"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Friday, 31 December 2010

Happy Hogmanay

Barnard, bless him, seems to have missed out on Hogmanay in Scotland during his tour.  He doesn’t mention it in any report and the occasional vague clue we get as to the timings of his journeys suggest that he was in London for Christmas and New Year at the end of 1885 and he completed his wanderings before the end of 1886.  It is a shame not to have the thoughts of this ‘fun-loving Victorian waster’ on the traditions held dear in Scotland, or on whichever whiskies may have accompanied his celebrations.

Still, I shall raise a glass to his memory this New Year.  His writings inspired me to embark on a wonderful journey in 2010 and the trail continues into 2011.  I should soon complete the Islay stories and with the days now lengthening again I hope to be back on the road before long (further snow permitting).

Thank you for following both Barnard’s and my own journey this far; I hope you will continue reading and see where the compass takes us next.

A very happy New Year to you and my best wishes for a wonderful, and whisky full, 2011 for you all.  Slàinte!


Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Bowmore Distillery, Islay

It is only three miles from Bridgend to Bowmore so I left my car for a day and took the local bus to visit the distillery.  Barnard was provided with a carriage during his stay and took the same route round the mud-flats at the top of Loch Indaal.  Bowmore is the capital of Islay and still has a similar population, 800 when Barnard visited, around 860 now, from a total island population of 3,600 now that had peaked at 15,000 in 1831 and already down to under half that when Barnard visited.

Bowmore Parish Church
Barnard only briefly mentions the unusual church that stands at the top of the hill on whose slopes the town had been built in 1768.  The church is squat and circular in shape, not unlike a deep mash tun, with a spire at the front.  The story is told that it was built circular to ensure that the Devil had no corners to hide in and on one occasion, after being spotted by the parishioners, he was chased and fled and has never returned to Islay since.

Bowmore Distillery is one of the oldest in Scotland and the first recognised on Islay having been built in 1779 by the Simpson family.  The next one founded was Ardbeg in 1794, although both still illicit and not licensed until 1815/1816.  Barnard notes that ‘the old firm’ of Bowmore once also held the Jura Distillery but gave it up due to the distance, difficulty reaching it in winter and the success of Bowmore holding their attention.  This must have been before the licensed history of Jura, which was founded in 1810 but not licensed until 1831, and I haven’t found any other reference to Simpsons there.

The owners when Barnard visited were the Mutter family who took over from the Simpsons in 1837 and remained owners until 1892.  He notes that Bowmore was the first Islay distillery to be feued rather than held on tenancy, although the others changed to feued later.  The Mutters were originally ‘scientific’ farmers improving cultivation on the island and the current descendants in charge had also improved the distillery in the early 1880s.  The buildings were described as “somewhat scattered, but all enclosed” and the same is true today.

Barnard mentions “an unlimited quantity of splendid water from the Laggan” but, not for the first time, the low rainfall in summer 2010 led to the distillery closing for a few weeks, with mashing now (October) increased from 10 to 13 mashes per week to catch up production.  Bowmore, unlike most old market towns, does not sit on a river.  The River Laggan is the main river on Islay but the land near its mouth is too flat and marshy for building and the coastal shelf too shallow and sandy for a port.  Bowmore was built a few miles to the north of where the river flows into Laggan Bay, having begun its journey as tributaries rising in the hills on the east coast.

The old maps of Bowmore show many ‘W’ markings for the wells that were required to supply the town.  The distillery found another solution by building the longest distillery lade in Scotland at 9 miles.  The start of the lade on the River Laggan is a straight line distance of just 3 miles but the gradient on this side of Islay is shallow and undulating so the lade has to take a tortuous route “owing to want of fall”, dropping just 30 metres from source to shore.

Barnard’s description of the works is one of the longest reports in his book and one of the most detailed of any distillery he visited.  His measurements record length and width of every room to the nearest half foot, volume of every vessel to the exact number of gallons and the depths of every spirit dip to the nearest 10th of an inch!  However, there is little that is remarkable or different in most of this, save for some unique arrangements in the still house that we will see later.  He almost seems to burn himself out with all this as his later Islay distilleries carry far less detail than normal, or perhaps Bowmore was his test case for describing what he found on the island?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to indulge in the same exercise in arithmetic.  I pestered Heather and Julie with enough questions, including a couple that I left with them and returned for answers two days later, so I don’t think they would have been happy if I had also brought out a tape measure in every room we visited.  This is also one of my longer reports though, as there are many things to explore in the history of this distillery.

