the tasting room, which was also thorough, much enjoyed, and sadly subject to the same technological black hole as my notes from Caol Ila. On returning to the gift shop I was sorely tempted by one of their remaining bottles from Feis Ile that year – ‘Westering Home’, a 17-year-old dark horse matured in a cognac cask and finished in a Sauternes wine barrel. Happily/sadly I was strong enough to resist, to my eternal relief/regret.
I still find it consuming my thoughts on occasion. Someday I’ll mumble its name, the snowglobe slipping from my hand and bursting on the cold floor as my eyes close for the last time. The resulting journalistic investigation will conclude I was referring to this song and that I’ve been a closet folkie my entire life. But you and I know different.
I have to mention a sad note to our otherwise very happy visit to Caol Ila. As we arrived we noticed the flags atop the buildings were at half-mast. It turned out that a young stillman had passed away the previous weekend. The distillery staff were obviously affected by it but were all extremely professional and gave us a wonderful tour in spite of their situation. I’d like to give Jennifer and the rest of the staff a particular thank-you for their hospitality during a difficult time.