January 16th, 2020/ BY Tod Stewart

Drambulance tour through Scotland’s Islay

It’s 9:00 a.m. and I’m in danger of spilling my whisky on account of the shakes I’m having in the car. Hmmm. Okay, I realize that statement makes me sound rather less than temperate … or responsible.

I can assure you that I’m usually at least one of those. Usually. But I guess I should clarify, if for no other reason than to dispel any potential bias that might make me seem rather vile and discourage you from reading further. I was shaking not because of the amount of Scotch I may or may not have had the night before. Rather, the car I was riding in (not driving) was hitting ruts. Okay? Are we good?

The cab, affectionately called the “drambulance,” (actual company name withheld on account of, well, like, potential police investigations and stuff) was ferrying me to my next (and, unfortunately, final) distillery visit.

I arrived here, on the isle of Islay in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, by way of a flight from Glasgow, where I had initially touched down en route from Toronto. The weather today is warm, sunny and very un-stereotypically Scottish. Glasgow had met me with what visitors are told to expect: chilly, damp and windy weather, with sullen grey skies. However, a rather pleasant tour of one of the few remaining and functional Lowland distilleries — Auchentoshan — brightened my mood considerably.

As my informative guide led me past the towering copper stills and among the barrels in the aging cellar, I asked him why the popularity of many Lowland whiskies had dropped to the point where many distilleries had closed and been dismantled. “Not big enough,” he replied, explaining that as single malt whiskies grew in popularity there was a feeling that “bigger was better,” which was why the elegant lightness of Lowland drams had fallen out of fashion. Also, Glasgow was emerging as an industrial centre, and land occupied by distilleries was increasingly coveted (and bought up) by developers.

 

 

Tasting through a range of Auchentochan samples — including an incredible 21-year-old — I mused over the strange human condition that equates “lightness” with a lack of character. I mean, think about most great Pinot Noir-based wines. Though they are typically described as “elegant,” “gentle” or “light,” they are hardly lacking in complexity, depth and personality. The same was true of the Auchentochan samples. Sure, triple distillation gave them a certain delicacy in body, but in no way did that inhibite their power. To see what I’m talking about, pick yourself up a bottle of the easy-to-find Auchentochan 12-Year-Old expression. Wimpy? Methinks not.

The distillery itself is a pretty short drive from downtown Glasgow. If you intend to visit the city, I’d suggest the cool, little Dakota Hotel as your base of operations. For lunch, pop into The Highland Fox, which isn’t far away, for some typically classic (and tasty) Scottish fare. I also had a terrific dinner at Ardnamurchan Scottish Restaurant & Bar. Black pudding fritters, velvety smoked salmon and trout, silky seafood chowder, robust venison stew and possibly the best fried calamari I’ve ever had (who woulda thunk?) made for a bit of a waddle back to the Dakota to pack for my flight to Islay the following morning.

As single malt whiskies grew in popularity there was a feeling that 'bigger was better.'

Laphroaig John Campbell
Laphroaig's John Campbell

“Ah, Canadian,” my driver sighs contentedly as we head from the Islay airport to the town of Bowmore. He’d asked where I was from, assuming I was probably American. “I like Canadians,” he admits. “They’re like smart Americans.” Hey, he said it, right?

Islay is only about 40 kilometres long and 32 kilometres wide, but its distilleries — nine of them and counting — contribute substantial yearly duty revenue to the British government (close to £200 million). The capital, Bowmore, fits the mould of most of the towns on Islay, at least the ones I saw during my (too) brief stay. Whitewashed buildings, the tang of sea air, the cry of gulls, hospitable locals and, in many cases, a prominent distillery, are all to be found in the settlements that sit seaside.

I’m deposited at the Harbour Inn and Restaurant on the shore of Loch Indaal. It’s a great place to stay while you explore the island, nicely combining rusticity and modernity. I took a quick walkabout of the town before heading over to Bowmore distillery, Islay’s oldest whisky producer (at least from a legal standpoint).

As the afternoon sun sparkled off the rippling waters of Loch Indaal, I was led through the reception centre and, eventually, downstairs, where the air was chilled and infused with the scent of the Atlantic that lapped (peacefully today) at the building’s seaward wall. In front of me was a doorway that represented Heaven’s Gate to malt lovers: the entrance to the legendary No. 1 Vaults. Behind this edifice, casks of aging whisky were slumbering, breathing in the sea air and giving back the “angel’s share” of evaporated spirit (though the angels are kept a bit on the thirsty side, the cool temperatures slowing evaporation to a degree).

I was lucky enough to work through a range of Bowmore expressions from the briny, zesty, citrus-tinged No. 1, through some rarer numbers, including a couple of delicious 20-year-old versions and a pair of 15-year-old “Distillery Exclusives” pulled straight from their barrels. Though it won’t be quite the same experience, you can easily get to know the “Bowmore style” on these shores. Pick up a bottle of the Bowmore 12-Year-Old and experience the rich, honeyed, smoky goodness (yes, I think I can say that) that tends to form the base of all Bowmore expressions.