Barnard’s tour began in the granaries and maltings and this is also where Heather first led our party to.  Ahead of us there is a VIP tour conducted by the Manager and I reflect that Barnard would have been the VIP in his day when the then Manager showed him round – us commoners would have to return later to see the barley being turned on the malting floor and smoked above the kiln!

Barnard records two kilns fired by peat, barley laid on old style hair cloth floors, and with “Louvre Ventilators” similar to others he had seen and which can be made out in the etching in Barnard.  The kiln near the shore has since been closed and a double pagoda erected on the roof of the remaining kiln that is still used today.  Bowmore currently malt around 33% of their barley on site, the remainder done in the Scottish Borders where their barley is farmed.  The malt is dried over peat for 15 hours creating a phenol level of 25-26ppm, around half the level of the big Islay peat monsters along the south coast.

Bowmore Killogie
The kiln that remains was recorded by Barnard as “the Killogie, as the firing room is called”.  I thought this may have been a local or slang name with a particular association to Bowmore but it’s not a name used any more and none of the staff had heard of it.  After some research I have found that killogie is an old Scots word for the space in front of a kiln fire and I wonder if Barnard just misunderstood the use of the name when passing through.

I also found reference to an old Scots air once known as A lad and a lassie lay on a killogie and to which Burn’s placed his pro Jacobite song Bannocks O' Bear Meal (a bannock is a flat round cake made from oatmeal or barley and cooked on a griddle).  The image of a lad and lassie lying in front of a kiln fire for warmth brings a romantic element to the name; and you could imagine a nourishing barley cake being warmed on a kiln hotplate by a hungry maltman to help him through a long hard shift.

Mash Tun and 8 tonne Grist Bin
Onward from the malting operation Barnard next saw the mill which was made by J. Copeland & Co from Glasgow, now they have one of the ubiquitous Porteus mills from Leeds installed in 1966.  The grist loft and mash tun were next, the latter “said to be the largest in Islay” at 17 feet wide by 6 feet deep, although measurements elsewhere suggest this may be a close call.  The draff was thrown out by hand down two chutes to the draff house below.  The grist loft has now been replaced with a handsome 8 tonne grist bin directly feeding the mash tun which is smaller at 27,000 litres from 39,000 in Barnard’s time.

A new Tun Room had been built in the 1880s containing 3 new washbacks at c10,300 gallons each (47,000 litres) alongside the old room containing 6 washbacks at c6,000 gallons each (27,000 litres).  I'm not sure when the old backs stopped being used but they are scored through on an 1880s plan, although still in use when Barnard visited.  The layout was changed during renovations in 1964 when the washbacks were also changed from wood to steel (and not stainless!).  These lasted until 1991 when they were changed back to Oregon pine, a distinct difference in the whisky having been noted during the steel phase.

The 'new' tun room
There are now 6 washbacks in the new room each holding 40,000 litres and each named after one of the owners of Bowmore, from Simpson then Mutter through to Morrison today.  The old tun room now contains water tanks, the outside of which have been mocked up to look like washbacks to allow wheelchair visitors who can’t access the stairs to the new room to still get a feel for the process.

Etching of still house in Barnard
We now come to the still house and it’s worth taking some time to explore what Barnard saw and compare it to the modern still house.  The etching above is a good starting point as it contains an extraordinary amount of detail and shows some unique ways of operating.  It is also worth consulting the layout plan below as this records some of the elements that may not be immediately obvious in the etching (I have adjusted the plan from the original to put the layout and legend together for clarity, click to enlarge).

1880s distillery plan

The layout plan was in a picture frame in the tasting room at Bowmore.  Frustratingly it wasn’t dated but this was one of the questions I left with Heather and Julie and their research found that the plan was from the period when W&J Mutter were owners, so around Barnard’s time.  The Mutter family took over in 1837 but William and James were in charge from 1880 and were responsible for the improvements and alterations around that time.  Having a layout plan to support this makes sense and therefore suggests this is contemporary with Barnard’s visit.  This just leaves an uncertainty surrounding the date of the etching.

The etching may have been produced before the 1880s renovations as only four stills are shown and both Barnard and the plan record five, but after careful comparison of all the elements I think it is also possible that the etching simply omitted the middle wash still to allow the detail behind and outside to be shown, and straightened the corner in the room to present a different perspective.  Either reasoning is plausible and we may never know the truth.

