What better way to visit the distilleries on Islay and Jura than on foot? Dominic Roskrow and a Whisky Magazine team have done just that
If you’ve ever followed the coast tour of Port Ellen on Islay and visited the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg you’ll know what a special experience it is.If you do it on foot after two solid days of walking, rowing cycling and you’re accompanied by a raggle-taggle posse of distillery workers and industry personnel, then it’s an experience that straddles the surreal and the sublime.Throw in a few surprises – a quadruple whammy of treats from the distilleries in question – and I’m not sure it can get any better.As we dragged our aching limbs up the drive of Laphroaig they set off the fire siren to greet us, and we were met by the affable John Campbell, the island’s youngest manager, with a large and very welcome glass of Laphroaig Quarter Cask.At Lagavulin we were taken in to the warehouse to taste the distillery’s oldest whisky, a 1969 Lagavulin straight from the cask. Drinking such a sensational whisky among such a wonderful group of people puts it right up there as one of my greatest whisky moments.And from there we crossed the line from sublime to surreal when Lagavulin employee and Pillaged Malts organiser Kevin Campbell led us quite literally down his garden path to his shed, named the Washback Bar, for a sample of this year’s stunning Pillaged Malt, containing whisky from all Islay and Jura’s distilleries as well as Bushmills in Northern Ireland. And from there we finally staggered our way to Ardbeg where blow me, they’ve hired a piper to play us home. And as the piper played and the gathering applauded, well it was hard not to be emotional as well as very tired. And I’m not even Scottish.The Islay and Jura ‘triathlon’ had started off as a slightly crazy idea at Christmas and blossomed in to an event with a life of its own, mainly due to the intervention of Christine Logan, who never does anything by halves.It was simple really. I was due to be on Islay to preview Feis Ile, which takes place at the end of May. And as we’d collected 20-yearold Speyside whisky last year to mark the 20th anniversary of Live Aid to raise money for Make Poverty History, why not do the same with Islay this year?And in doing so, why not walk, cycle and row our way round the nine distilleries?So it was that myself, former Whisky Magazine Editor Marcin Miller, Annabel Meikle of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and Islay resident Donald Macintyre ended up on the two most glorious days of the year so far yomping from Jura Distillery to Ardbeg.DAY ONE When you wake up with the dawn to see two fully grown stags just outside your bedroom window, then life has to be pretty good. There are 5,000 deer on Jura so this isn’t a big deal to the locals, but I took it as a positive sign anyway.And accompanied for a mile or so by Michael Heads from the Jura Distillery and with the sun shining, we set off on the first eight miles back to the ferry in jovial mood. Indeed, so good was our pace that we made an earlier ferry, crossed over to Islay and were at Caol Ila earlier than planned.I hadn’t been back here since I travelled with Ian Buxton some two years ago. In that time, and from a virtual standing start, Caol Ila has been one of the great success stories of the whisky world. The stand-out bottlings here are the Cask Strength and the 18 Year Old, but you wouldn’t turn any of them away.Bunnahabhain’s manager John McLellan is outspoken irreverent and funny, so having him as a walking companion is an advantage. It’s about six miles from the ferry to Caol Ila and over to Bunnahabhain so lunch and a drop or two of the excellent 18 Year Old was most welcome.Wish I hadn’t succumbed to the lure of a portwood finish on the way to the bikes though.Note to remember: if you want to cycle around Islay pick up or leave your bike at the lovely pottery at the top of what is a very long and steep hill down to the distillery.My cause wasn’t helped by the fact that a) I hadn’t ridden a real bike for 30 years b) it had 21 gears when I had been used to three and c) my gears were more slippery than an eel in oil. Oh, and I’d had a whisky or two.We were joined by Ileach Editor Brian Palmer and a cycling friend of his for this stretch but I have to admit that watching my colleagues disappear in to the distance while I began to hallucinate was a definite low point. And so we headed West to Kilchoman, where all has not been sweetness and light these past few weeks. Production problems have dogged the distillery’s very noble attempts to produce whisky, made all the worse by any number of people doing impressions of comedian Harry Enfield’s ‘you don’t want to do it like that’ character.The hardest blow, though, came when the kiln caught fire and threatened to bring the whole distillery to a shuddering halt.