Guest blog #1: IslayMarch 29th, 2010
As I mentioned here, this is from From B. J. Reed and the gang who visited Scotland a couple weeks ago:
For those of you never to have toured a distillery it can be an eye-opening experience – these can run from basic tours of an hour or so to those that can extend for half a day. Many distilleries are set up for tours and you can easily arrange one, we’d recommend calling the number that most have posted on their website. Many charge a small fee which can be recouped if you buy whisky in their gift shop. Some will provide levels of tours based on a range of fees charged for the event, ask if you’d like to see something a bit more behind the scenes or participate in a cask sampling! Standard tours typically include a tasting of at least one whisky at the end of the tour; many provide whisky for sale available exclusively at the distillery.
All tours include the basics: barley mill, mash tun room, washbacks, and the still room. Most will include visits to a bonded warehouse. Many will allow pictures throughout the tour. Others, particularly those owned by Diageo, will not allow any pictures. What we want to provide you is a range some of our experiences over the last two weeks and hope you will join in with questions and comments. I have asked all of those who have toured with us to join in as well to add their own perspective. One caveat I would point out here. For some of us this is our fourth or fifth tour beginning in 1998, so we have grown to become very close friends with many of the distillery managers and others working on both the marketing and production side of the industry. For that reason we may have be allowed to experience some things that others might not, but we still want to give you a flavor of what we have learned on our latest journey. Why did we tour in March, you might ask? It’s less expensive in terms of transportation and lodging, and we tend to get a bit more attention before the busy tourist season begins. As many of you know, lots of distillery managers and ambassadors travel to various events like Whiskyfest, and they are easier to catch on their home turf before April or after September.
The Islands – Part I (Islay)
We visited both Islay and Orkney – Today we want to focus on Islay to give you a taste of what you can expect if you visit the distilleries there. Islay is a wonderful place to visit, the distillery experiences can be exceptional. Allow yourself a few days on Islay, the ferry ride is over two hours, after landing and driving to the west coast.
We didn’t visit any of the Diageo distilleries (Lagavulin, Caol Isla), they do not do tours on Saturday until after Easter, and believe me we tried! Lagavulin is set up for tours and has a gift shop and gives a nice standard tour but Diageo distilleries are pretty cookie cutter in approach. Bowmore (bottom left) and Laphroaig both have floor maltings and are great fun to see in action. You learn about how the process used to work and if you are lucky, they let you turn a few shovels of the malt! Only a handful of distilleries have floor maltings and if you decide to go to visit a distillery it is something you absolutely should see. Bowmore have bottles only available at the shop that range from 80 to 100 pounds and we picked up several Festival and Manager bottlings. Bruichladdich (top two photos are of Jim McEwan from Bruichladdich) allows you to bottle your own whisky on site (this is also true at Pulteney and Aberlour). It is a lot of fun, and if the manager is there he will sign it for you.
We missed our window to tour Kilchoman, but the farm and gift shop are very nice. The whisky is great too, it’s fun to see a small distillery get a successful start in this market. Ardbeg, as always was fantastic. We toured with Distillery Manager Mickey Heads, over from a stint a Jura and quite into his own. He’s been at the helm through the release of some very successful whiskies, and was more than happy to show us through the growing archive and chat about their bright future.
Laphroaig, as many of you know, asks that you become a Friend of Laphroaig, and with that honor you are given a dram of 10 Year Old Cask Strength as “rent,” and a plot of land at the distillery you can visit! As John Hansell noted recently, John MacLellan is leaving Bunnahbhain for Kilchoman which is a real loss for Burns-Stewart. John often gave tours of the distillery himself. Bunnahabhain (second from bottom) was shut down for long stretches last year, and I think the challenge of going to a new small distillery was attractive to John. Until John’s resignation all the distilleries on Islay were operated by men from Islay. Lets hope that continues! — B. J. Reed