There are three unique elements that stand out for me – the shape of the necks on the wash stills, the double head on one of the spirit stills and the outside copper condensers which were the first in use in Islay and resonate to the still house layout today.  Barnard notes that the stills are “of a shape which the firm will not allow any deviation from” showing that knowledge of the exact still shape affecting the whisky has been around for many years.

The curiously shaped necks on the wash stills, together with the tall slender spirit stills (all marked ‘T’ on the plan), may have contributed to a lighter spirit than other Islay distilleries at the time although Barnard makes no mention of the whisky itself.  The three wash stills were from 2,000 to 2,400 gallons (9,000 to 11,000 litres), now there are two at 30,940 litres, both with standard and almost horizontal lyne arms.

I had noted before at Greenock and at Springbank that chains or ‘rummagers’ had been used in some wash stills.  These prevent the pot ale from sticking to the base of direct fired stills and here Barnard noted that “the Wash Still chains are driven by a small overshot water wheel; these chains are made of brass or gun metal, being a pattern of chain found in an old still demolished in the Brackla Distillery some years ago…”.  The wheels can just be made out in the etching above, attached to rods driven from outside mechanisms; the main water wheel (Y on the plan) can be seen through the window on the left.

Bowmore stills today
The double-headed spirit still does seem unique, the spirit being condensed in separate worm tubs outside (W).  The other spirit still and one wash still are condensed through the outside copper condensers (V) the tops of which can be seen through another window.  These are noted as requiring more attention than worm tubs when water is scarce.  The spirit stills were then 1,400 and 1,210 gallons (6,400/5,500 litres) and the two in place now are 14,750 and 14,637 litres, with slightly rising lyne arms.  The arm on the no.2 still, in a throwback to old, projects through the roof to a condenser standing against the outside wall.

Condenser for no.2 spirit still
There are many other details of interest in the etching, including the raised wooden chargers and the spirit vat on opposite side walls, and the various stages of the coal-fired heating.  The current stills were installed in 1964 when the still house was completely renovated after Stanley Morrison took ownership, the heating converted from coal to steam at the same time.

End of the 9 mile distillery lade
After leaving the still room we returned to the maltings via a courtyard where the Laggan water runs over the last fall in the distillery lade, its nine mile meander reaching a proud and glorious end to the effort of bringing it here.  A couple of realisations then happened in the maltings.  First, I realised a wish I had to turn barley on a malting floor by dragging a malt plough, or ‘shuffler’ through the layers.  This is hard going and I’m glad I wasn’t doing it every four hours using a malt shovel, recalling the term ‘monkey shoulder’ for deformities in those maltmen who had done that for a living.

Barnard, barley and Bowmore

The second realisation was when placing some barley on the cover of my copy of Barnard for what I thought may be an interesting photo, I realised that the etching on the front cover was of Bowmore itself, as seen from the loch.  I don’t know why I hadn’t made the connection before, although it’s not named on the cover and I guess that after reading the fascinating contents of the book I didn’t pay much attention to it thereafter, until that moment in the malting.  Barnard, barley and Bowmore – what a wonderful combination.

Barnard noted only two bonded warehouses on site but also “extensive warehouse accommodation in the arches under the Central Station in Glasgow”, beside where Glasgow’s Whisky Club held their inaugural Glasgow Whisky Festival in November this year.  The Mutter family also owned a steam ship, the s.s. James Mutter, which was used to transport casks to Glasgow.  Production was then 200,000 gallons (909,000 litres), now up to over 1.4 million litres.  Bowmore now hold 21,000 casks on Islay and more on the mainland, although no longer at the arches.

Warehouse number 3 was built sometime after Barnard visited and was subsequently converted into the MacTaggart Leisure Centre in 1990, the swimming pool being heated by water flowing from the distillery condensers.  Prior to this the islanders were taught to swim either in the sea (brrr!) or on the mainland at Lochgilphead.

There have been two other changes in ownership worth noting.  J.B. Sheriff & Co owned the distillery from 1925 to 1950 and Sherriff also owned Lochindaal Distillery from around 1855.  He had additionally found interest in Campbeltown when he took over and expanded the Lochead Distillery in the 1890s.  Stanley Morrison oversaw the modernisation of Bowmore in the 1960s and the company became Morrison Bowmore in 1987, now owned by Suntory of Japan and with Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch also in their portfolio.

