That's the spirit-

That's the spirit-

Mystery visitor goes to Islay

Travel | 16 Oct 2002 | Issue 26

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There are all kinds of ghosts on Islay. The land is scattered with abandoned crofts and deserted farms; ruined chapels and burial grounds are littered apparently at random, the settlements which gave birth to them long gone; there are earthworks, standing stones, duns, cairns, ancient crosses, forts and stone circles at every turn. MacDonald, Lord of the Isles held court at Loch Finlaggan and, even today, you can row out across the dark water and inspect the site of his original castle and the chapel where his clansmen worshipped. The very place names hint at ancient battles and blood feuds and the Gaelic songs tell of clans and ancestral lands now lost in all but myth and legend.So the Mystery Visitor came like a wraith by sea, slipping quietly onto this enchanted island and, like a phantom, through its distillery centres. But this was no restless spirit or mischievous poltergeist, but rather a benign and friendly apparition seeking as it were the angel’s share of the tourist experience – that spectral two per cent lost to the atmosphere, yet essential to the finished product. Distilling ghosts, too, are abroad, with both Ardbeg and Bruichladdich back from the dead in recent years. So, in alphabetical order, I haunted the still houses of Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.I had the highest expectations of Ardbeg. Even other distillers speak highly of this new centre, and so much has been written that is positive that I put on my Mr Grumpy hat and stomped around looking for faults. This, surely, was too tempting a target to ignore. Here’s what I found: pictures hanging a little squint; a cracked cistern lid in a toilet and a café that had run out of steak sandwiches by the time I ordered. This was not what I was looking for. This was not nearly bad enough, so in the interests of prejudice and bias, I returned a few days later – in the mood for trouble.But it’s next to impossible to fault the delightful reception centre, with its café,community meeting space, shop and interpretation gallery. This really is a model of its kind – welcoming, solicitous without being obsequious and on an entirely appropriate scale. The staff are enthusiastic and friendly. The food is just excellent – generous portions, high quality and ‘home made’ in the very best sense of that much-maligned phrase. The heritage displays are elegant and concise. I wish I could say as much for the tour itself, but some work is needed here. Our guide was enthusiastic to the point of obsession and, in fact, several members of the group discreetly slipped away long before her conclusion. The narrative combined science, brand propaganda, heritage, local anecdote, general badinage and much more, in a rambling but dangerously close to incoherent meandering discourse. If you didn’t already understand the distilling process at the start, you certainly wouldn’t by the end. Without any visual aids we were left floundering by her well-meant but ultimately frustrating zeal. Top marks, then, for the setting and the welcome but Ardbeg must try considerably less hard on the tour!Bowmore is a ‘must see’ on any tour of Islay, if only for the floor maltings and the setting itself. The distillery was founded in 1779 and has developed its idiosyncratic layout at the hands of a variety of subsequent owners. It was something of a pioneer in the tour business, though even now there is no interpretation centre as such, just a simple shop and dramming room.The tour itself was excellent, with a concise yet thorough explanation from Norma, our capable guide. She did not allow my rambling questions to distract her, and her enthusiasm for both her employers and their products shone through.The floor maltings make it well worth the visit, to gain a better understanding of the malting process and how whisky was traditionally made. There are few enough places where you can see a floor maltings in action (Laphroaig is one of the others) and savour the once-experienced-never- to-be-forgotten peat reek of the maltings floor.Norma was honest enough to volunteer that not all Bowmore’s malt comes from their own traditional maltings, but it remains a vital component in the Bowmore magic. The rest of the distillery is also a visual treat. Head spinning from the smoke and heady aromatic fumes of the malting floor, we were shown the mash tun, with its splendid copper domed cover, the Oregon pine washbacks, the handsome pair of stills and finally admitted to a traditional warehouse with a display of cooper’s tools.It’s all in splendid order and clearly maintained in meticulous condition by the cheerful workforce, who were happy to pause for a second to add a personal touch to the tour. Good job!At Bruichladdich, even the pace of island life slows perceptibly. If we ignore for a moment the planned ‘farm distillery’ at Kilchoman, Bruichladdich is the last distillery operating on the Rinns of Islay – the stout arm of land jutting out into the Atlantic. Silent since 1994, Bruichladdich was reopened in May 2001 by renowned distiller Jim McEwan, backed by the independent bottlers Murray McDavid. Apparently,
