Right on the heels of my ‘girls weekend’ in Dublin was a group trip to the Isle of Islay, one of the western Hebridean islands of Scotland; a well know regional producer of single malt scotchs. So after my husband picked me up at the airport, we swung by our house to exchange my Dublin bag for my pre-packed Islay bag, and then picked up our two carpooling companions.
About a year ago a few of our friends purchased a cask of scotch (at the distilling stage – so they are going to age it for a number of years and then bottle it) from the Bruichladdich Distillery; so the purpose of the trip was to visit their barrel and tour several of the distilleries on the island. So my trip to the Jameson Old Distillery in Dublin, was a warm up for this weekend!
To get to Islay we had to take a ferry; and therefore, get to the terminal by a certain time. That didn’t look to be a problem during the drive, but with an hour left in the drive a car crash closed the road, for about 45 minutes (fortunately we were ahead of schedule). The back up was long enough that people put their cars in park and got out and walked around. It turns out that many of them where also headed to the ferry, as I would later recognize their faces on Islay. Once the road re-opened, we only just made it to the ferry terminal. We didn’t land on Islay until after the sun went down, so I’d have to wait til morning to get the lay of the (is)land.
First item on the agenda for Friday morning was a visit to Bruichladdich to ‘hug the cask’, and then do a tasting. Bruichladdich is one of the nine working distilleries on the island. It closed in 1994, when the international popularity of scotch declined, reopening in 2001. Since its reopening, the distillery fiercely prides itself on reputation for being progressive and experimental with their scotchs: experimenting with different peeting levels, finishing the malts in different casks, and continuing to store their casks on the island – as opposed to shipping them make to the Scottish mainland for storage.
I don’t consider myself a scotch drinker, but since we were at the distillery I decided to participate in the tasting. (As our time slot was at 11am, I was thankful that it was one of the days that I actually ate breakfast!) The woman leading our tasting was very engaging and knowledgeable about the scotch process, and I found that while I maybe didn’t like all of the scotchs that we sampled I did like a few of them. Further more, in the shop after the tasting they were fairly accommodating about letting people taste scotch that wasn’t part of the tasting before purchase. To my surprise they also distill a very good gin ‘The Botanist’, that I picked up a bottle of (very junipery for those of you on the fence about gin).
After the tasting I had had enough of sampling gin for the day, when the cab picked up the rest of the group for tastings at Laphroaig and Lagavulin, I headed out with my friend and her young daughter to see some of the island. She took me to a small square that houses several craft & artisan shops; which houses the local micro brewery, a specialty foods shop, and picture & framing gallery. Visiting during the week in mid-September, it was pretty quite, and you could definitely tell it was the off season. From there is was off to a local restaurant on the water for lunch. We both got lasagna, and it was very good, but there is a difference between US & UK lasagna. In the states I grew up with a lasagna where the pasta sheets are layered with tomato sauce and seasoned ricotta cheese, topped with mozzarella. Over here the lasagna is layers with tomato and a cheese sauce (like an alfredo) and then often topped with a mild cheddar; and I don’t think the recipe was unique to this restaurant, since in the grocery stores I see jars labeled lasagna white sauce. I’m assuming that cheddar cheese topping is because the UK is known for their cheddars, so it is the local cheese of choice.
After lunch (with a warm meal in me – and it being a few hours since the tasting) my friend dropped me back off at the distillery to pick up the car and I brought it back to our rental house while she ran a few errands with her daughter. On my drive back the sun was still shining and the road along the coast is beautiful. Aside from the distillery industry (and the holiday industry that accompanies it), the other main industry on the island is animal farming. It was very common to brake for either sheep or cattle in the roads. On my drive back I did see a sign for museum about the island, and a lot of the island looked like it would be nice to hike; but I think if you are looking for activities besides relaxing and tasting scotch, you should be sure to come in the summer when the water would be warm enough to swim in. But it is a very relaxing and pretty place; not built up like a lot of the other vacation towns I have been to.
By about 4:30pm the weather started to turn, and the other tasters were back having not had lunch (except for nibbles offered at one tasting, gummy bears they found in a camera bag, and the one member who thought ahead and packed a sandwich). In their state they were eager to get dinner underway and picked up some spare peat to put on the charcoal grill. Since it was threatening to rain they set up the grill near the front door of the house to provide some wind cover, and we ended up peating the downstairs of the house.
The next day was a little bit of a more relaxed pace, with only one distillery visit planned in the morning, and a smaller group participating. I offered to drive to the Caol Isla Distillery, and therefore, only drank half of my tastings, but I was quite impressed with them. Caol Ila is owned my the Diageo group, and much of its distillery production is earmarked for blending into Johnnie Walker (which can sometimes give them a bad rap). Conscious of this, the distillery does a good job offering some of their more uniquely aged single malt scotchs (that aren’t widely distributed internationally) at their tasting. In fact their tasting included five drams, where as most distilleries ranged from 3 to 4.
The rest of our group met up with us at Caol Ila (driving reinforcements), and before we went to lunch in Bowmore (the biggest town on the island) we stopped by the Islay Woolen Mill. The mill still makes traditional Scottish woolen (and cashmere) products: blankets, hats, sweaters, and you can purchase bolt fabric to take to a tailor for a suit. They also made several of the tartans for the movie Braveheart.
Also on our way into Bowmore we swung back by the craft workshops square again and bought beer from the micro brewery for dinner.
After lunch, since we were in Bowmore, we went to the distillery there. We didn’t do an official tasting, but the group ordered flights of whiskeys, and it was like a self-guided tasting. The Bowmore Distillery is the oldest on Islay and occupies a prime piece of real estate along the water. So while the group tasted I took pictures:
That evening we grilled again, but the weather was clearer and we moved the grill to a more suitable location down by the water. It must have been ‘mackerel season’ because the water was swimming with them, and the local restaurant even sent one of its workers down who was catching baskets and baskets of mackerel. (I’m assuming they put it up as the special for the evening.) We were already stocked with chicken and steak to grill, but did buy three fish off of two local boys on the pier. We paid a flat 5 pounds, which must be way above market rate because the kid kept trying to give us more as he caught them (I think we should have thrown cleaning and gutting the fish in to the deal).
Sunday morning we headed back to the ferry, but drove back to Yorkshire a different way through Campbeltown. Campbeltown was once a distillery hub, but as distilleries started to cut corners to compete, their reputation suffered and scotches from the area fell out of favor. Today the town only has one distillery that has about three different lines of scotch. Campbell town was a lot larger than I was excepting for a distillery port town (particularly after being on Islay), but it since it was Sunday, many of the local shops were closed. At Campbeltown there was another ferry to catch to get us near Glasgow; and after that it was about a four hour drive, putting us back home around midnight.
All in all it was a great weekend, and it let me see the Scottish countryside, where previously only I had only been in cities. And with a more open perspective on, and like for, scotch.