Our tour ended in the modern visitor centre where a dram of the lovely, soft and smoky 12yo was enjoyed.  The centre has a similar feel to many others although it does have a wonderful view across Loch Indaal.  I found some interesting memorabilia on display but that’s where this story comes to an end.  Iain Banks' deduced thoughts on Bowmore from his book Raw Spirit are boldly stated on the wall here, a neat summary of the range of whiskies on offer that also sounds like an enjoyable challenge to pursue.

Bowmore 12 is a great whisky as an introduction to the peaty Islay style; the distillery is a great place to explore the development of distilling on this isle.  Enjoy both if you can, and if either Heather or Julie are your guide then I know that you will, my thanks to them both.  Slàinte.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Bridgend Hotel, Islay

Barnard’s second day on Islay began with visits to Laphroaig and Port Ellen and ended with a long journey to his new accommodation at
“Beul-an-ath” (Bridgend).  He narrates some of this peculiar journey and in doing so he introduces us to the laid back way of island life which those of “city pent” often take time to adjust to.

The journey by horse drawn coach took four hours and there was little to hold the gaze - “but two or three habitations, and scarcely any trees…we have never travelled by such a dismal and lonely road”.  So, once again, Barnard’s flask helped keep the party merry, yet plying their coachman Sandy with nips failed to persuade him to trot his horses save where they were used to it - “some of us walked many a mile and yet were able to keep ahead of him”!

There was only one road connecting Port Ellen to Bridgend when Barnard visited.  The high road over the moors was the only option, the low road that was built later ‘floats’ on the surface of the peat that lies on the plain between the inland hills and Laggan Bay.  The mid 19th century maps show the high road along its current route and the top and tail of what would become the low road are also recorded, just not connected in the middle for a 5 mile stretch past where the airport now sits, from the River Laggan to Kintra River.  The link was completed in the 1890s and the airfield built in 1940.

Islay hills from the High Road
My own journey took place the evening before, following my visits to Ardbeg and Lagavulin.  I travelled the high road for the first time and including stops for photographs the 11 mile drive took around 30 minutes.  No nips of whisky for me and the road is lonely, interrupted only by the passing of a couple of cars and one of the large grain lorries that lumber around the island and keep you alert on the single track roads.

The trials of the long coach ride eventually gave way to a setting that captivated the sentimental side of Barnard.  I have included his description here in full:

“Within a very short distance of our journey's end a most agreeable and surprising change came over the scene, and we found ourselves driving beneath trees whose thick branches met overhead, and passing through the well-cultivated policies and rural retreats, which form the aristocratic village of Bridgend.  Presently the coach pulled up in front of a picturesque hotel rejoicing in the name of "Beul-an-ath", the best and only one of any importance in Islay, possessing gardens and grounds of most enchanting loveliness.  The hotel was pretty full, but we were able to secure a comfortable bed, and made this place our headquarters for many days.”

This passage was written at the beginning of his report on Bowmore Distillery which he visited the following day.  I have included this separate report about my stay at the hotel as my time here was another of those magical episodes that make this journey so pleasurable and provide inspiration for the story.

Bridgend Hotel
When planning my trip to Islay, finding the above description quoted on the website for the Bridgend Hotel offered hope that I would find an experience here to compare with Barnard’s comfort and enchantment.  I was not to be disappointed.  My phone call was answered by the Manager, Lorna, who set to ensuring that my stay would be memorable and would connect me to Barnard’s visit 125 years earlier.

Barnard had earlier noted that “the Islay people are very hospitable” and the staff at Bridgend live up to this historical reputation.  Always a smile, nothing too much trouble and made me feel welcome from the moment I arrived until long after I had left.  Lorna actually began my welcome days before I arrived as our phone conversation included enticing talk of a new cheesecake to be tasted.  I was in good spirits when I arrived, a feeling that didn’t leave until I was on the ferry home.

Katie’s Bar in the hotel is a focal point for the local community and it was here that Lorna introduced me to David Boyd, the Estate Factor.  Over a couple of drams he happily regaled me with tales of whisky and Islay, the two often inseparable round these parts.  Mr Boyd used to be a shipwright and this skill once also lent itself to replacing whisky stills; his description of the process both informative and entertaining.  Many other people I met in the evenings were interested in my journey and sent me on my way with best wishes.

