Whisky Advocate

Guest blog #1: Islay

March 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

29 Responses to “Guest blog #1: Islay”

  1. John Hansell says:

    Thanks B. J.! Can you tell us about some of the “Festival”, “Manager’s”, and “distillery only” bottles that were available for sale (and that you may have purchased) in the gift shops at these Islay distilleries? (And costs if you remember.) Thanks!

    • B.J. Reed says:

      There were a few festival bottlings left when we got to Islay but not as many as in the past – In fact two Swedes beat us to the last two at Bunnahbhain. Mostly they are cask strength, not chill filtered and around 10 to 14 years old – At least the ones we have seen. One other note – The Bottle your own at Bruichladdich was about 55 pounds if I recall.

      With the distillery only bottlings, they are also relatively young and cask strength – Bowmore had one called Maltmans which ran about 100 pounds and then a 9 YO cask strength -Monique may have better notes on that then I had – Ardbed had a little of their Still Young left but everything else was standard bottlings. Kilhoman had a bottling that I had not seen anywhere else but wasn’t from their distillery.

    • Monique at the Dell says:

      The Bowmore had a 8 yo and 9 yo cask strength festival bottling, they were 80 and 90 pounds respectively. The Bowmore Maltmens Selection was 5 casks of whisky vatted together, wonderful stuff and was 100 pounds.
      Bruichladdich was running a sale on the Valinch series. I think many have seen it posted on their website, but alas no shipping to the US.

  2. sam k says:

    Great first effort, B.J.! Thanks for taking the time to give John a break and let us know how the Dell crew does it. sounds like the Islay scene is like much else in this world…some great experiences, some less engaging. Would love to see floor maltings someday!

    Looking forward to the next installment.

  3. two-bit cowboy says:

    Thanks B.J. Would love to hear about Mickey Heads’ visions for Ardbeg’s future, and did Jim McEwan give any perspectives about what’s coming from the ‘Laddie anytime soon? Thanks again.

    • B.J. Reed says:

      Interesting you should ask about Jim – I think his goal is to get to the 10 YO expression and then cut down on all the finishes and move to a standard 10 or 12 YO – As you know Bruichladdich has had to produce lots of different expressions to keep revenue coming in but frankly they have so many out there now that it really confuses the consumer in my opinion. Moving to fewer finishes with a line of standard expressions makes sense to me.

      Micky and Bill Lumsden are always thinking of different expressions to come up with and we tried a few when we where there (they didn’t have names because they are experiments) but Rollercoaster will not be the last!

      • two-bit cowboy says:

        Thanks, B.J. I’ve wondered how long the multiple exotics would continue to pour out of Bruichladdich. Interesting to hear that Jim’s talking about a few standards.

        By the way, here, folks, how’s ol’ “hop-along” doing? Surgery go ok?

        • Monique at the Dell says:

          Jim was very explicit that we’d see a consistent 10 yo arrive in 2011. He also noted that they would keep a 16yo in the core, but with a number of finishes.
          BJ asked him what his worst mistake was in terms of experimenting with a finish. There weren’t any! They all turned out interesting to say the least. You know Jim!
          This was the only time I’ve ever seen single malt stored end-to-end, Jim noted that it was safer and easier to fill, it saves something like 40% in space. Still looks really funky and non-traditional. I’ll stick to admiring my barrels the old way!

  4. Jason says:

    On Lagavulin – my friend and I had a fantastic warehouse tour with Ian where we sampled new spirit as well as a range of barrel samples for 5 to 37 years old, including on from a quarter cask. I’m not sure if this is standard for Diageo tours or not, but i didn’t get the same treatment when I toured Caol Ila.

    That same friend and I did the Distllery Experience over at Kilchoman and I can say it’s both a fantastic experience and a great distillery. I believe the bottling you’re referring to is MacBeatha, which is an independent bottling of Caol Ila by Kilchoman.

    • B.J. Reed says:

      Just as we noted that you could not get a tour on Saturday of Lagavulin and Caol Isla they just added Saturday tours according to the Ileach newspaper. Go figure. I have had good tours of Lagavulin more so than Caol Isla just not on this trip.

    • Monique at the Dell says:

      The MacBeatha was the one, quite good and well-priced too. They only had one left and let us know that the next Mac, whichever Islay distillery it will be, would be out by the time that i return in April…
      Laura also said that the third Kilchoman release, aptly name “Spring” will be there then as well!

