The third in our series of posts written by SWE team member Eoin, exploring the distilleries, villages and terrains of the famous ‘whisky isle’ of Islay. Home to nine distilleries, it’s no mean feat to visit every single one! Eoin did just that.
This week, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman and Bowmore distilleries, on the central/eastern side of the island…
Bowmore is the oldest working distillery on Islay and one of the oldest in Scotland itself, established all the way back in 1779. Their second floor tasting room boasts a breath taking elevated view overlooking the harbour and Bruichladdich Distillery a mere two miles across the bay. Staff at the Bowmore Distillery are regular visitors to the Scotch Whisky Experience here in Edinburgh and it was nice to see they have adopted a very similar food/whisky taste pairing option which they fondly enjoy each time they visit SWE. Morrison Bowmore LTD is hugely involved in community culture values and has transformed one of the distillery warehouses into a swimming pool, where the water is heated via piping the waste heat from the distilling process of the distillery. A quick dip in the pool and 10 minutes in the sauna, we were completely refreshed and on the road again.
Bowmore 10 year old – ppm (20-25)
Bruichladdich has the largest and most diverse range of products among the Islay distilleries. They have three different divisions including; the classic unpeated Bruichladdich range, heavily peated Port Charlotte selection and of course the fire-breathing, super heavily peated Octomore. But wait, there’s more. Bruichladdich have a secret weapon, a copper pot still by the name of ‘Ugly Betty’, and while they wait for the whisky to mature Betty produces the beautifully balanced artisan gin, called The Botanist.
At the time of this trip the then unreleased Octomore 8.3 was part of their tasting. At 309ppm this is the world’s most heavily peated whisky on paper. I have to say I was disappointed when I did not die of smoke inhalation when I nosed this dram but rather surprised by how complex and tasty it was. For such a young whisky it has been around the block and seen some things. The 8.3 is aged for five years in 56% full-term ex-Bourbon and 44% full-term European Oak (including ex-Pauliac, Ventoux, Rhone and Burgundy) and is bottled at 61.2% ABV. Octomore takes its name from the once old illicit farm distillery not far from Bruichladdich; now long gone, the site is used to harvest the barley used in this ultra-heavily peated dram.
Rémy Cointreau purchased Bruichladdich in 2012 and has seen a huge growth in sales since its takeover. It was previously owned by a private group of investors led by Mark Reynier who, while reluctant to sell at the time, has since embarked on a new whisky venture, establishing a new distillery not in Scotland, but behind enemy lines in the south east of Ireland. Visitors who have been to the Bruichladdich distillery prior to 2015 might remember a very iconic Copper Pot Still once stood outside the distillery as an ornament to be photographed and marveled at. Mr. Reynier has since nabbed this giant still and shipped it to Ireland, where it has been rejuvenated and will act as an interim solution at his Waterford Distillery. Irish whiskey won’t know what hit it!
Kilchoman is currently the young baby of the bunch established in 2005 (soon to lose this title to Ardnahoe later in 2018). The distillery sits on a working farm and the sheds to the left of the yard contain a few hundred cattle, so don’t be shocked and outraged if you happen to step in a big pile of second-hand draff in the farmyard!
Kilchoman prides itself on been independently owned and is the smallest distillery both on site and in production (120,000 litres per year), but its whisky does pack a tasty punch. Kilchoman has just one pair of stills and they are probably the smallest in Scotland, capable of producing a total yield of 300 litres per batch. The surrounding fields of the farm are used to harvest its own barely which is brought back to germinate on its traditional malting room floor, two tonnes at a time.
Kilchoman uses a strain of barley known as ‘publican’ which is more resilient and capable of withstanding the harsh weather conditions on Islay. The barley itself has a sweeter taste to it than that of the other Islay maltings. The farm grows and harvests about 100 tonnes a year, which still only represents about 30% of its annual demand. It sources the balance from nearby Port Ellen Maltings but both malts are kept separate throughout production. Kilchoman is also the only distillery that bottles its whisky on site; it truly is 100% Islay-made from start to finish.
The Phenol count on paper might read lower than most of the other smoky distilleries but the average age of its bottlings are five years old. The young age to lower phenol ppm ratio, means this whisky will pack a sharper, meatier punch, albeit sweeter and tastier on the overall finish.
Kilchoman Machir Bay – Ppm (20-25)
Eating and drinking on Islay
As I mentioned in my previous posts, a lot of places will have limited opening times on a Sunday, and this includes the only large supermarket on the island, located in Bowmore. It will open for just two hours on Sunday so grab your supplies while you can. In addition, this supermarket does not have a coffee station so make the most of the restaurant sections in Kilchoman and Ardbeg; Laphroaig also have a free tea station in their visitor centre.
Food and beverages will be on the pricey side but you have to appreciate that – given that you’re on an island – there are not that many options available other than embracing your inner Bear Grills and hunting for your dinner!
Here are some good spots you can visit:
Port Ellen has a fine fast food takeaway or sit-in chippy called Sea Salt Bistro.
Bowmore has a pizzeria cleverly name Peatzeria and a buzzing nightlife with three pubs to choose from.
Port Charlotte Hotel serves pub grub and hosts live traditional music in the evenings
Port Mor Centre have a great camping facility and restaurant.
Things move a lot slower on Islay, as do the people, including staff in hospitality. Your food may take longer to come out and you might be standing at the bar seeking service a little longer than you’ve been used to, but embrace this pace. Scottish hospitality is renowned for its friendliness and Islay is no exception. The locals will be curious to know what’s happening on the mainland and they love sharing stories and secrets of the Island, so relax and enjoy the atmosphere at a slower pace and savour the rhythm of Islay.
Whisky is so successful here because the people are so patient; they have all the time in the world.
That’s all for this week! Join us for part four of our guide to exploring Islay next week, where Eoin will be covering the final distilleries on the list: Lagavulin and Ardbeg, last but certainly not least!
Catch up on part 1 here, covering Laphroaig Distillery, plus tips on how to get to Islay.
Catch up on part 2 here, covering whisky giants Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, and the soon-to-be completed Ardnahoe distillery.