River Sorn at Bridgend
Located at the ‘Heart of Islay’, Bridgend is the point where the three main roads converge - from Port Askaig to the northeast, Port Charlotte and Portnahaven to the west and Port Ellen to the south.  The waters of Loch Finlaggan and Loch Ballygrant merge into the River Sorn which runs under the bridge and into the head of Loch Indaal nearby.  When Barnard saw the river he noted “several of our companions at the hotel were busy fishing, and who supplied our table with some fine trout, the result of their day’s sport”.

I too enjoyed some lovely food during my stay.  Breakfasts were large and well suited to a day on the road and the sampling of whisky.  The highlight of my evening repasts was the local venison which was flavoursome and cooked to perfection, accompanied by a lovely, tangy chilli jam with an underlying sweetness that reminded me of the Rowan jelly my Grandmother used to make.  And yes, the cheesecake was worth the journey.  All washed down with refreshing Saligo Ale from the nearby Islay Ales brewery.  Perfect!

Bridgend combines a number of motifs from Celtic mythology.  Bridges, running water, a meeting of roads and paths into forests are all considered enchanted places, liminal places, where the boundary between worlds is at its thinnest and time can seem to slow down.  They can be spiritual places, no matter which spirit guides you on your journey. The hotel sits beside this crossing of ways and waters, offering rest and refreshment for those captivated by the charm.

Hotel and gardens
Behind the hotel, and almost hidden from the main road, are delightful gardens full of shrubs, flowers and herbs and vegetables that contribute to the fresh cooking available within.  I happily strolled in this peaceful setting, gathering my thoughts and musing about whisky as the leaves changed colour under a late autumn sun.  Barnard enjoyed this space as well, this from his report on Caol Ila:

“Our long day commenced with a stroll through the beautiful grounds of the Hotel and a climb up the steep hill in its rear.  The haymakers were just commencing their work, and the air was laden with all the perfumes of early summer.  It was a delicious morning, and as the light mists rolled away we could look out over the beautiful sea, from which the eye wandered to the gently undulating foreground, where patches of glittering green and clumps of crimson rhododendrons guide the eye along the beautiful policies of Islay House.  We felt that we could not leave the spot…”

Ah, the old romantic.  This and other descriptions of the island show how much he enjoyed his time here, sentiments I can appreciate.  Experiencing the same joyful scenery and resting under the same roof, I too wished that I had not to leave, but for the pull of the many distilleries still ahead on my journey.  For those few precious days the Bridgend Hotel was a welcome base for my adventures.  My heartfelt thanks go to Lorna and all the wonderful staff at the hotel for making my stay there so memorable.

A peaceful setting for whisky musing
Bridgend seems timeless and I hope to visit again after my labours end, once more to cross the threshold into a place where spiritual and temporal elements combine to relax and inspire a traveller of these isles.  Speed forth bleak winter and release us now from this solstice spell, to lighter days ahead that hasten a return to enchantment.  Bless.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Port Ellen Distillery, Islay

After visiting Laphroaig, and clearly not having had enough of the sea breeze there, Barnard’s party travelled to Port Ellen and took a walk along the shore “to get a breath of the sea”.  He describes “delightful bathing sands, which would be much appreciated and visited if there were some lodging houses…and the place were nearer Glasgow”!  This idyllic bay is fine just as it is and I imagine it is well used in the summer.  It now plays host to an annual beach rugby festival which is hotly contested between teams from the distilleries and further afield.

Port Ellen beach with grain silo and ferry beyond
Barnard also mentions the [Carraig Fhada] lighthouse on the opposite side of the bay from the town and distillery.  I didn’t manage to get round close enough for a good photo but unusually for a lighthouse it is built as a square tower, erected in 1832 by the Laird of Islay, WF Campbell, in memory of his first wife Lady Ellinor, after whom the town is named.

Port Ellen Distillery was founded in 1825 and was the first to trial the use of a spirit safe to help meet the new Excise requirements.  These trials took place in 1824 and proved that a spirit safe was not detrimental to the quality of the whisky produced, leading also to the formal distillery being established here.  The distillery under manager John Ramsay was also the first to directly export Scotch to North America in the mid 1800s so it was pioneering in a number of ways.

