This past September we took a short holiday from Cape Town and travelled around Scotland. We used a motor home, which was budget-friendly given the rand / pound exchange rate.
We had quite a lot on our “must see” list and one of them was to go to as many distilleries as possible while in the land of the brave! We decided to catch a ferry from the mainland port of Kennacraig to the Isle of Islay. The island boasts 8 active distilleries, home to a few of our favourite whiskies. The downside was that there was only one camp site, almost as far away from the majority of the distilleries as it could be. That was not going to stop us from exploring the legendary island of Islay.
We were able to set up two tours and soon realised that given the two days on the island there was not going to be much time for any more. The reason for this is that distillery tours are not like a wine tasting in the Cape. Like the whiskies themselves, they take time. We loved the fact that we were not rushed through the distilleries but instead were slowly taken through each stage of the whisky making process.
Our first tour was at the very quaint Bunnahabhain bay where the 135 year old distillery of the same name lay tucked away. On arrival we were overwhelmed by the distillery’s history and tradition. The buildings looked weathered and invited us to look behind the aged walls, to peer at history.
James, our tour guide, shared some of the stories about the distillery has to offer and explained in great detail each step of the distilling process at Bunnahabhain. He explained that a lot of the equipment and the processes they use today are the way they did it when the distillery opened its doors in 1881. Sadly, automation has taken its toll and the little cluster of houses that used to house all the distillery workers is now only home to 2 families.
Our next tour was less than a hour later on the other side of the island so we had to race across on some of the narrowest roads we have ever driven! This tour had other whisky enthusiasts so there was no waiting for us. Luckliy there are only 3000 people living on Islay, with three other cars that came past us on the open road straight to Laiphroaig.
This was a very different experience to our first tour. Last year Laiphroaig turned 200. Despite being 65 years older than Bunnahabhain, it came across as a much more modern distellery. The Stills were noticeably larger and wider. The mash tuns at Laiphroig were stainless steel, while Bunnahabhain had the traditional wooden mash tuns. James (our first guide) did say that there is no proof that a wooden mash tun is better than a stainless steel tun. He said that every step along the smoking, mashing and distilling process was slightly different at every distillery around the world and all these subtle differences all added up to make each whisky unique. This is what gives us the wide variety of whisky we see today.
The most intresting point for us was the fact that you may get 100 barrels from the same batch but every barrel will taste slightly different to the next. The master distiller will decide what barrel is ready for bottling and which has to sit for another year or longer.
The Isle of Islay is a magical place with 8 amazing working distilleries, (Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Bruichladdich, Bowmore and Kilchoman), with at least two more planned. Islay makes for a great visit and a whisky experience you’ll never forget.
Thanks to James from Bunnahabhain, the Laghroaig staff, Brian Flynn (behind the way pub), Whisky Magazine, Pierre Meintjies and Bernard Gutman for making our experience possible.
Tim Lundy and Gillian Faichnie