Having spent a great couple of days on Jura, experiencing the island to its fullest (including a three hour bus tour- something we didn’t think possible on an island with just one road, but boy was it informative and fun) it was time to head back to an island we’ve spent a lot more time on: Islay.
Arriving at Port Askaig it seemed only sensible to visit the pair of distilleries which sit just around the corner from Islay’s second port, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain. We popped in to the former, for a quick hello with the chaps there and to take in that wonderful view back across the Sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura, a must for anyone visiting the island.
If only we’d had our speedboat again, instead of driving back up the hill, along the road and down again, we could have simply nipped around the corner to Bunnahabhain, who were having their Open Day.
Always good value, it has been a wonderful place to hang out over the past few years with some excellent events (last year’s caber tossing even made the back page of our limited edition newspaper, The Daily Cargo, which came with our recent Cutty Sark release), this year proved no different, offering a small stall holders market, band, events and a bar serving a slushie-style cocktail. A nice turn of pace during the week.
Before the event really kicked in, we took some time to sit down with Andrew Brown, the distillery manager at Bunnahabhain. A local chap, he’s worked there for over 20 years and is now the man in charge of making the spirit. Andrew kindly took an hour out of his busy schedule to give us a highly informative lowdown about the history of the distillery, casks, flavour, spirit quality and, of course, a dram or two...
Bunnahabhain – 35 year old – 1971 – 750 bottles only – 44.9% abv – bottle no. 123 – 70cl
Nose: Sweet coconut, vanilla, blood oranges and spices. Creamy with banana notes and soft caramel.
Palate: Dry, but very malty, with dry menthol, fresh mint, buttered toast, cornflakes, liquorice root and some rose notes.
Finish: A light dryness, very fruity with kiwi and peaches and cream. The blood orange from the nose comes back at the death.
Overall: We’d go as far as to say, this is the best Bunnahabhain we’ve had in a long time. Two others were two bottling from Speciality Drinks, sister casks filled on the same day in 1979 (our review from the start of this century can be found here). All of these are really lovely drams, sadly all now long gone...
As is now tradition, Bunnahabhain also have their own festival bottling out. This year it is a 10 year old from a sherry butt and it’s a huge hitter, coming in at 60.1% abv...
Bunnahabhain – Sgeul Na Mara – 10 Years Old – 606 bottles – 60.1 % abv – 70cl
Nose: Slated caramel, ginger cake and butterscotch. It opens up with water to reveal stewed fruits and a tangy, mandarin note.
Palate: Initially, it is drying with layers of sherry and liquorice, moist oak and stewed apple. With water, it opens up in to more tinned pineapple and the bananas, which we’ve come to love this distillery for.
Finish: The finish gives both green and red apple skins and a big hit of dry oak.
Overall: A big hitting whisky which needs water to fully open up, but when it does, you won’t be disappointed.
After leaving Bunnahabhain, we took the high road across the island to Port Ellen and onwards up to Ardbeg, our resting place for the next couple of nights. En route, there was time to pop in and see our old friend David Wood, now the Brand Home Manager for both Caol Ila and Lagavulin distilleries, where we were able to share a dram of the excellent Lagavulin festival bottling with him...
Lagavulin – 18 Years Old - Feis Ile 2013 – 3000 bottles – 51% abv – 70cl
Nose: Surely this can’t be right… Earl Grey tea? Yes, there in all its glory is a stupendously fragrant bergamot note, backdropped with all the hallmarks of a classic Lagavulin: sappy woodsmoke, carbolic soap, a rich sherry oakiness and hints of Playdoh and almond marzipan. Sensational.
Palate: Again, a fragrant Earl Grey note continues, with a sweet, slightly stewed tea note, wonderfully rounded smoke and a lighter, spicy richness. It has big similarities to the 16yo, but has an additional power and complexity to it.
Finish: Lingering wood smoke and fragrant top notes.
Overall: Another outstanding Feis bottling from Lagavulin, who set the bar stupidly high for themselves nowadays, this delivers... and then some. Some armchair whisky anoraks and Twitterers (or 'Twats' as we like to call them) have been critical about the fact that Lagavulin have discontinued the tradition of releasing a festival single cask, but this whisky squarely bats any criticism back and the larger outturn at least offers a wider global audience a chance to grab a bottle at a sensible (non-grossly inflated-auction) price.
After settling into our Islay accommodation (more on that tomorrow...) we received a visit from our good friends at Master of Malt. Here on their own annual trip, with bags full of goodies, they were en route to iPed2013... International Port Ellen Day 2013. Hosted by @MaltWhiskyBar this has seen some astonishing tastings in the past, including this one (here) from 2011, where every single official Port Ellen release was available to try.
This time around, Jon Beach led the assembled Port Ellen-ites through a number of indie bottlings in a variety of locations, including outside the maltings, the Oa lighthouse and a sneaky peek into the old malt kiln buildings, now home to an unofficial gym of weightlifting equipment. The distillery may be well and truly dismantled and gone forever, but its liquid legacy remains very much in the hearts (and mouths) of whisky aficionados.