Port Ellen warehouses and maltings
The distillery was about half a mile from the “village” when Barnard visited, the northern extension of today’s town now reaching out towards it.  Barnard mentions having letters of introduction to the manager although he was absent when they called.  Letters of introduction were a common practice in Victorian times and Barnard’s venture has obviously been well received at previous locations.  As the distillery is now closed and operating only as an industrial malting I contacted current owners Diageo to try to arrange a visit.  Unfortunately, in an echo of Barnard’s experience, the local manager was unavailable and I had to settle for a wander around the perimeter.

Barnard was instead given a tour by the distiller and here he returns to his detailed recording of room sizes and vessel volumes after his break from this at Laphroaig.  There is nothing of particular note in his records, although he does record two kilns and two Pot Stills, 3,500 and 2,100 gallons (15,900 and 9,500 litres).  There are still two pagoda kiln buildings in the complex (increased to three at one time), which stand in stark and silent relief against the monumental steel edifice of the new maltings, slender chimneys towering above the angular pagoda roofs of old.

Port Ellen kilns and maltings and a bank of peat
Barnard recorded “six handsome warehouses… in a line with the distillery” and I counted at least ten in a line now, plus newer warehouses on the shore side complete with obligatory distillery name in bold letters.  These hallowed halls guard the nectar from the final years of distilling at this revered distillery, along side maturing casks from other Islay distilleries.  Barnard also mentions a “Cooperage and Seasoning House for casks”, the first time he has mentioned seasoning on his journey although he doesn’t elaborate on the practice.

Port Ellen warehouses
The water came from the twin Leorin Lochs in the hills north of the village and “was noted in the locality for its clearness and purity”, so the translation of Leorin from Gaelic as ‘muddy field’ seems not to apply.  The 19th century maps from NLS show a clearly marked ‘Distillery Burn’ running from a weir on the Leorin River and it still runs today to supply the sluice beside the maltings. 

Port Ellen weathered through most of the 1920s downturn but as part of Distillers Company Limited (DCL) from 1925 it eventually succumbed and was mothballed in 1929.  The maltings and warehouses continued to be in use and then in 1966 two large additional stills were installed and production restarted.  In a shape of things to come the first large malting drums were installed in 1973 and the distillery seemed then to have a new lease of life.

Production peaked at 800,000 litres p.a. but sadly was not to last.  The 1980s downturn hit hard and with Lagavulin and Caol Ila also in the DCL portfolio Port Ellen closed for the last time in 1983.  All the distilling equipment is said to be dismantled and removed and the still house was demolished in 2003 along with other buildings to make way for the extended malting operations.  By 2005 there were 7 huge drums malting 46 tonnes each.  They now supply malt to most of Islay’s distilleries and also to Jura.

Occasional small scale and single cask releases from independent bottlers help to keep the memory of the spirit alive.  The few that I have tried, mainly thanks to Douglas Laing & Co, have been exceptional.  Comparing a 1983 23yo and a 1982 26yo side by side has been one of the highlights of my whisky tasting to date.  Some wonderful 27yo from the last year of production is now available from various bottlers and not surprisingly they attract premium prices and the attention of collectors.

Port Ellen is not mentioned in Townsend’s 1993 book on closed distilleries Scotch Missed - perhaps there was still hope of reopening the distillery at that time? - but he does mention that there were 11 DCL closures in 1983 so it was not alone as the 1980s downturn took its toll on the industry.  Townsend only mentions one closed Islay distillery, Lochindaal, and of the nine visited by Barnard only the two have since closed, Port Ellen being the last to go, and now when Islay production is generally increasing there is hope that it may remain that way.

Port Ellen welcome
Port Ellen itself is a quiet town, regardless of the main Islay ferry terminal and the malting activity.  Whitewashed buildings and sailing boats add to the gentle maritime ambiance, curved round two bays and sheltered from the brutal elements of the North Channel by the headland called The Ard and the jagged rocks that stretch out to narrow the shipping channel.  As a gateway to Islay this is a peaceful place to begin adjusting your hectic life to the more relaxed island ways, and as Iain Banks points out in Raw Spirit - to be welcomed by a road sign made up entirely of distillery names is a good omen of things to come.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Laphroaig Distillery, Islay

After visiting Ardbeg and Lagavulin on their first full day on Islay, Barnard’s party returned to the White Hart Inn at Port Ellen for a second and final night.  The following day they visited Laphroaig and Port Ellen Distilleries before travelling to new accommodation at the Bridgend Hotel, a journey recorded in his report on Bowmore Distillery.  My stay at Bridgend began after visiting Lagavulin and but I will keep these reports in the same order as Barnard and discuss the next two distilleries first.

