The Big Islay Adventure 2014 - part 1

The Big Islay Adventure 2014 - part 1

The setup

A few years back my wife and I moved to the rather sleepy town of Sandefjord, in the southeast of Norway. We didn't know anyone there, but I was soon adopted by the local whisky club. Sandefjord Taste Of Whisky (STOW) is a an old whisky club, with rich traditions.

STOW is actually a very old club. It was established back in 1989, several years before the oldest Swedish whisky club (which is important to point out when you're from Norway). This means the club is 25 yo this year! This called for celebration and something very special.

I am currently serving as the second-in-command on the board of STOW, and I volunteered to arrange an anniversary trip to Islay. Islay was a natural choice as it has always held a special place in the hearts of many of the founding members of STOW.

Little did I know, when I volunteered, how much work it actually is to plan a trip for 20+ guys (18 in the end). There's accommodations to  book, travel arrangements, tastings, dinners, payments, late additions, attendees cancelling at the last minute, B&B's forgetting our booking (and our deposit) and wishing us good luck in finding alternatives - just days before our arrival! Also herding a large group of happy and strong-willed individuals, keeping time, making sure the experiences were memorable, broken glasses, cooking breakfast, avoiding irate beach rugby players, keeping track of swimmers, buying whisky, tasting whisky, fitting it all into the suitcases, buying additional suitcases and finding time to enjoy it all.

Luckily I had tremendous help from the very lovely Rachel MacNeill of Wild & Magic Islay (she also helped me last time).


Going there

We hired a bus from AAA Coaches, which picked us up on Wednesday afternoon at the Edinburgh Airport. Eddie the bus driver would drive us to Islay, and stay with us as our designated driver on the island, then take us back on the Sunday. This would give us three full days on Islay.

The drive itself, from Edinburgh to Kennacraig, where we took the ferry across to Islay, was about four hours. We did have a couple of pit stops through, one of which was in picturesque Inverary (see above).

We got to Kennacraig, which literally is just a parking lot and a small pier in the middle of nothing, with plenty of time to spare. Eddie the bus driver then told us we had to get gas. He had been told by his head office that there are no gas stations on Islay! I know, this sounds a bit crazy, and when we got to Islay we quickly found out that this was also bogus.

However, tank almost empty, and with instructions that no gas was to be found on the whisky island, Eddie was looking for a gas station. He had expected to find gas at Kennacraig, but no such luck. So, we drove back to Tarbert, the last village we had passed through. There we found that the only gas station in town had recently closed down!

OK, time was starting to run out now. Data roaming was turned on, and multiple smart phones whipped into action. A gas station was located a few miles south of Kennacraig. Phew!

The ferry crossing took about two hours, and we spent the time eating dinner, and enjoying the view.

Around eight o'clock in the evening we arrived in Bowmore, where we would stay. Most of us stayed at Bowmore Distillery, in the Old Bakery and Garden Cottage. The rest stayed at a couple of smaller bed & breakfast places in Bowmore town. Bowmore had been kind enough to provide us with a few bottles of Bowmore 12 YO.


Distillery 1: Bruichladdich

We had decided on a late start on our first full day on Islay. We had had a long day travelling the day before, and wanted to be fresh for our first distillery; Bruichladdich.

We started off by wandering around on the distillery grounds, taking pictures. Then we enjoyed a couple of drams while doing some shopping at the visitor center. We were greeted by Mary McGregor, the Laddie Shop manager. She served us a dram of the current Valinch expression (barrel in shop) on offer: Bruichladdich Valinch - 05 Mary McGregor Shop Manager. This is a 1990 vintage, 24 years old, bourbon cask matured with a finish in Premium French Oak, at an ABV of 51,1 %. A really nice dram, that kick-started the visit!

After a while former distillery manager Duncan McGillivray showed up. He was at that time just two weeks away from retiring, so we were very lucky to have secured him to do a tasting for us. He took us up to one of the warehouses and spent a good hour with us, sharing stories from a lifetime working in the whisky industry. Duncan had been with Bruichladdich also before they closed down in 1994, and he was brought back in when the distillery was restarted in 2000.

Duncan shared the following whiskies with us, all drawn directly from casks there and then:

  • Bruichladdich 1989 24 YO Cask #45, distilled 1989-11-05, fresh bourbon cask
  • Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 2005 8 YO, cask #1586, distilled 2005-10-12, Grenache red wine cask
  • Bruichladdich Octomore 2002 11 YO, cask #1115, distilled 2002-10-23, cask type unknown (missing notes)

These were all great drams, but the PC was fantastic. The red wine cask really worked a charm with this peaty whisky. I wish I could have brought a bottle with me home.

Duncan was a great guy, with lots of humour. He told us about this guy he knew that had been asked one time "Have you lived on Islay all your life?", at which he'd dryly replied 'Not yet".


Distillery 2: Kilchoman

After the visit to Bruichladdich we headed back to the bus and Eddie. A short drive brought us to Kilchoman, the smallest and youngest distillery on Islay (for now - Gartbreck will change that next year). Upon arrival we had a tasty lunch in the café at the Kilchoman Visitor Center.

Then it was time for the Owner's Tour, with Anthony Wills himself showing us around. He told us the story of Kilchoman, and how they want to have a local connection with everything they do. They do their own maltings, using local barley, and they have their own bottling facilities.

The production at Kilchoman will be at full capacity next year, which means about 200.000 lpa. They currently sell around 120.000 bottles of whisky per year, and have been making a profit for the last four years. That's a healthy, little distillery!

The whisky they produce is currently put into about 80 % bourbon casks from Buffalo Trace, and around 20 % in Oloroso sherry casks.

These are the whiskies Anthony Wills had on offer for us:

  • Kilchoman New Make
  • Kilchoman 100 % Islay 4th Edition
  • Kilchoman cask sample, 2006 ~8 YO
  • Kilchoman Feis Ile 2014
  • Kilchoman Small Batch Release 2008 5 YO, 1st fill bourbon + sherry finish

Again a very nice collection of drams. I was not very enthused with Kilchoman's whisky early on, but now I love it. The meaty peat, often at higher strength ABV, is really nice.


Well, that's it for The Big Islay Adventure 2014 - Part 1. I will be back with Part 2 tomorrow followed by a final Part 3. It is just too much to fit into one post.

PS! Click the images for larger versions.

Sláinte! - Thomas

The Big Islay Adventure 2014 - part 2

The Big Islay Adventure 2014 - part 2

SMWS 53.208 Old bagpipes under a bed in Islay

SMWS 53.208 Old bagpipes under a bed in Islay