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Wednesday 30 May 2012

Islay Odyssey - Day Two: No Joel, This Isn't The Bar We're Looking For - It's The Job Centre

Well here we are well rested and safely ensconced on Islay. Despite the long drive up, there really is no other way to travel over to this glorious isle. Our previous Campbeltown adventure culminated in us already being weighed down with no less than TEN purchases so the car made a reassuring, yet slightly alarming clatter as we pulled away from the Port Askaig ferry terminal to the strains of our 'Now That's What I Call Islay' -  Volume 4. Fresh in our memory was the superb discovery of the Ardshiel Hotel in Campbeltown, home to a great newly refurbished whisky bar with around 1000 bottles of single malt.
Richard Paterson had recently been in to do a tasting and the owners were thrilled that the bar is gathering a real buzz about it.  We elected to have dinner there accompanied by a tasting flight of local drams selected by the bartender Neil MacKinnon.  And what a flight.  Starting with a highly surprising Glengyle Work In Progress 3 (aged around six years old and already packing a rich flavour and plenty of promise for the next few years) we then enjoyed a rich, syrupy and sweet Glen Scotia 12 year old (which paired well with a home made steak pie). To finish, a Springbank 10 year old rounded out what highlights a vibrant and very distinct region of whisky making, which if you haven't already, should be visited at your earliest convenience.

Pulling in to Port Askaig, we were very much now on a mission. With the new (when does it stop being ‘new’) CalMac ferry ‘Finlaggan’ in our rear-view mirror, the full force of the ‘Japanese Mercedes’ powered us down the road to our first port of call, Lagavulin Distillery.

Greeted by the always affable distillery manager Georgie Crawford, we were booked on to the grandly named ‘Ultimate Islay Tour’ which promised unique access to the three Daigeo-owned sites on the island: Lagavulin, the Port Ellen Maltings and Caol Ila Distillery-  All for the princely sum of £240. That might seem like a lot of money, and it is, but included in the price is transport around the island, a picnic lunch (more on that later), plenty of rare and hard-to-find whisky and both the now-sold-out (and already on eBay *sigh*) Lagavulin Feis Ile bottling and the sister Feis Ile release from Caol Ila, hosted by Classic Malts Ambassador Donald Colville.

The tour was designed to show previously off-limits areas around the facilities and our first treat was a trip up the stairs to the long since abandoned Lagavulin malting floors, which lay untouched since the 1970's. The old malt bins and bits of machinery were still there, giving us an idea of how far this now powerhouse-of-a-distillery had come in the last 40 years.   The view from the stone staircase over the bay was probably worth the entry price alone.  Georgie then escorted us to the dunnage warehouses and regaled us with stories of the distillery in the 70's, showing us some rather exciting casks in the process, including the one below:

The story goes that Iain McArthur discovered cask 12162 in the warehouse and remembered it as a significant vessel from his time working at Port Ellen. In fact, it was known as the 'remnant cask', where it was used to store the remaining liquid from every single Port Ellen spirit run from 1967-1983!  So a pretty significant and historical piece of wood indeed.

The cask now holds a ten year old Lagavulin from 2002, which Georgie drew some samples of for us to try. Clearly the cask was chosen back in the day for its neutrality and the Lagavulin retains a lot of its spirit character, alongside some wonderful cream soda notes. Our next dram was a 1966 Lagavulin from cask 552 (which we tried during a previous Feis Ile trip) and the setting for the tasting was the wonderful Lagavulin castle ruins, the fresh sea air making the dram taste even better in our opinion.

After our hit of history from Ms Crawford, we were to head to one of the newer sites on the island, Port Ellen Maltings. Built at the end of the 1970’s / start of the 1980’s, the Port Ellen Maltings worked alongside the now much loved and dearly departed Port Ellen distillery for three years before the spirit-producing side was decommissioned in 1983.  Now a huge factory churning out malt for several of the island's distilleries, we were to be given a tour by (the brilliantly named) Ramsay Borthwick, who had taken over as the maltings manager just a week before, having previously been site operations manager at Talisker.

Reinstalled at the site is the old wooden marrying vessel from Port Ellen distillery, in which every single drop of Port Ellen was stored before being siphoned off for filling. The tap (seen in the picture on the right) has had pretty much every drop of PE ever made pass through it at some stage. Nice.

Onwards and upwards the tour progressed with Ramsay doing a fantastic job of explaining a very complex and highly scientific malting process, through the medium of 'chocolate'. (The outer layer of the chocolate bar being the barley husk and the squares inside the starch molecules) What’s not to like about that?! All in, this one of the most comprehensive tours of maltings I have been on and to say I learnt a lot would be an understatement. It almost required a mini-graduation ceremony at the conclusion of the tour. *applause*

From Port Ellen, we were bundled in to our people carriers and carted off to the peat bogs to meet the legend that is Iain McArthur. After a picnic lunch of rolls made from the grist (flour) at Lagavulin (ergo, giving a sweet and smoky nature to the fresh bread) filled with either locally smoked salmon / smoked venison, it was our turn to have a go at digging out some peat, all aided by a dram of Caol Ila 12 years old, unpeated.

