Port Charlotte

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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An ode to Islay

Posted by: Nick

port-ellen

Our week exploring the peated wonders of Islay has sadly come to a close. We’ve loved every drop and had some proper crackers. And lastly, we’ve reminisced about Islay itself – the beautiful Hebridean island which we would both return to in a heartbeat. To conclude our celebrations I wanted to share a poem I composed while on the island a few years ago. I was so taken with the place (and under the influence of several peated drams) that I thought I could only express myself in rhyme. Merry Christmas fellow wafflers!

Out in the Atlantic Ocean lies

an island of my hearts desire.

With salty air and peat smoke rife

the spiritual home of the water of life.

Its sunny skies and rugged coast

but friendly locals I’ll miss the most.

I’ll always long for that familiar burn

and hope one day I shall return.

A very waffly Christmas

#IslayWeek

#LetsGetPeaty

Port Charlotte Scottish Barley Heavily Peated

Reviewed by: Nick

port-charlotte-sc-hp

It’s a fun bit of whisky trivia that Port Charlotte whisky is not actually made by the long-since-closed distillery of Port Charlotte. Instead, this particular drop is made by Bruichladdich Distillery as a tribute to their heavily peated ex-neighbours.

Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich’s head distiller at the time of this dram’s inception, wanted to recreate the flavour that the legendary old distillery was famous for. He tracked down a now 90 year-old former employee of Port Charlotte distillery and asked him what the whisky tasted like. “Aye,” said the old man, “aye, it tasted good.”

I for one certainly cannot deny that the product Jim has created to bear the Port Charlotte name tastes “good”. In fact, if I were to give my tasting notes in a solitary word, I would simply say: bacon. And everyone loves a bit of bacon, right?

Of course, this site is called ‘Whisky Waffle’, not ‘Whisky-we’ll-keep-it-brief-ok’. Apart from the latter sounding silly, we’ve found that we do rather like to bang on a bit with pretentious tasting notes. Speaking of which, this whisky has a nose like an Australian barbecue. Barley peated to 40 parts per million ensure smoke and cooked meat flavours waft oh-so-unsubtly over peppery notes and a dash of dark chocolate.

The palate is pleasantly spicy – no doubt an influence of the slightly higher bottling strength of 50%. The flavours on offer include salami, smoked salmon and of course, the aforementioned bacon. The meat theme lingers long after the whisky is gone, leaving the sensation of having polished off a particularly satisfactory scotch fillet (pun well and truly intended).

The release of the Port Charlotte range by Bruichladdich has rekindled an interest in the history of the grand old distillery and there have even been talks about building a new facility on the old site. However, this project seems to have stalled for the time being with no updates as to whether it might go ahead. Fortunately, thanks to this particular whisky, we have access to the next best thing: a dram that, seventy years from now, we can reflect on and happily label it as “good”.

★★★

#IslayWeek

#LetsGetPeaty

Jim McEwan: the Rock-Star of Whisky

They say you should never meet your heroes. But in the case of Jim McEwan, master distiller of Bruichladdich, they could not be more wrong.

On Thursday the 9th of October, in Howrah of all places, I had the great pleasure to meet an absolute legend of the whisky world. His introductory spiel described him as “a man you should move heaven and earth to see”. He himself informed us that after six drams I would be thinking of him as a rock star. That wasn’t true. In my eyes, he was a rock star before I had touched a single drop.

The only photo I managed to get taken before my camera's memory filled up. Typical.

The only photo I managed to get taken before my cameras memory filled up. Typical.

Upon walking into the venue I could have been forgiven for feeling out of place. I was possibly the first person to ever wear a bow tie into the Shoreline Hotel. But I quickly realised I was right where I intended to be after spotting a who’s who of Tasmanian whisky: Tim Duckett. Dean Jackson. Casey and Jane Overeem. Richard Stewart. And of course, Robbie from Lark.

The person we had come to see, however, was from slightly further afield and made his entrance in a style befitting of a master Scottish distiller. Clad in a black suit with Bruichladdich-Blue shirt and tie, he marched into the room to the sound of blaring bagpipes. And there he was, the self-proclaimed ‘cask whisperer’ himself (he confessed he enjoyed talking to his whisky barrels with phrases such as: “you are so beautiful”).

Once our applause had died down, he congratulated the piper, Heath, handing him a dram of Islay’s finest. Upon watching Heath sample the whisky, he commented: “Never have I seen a piper take sips!”

Heath was quick to reply: “I was expecting it to be good!”

Jim laughed and grabbed a bottle to refill the glass and did so – right to the top!

It was a night full of similar banter and hilarious anecdotes providing many laughs for all in attendance. Jim confessed that when he begins nights such as this he doesn’t know what he’s going to say, much like fellow Scotsman, Billy Connolly. Hence, many rambling tangents were followed – and some great stories developed from them.

So many whisky fans in one room!

So many whisky fans in one room!

