Monday, May 26, 2014

Scotland 2014 Day 3: Islay and the Bruichladdich Whisky Tour

Scotland 2014 Day 3: Islay and the Bruichladdich Whisky Tour

Today I was up a little early, presumably due to the jet lag, but generally slept pretty well. I watched some BBC1 Scotland news while Matt got ready for the day. It was fun, local stories about rugby and cricket, and a young girl who is a weight-lifting champion. Good times. :)

Wow, I forgot about this. Instead of playing junk or repeats, some BBC channels have hours of operation instead
Now here's some British weather!
The silly old telephone-shaped showerhead!
And then... BREAKFAST. Wow. The smoked salmon... omg!!!!!!!!! It was totally out-of-control awesome. It was SO fresh. The guy running the place said it was from Loch Fyne and WOW it was so good. The eggs were from a local farm and were also totally exceptional. Matt loved his breakfast as well, and the sausage and eggs he had also looked epic. There were also yoghurts available and yes... they were also spot-on. This was a really great way to start the 2nd day of the trip!

Heev psyched for an epic local breakfast
Good times!
Loch Fyne Salmon: This was quite literally the best (or "fynest"?!) Salmon I've ever tasted
We finished breakfast and checked out, and made the very short drive to the ferry. It was super organized there, they had our tickets ready to go, and we hung around for a bit while they started to prepare the ferry for loading. There were a lot of cars already lined up there, and especially awesome was a very sweet older lady, who was SO happy and excited. It was VERY funny to watch and really quite heartwarming. She and her group seemed to have binoculars, and most of the men (presumably, bored or half-asleep husbands) sat in the cars and continued to sleep, but the majority of the women were out and looking around. Since they all had binoculars, we presumed they were "birders", people traveling and looking for birds. The nice older lady was so funny, as the clouds broke further out on the horizon she said, "I see SUN over there!!!" It was just awesome. I wanted to give her a high-five for being so awesome, or whatever the Scottish equivalent of high-fiving an old lady is (say, "cheersing" her with a teacup of Earl Grey tea).

Ferry to Islay
This lady on the left was SO excited, it was very sweet and funny. She seemed to be on a "birder" trip with another couple or two. She was SO happy for this trip, you could see it on her face the entire journey. It was awesome.
The UK also is better at making biscuits than any other country ever.
Goodbye Kintyre, onwards to Islay!
We got onto the ferry and soon after it started moving. I sat in the coffee car section and a couple from Edinburgh noticed my backpack and immediately struck up a conversation. They were super nice and gave us a bunch of advice on what to see and do, including advice to take the Malaig to Armadale ferry when going to Skye from Fort William instead of driving the Skye Bridge twice, so as to allow us the ability to see the "Harry Potter" train viaduct where the steam train was filmed for the movies. Pretty awesome advice. The man was super nice and the wife as well, and they were so excited we were seeing so much of their country.

At some point the man, whose name was -  I'm not kidding - Robin Mackenzie, perhaps the most Scottish name of all time, said something particularly hilarious. We were talking about driving the car around and I think we mentioned something about being happy that it wasn't a convertible, or something about the weather being unpredictable or something like that. He said a very sidelined comment and grinned like a cheshire cat, something about going around Scotland with our "taps aff". I wasn't entirely sure as he said it in the most British dry-humour way possible, and also he said it right in front of his wife, so I wasn't sure, though she was super chill and funny too so I think she grinned too... but I had a good feeling it was a hilariously cheeky comment and a Gaelic double-entendre. Sure enough, we found out later that it was. He was talking about driving with the "top down" on the car, and had referenced a Gaelic term for taking one's shirt off ("taps aff" i.e. "tops off"). Matt and I pondered for a while later in the day as to if this was what he meant, and only days later found out that he was in fact making a hilarious, under-the-radar, off-colour joke in front of his wife. Incredible.

Robin and his wife were staying on the farm of the Barley producer for Bruichladdich and they were excited for their trip as well. We chatted for a long while before heading upstairs to see the views a bit better and to have a biscuit, tea, and some Scottish tablet (assumed this would be like fudge, but it was more like just melted brown sugar). I caught up on my journal notes too and also smiled at that nice old lady from earlier who was still PSYCHED to be there.

