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Scotland 2018: The Ultimate Whisky Adventure – Part Three

Posted by: Nick

In July 2018 I realised the ultimate Waffler’s dream and spent nine days travelling whisky’s motherland. I did not waste a moment.

9 days: 20 distilleries.

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PART THREE: Islay – the western half

I had been through sunny Speyside and the spectacular Highlands (and Islands) and my whisky journey was nearly at an end. Of course, there was one crucial destination I had not yet covered. In fact, you could argue I’d left the best until last.

It is almost compulsory for any whisky fanatic to make the pilgrimage to the Isle of Islay. Nowhere in the world is there a higher concentration of top-quality distilleries within a short drive (or, in some cases, a short walk). I could not contain my excitement. The ferry took us into the beautiful seaside town of Port Ellen, sailing past some limewashed buildings where I could just make out the giant letters painted on their side, spelling Ardbeg, Lagavulin and finally Laphroaig.

However, the Port Ellen big three would have to wait. I had only two and a half days in this whisky-wonderland and not a moment to lose.

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I began with the oldest distillery on the Island, Bowmore. I’ve been impressed with several bottles from this distillery but more often than not have been left underwhelmed and slightly confused. The tour satisfied the latter complaint – revealing the future core range to consist of a NAS, a 12 Year Old, a 15 and an 18 (don’t panic fellow ‘Darkest’ fans – this particular favourite is simply becoming THE 15 Year Old). The highlight of the visit however was the special release, the Warehouseman’s 17 Year Old. 51.3%, matured in bourbon, sherry and red wine, it was balanced and oozed sophistication like anyone wearing a pearl necklace, including David Bowie. In fact, like Bowie it was a bit psychedelic, a bit folky, a bit glam and a bit disco. It was the real star… man.

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Breakfast whisky out of the way it was time for the next course. And lunch was the one and only Bruichladdich. If there was just one distillery I could recommend to visit for tastings it would be this one – if only for of the variety… and quantity! Their self-titled range is full of vibrant spicy malted barley notes, the Port Charlotte releases are smoky and bacony and the Octomores… Don’t expect them to smash you around the face with peat, peat and more peat. They are nuanced, balanced and complex – and packing enough fire to make Arthur Brown happy. They’re Audrey Hepburn with her cigarette holder in one hand… and a cigar in the other… at a bbq… under a volcano. Bruichladdich are such an exciting, progressive distillery. They have absolutely struck the right balance between NAS and integrity. You’ll find no mention of “flavour-led” here”, just bloody good drops – and plenty of them.

Remarkably, the destination I was most excited for was yet to come. Being a Tassie boy, there was one distillery that appealed above all others. Small-scale, paddock to bottle, on a working farm? It was like coming home. My final stop of the day was Kilchoman Distillery.

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It was everything I’d hoped for: a tour that felt more like being shown around than hearing a rehearsed script, a peek at the entire production process from malting right through to bottling and a tasting packed with vibrant youthful whiskies that satisfied and intrigued me in equal measure. I had a chat with founder Anthony Wills and we bonded over how his own distillery’s paddock-to-bottle ethos compared to one back in my home state of Tasmania.

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A trip to Islay’s west wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the beautiful Port Nahaven

I returned to my tiny eco-hut in Port Ellen pleased as punch. It had been an amazing start to my Islay visit and I was still buzzing… yet I retired to bed (reasonably) early. You see, there was one day I had been waiting the whole trip for. And that was tomorrow…

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Home sweet home

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Scotland 2018: The Ultimate Whisky Adventure Part Two

Posted by: Nick

In July 2018 I realised the ultimate Waffler’s dream and spent nine days travelling whisky’s motherland. I did not waste a moment.

9 days: 20 distilleries.

Fiddlers WW

PART TWO: Highlands and Islands

Whoever said that Scotland is freezing, windswept and rain-lashed has obviously never been to Speyside in the summertime. I was a little sad to leave what was clearly a sunny paradise and head further north, so decided it was not possible to get too much of a good thing and called into two more distilleries on my way out – and boy, these two could not be more different.

Macallan have recently opened a new visitor centre in the heart of Speyside – and it is an architectural masterpiece. The walls were all glass, revealing vistas of the distillery beyond or encasing infamously rare and valuable bottles. All this was sealed beneath a dramatically curved green roof (although in the height of summer it was more of a… well… brown roof). The whole complex was breathtaking – and yet I didn’t like it. Not one bit. It lacked the soul and warmth I love about Scottish distilleries. It was stunning but cold; glamorous but unwelcoming.

Macallan Wall WW

The complete opposite was the case at my final Speyside stop: Glen Moray. While the buildings themselves were nowhere near as spectacular as what I’d just seen at Macallan, the staff (master-distillers wife Fay, champion drinks pourer Kier, and tour guide extraordinaire Caitlyn) were among the nicest and most welcoming in the whole of Scotland. And the whisky? Wow! If you considered the Glen Moray range to be cheap and cheerful, then a visit to the distillery would reveal a few stunners that have been left a little longer in barrels. A personal favourite was the 1988 port cask matured, however the 1998 PX cask was also exceptional. I’ve always had a soft spot for Glen Moray – and this visit just made it softer.