He began with praise for Tasmania, which filled my heart with pride. He had just attended what he described as his “twentieth tasting in two days” and was impressed with the Lark and Heartwood that he tried. Tasmania, he said, has many similarities with Scotland, and while at first this induced some home sickness, he confessed that after six drams of Lark whisky his pining was miraculously cured. His spiel concluded with the highest praise of all, confirming a belief many Tasmanians hold: “Tasmania is the new Islay”.

The tales continued throughout the night, and we heard the story of how Jim followed his heart to the closed and neglected Bruichladdich distillery and re-employed much of the same crew that used to work there: getting the band back together, Blues Brothers style.

He mentioned how the decision to make gin saved the distillery in financially troubled times, using the “traditional Scottish tactics of bribery and corruption” to convince a fellow gin maker from Birmingham to provide some know-how. ‘The Botanist’ is now a highly regarded product – even by me, the non-gin drinker!

Other stories were less relevant, but just as entertaining. For example the time in the 60s he met psychedelic rock star, Donovan.  Donovan had, remarkably, been sent to Islay to get ‘clean’; the result of which was many shouted drams for the locals, and Donovan leaving the island in an ambulance.

There were many, many more tall tales told as the whisky flowed: creative use of Heinz salad cream bottles – and Big Angus’ wellies, tasting notes for Japanese students that were lost in translation, advice for every male present to seek themselves a ‘man-cave’, and of course the knock on the door of Gunta (just after Scotland had defeated England 7-0 in the world cup final).

Perhaps the most poignant of all, however, was Jim’s belief in his community. Bruichladdich employs over 70 people on Islay. Many larger distilleries have no more than 6 staff members. It was that sense of the island coming together that instilled Jim with more pride than anything else he had achieved. I mentioned to him afterwards that of all the distilleries I had been to, Bruichladdich had the best people. “And isn’t that what counts?” he said, clearly chuffed.

Half a dozen drams - a quiet night for Jim McEwan!

Half a dozen drams – a quiet night for Jim McEwan!

The whisky, while not the main attraction of the night, was exceptional. The Laddie Classic was lightly salty, reflecting the conditions in which it was matured, but it was also floral and fruity. The Islay Barley was next, maltier, stronger, and one of Jim’s proudest accomplishments, having been grown, distilled and bottled all on site. “How many distilleries in the world can lay claim to that?” he asked. Redlands’ Dean Jackson just sat quietly.

This was followed by the Black Arts 03.1 – a whisky described by Jim as a “protest whisky”. It was his raised middle finger to the marketing team, to whom he would not reveal its cask types. He challenged us to guess for ourselves. The popular answer was sherry, although he was quick to point out that this was not the sole ingredient. “How many people have actually bought a bottle of sherry in the last six months?” he asked. In the entire room only two people raised their hand. “Sherry is dead in the water. We need to look further”. There were certainly some wine notes in amongst this whisky – it reminded me strongly of the Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve.

Curiously we then diverged from the tasting order. We moved straight to whisky number five, which was the Port Charlotte 10 Year Old. Named after a long since closed distillery, this whisky was coated in delicious swirling, but not overpowering, peat. There were apricots and other stone fruit flavours to be found and reminded me of Bruichladdich’s neighbour, Kilchoman. Jim told us he tracked down an aged old man who many years in the past had worked at the original Port Charlotte distillery. Upon being asked if he remembered the taste of the whisky, the response was: “Aye aye aye aye aye. Aye aye. Aye aye aye. Aye. It tasted good!”

Whisky number six was the famous Octomore 6.1, the most heavily peated whisky in the world. I must confess to having sampled this dram before and adoring it – although this experience was slightly different to the way I previously tried it. Jim encouraged us to take a generous glug, hold it in our mouths for 30 seconds before swallowing. He compared this sensation to Usain Bolt bursting from the blocks and after trying it, I could understand the analogy.

I must confess that I could not tell you much about whisky number four. At that point in the evening, Jim declared we were to do a highland toast. Left foot on a chair, right foot on the table we enthusiastically repeated many (mispronounced) Gaelic words, waving our glass about (trying not to spill any), before taking a generous swig. Amazingly, even after the quantity of whisky that had been consumed, no glasses (or bones) were broken, much to the relief of the nervous looking bar staff.

Allof us up on the table - and Jim was the most spritely!

Out of all of us, Jim was the most spritely!

The night concluded with a rendition of the Scottish national anthem – or so we thought until the Proclaimers ‘I would walk 500 miles’ blared through the speakers. Jim stood up the front and conducted our raucous chanting.

As the people filtered from the venue at the end of the night, I left enlightened, inspired and thoroughly entertained. Never had the community that accompanies whisky drinking been so apparent in Tasmania. We were united as one, all in awe of a man who we regarded as an idol: the master distiller. However at the same time upon meeting him and discovering how humble and down to earth he was, we were also able to describe him with the highest praise an Australian could give: Jim McEwan is a good bloke.

This bottle was coincidentally the same colour that Jim was wearing! And a bottle I will treasure forever.

This bottle was coincidentally the same colour that Jim was wearing! And a bottle I will treasure forever.