“It has been tough,” says Anthony Wills.“We’d have hoped to have made more whisky than we have and we’re now playing catch up. And we have made mistakes. But that’s all part and parcel of setting out on a project like this.” But they have made whisky, and the warehouse is starting to look as it should. We taste the new-make which is less peaty than we might have expected and certainly different to the likes of Ardbeg. Watching a distillery being born is a fascinating experience.We end our 30 mile cycling leg at Bruichladdich, where we are warmly greeted by the entire management team headed by Mark Reynier, who proudly shows off his new Italian bottling machinery, which is being installed that evening.“I don’t know how many bottles it does an hour,” he says “except that it’s a hell of a lot. And it will revolutionise what we’re doing with Bruichladdich.” We get to try X4 Perilous Whisky, the controversial quadruple-distilled product that has stirred up a bucket-load of interest from the national media. The attention brought an all but instant rebuke from the Scotch Whisky Association, fortifying the view at the distillery that it’s being picked on.My view on Bruichladdich is that it gets four out of five of its projects right, but occasionally scores an own goal – and this was one of them, attracting attention for all the wrong reasons.But to his credit Reynier sticks to his guns and after three teaspoons of the best new make I have ever tasted, I not only accept that the experiment to create the whisky is justified, but promise to swim across Loch Indaal the following morning if I can repeat the exercise.DAY TWO I don’t have to swim from Bruichladdich to Bowmore, but we do have to row – to the general amusement of Kevin Campbell and his team, who escort us on a trawler. It’s not pretty but we cover the three miles and overcome some challenging tides to reach Bowmore and a large glass of the new and very enjoyable 16 Year Old cask strength Bowmore.Like Jura, Bowmore has been upgrading its visitor accommodation, providing Islay and Jura with a welcome boost for the tourist trade. Ian ‘Percy’ MacPherson, who is another that doesn’t mince his words, joins us for the 11 mile walk up to the Port Ellen maltings and sets out a brisk pace that keeps us honest.By now, though, I’m suffering from pretty bad chaffing, the sun is positively warm, and I can’t wait to reach the maltings, where we’re royally looked after by manager Peter Campbell, Diageo general manager Steve McGringle, and various staff.We’ve collected some pretty special whisky during the day, but a sample of 25 Year Old Port Ellen is a real highlight, and there is a certain spring in our step as we head down to the Kildalton distilleries.By the time we’ve downed a couple of glasses of Ardbeg with Stuart and Jackie Thomson, we don’t want to leave. Ever.And for a few hours at least, we don’t have to. For by happy coincidence there is a press dinner at the distillery to launch Still Young, a seven years and a bit Ardbeg to complement the six year old Very Young.The idea is to show the progress of Ardbeg up to the standard 10 Year Old, and next year there will be another release called Almost There.Still Young is a marvellous addition to the family, with sweet soft fruit notes asserting themselves through the peat – altogether more sophisticated than the Very Young but without being any less exciting.Some time very late Stuart pours us a Lord of the Isles and tells us about the time David Bowie rang him up about a rare Bowie album Stuart owned.I’m tired and aching, it’s been a long day. But great whisky, great company, a great distillery and great stories make for another chart-topping magical malt moment.Two in one day. Pinch me, I must be dreaming. Nope, I’m just on Islay.Special thanks to:Christine Logan, Lily Logan, Brian Palmer,Neil and Islay MacEachem, Kevin Campbell, Catherine MacTaggart, Phil Pardington, Peter Ferguson, Jim Brown, Duncan Heads,Martine Nouet, and all the managers and staff at the distilleries on Islay and Jura
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