As the Isle of Jura and Isle of Islay came into view, we went up onto the deck and hung out with Robin and his wife again, "Quite impending, in'it?" he said. Yes, it was! We got closer to Islay and then saw the "Ferry" to Jura which is a 5 min ride across a small waterway from Port Askaig. Jura looked tiny, literally just one road. They said there is literally one road, and 1 pub. :) Port Askaig wasn't a whole lot bigger, as we arrived and got off the ferry to see that Port Askaig was a grand total of approximately 3 buildings. Post office/restaurant/hotel and... done!

One lone farmhouse
Awesome castley situation as we arrive in Port Askaig

We went up "the" hill there and immediately saw a Caol Ila Distillery sign, so we followed it. It was down a windy, single-track road, a tiny road which was so unexpected while traveling towards a multi-million dollar business. So quaint and awesome. And what a view!

The long, windy, single track road on the way to Caol Ila Distillery

We didn't have time for the tour at Caol Ila but we stopped to check out the shop anyway. They gave us a small 5ml pour of the Cask Strength Feis Ile 2013 special Whisky, which rocked. It was £99, so quite pricey, but so good and with just light smokeyness. It they had a sampler or 20cl size, I would have bought it. Feis Ile is the special yearly event on Islay, the week-long Whisky Festival. It's actually at the end of May so we're JUST missing it, but I bet it would have been awesome (and crazy here on the Island). Anyhow, was awesome to try this special edition!

Caol Ila!
Ach aye!
Wow, I am gonna buy a LOT of souveniers this trip
They had some awesome gift stuff there. The girl at the counter was HILARIOUS as she talked about the rain. "Strange that the rain is coming straight down, it's usually all 'slanty-ways'!" She elaborated about the wind, "Ach, I'm glad it's not windy today. I hate the wind... I *HAAATE* IT!!!" This was SO "Merida". It was just a hilarious conversation she was having with herself, and the fiery red-haired Scottish passion came out in her utter disdain for the wind. It was really funny, and you can imagine how Pixar crafted the character of Merida using girls like this as inspiration. Amazing.

Next we went to Finlaggan, a historic site, former home of the MacDonald clan who ruled a large part of Scotland. There were some relics there along with an nice lady/historian there who was pleased to see us and tell us lots of details. We walked out onto the little Island and took photos of a bazillion sheep that were hanging out everywhere. The lambs were hilarious and amazing.

Stream at Finlaggan
Walking around Finlaggan
Former stone houses
More sheep!
Don't be steppin'
Sheep crossing sign
Sheep crossing :)
And then... to Bruichladdich!!!!!!! To me it seemed that Bruichladdich would be the Pixar/ILM of Whisky Distilleries -- a total oddball of a place, super creative, lots of strange and epic goings-on, and not a lot of respect for 'the rules'. This was entirely, and exactly, what Bruichladdich was like. (Aside: this was also by FAR the most awesome distillery tour we went on during the entire Scotland trip).

It started with their ridiculously awesome barrel signage at the front. The distillery name was painted in their trademark font and colours on barrels at the front, and a copper still was there with a fake dummy propped up in there for some reason. Amazing.

We're here! At Bruichladdich!
Just as long as we don't end up inside a copper still like this fellow did, this day will go well :)
Upon walking into the shop, we were immediately greeted with a "Would you's like a dram? Peated or Unpeated?" Naturally, we're on Islay, so the answer should be "Peated, please!"

The shop was awesome. Truly AWESOME. They had a bike jersey! I'm holding out to get the Ardbeg one tomorrow, and who knows how many distilleries will have jerseys as biking seems really popular here. They had some cool shirts as well as some awesome Bruichladdich-coloured tartan scarves. Slick.

And... you can taste ANYTHING. Including many only available at the distillery
Wow, awesome clothing. And a bike jersey already!
We wandered the shop, enjoying our Port Charlotte drams, and then headed onto the tour. It was the last tour of the day, and a Saturday, so our tour guide was totally awesome and said, "We're just gonna have a good time today." And oh man, did we ever.

We started on the tour and he showed us the machinery, which was all wood (whereas some of this would be stainless steel at other distilleries) -- another reason why Bruichladdich is so weird unique. :)

In the tanks, he showed us where they get dirty and said that other distilleries have automated cleaning as part of the stainless steel tanks, but "we just have a guy named Charlie with a brush and a hose." haha. Hilariously, he's not kidding - I think we walked by Charlie, who was sitting on the steps and eating a sandwich.