Glen Moray paddle WW

Just as I thought my Speyside journey had come to an end I spotted a sign for Benromach and duly turned off the main road. Though I had not booked a tour the kind staff showed me around and let me try some of the varied wares.

Sadly, though, this was all I could squeeze into my Speyside trip; it was time to travel to the opposite side of the country. A trip to Scotland would not be complete without the compulsory failure to spot Nessie on the shores of a certain Loch, so I called into Drumnadrochit on my way to the west coast. While there was no monster to be seen, I was able to stumble upon a Whisky Waffle favourite whisky bar: Fiddlers. While there I sampled some local drams: a 25 Year Old Tomatin (business class whisky – you can taste the extra legroom), an Edradour matured in ex-Port Ellen casks (who could resist such an intriguing combo?) and finally a Balblair so dark is could have been black (so sherried it was almost undrinkable – naturally I loved it).

Black Balbalir WW

No filter. That really is the colour.

Before leaving Fiddlers, owner Jon Beach arrived and called me over for a chat – whilst pouring me a dram of Port Ellen as casual as can be. Seriously, this bar – cannot recommend highly enough.

Jon Tweet WW

While the west highlands of Scotland are absolutely stunning, there is one region of the country which is even more spectacular: the Isle of Skye. And this island is home to Talisker Distillery – a Whisky Waffle favourite from our early days of whisky tasting. On my only previous visit to Scotland, I was prevented from visiting Talisker by a freak hiking accident (no whisky was involved) so I was in no way going to miss out this time around. My guide, David, was not only a whisky fan, but also a chef and shared his Talisker BBQ sauce recipe with us while we had a dram of the Amarosso finished Distillers Edition. It was a tasty drop – certainly a step us from the Talisker NAS releases and even pipped the 10 Year Old. I was also able to revisit an old favourite and get my palate roasted by the winter warmer that is the 57 Degrees North.

Talisker WW

Upon leaving the Isle of Skye I had a long drive ahead of me. And yet I couldn’t resist making it even longer by stopping into a beautiful town along the way – and it just happened to contain a distillery!

The town was Oban and I slotted onto a lunchtime tour to check out yet another stillroom. What struck me about Oban was its size – or lack thereof. Of course, it’s miles ahead of the Tassie distilleries I’m used to seeing, but compared to the rest of the Scottish establishments it was rather quaint. This is demonstrated in their cask usage – Oban are the masters of the refill cask – everything they use has been already used by one of Diageo’s other distilleries to mature whisky in for ten or more years. When it gets to Oban it is re-charred, repurposed and ready to go. This is partly why a whisky 14 years old was for so long this distillery’s staple – and partly why the Little Bay is pretty light on for flavour. The real x-factor for Oban is its coastal location imparting a delicate salty layer upon each bottle in their range.

Oban WW

The cherry on the top of my visit was one final dram – from under the bar came an unmarked bottle containing promisingly dark liquid. I was sure it had been aged for longer than most Oban whiskies – and sure enough, it was a 20 year old: straight from the cask. I was assured by the friendly Oban staff it would be unlike anything I’d tried so far on my trip – and they were right, it was absolutely phenomenal. Sadly, though, after concluding this warming and delicious tasting I had to leave Oban in a hurry. You see, I had a ferry to catch…

z Ferry WW

I wonder where this could be going….

Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old

Reviewed by: Ted

bunna-18

I would like to start out by saying that I am a big fan of Bunnahabhain (so this review is not going to be biased in the slightest). Yes, we all know that Islay is famous for its heavily peated drams, but I have a definite soft spot for this gentle islander.

I’ve actually been to the distillery, a few miles up the coast from Port Askaig, but to my eternal discontent I haven’t actually done the tour as we were pressed for time and had several other tours booked that day. The buildings may look rather grey and foreboding, but the people are so friendly and warm. Please pop by and say hello to them if you get a chance.

I really got a taste for Bunna on the ferry on the way over to Islay because it was the dram of the month and they were pouring doubles. Standing on deck in the blasting wind and watching the islands of Islay and Jura hove into view with a warming glass of Bunnahabhain in hand definitely leaves a lasting impression on a lad.

While I may have cut my teeth on the Bunna 12 Year Old, I recently acquired a bottle of the 18 Year Old and tell you what, it’s pretty exceptional. Bunnahabhain dials back the peat hit in favour of softer, earthier flavours. The nose is rather like tramping around the rolling interior of the island, bringing forth moss, springy peat-laden soil, wind-twisted woods and the occasional gust of salty sea breeze (plus the colour is like the dark waters of the lochs that stud the landscape).

Other flavours floating through the air include roasted chestnuts, dark chocolate, spit roasted lamb with salt and rosemary, stewed quinces and brandy-soaked raisins (sherry casking par excellence).

The mouth is quite salty, but strikes an elegant balance, like a high quality piece of salted caramel served with delicate slices of pear poached in butter and sprinkled with brown sugar. The finish is rounded, warm and comforting, like curling up on a squishy couch in front of a glowing fire on a cold night.

While I rather enjoy getting smacked in the face with a massive slab of Ileach peat, there’s something about the softer side of Islay that keeps drawing me back again and again. One day I will return to Bunnahabhain and explore it properly, but until then I will sit back with a glass of the 18 Year Old, close my eyes and be transported back to one of the most magical places in the world.

★★★★

#IslayWeek

#LetsGetPeaty