As usual, Neil turned up in totally inappropriate footwear, stomping across the boggy ground in a what can only be described as a pair of plimsolls while everyone else around donned some form of Northface-esque foot attire. Watching him attempt to cut peat in such a get-up almost made the entire trip worthwhile...
Having suitably refreshed ourselves with rolls and drams, it was time to head onwards to the north of the island and up to Caol Ila, stopping firstly for a wee dram at their water source.

Climbing up to the (pretty depleted) loch, we were greeted by Caol Ila distillery manager Billy Stitchell with a rather odd looking decanter, something he’d grabbed from his office before coming out to meet us. It turned out to be the Caol Ila Flora & Fauna series bottling, a rather tasty 15 year old offering:

Caol Ila - 15 Year Old -  Flora & Fauna Series -  43%

Nose: Wow, this is highly unexpected.  Not at all like the modern era Caol Ila bottlings we're used to and perhaps more like Rosebank, if it happened to be lightly peated, or a younger Port Ellen.  Swirls of tropical fruit, mangos, sweet vanilla, butter, coconut and soft medicinal peat and chamois leather note. Absolutely superb. 

Palate:  The fruit continues on the palate, with some lighter notes of stewed plums, green apples and lemon zest, all underpinned with a delicate waft of peat.

Finish:  Lingering notes of syrup and apple.

Overall: Undoubtedly one of the finest Caol Ila's we've tried. Subtle, gentle, yet complex, this bottling is almost like a greatest hits of single malts.  

Having supped our dram while gazing out at where the water to make this fantastic whisky originally came from, we made our way down to the final destination for the day, Caol Ila distillery itself.
Arriving, we were treated to a tour of the distilleries newly expanded operations, with two huge new washbacks and one massive new mash tun, all aiding the increased production at this site which in-turn, will service the increased demand for whisky across the globe.

Ending up at the top of the distillery, (literally on the roof) it was time to try what we thought would be the last dram of the day (but boy, were we mistaken), the Caol Ila Feis Ile 2012 bottling:

Caol Ila – Feis Ile 2012 – Filled: 15/01/2001 – cask no 300897 – 60.4% abv – 70cl (around 620 bottles)

Nose: A huge hit of the classic coal dust smoke, followed by rich runny honey, some mint jelly, hot sand after rainfall and some red berries. With water the spiced fruit notes increase and the whisky takes on aromas of mincemeat.  

Palate: Hot and smoky, this gives off wafts of bacon frazzle crisps, meaty overtones of smoked haggis and sweet cure bacon. With water, the sherried nature of this comes to life with more vibrancy and colour to the palate. Really takes water well.

Finish: Long, lingering and smoky.

Overall: We both agreed that this is the best Caol Ila Feis Ile bottling to date with an excellent balance -  powerful, yet complex.

But- oh no... As everyone turned to leave, the sight of another three whiskies in Billy's office took us all by surprise.  The sound of jaws dropping could be heard as far away as the Islay Woollen Mill. Alongside the 2012 Lagavulin Feis Ile bottling sat  two final drams and perhaps the pinnacle of Islay whiskies in our humble opinion- Port Ellen annual release No.1 (which we reviewed last year and tasted equally as exquisite stood on the rooftop at Caol Ila) and the official bottling of Lagavulin 30 year old.  

Breathe deeply caskstrength...

Lagavulin - 2012 Feis Ile Release - 1998 - Cask 1716 - 55.1% 

Nose: Raspberry ripple ice cream, apple strudel and icing sugar.  Sweet, with the classic cream soda and carbolic soap underneath.

Palate: Vanilla notes, green apple, some chopped hazelnuts and a big hit of medicinal smoke.  Lighter than the 16yo, but slightly more complex than the 12yo.  

Finish: Lingering orchard fruit and a sooty peat smoke.

Overall:  We were divided over whether this was better than the Caol Ila, with Joel preferring it, but Neil feeling the spiciness and fruit of the Caol Ila tipped the balance in its favour.

Lagavulin - 30 years Old - Distilled 1976 -  52.6%

Nose: Candied fruit, tinned peaches, chamois leather, lemon meringue pie, lavender and a hint of Parma Violets.  The smoke is restrained, gentle and super subtle, with just a caressing waft of the classic Lagavulin carbolic soap. Truly astonishing.

Palate: This is where it gets really serious. Coconut, more lavender, light vanilla stewed fruit (rhubarb, strawberry and raspberries) with an underpinning of American oak-influenced creaminess, this whisky just screams - no sorry - whispers perfection. The balance is extraordinary. 

Finish:  The fruit notes give way to more of the light peat and a touch of creamy maltiness for an extremely long finish indeed.

Overall: No doubt, the finest Lagavulin ever bottled.  This is one of those whiskies that demands the time, the company, the setting and your full attention and delivers more than you could ever hope for.  

Despite the relatively high face value of this tasting, if you break down the actual value and quality of the whisky tasted, the two festival bottlings, the unprecedented access to previously off-limits distillery areas and, more than anything, the time spent with the likes of Georgie, Billy, Ian and Ramsay for pretty much a whole day, this is undoubtedly cheaper than the sum of the parts if they were offered individually. As a result, it is one of the best tastings the festival has surely offered thus far.  Lord knows what they're planning for 2013.