The first step is the "Wart". They add the barley with warm water (of varying temperatures as the days progress), this mixes together for a few days and contains 2 elements, the "Mash" and the liquid part. The Mash is then sold off to local farms to make "happy cows" - in fact it doesn't contain alcohol, but it is a high-protein feed for animals. The liquid part remaining is called the "Wash". Yeast is added, and it bubbles away for a while, creating a sort of lukewarm beer. As our tour guide said, to make whisky, first you have to make beer. Insanely, we actually got to TRY the wash, which is unbelievable and very unusual to get this opportunity.

"We don't have a fancy cleaning system, we just have a guy named George with a brush and a hose."
"Wash", a taste of the pre-Whisky beer!
At this point, the wash is then put into a copper still. It is headed to 95C or so, and the alcohol boils off since it has a boiling point less than the boiling of water. The copper tube then narrows, cooling the alcohol vapor, and it is then collected (this is the "distilling" process).

This distillation comes in 3 stages, the head, the heart, and the tail. (We also heard the word the "Feints" thrown around). The first stage contains Methanol (i.e., windshield washer fluid), and is not consumable. It is collected and not used. The second contains Ethanol (the "new make") which is the alcohol that humans can drink. The distillation is stopped when the third stage new make is too weak and no longer contains enough alcohol. At this point, the first and third stages can be mixed together and re-distilled and again produce the 3 stages, where only the middle is kept.

Ugly Betty
Wash still
Spirit still
Spirit still and still safe
The"new make" is a very high-alcohol content spirit, approx 67%. We got to have "a taste" (though, we just put it up to our lips only, it was incredibly strong). We did though also try rubbing it on our hands - first it smells like rubbing alcohol only, but you keep rubbing your hands and soon it smells malty like grain. Awesome. To make Whisky, then the New Make is transferred to barrels and aged. This is what gives the whisky its colour and it's unique flavour.

During this demonstration, he also talked about "The Botanist", a Gin that Bruichladdich makes. Apparently, Gin is basically similar to Vodka. Usually it's flavoured with 8 or 9 botanical plants, and these are just thrown into the still itself and boiled. But, at Bruichladdich, they instead have a botanical container that is attached to the still. The botanicals are put in there, and the alcohol vapor passes over the botanicals instead of being boiled with them. They said this gives their Gin a more subtle flavour. Interesting stuff.

After this awesome discussion, we headed to the warehouse to see the barrels. This was epic. There were barrels from Wine, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Buffalo Trace, and more. Some really fancy wine barrels were there as well. Then we went over to taste some more things... and oh man, was it epic.

And into the warehouse we go!
Clear Red wine cask
Next we actually got to try some very special whiskies. This was totally nuts and we were really getting the royal treatment. I tell you, this has really made me excited about Bruichladdich in the future -- they are such an impressive place, and the customer service and love of the craft is so apparent. They are so different from other distilleries and just so odd, so creative, and so awesome. This whole experience certainly makes me want to explore more of their whiskies in the future.

We first got to try a very small amount of the 25 year old (1989) Bruichladdich. Crazy smooth.

And then for the piece-de-resistance... we got to try the 2002 12-year old Octomore "First edition". Bruichladdich versions their Octomores (like software!) so you could say this was pre-1.0 Octomore, like a "Octomore Beta Edition". It was never bottled. I think he even said this was the first cask of Octomore too... WHAT?!! It was not bottled as it was "only" 89 PPM of Peat, and their intention was to totally go over-the-top with Peat. Their eventual bottled Octomore was 167 PPM once it got to market. I couldn't believe we got to taste it. "This does not have a cost" he said as he poured us quite a generous portion to share. Incredible, just incredible. We told him that our buddy Lee (who's wedding it is next week) would be SO jealous that we got to do this, and he told us he'd give us a little gift to take him from Bruichladdich. Man this distillery is amazing.

OMG. Demonstration of water into Whisky and the oil separation
Octomore 2002
And then... we got to try this
Heev VERY psyched
Yep. Then we tried Octomore "Beta" edition, one of only 2 of these casks remaining
Back we went to the shop and I tried a bunch more stuff. It was so crazy that anything and everything was available to taste, and we even tasted some of The Botanist Gin. It was good, but our tastebuds were totally whiskied-out so we stuck to that. We bought shirts, and tasting glasses, and Heev poured his own Port Charlotte directly from the cask. We tried a few more things and I ended up buying a bottle of the "Bere Barley, 2nd Edition". Bere Barley is a very old barley plant and that strain may have been the first one ever used to make whisky many thousands of years ago. Pretty crazy, huh?