It was after a hearty meal of fresh, succulent mussels at the Lochside Hotel, and a relaxing dram (and sound sleep) back at the Harbour Inn that night that I found myself in the back of the “drambulance” the next morning, trying not to spill my whisky as we drove southeast towards Laphroaig distillery.

Laphroaig is part of what you might consider something of a “holy trinity” on the stretch of road that leads down the coast. On the way, you’ll pass Ardbeg and eventually hit Lagavulin — also familiar names to Scotch lovers. “It’s about four miles to go from the first distillery to the last,” my driver/doctor informs. “It’s about six miles coming back.” There’s a certain dry irony to Scottish humour.

Fragrant burning peat wafts out of the malting room chimney, with its typical pagoda-shaped top. As a quick Scotch 101 review, malting is the process of soaking and then drying barley in order for the grains to germinate and, in turn, convert starch to fermentable sugar via enzyme action. (Okay, I’m being somewhat technically inaccurate here, but the end result is the same.) Not too many distilleries still follow this practice (by that I mean malting “in house” rather than purchasing malted grain from a specialized malting house).

 

 

The steeped grain is, in the case of practically all Islay distilleries (practically all, but not all) subject to smoking over flaming/smouldering peat. In some cases, the peat generates enough heat to help dry the grain. At Laphroiag, I was surprised that I could reach into the kiln with my bare hand and actually touch the burning chunks of peat with no adverse effect. This was a demonstration of “cold smoking” at its most tactile. Here, peat smoke is used solely to aromatize the barley, while the actual “drying” is done via hot air pumped in from the still house.

Laphroaig master distiller John Campbell told me that the practice of hand-cutting (rather than machine-harvesting) peat allows Laphroaig to maintain a certain degree of moisture in the peat “bricks” (I’m using that term for lack of a better one). “Damp peat provides smoke but no heat,” he confirms. “We just want smoke and not drying at this point.” It’s like when you were a kid building your first campfire. You were taught to find nice, old, dry wood that would catch quickly and burn hot. Trying to burn green, sap-filled branches just resulted in huge plumes of smoke.

Laphroaig smokes the peat to a phenolic level of 40 to 60 parts per million (ppm). It’s not outrageously high (I’ve had at least one whisky where the phenol level exceeded 200 ppm), but it’s certainly enough to impart a distinct smokiness while retaining some delicacy and balance.

Climbing up to the malting floor, I shovel a couple grains of the dried, smoked barley into my yap, enjoying the pleasant crunchy texture and nutty/slightly smoky flavour. The husks are bit dry and throat-sticky, though, making swallowing the stuff a bit of a problem. Helps if you’re a cow or something, I guess.

Anyway, while tasting a range of Laphroaig barrel samples (fino, manzanilla, bourbon — the latter being my fave), what I couldn’t help thinking about, while mentally comparing them to the Bowmore samples, was just how different the taste profiles of Islay whiskies can be.

I mean, they’re all made in basically the same way, from basically the same stuff, on a relatively small chunk of sea-circled rock, but the “house style” of the spirit from Laphroaig is easily distinguished from that of Bowmore, or even from distilleries that are within walking (or whatever) distance away from Laphroaig.

Campbell lets me in on a couple techniques used at Laphroaig to craft a distinctive spirit.

“We have two different sizes of spirit stills,” he reveals, “and we run them slightly differently to ultimately produce two distinct flavours. These are always married together, and never separated. Also, when creating a bottling, we leave behind 20 percent of the previous vatting to ensure flavour carryover. And we take from all warehouses on site to ensure the flavour variation from maturation is removed in order to get a consistent flavour pool through all these tasks.”

Having thoroughly toured the Laphroaig distillery (and thoroughly sampled its wares), I’m led on a quick sightseeing tour around the island. Seals bask on rocks jutting from the Atlantic enjoying both the welcome sun and the calm seas. Imposing (but rather docile) Highland cows, with their thick ginger, black, yellow and sometimes “silver” coats, long horns and pronounced “bangs” graze in the pastures stretching southwest of the Port Charlotte Lighthouse. Vast, pristine sand beaches line numerous stretches of the Loch Indaal shoreline. In the distance, looking seaward from Laphroaig, the coast of Northern Ireland looms in the far distance.

My time here has been short — far too short to even begin to soak in the character of the island and those who call it home. Which makes a return trip a given rather than a possibility. If you haven’t made it here yourself, I strongly recommend doing so. A word of warning: Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity can be a bit sketchy, depending where on the island you are. This doesn’t seem to bother the locals who, as far as I can tell, are perfectly content to engage in all sorts of “primitive” distractions. Like taking in the gorgeous, tranquil, yet rugged scenery. Or chatting with neighbours. Or convening in a local pub for a bite and maybe a dram or two of the closest distillery’s wares. I know, I know, it sounds positively barbaric; but give it a chance. It’s just like your smart phone: one bar, not so good. Two bars, not bad. Three bars, now we’re talking. Once you hit four bars, you’ll be perfectly connected.

 

 
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