A few weeks ago we published the first in a series written by Eoin, a member of our team who last year decided to visit all nine (or, eight plus one at near-completion) distilleries on the whisky isle of Islay.
Here’s part 2, covering the Scotch whisky distilleries that sit on the island’s east coast: Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain and the soon-to-open Ardnahoe distillery.
Caol Ila is one of the bigger distilleries on Islay, and it does have a larger scale feel to it. That’s not to say the distillery lacks character; the tastings take place in the charming old cooperage warehouse with breath-taking views of the Paps of Jura.
Caol Ila is affectionately known as Lagavulin’s bigger brother as both distilleries are under the ownership of global drinks giant Diageo. A much larger portion of Caol Ila’s production goes into blended whiskies, but its single malts have and will continue to hold their own, offering a perfect balance of smokiness.
What does PPM mean?
The “smokiness” of a whisky can be measured by a naturally occurring chemical compound found in smoke called phenols, and can be measured in parts per million (or ppm). It’s a great measurement to compare and contrast Islay’s smoky malts from distillery to distillery and even derivation to derivation.
Caol Ila 12 year – Ppm (30-35)
Traveling further up the winding track, you come across the construction site of Ardnahoe, a brand new distillery set to be open later this year, and owned by Hunter Laing & Co.
The North East region of the Island is probably the most rural part of this already rural island with small single lane country roads and not many houses in sight. Even distance has to be measured in doubles (not just the whisky). For example, 5 miles down this road could take you the best part of 25 minutes.
But the finish line was worth it because at the end of this road sitting peacefully in isolation are all the empty whisky casks of the Bunnahabhain distillery, biding their time gazing out over to the Isle of Jura, waiting to be filled with the golden nectar and then allowed to sleep for at least three years.
The Bunnahabhain distillery really is the most isolated of all distilleries on Islay. The place felt deserted and tranquil as I walked through the yard. The crunching sound of the sandy asphalt was, with each step heightened, not a soul in sight. Above one of the doors to the offices on the left a faded sign simply read ‘Shop’. Inside a friendly young lady was very welcoming. Bunnahabhain offer great tastings of their rare distillery exclusive ‘Warehouse 9’ selection of both peated (25-30ppm) and unpeated expressions. Bunnahabhain is one of only two distilleries on Islay to use unpeated barley for their whisky, going against the grain (so to speak) for the smokier whiskies usually associated with the island.
Bunnahabhain 12 year – ppm 0 (Unpeated)
IMPORTANT TIPS for exploring ISLAY
Always plan ahead
It goes without saying but you won’t get to the island without a boat ticket. As I mentioned in the previous blog post, among the tourists heading to the island will be routine commuters like postal vans and grocery trucks, and space on the ferry will be limited. Make sure you book in advance (especially the return ticket).
Car = £65
Per Person = £16
Visit the CalMac Ferries website to book.
Accommodation on Islay can also be limited during peak season but the island has a free wild camping policy if you fancy bringing a tent. There’s also a few fine campsites if you prefer that sense of security, or small hotels if you can afford the comfort. A larger group may get huge benefits from cottage rentals, with some 6 bedroom cottages starting at £570 a week, depending on the season.
Plan each hour of everyday
Islay moves at a different pace to the rest of the world, weekends are days of rest and tours don’t run as often as weekdays, especially on a Sunday. Lagavulin might only run 2 tours and Bruichladdich will close as early as 4pm and with only about 12 people per tour, so plan what distilleries you’d like to visit and book the tours or check opening times in advance.
Food on Islay can also be hard to come by; pre-booking a table at a restaurant is recommended but not essential. However, some hotels, such as the Lochindaal Hotel in Port Charlotte for example, require a full 24 hours’ notice on not just a table reservation but also on a specific meal choice.
That’s all for now! You can catch up on the first part of Eoin’s adventures (including how to get to Islay by car and ferry) here. Next up, he’ll be covering Bruichladdich, Kilchoman and Bowmore distilleries on the east side of the island.