When planning a bucket-list trip to Japan last year, I really wanted to make it to at least one distillery. The trip wasn’t to be focused on whisky however, with so much else to see in this fascinating country, so I didn’t want to travel too far from our main destinations to reach one.
There are a few distilleries to pick from, as all of the big names have visitor centers – Miyagikyo, Yoichi, Hakushu – though once you limit the choice by requiring day-trip accessibility from Tokyo or the major cities of Western Japan (Osaka, Kyoto) the number drops quite quickly.
In the end, Suntory’s Yamazaki ticked the most boxes, being extremely accommodating to tourists and not too far off the beaten track from Kyoto. The choice made, the only thing left to do was mark off the days on the calendar until online reservationsopened for our desired date. If you’re planning to visit for a tour, this is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT to get right!
An entire month opens up for booking on the first day of the previous month. For instance, on April 1st, the entire month of May becomes available. And remember that Japan is a day ahead of North America, so you actually want to hit up the website on March 31st from Canada or the USA in this example. It’s critical that you don’t miss the right time to book your tour – my experience is that most tours are booked up the first day they’re available, and almost everything for that month will be gone just one day later. Don’t miss out!
Today would be unlike any other day of the trip so far, and it began with us waking up on Islay for the last time. We were away to another island, the third and final one of the journey – Jura, the island of solitude, deer, and slightly naughty hills.
Taking the ferry from Port Askaig to Jura is an adventure in itself. I thought the ferry from Arran to Kintyre was small, but I hadn’t seen the “Eilean Dhiura” yet. The tiny boat looks like a slightly more cheerful version of the beach landing craft from the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, and offers about the same chance of a cooked breakfast or gift shop (ie. none), but handles the rapid waters of the Islay Sound just fine. It can carry just a handful of vehicles, so pray there’s no grain lorry waiting in the queue ahead of you when you show up or you’ll be waiting for the next one.
There’s only one settlement of any size on Jura, the village at Craighouse, and it’s about a 15 minute drive from the ferry landing. You’re almost guaranteed to see your first deer before the whitewashed buildings of the hotel and distillery come into view. The journey from the ferry is mostly wild heathland, but at the time of our visit a golf course was under construction close to the entrance to the village. Even if it’s finished by now, I wouldn’t get your hopes up for a quick round. Apparently it’s the private playground of an Australian tycoon. What’s deer for “fore”?
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.
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.
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. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.