|Show me the way to the next whisky bar
||[Jun. 28th, 2016|05:58 pm]
Now back in Kintyre, this time in Tarbert at the very north of the peninsula. But this is what I was doing yesterday, mostly written yesterday and completed on the ferry back from Islay, but without wi-fi:
I take back what I said about the cheapest dram on Islay: it turns out that you can walk into a distillery and ask, and they will pour you free whisky. Who knew? There are three distilleries within three miles of each other (and four of Port Ellen) on the east coast, connected by the Three Distilleries Path (a walking / cycle path) and also by a bus that runs several times a day: take your pick.
Our original intention was to take the bus to Ardbeg, the furthest of the three, take the morning tour, lunch at their Old Kiln Café and then walk home. The morning tour was fully booked, so we reversed our plan, setting off on foot from Port Ellen, walking on the hard track alongside meadows full of sheep and buttercups, with glimpses of the sea beyond. Our first stopping point was Laphroaig:
This is a very smooth operation: you enter through the gift shop, and there's a counter at the back where the nice man apologises that all today's tours are fully booked, but never mind, have a wee dram. "Have you tried Laphroaig before?" (we thought this was a particularly cautious opening gambit, given Laphroaig's love-it-or-loathe-it qualities, but we were asked the same thing at Lagavulin, so perhaps not). durham_rambler liked the Quarter Barrel, but I found it a bit raw and smoky (apparently I'm not the only one) and preferred the Triple Wood, which has a final period in sherry casks (this may be the first appearance of a bit of a theme). Both were 48° proof, which we preferred to cask strength (this may be another). Since we were walking, we didn't stop to buy, but made notes: we'll have time to return before leaving on the ferry tomorrow.
The museum is worth a visit: less a museum than a display about the glorious history of the distillery, in which the owners suffer tragic deaths by falling into a vat of "burnt ale", die childless leading to unseemly wrangling about inheritance; die leaving three wills leading to unseemly wrangling about inheritance; and persuade US customs that Laphroaig is sufficiently medicinal to be sold in the US during Prohibition.
Another mile along the road we came back to the sea at a bay overlooked by the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle; then over the rise to Lagavulin. This seemed a much less polished operation, if anything rather taken aback to see us, but yes, they did have somewhere we could sit for a bit, and would we like a dram while we did so? When we said yes, we were shown into a gloriously unmodernised (or beautifully reconstructed) tasting room:
We both chose to sample the 8-year-old, specially released for the recent bicentenary - which ought to be a cynical ploy to release something that isn't ready, in order to increase stocks at a time when you are boosting sales: but was pale, citrussy, gently smoky, and I liked it a lot.
Ardbeg struck me as the most welcoming of the three distilleries we visited: something about the wide open courtyard full of picnic tables, perhaps, or just that here, at last, we came to a café. This was the best tasting, too, as you might expect, because we opted to pay for an 'Express Tasting', as listed on the menu, to finish our lunch. Other distilleries offer 'tutored tastings' as an alternative to a distillery tour, but this was lower key and more approachable. For £15, Margaret, our server, brought us a board with five tasting glasses, and talked us through their contents (including "No, they put these in the wrong order, save this one for last..." - about which she was absolutely right) and then left us in peace to spend as long as we liked trying each in turn, comparing, adding a drop of water, trying again, returning to favourites, and finally rinsing the last hint of spirit out of each glass with a little more water. We tasted:
- Ardbeg 10 year-old (£42 in the distillery shop) was described as "our flagship whisky", an expression I would have interpreted as 'the product we are particularly proud of, and happy to have represent us' but which here evidently means 'our entry-level (and therefore most widely known) brand' - not exactly the same thing, but not far off. It's a gently peaty whisky (the malt is bought in from Port Ellen), light in colour, finished in bourbon casks. I'd always be happy to be offered a glass of this, but it was overshadowed by what came next.
- The Dark Cove (£96) takes its dark colour from the Black Sherry casks (I hadn't met this term before, but it seems to cover Oloroso and PX) in which it is finished. It's the same strength as the 10 year-old,but packs a punch, and is heavy,almost syrupy on the tongue with a sweet, raisiny taste. I love PX, and I loved this.
- Uigeadail (£55) is named for the water source used in Ardbeg whiskies. Matured in sherry and bourbon caskes, it is heavy and sweet, almost creamy, but smoky too. At the first taste I got pepper, but that may just have been the alcohol - it's 54.2°, and made me think that perhaps there is something to be said for this cask strength business, after all.
- Corryvreckan (£65): why would you name a whisky after a whirlpool? Well, it makes more sense than naming your tomato chutney after a whirlpool, and they did that, too. The whisky is matured in new French oak, and drunk at 57deg; and the first sip just made me cough. A few drops of water brought out the Christmas cake flavours, the fruit and spice, that Margaret had described. I don't think I really did this one justice.
- Supernova (aka The Peat Monster) costs £120 a bottle. "No, seriously..." say my notes. I thought I liked - more than that, I thought I really liked peat; it turns out that you can overdo it. I don't usually urge moderation and subtlety, and I don't suppose that the top of the range is really as unsubtle as I found it - but there you go, I preferred the Dark Cove.
Exploring all this gave us just time to walk up the road to the bus stop in time to catch the bus back to Port Ellen.
This morning we drove the same road, but much further, made a detour to Kildalton where a 1300 year old stone cross stands by a ruined chapel, called in at Ardbeg for coffee and at Laphroaig so that we could each buy our whisky of choice (I'm beginning to think I should have bought the Ardbeg Uigeadail: oh, well - another time) and back to Port Ellen for the ferry.