BUNNAHABHAIN, CAOL ILA & ISLAY WOOLLEN MILL
We travelled from Campbeltown to Kennacraig, yesterday afternoon with an additional passenger; Brian, from the Springbank Whisky School. It just so happened that Brian had planned to head to Islay, then Oban, after the school which matched our own plans. Since we had a car and he didn’t, we offered to give him a lift. We arrived at the Kennacraig ferry terminal (I said it that way not, ferry terminal at Kennacraig because the terminal essentially ‘is’ Kennacraig) just in time to catch the earlier ferry than to the one we had booked. We were all staying in Bowmore so that made things easier when we arrived in Port Askaig.
The Islay distilleries are grouped around three locations; Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg in the south just outside Port Ellen, Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Kilchoman in the west and Bunnahabhain, Coal Ila and the still under construction Ardenhoe, in the east just outside Port Askaig. The plan was to visit one group per day.
For our first day we decided to head east from Bowmore, to Bunnahabhain distillery, but we stopped in at Islay Square in Bridgend first to visit the Ardenhoe distillery shop. Ardenhoe is the newest distillery on Islay; so new in fact, it isn’t even finished yet (it should open sometime this year). Owned by independent bottler, Hunter Laing and designed under the guidance of the legendary Jim McEwan, Ardenhoe will occupy one of the most scenic location on Islay, on the road to Bunnahabhain, with the humorously named Paps of Jura in the background.
Until the distillery opens, you can only visit the shop in Bridgend. I was thoroughly underwhelmed by the Ardenhoe shop, the staff seem to know next to nothing about the distillery apart from where it was and that it had two stills. You could buy some merch, Hunter Laing whisky or even a yet to exist cask of Ardenhoe for a cool £7,000 – I passed on all three.
We continued to Bunnahabhain, driving past the Ardenhoe construction site on the way. This was the day after the Bunnahabhain open day and the distillery was shrouded in mist and seemingly deserted on our arrival. It wasn’t long though until some other people showed up and then the distillery staff.
Our first Islay distillery tour wasn’t a tour at all, but rather a special tasting.
Our guide Sarah collected us from the distillery shop and led us to Warehouse 9. Inside, we sat on church pews surrounded by casks while Sarah introduced each of the five casks lined up in front of us. (I will flesh this tasting out later, since it turned out to be my favourite on Islay)
Of the five casks, only one was peated which may seem unusual for Islay but Bunnahabhain produce a number of unpeated whiskies. It should be noted, all these casks are selected because they are interesting and are not part of stock reserved for any particular Bunnahabhain expression; this whisky can only be sampled here at the distillery.
The whiskies tasted were a 14yo full maturation PX NOE cask at 54.8% which was uncharacteristically pale in colour; a 13yo full maturation Manzinia cask at 51.3%; an 8yo full maturation Spanish Raoja red wine cask at 57.3% (my favourite of the bunch); an unknown age finished in a Muscat cask at 55.4% and lastly a lightly peated (35ppm) 14yo, aged 9 years in ex-bourbon and finished for 4 years in a PX cask at 53.4%.
This was a cracking selection (which changes as casks run out) and the 60min Warehouse 9 Experience lasted closer to 90min, with some highly enjoyable conversation and generous pours from Sarah. Definite recommendation from me.
Next, we drove a little up the road towards Port Askaig, to Coal Ila distillery. Owned by Diageo, this is the workhorse distillery on Islay producing a whopping 5 million litres a year with potential to produce up to 6.4 million litres if they switched from a five-day to a seven-day schedule. Most whisky produced by Caol Ila (80%) is used for blends, primarily Johnnie Walker, and all but one week’s production per year is peated. We turned up at the distillery without a booking and were lucky enough to jump onto a cask strength tour just about to begin, since two people hadn’t shown up. Our Guide Emma took us on a fairly standard tour of the distillery and despite having a still house with one of the best views in the business, you were not allowed to take any photos.
The tasting took place in an old cooperage building with five whiskies, two from the standard range and three single casks that are not available for sale. These included the 15yo unpeated at 61.5% which is interestingly casked at 70% rather than the industry standard of 63.5%; the 10yo refill bourbon and recharred European oak at 58.2%; a 6yo refill bourbon at 60.9%; a 12yo first fill bourbon at 61.9% and lastly a 22yo fully matured first fill sherry cask at 55.5%. All the whiskies were rather unremarkable with the last one being the only one I enjoyed. The pours were also quite stingy, perhaps 20ml at best. A forgettable experience.
We finished the day by visiting the world-famous Islay Woollen Mill on the way back to Bowmore. This place was awesome, with 1900-era equipment still in use today. Owner/operator Gordon Covell has produced woven fabrics for royalty, top designers and big-budget Hollywood films such as Braveheart. On arrival, Gordon’s son Marcus gave as a quick tour of the mill and even ran the equipment, so we could see it in action. I really enjoyed this visit and just had to buy a cool hat.
We even got to share a story with Gordon who told us about a tourist who tried to haggle the price down and left without anything when told the price is what it is. He returned the next day and was shocked that the price was more than the previous day. When he asked why, Gordon wry response was, “well that was yesterday’s price” and the guy ended up paying more than if he has just paid the previous day. The lesson? Don’t mess with Gordon and it’s best to just pay the ticketed price. Trust me, the products are worth it.
We met up with Brian for dinner in Bowmore and shared distillery stories before retiring for the night. Tomorrow, we head south for the Kildalton trio?