sales are encouraging and, this year, production is set to double – though this is still a handcrafted operation.The inestimable Emma, our tour guide, told us something of the new management’s ambitious plans. A bottling hall is under construction and, by September, this mild-mannered malt will be bottled on Islay. Next year, the Whisky Academy will be opened, with residential accommodation provided on site in an old maltings. Naturally, there will be a café and bar. Students at the Academy will spend a week gaining hands-on experience of distilling ‘as it used to be’ and, no doubt, swapping ghost stories at night.So, with the promise that Bruichladdich was unspoilt by progress, I looked in vain for computer screens, highly mechanised systems and the latest in process control. What I found was a small, open mashtun; traditional Oregon pine washbacks and two pairs of stills. The older of these dates back to the 1930s according to the loquacious stillman Duncan McFadyen, still bursting with pride that the distillery is working once again.But their adherence to tradition doesn’t mean that Bruichladdich isn’t innovating. In a nod to the fashion for aggressively phenolic malts they are producing a heavily peated Port Charlotte malt alongside its subtler and more delicate sister. Unusually, you can even order your own cask, though with prices starting from £775 under bond it’s hardly an impulse purchase! Such was the charm of the beguiling Emma, however, that the Mystery Visitor left with at least one bottle to act as a lingering reminder of this endlessly fascinating little distillery. That doesn’t happen everywhere I can assure you. Long may ‘the Laddie’ prosper, though if I were a shareholder I might raise at least the hint of an eyebrow at a stillman with his own business cards.Bunnahabhain lies on the other side of the island, in a dramatic situation opposite Jura. Established, like Bruichladdich, in 1881, it has enjoyed a calmer history under the benign ownership of Highland Distillers. There is no reason for Bunnahabhain to exist other than because of the distillery, and it lies quite literally at the end of the road.Determined visitors who make it along the four miles of single track road are greeted with a small dramming shed and the chance of a personal tour. Unfortunately, the silent season had just started but we were made welcome nonetheless and enjoyed a glass of the light, refined 12-year-old. Whisky author Alfred Barnard tells us that Bunnahabhain was built primarily for blending and, to this day, most of the production will find its way into Cutty Sark, Famous Grouse and Black Bottle though the distillery has recently begun the limited release of cask strength single vintages. For more on Bunnahabhain look out for a forthcoming Distillery Focus. On then, to Islay’s giants – the roaring, peat-soaked phenolic monsters from Lagavulin and Laphroaig, both located close to each other along the magical stretch of coastline that’s also home to the Port Ellen Maltings (and ghost distillery) and, of course, Ardbeg. Lagavulin provides a standard tour, similar in style to the other five Classic Malts. The Guide was very proud of the ‘Star Wars’-style computer system, but its schematics made the whole process totally clear to even a novice visitor and there were clearly benefits in efficiency in a plant that is running hard to keep up with demand. Refreshingly, more than 90% of Lagavulin is now reserved for sale as single malt. The striking pear-shaped stills supply an exclusive bourbon wood regime – no flirtations with wood finishes and fancy barrels here, though we may detect marketing’s work at hand in the Distiller’s Edition.Great credit, too, to Lagavulin for their simple but elegant reception and tasting rooms. These have been converted from an old maltings, and are an extremely convincing recreation of a traditional distillery office, clad throughout in plain tongue-and-groove planking and decorated with pictures of the distillery, circa 1905. I could quite happily have settled in for the afternoon, but duty called us on up the road to the neighbouring Laphroaig. Things got off to a great start. Unlike all its competitors, the Laphroaig tour is free. Considering that you get a very handsome centre and tasting bar, a trim little museum, a real floor maltings and the chance to acquire your very own piece of Islay into the bargain, this seems like real value.Our tour was crisp and delivered at maximum volume by a cheerful guide. It may have been somewhat brisk in manner, but then we lingered in the bar and were free to stroll at leisure in the little museum, so all ended well. The stainless steel mash tun and washbacks seemed a little functional after so much traditional wood and copper elsewhere on the island, but the benefits of efficiency and hygiene were promptly explained and everyone seemed happy. Curiously, it’s actually quite hard to buy anything at Laphroaig! The bottle sales are conducted from behind the bar and, by the time our guide had served the free drams and answered questions, potential customers – who might have picked up an impulse purchase from an open shelf – had begun to drift away.By the end, though, Islay’s distillery tours seemed curiously similar. With so much innovation in ageing, wood finishes, bottling strengths and so on, it wouldn’t seem too hard to introduce some differentiation into the tour product. But I searched in vain for a ‘connoisseur tour’ that offered a deeper experience, with a structured tasting. With Islay catering for an informed and affluent market it must be possible to offer more exploration and education, even at a premium price, and find a ready audience.Little or nothing was done to build post-visit relationships. Lagavulin attempts to capture your name and address for the Friends of the Classic Malts, but that was about it. I couldn’t help feeling an opportunity had been lost. After all, visitors have made a pretty conscious choice to get to Islay and, as I moved around the various distilleries, I saw the same faces taking more than one tour. Surely these were whisky enthusiasts – did no one want to talk to us after we’d left?But we can leave on a positive note. As awards are all the rage, here are the Mystery Visitor’s Islay Awards: Most Charming Guide – Emma at Bruichladdich; Best Food and Nicest Shop – Ardbeg; Clearest Tour – Bowmore; Best Centre – Laphroaig. The others need not despair, however. There were no bad tours, and this really was a pleasant experience, even if it could have been more challenging and the beginning of a wonderful friendship. I will be back, even if I could have done with a little more encouragement. The spectre of the Mystery Visitor will return – Centre Managers, you have been warned!
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