Laphroaig distillery is the closest of the three south coasters to Port Ellen, all of which share some similarities - whitewashed buildings lying beside a rocky shore; the distillery name in bold black letters facing to sea; pagoda topped kiln rooms; old maltings converted to visitor centres. The distillery translates their name as ‘The beautiful hollow by the broad bay’ continuing a geographical theme present in the other names as well.  The distillery was established in 1815 by brothers Donald and Alexander Johnston; D Johnston & Co is the name still listed as the owners today, albeit as part of the larger group Beam Global.

Barnard notes that “at a distance the establishment looked like a cluster of ruins, but on nearer inspection we found it to be a distillery of a very old fashioned type…”.  The buildings have changed much since then and comparing layout plans from the 19th century to the current layout shows a series of changes over time, but the modern developments sit alongside, and not overwhelming the traditional practices that are cherished here.
Laphroaig had by far the smallest production volume of any distillery visited by Barnard up to that time and was then the smallest on Islay, producing only 23,000 gallons (105,000 litres) p.a.  Barnard provides only one short paragraph describing the actual distillery workings, and none of his usual measurements or volumes are provided.  Perhaps after all the detail he provided for Ardbeg and Lagavulin he didn’t feel the need to do so again for a much smaller distillery.

Three times he compares Laphroaig to Lagavulin, stating that like Lagavulin it “is built on the margin of the sea”; when his one paragraph on the workings lists the various buildings present he declares them to be “all similar to Lagavulin, only on a smaller scale”; yet when comparing the whisky he does ascertain that “although situated within a short distance of one another, each produce whisky of a distinct and varied type” without providing any detail as to why that may be.

Much of Barnard’s report was on matters affecting distilling in general, noting that “distilling of Whisky is greatly aided by circumstances that cannot be accounted for...largely influenced by accidents of locality, water and position”, but he provides very little information on Laphroaig Distillery specifically.  Fear not - I was the only person on the tour that morning so I had Ciara MacTaggart all to myself to answer my awkward questions on a very special tour.

We began at the maltings where there were once three malting floors, one of which has now been converted into the visitor centre.  Laphroaig is one of the few remaining distilleries still malting barley with around 20% of their requirement done here, the remainder coming from Port Ellen.  The barley lies on the floor of the loft for 5-6 days before 17 hours of peat drying followed by 19 hours of hot air, peat only having been used in Barnard’s time.

Newly fired peat
Peat reek rising through the malt

Ciara gave me more of an insight into the peat.  It is normally cut by hand in spring and it then takes a few months to dry, but not left to dry completely so that more smoke is produced.  The peat used at Laphroaig is light in colour and still contains some vegetable matter that has not decomposed, a reflection of the ‘top cut’ that is more often used in distilleries.  All the malt used at Laphroaig is peated to 45-50ppm.  There are now two kilns with pagoda roofs and I was able to see the full drying process in action for the first time on my journey.

From once being the smallest licensed distillery on Islay, Laphroaig now has the second highest annual output at around 2.6m litres.  The water still comes from “a pretty little burn…of excellent quality” that runs through the grounds via the distillery lade, although last summer’s drought almost led to it not running anywhere.  The stainless steel Lauter mash tun that feeds the washbacks is enormous.  The six washbacks at Laphroaig are now made from stainless steel, each holding 53,000 litres and fermenting for 55 hours to an abv of 8%.

Lauter Mash Tun
Stainless steel washbacks

The current still house is relatively new and stands on ground once used as a warehouse, the wash now being pumped across the courtyard, whereas when Barnard visited the still house was integral to the other buildings and the two stills had outside worm tubs.  There are now 3 tall wash stills each with a capacity of 10,500 litres and four spirit stills, one at 9,400 and three at 4,700 litres each.  The lyne arms on each of the seven stills are angled upwards at 15-20% to help release only the lighter vapours into the condensers; the full smoky, peaty character of the spirit being given a lighter body in the process as the heavier oils fall back into the still.

Stills with rising lyne arms
The spirit run here is 5-5 ½ hours and the 2 ½ hour middle cut can be determined as much by the first hints of smoky aromas coming through as it can by the more mundane measuring of abv.  The aromas are delightful just standing beside the spirit safe, which I happily did for some time while talking with the stillman, and with no other guests on the tour I don’t think Ciara minded either.

