I cannot believe I forgot to write this up three years ago. Luckily, I have lots of photos and strong memories. It is a lovely walk from Port Ellen along the bike path past Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. It was a typically grey Scottish morning, as you can see, but the weather mild.
Our walk was quiet, with little traffic. We were passed once by bicyclists, and reached Laphroaig in about half an hour if that. It’s an impressive place, especially after the businesslike Caol Isla and fungal-discolored Bunnahabhain distilleries. After a wood, you come across large brick warehouses stuccoed grey, and turn into a bustling and busy entrance surrounded by tidy white buildings.
In my previous post I covered the technical part of the Caol Isla tour. For the cask Experience, it was only my wife, myself and our witty and vivacious guide, Hazel. Oh, and four casks, from sprightly and newish to seriously grungy and old. The star of the show was the whisky of course but I have to preface this entry to say our host made the day. Hazel is a genuine Islay girl (her dad works at Bunnahabhain, so her Scotch chops are genuine) and unlike the charming Kirstin at Glenfarclas, Hazel actually likes Scotch. We shared the drams with her and had a rollicking time.
We sat in a large, bright room (the sun does come out on Islay) lined on one side with stools along a workbench, while on another wall were a series of bins for barrel staves with a sign admonishing to ‘wear gloves’ just above. The casks were in the center, beyond which two picnic tables had been covered with black cloth. A cherry sideboard and various posters gave that side of the room a warmer feel. Overall, unpretentious and casual—a nice break from some of the more marketing-heavy locales.
We settled in with Hazel and a set of glasses while she chatted about each cask, valinched out a quantity and poured. We had water handy as these were some powerful spirits..
I have wanted to visit this distillery ever since I came upon this photograph on the web. With those big windows looking onto the water, the facility struck me as a particularly attractive still house. Being my wife’s favorite single malt, it became a primary destination for our Islay visit.
Caol Isla, a big distillery, is owned by Diageo, a massive multinational. You might expect an experience like we had at Glenmorangie: scripted, restricted, slick but shallow. Well, nothing like that on the shores of the Sound of Islay. We had a fun and altogether rewarding tour, especially the tasting—the Caol Ila Cask Strength Experience. Highly recommended! Sadly, as with the Glenmorangie folks, no photographs were allowed inside. Too many lawyers with these big firms. However, our guide was a really lively, fun local lady, Hazel, who invigorated the experience with wit and panache.
This being a dream come true, I hoped for a good experience. I had a great one. We were picked up after a restful night at our inn (the Bridgend, highly recommended) by Uncle Charlie, the proprietor’s ex-merchant marine uncle. A great guy was Charlie and full of information. He worried me a bit, explaining that Bunnahabhain was getting a bit frayed around the edges He was more animated by the prospect of a new distillery being built on the same one-track road where Bunnahabhain lies.
And on arrival we saw a distillery that looked like distilleries did before they were tourist attractions: a working factory, with the dark grey coating the distilleries get from the odd collection of microbes that flourish around the Angel’s share. And out front, stacks of casks. Besides a crop, I have not retouched the photo. It was that grey and gloomy.
I like Glemorangie’s products a lot. They are well-finished, consistent and pure to their style. Their basic 10-year is a smooth dram worthy of quiet moods, some good cheese, contemplation and relaxation. It’s also reasonably priced. Their finished expressions, using port, Sauternes and sherry casks take their 10-year expression and finish for an additional two years, result in intense, well-married flavors. Note to self, I have yet to review these…coming soon.
It was with some disappointment then that we encountered our first truly industrial-scale distillery tour at Glenmorangie. The tour buses in the vast parking lot should have tipped us off. The Glenmorangie distillery produces 6 million liters per year, a bit more than the Balvenie. Their tour trade, however, must be many times that of the Balvenie or Glenfarclas. On the plus side, the tour is inexpensive: £7, and that includes a taste at the end. Also, they have a big, modern, well-stocked shop with a lot of special bottlings available. On the down side, the tour is short, with few photo ops, and starts with a healthy dose of marketing.