From their website:

Refined with a feline grace, the spirit is smooth, streamlined with the warmth of an Indian summer.

Straw yellow.

The bouquet is totally disarming. Add a dash of water to tease the shy aromatics of water lily, buttercup, gorse and fern before floral notes mingle with the aromas of sweet malt and brown sugar. Then gooseberry, pear, apple and lemon are met by malted barley rising in harmony with the vanilla rich oak. A revelation of how pure and crisp a young single malt can be.
The texture is so very succulent. Lemon meringue laced with warm honey, then the tidal surge of slow-distilled spirit that floods the palate with wave after wave of delicious The texture is so very succulent – lemon meringue drizzled with warm honey, then the tidal surge of slow distilled spirit floods the palate with wave after wave of delicious soft fruits, as lush as one will ever discover in a single malt. A super sweet, butterkist flavour with just a hint of summer flowers and you realise you are in the company of something wonderful, something rare.soft fruits as one will ever discover in a single malt. You realise you are in the company of something wonderful, something rare. A super sweet butterkist flavour, with just a hint of wild summer flowers. The mid-palate introduces the oak character which gives us glazed hazelnuts.

It is very impressive for a spirit so young and a grain so old. There is an air of gentle grace and innocence that ascends from this spirit that I have never before experienced. A refined, delicate, beautiful whisky that will haunt you for a long time.

Flirty, mischievous, devil may care.

A video on Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2nd Edition:

And finally, something crazy they told us about. They QUADRUPLE-distilled some new make for some guys from a car show, up to 95% alcohol, so it could be used to FUEL A SPORTS CAR. This is how crazy these people are. Amazing. Check this out! (Watch from 1 min 40 sec).

Ok back to my photos. Heev labelled his own bottle and we bought a pile of stuff and then headed out for a wander.

Heev pouring his own bottle of Port Charlotte
Labelling his own bottle
Awesome bottles on the ceiling
Time for a walk
On our way to the coffee shop, we ran into some Canadians from the Yukon! That was kinda crazy. We got to the coffee shop and I bought a super epic carrot cake slice and totally crushed it. We continued to wander for a bit.

Matt was very responsible and had not tasted very much so we were able to make our way towards the guesthouse, Tigh-na-suil, in Lagavulin. On the way there we stopped in the town of Bowmore at the Co-op, and I got some Wine Gums and Walkers Crisps.

In Bowmore... didn't expect to see this! A historic building, not sure if it was at one point a Synagogue?
Man we really need some Delicious Squidgy Energy right now
We got to Lagavulin, parked, and met our hosts for the next 2 nights: Dot and Don! They were awesome. And... sleep. I was totally done, jet-lagged, tired, and... yeah. So, I totally napped for like 2 hrs.

I got up a little later and went with Matt into Port Ellen, just a few min. drive. We went to the White Hart Hotel for dinner at a pub, and we got Fish and Chips, naturally. What I didn't expect was that it was a HUGE piece of fish, it was nuts! Also we had some salad and a solid amount of water... certainly no need for any more whisky tasting tonight!

Dinnertime, a MASSIVE fish and chips
Epic Islay Sunset in Port Ellen, with Diageo Malting plant in the background
The pub where we had dinner
Port Ellen
We took a walk after dinner to work down dinner, and took some photos. As Schmidt from "New Girl" would say, we also saw a good amount of "Street Youths", just a bunch of teenagers "hanging about". It was a Friday night in the bustling metropolis of Port Ellen, pop. 3000, and if you're over the drinking age you're probably either at home or at the pub. If you're under that, then you're probably just hanging around on the street, I guess? In London, Ontario we had a similar issue... nothing to do in the evenings, and so there we relied on the bowling alley for our general loitering purposes ;)

It was nice to get a bit of a walk in after dinner and also to continue to help us adjust to the time zone correctly. We got back to the B&B at 9:30ish, chatted for a couple hours, had some tea, and went to sleep. Tomorrow is another big day of Islay Whisky Tours, though I'm certain it won't be as crazy as Bruichladdich.

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