I was eventually dragged away to look at some empty casks (humph!) which Ciara was keen to tell me about.  I guess she is used to the heady aromas and can appreciate them on a regular basis.  The casks now used at Laphroaig mainly come from Makers Mark bourbon distillery in Kentucky, both distilleries being owned by the same parent company.  The casks are good quality with not much loss to the angels (probably all hovering around that spirit safe) and Laphroaig only uses them once.  They are charred in America before being shipped in one piece to Islay.  The charring process is done on a scale of 1 to 4 with Laphroaig opting for a significant level 3 on this scale.

Modern bar codes beside traditional stencils
The casks are stored in seven warehouses on site, now all full, and also in spare capacity at Ardbeg and some at Dumbarton.  Now, there is a long running argument about how much the location of a maturing cask contributes to the whisky.  Barnard recounts that “the Distillers maintain that the sea air has no effect whatever on the Whisky”.  In contrast, legendary Laphroaig Managers Bessie Williamson and Iain Henderson both thought that it did make a difference - the seaweed beside the warehouses and the wet, blustery weather on Islay contributing significantly to the final character.

In another throwback to tradition Laphroaig started to produce a Quarter Cask expression of their whisky in 2004.  This is a resurrection of an old method of maturing whisky in smaller casks which were used before transport became easier, and some say to make them easier to hide from the Excise.  Now they take whisky from standard casks after between 5 to 11 years maturation and transfer it into Quarter Casks holding around 120 litres to boost the maturation and to allow more wood interaction.  This final maturation of around 7 months takes place in Warehouse No1, a dunnage warehouse right by the shore.

Museum exhibit
Laphroaig has a history as rich as the character of its whisky and a timeline of events is on the chronology section of their website.  A few highlights since Barnard’s time include the pioneering use of bourbon casks for maturation in the 1920s; sale of Laphroaig in America during prohibition, the then Manager Ian Hunter convincing the authorities that the iodine/seaweed flavour indicated ‘medicinal’ qualities; in Ian’s will he left the distillery to his then secretary Bessie Williamson who remained at Laphroaig for over 40 years; in 1994 a Royal Warrant was granted by Prince Charles, and while other blenders and bottlers hold Warrants, Laphroaig remains the only Single Malt to have one.

Friends of Laphroaig lounge
After the tour we returned to the visitor centre where there is a museum exhibition and a very comfortable lounge dedicated to the ‘Friends of Laphroaig’.  This was a venture established in 1994 which now boasts over 340,000 friends worldwide.  The concept is brilliant and also a lot of fun.  Become a friend and you will be allocated a lifetime lease of one square foot of prime Islay land not far from the distillery.  Laphroaig will pay you a dram on each visit as rent for your plot and you can even borrow some wellies, pace out the field and plant a flag on the spot which you believe to be your own piece of heaven.  I had visited Laphroaig once before on an impromptu stop with a large group from Edinburgh University, and even though we didn’t have time for the tour we were made to feel extremely welcome at the centre and our flag placing adventure turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip.
Pacing out our plots

Like Malt Mill distillery at Lagavulin, Laphroaig was also home to another distillery at one time, called Ardenistle.  This was part of another dispute with people trying to cash in on Laphroaig’s good name which, like Malt Mill, eventually failed and the buildings were incorporated into the Laphroaig we know today.  Also known at one time as just Islay Distillery it had, in any case, come and gone long before Barnard visited.

For all the similarities to other distilleries that Barnard alluded to, and that Malt Mill and Ardenistle tried to copy, Laphroaig has always remained very much in a class of its own.  The full flavoured peat smokiness of a definitive Islay style whisky, a Royal Warrant, experimentation without losing the character of the whisky and avoiding the diverse and often desperate ‘finishes’ that have become common elsewhere - modern and traditional sit easily together here at a distillery that is warm, welcoming and would like to have you as their Friend.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Quick Update

Hi folks, apologies for not posting anything for a couple of weeks, had to take time away to deal with some other things.  I hope to catch up with the story in the next few days, starting with Laphroaig.

In the meantime Chez Dougie is snowbound at seventeen inches deep so the next stage of my journey has been put on hold, probably until after New Year.  I still have lots of material to write up for Islay and the west coast distilleries and I will post this over the next few weeks, then get back on the road when the weather improves (keep believing!).

Stay warm and take care.