  5. bgulien says:

    I always envy people who went to Islay, as it is the most wonderful island to be. I myself will be there, hopefully, at the end of May.
    It is true that the people are very accessible and like to talk about their job.
    It’s so easy to strike up a conversation.
    Love the Island to bits. It’s almost crime-free. The odd (tourist) drink driving among the most prevailing misdemeanors.
    You always are felt very welcome, even at the Diageo distilleries. but like you said, it’s still early in the year and they have to adhere to company policy.

  6. Luke says:

    My wife and I went to Islay on our honeymoon tour of Scotland this past November. One of the highlights of the trip was the warehouse tour/tasting at Lagavulin.

    • B.J. Reed says:

      Good to hear the Lagavulin tours have been good for everyone – I do think sometimes being on the islands gives the Diagio folks a little more discretion to do things they may not be able to do on the mainland – I had a good tour of Talisker partly for the same reason. I also understand Diagio has a “color” system of some sort where depending on which “color” you get dictates the kind of tour you are likely to get – Anyone know if that’s the case?

  7. MrTH says:

    My advice for anyone contemplating a trip to Islay is not to try to cram in as many distillery visits as you can in two or three days. Slow down, relax, see more of the island than just distilleries…it is such a marvelous place. And before you go, read Andrew Jefford’s “Peat Smoke and Spirit” from cover to cover.

  8. B.J. Reed says:

    MrTh – Actually very good advice – I have read Peat, Smoke & Spirit and its fantastic especially in mixing history of Islay in alternating chapters of the distilleries. We were probably crazy to do as many distilleries as we did but we are a crazy group!

  9. MrTH says:

    Well, everyone does that on their first trip to Islay, so I know perfectly well that my advice is futile. The answer, of course, is many return trips. I’m overdue myself.

    • B.J. Reed says:

      Sad part is that this was my third or fourth trip to Islay but, then again, we had some newbies with us so hated for them to miss anything 🙂

      • MrTH says:

        When I took newbies to Islay, I made sure they saw Kildalton, Kilnave, the Oa, Finlaggan, Portnahaven, some beach or other…. I didn’t want them to miss anything, either!

      • Monique at the Dell says:

        MrTH, great advice. I try to at least go back through Peat, Smoke and Spirit before any trip to Islay. Great book. BJ and I both lamented that we’ve never taken the time to see the sights, other than distilleries, maybe next trip? We stayed at the Bowmore Cottages, a great choice if you’re there with a large group, beautiful, newly appointed….

    • bgulien says:

      Or, take your time and rent a self catering apartment for 2 weeks, like I always do, and enjoy all the distilleries and the island.
      It’s hard if you fly, because in the cause of the 2 weeks, you tend to accumulate a lot of bottles.
      Last time I came home with 12 bottles. 😉

      • Monique at the Dell says:

        Only 12? You should be commended on your thrift! Only that doesn’t account to how much whisky you self-catered to. your. self.

  10. Ray says:

    I am one of the “newbies” that BJ referred to in one of the postings. For anyone vacilating as to whether they should take a trip like this or not; stop and begin making your travel arrangements. Finally being able to visually put together the process that results in scotch whiskey was terrific. The ability to travel with a group of knowledgable, well connected whiskey enthusiasts may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and it is one I will always cherish. Though the pace was hectic as we visited something like 27 distilleries in 11 days, I wouldn’t have wanted to skip any stop we made. I found especially interesting some of the contrasting opinions and perspectives amoung some of the people in the industry. I especially enjoyed listening to Eddy of Bowmore as he talked about his craft with a certain reverence that would choke you up. I have a much more profound respect for each and every dram of whiskey that I now enjoy. A very heartfelt thanks to Monique, BJ, the rest of my traveling clan and the men and women working in the industry for making the trip truely memorable.

    • B.J. Reed says:

      Thanks Ray – Keep posting as things come up this week that you can elaborate on especially with a “fresh” set of eyes.

  11. Monique at the Dell says:

    Oh, we forgot to mention that Bruichladdich has also installed the former Inverleven/Port Charlotte Lomond-style still at Bruichladdich. They’ve nicknamed her Ugly Betty, she’s something to behold. Looks like more interesting things in the works for the Laddie, should we say Lassie?

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