"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

Monday, 31 January 2011

Isle of Jura Distillery

I mentioned in my first Islay post that my ferry crossing had been delayed as one of the two regular ferries from Kennacraig had clipped the pier at Port Askaig the day before.  It turns out this was a bit more serious and the linkspan that you drive across from the shore to the ferry was out of action for 9 weeks in total.  The day before my crossing to Jura I heard someone comment that they had seen the ferry parked up nicely, then as it was straightening up that last wee bit it ‘skelped’ the pier with a bang.  Brilliant word, skelped; never heard it used before about a 3,300 tonne ferry though!

Cancelled sailings due to adverse weather or repairs are perhaps common enough for the islands.  What was a minor inconvenience to me is something to factor into everyday life for the people living and working here who rely on the ferries to support their livelihood.  Port Ellen is sometimes closed in bad weather and with both ferries operating out of there for a long period there may have been a few more disruptions than normal.  Still, the Islay folk are laid back and stoic so you just get on and adapt to it I guess.

Port Askaig to Feolin ferry crossing
In earlier comments on the Sound of Islay Barnard had noted that the waters “rush between the two islands with a frightful rapidity” and how the current is so rapid that “a boat manned by four powerful Islesmen can make no headway against it”.  The ferry to Jura, the MV Eilean Dhiura, adapts to it by sometimes sailing against the current at first and then drifting on the tide into the opposite port.  The ferry only holds around 6/8 cars but the crossing to Feolin on Jura only takes about 5 minutes and there is a regular turnaround service throughout the day.

The Jura ferry uses a separate slipway to the linkspan and so my desire to include Jura Distillery on this leg of my journey was still on track.  So here I was, on my final day in the isles, waiting to drive across the ramp onto the ferry, when a strong swell comes down the Caol and the boat starts rocking from side to side in front of me!  “Just wait a moment until she settles” the boatman advised, just in case I was working out the angle for a two wheeled stunt entry, as the ramp jumped a foot off the ground alternately at either side for about a minute.

Jura Highland Coo
Thankfully the short crossing passed calmly without further incident and I was soon deposited on another island, one of the most sparsely populated areas of Scotland with only around 190 people, most living in the capital Craighouse on the east coast and home to the Distillery.  Jura is also home to over 5,000 deer and 2,000 sheep that enjoy the freedom of the uninhabited interior.  From Feolin there is a single track road to Craighouse that takes you around the southern tip of the island and the scenic 8 mile drive takes around 15-20 minutes, unless your way is blocked by a herd of hairy Highland Coos that are happy to stand and stare at you through their mop of hair.

MV Fingal, Barnard's transport to Jura (picture from Museum of Islay Life)
Barnard’s journey to Jura provides a conundrum here.  He doesn’t narrate his departure from Islay at any time but he arrives directly at Craighouse on one of MacBrayne’s steamers travelling from Tarbert on the mainland “which leaves the mails every Monday”.  There was a ferry crossing from Port Askaig to Feolin back then, and the Jura side is actually called ‘Faolin Ferry’ on the old maps, the pier designed by none other than Thomas Telford, and a track round the south tip of Jura all the way to Craighouse is marked so it is unclear why he didn’t travel that way directly from Islay.

Craighouse piers and the Small Isles
He begins his report with a memory of seeing the Paps of Jura for the first time from Caol Ila “the mountains rising precipitately from the sea…with no shadow to break their terrible ruggedness”.  Of the island he declares a population of nearly 1,000, bays that “possess all the charms of Oban in miniature” and mountain lochs teaming with trout.  He arrived at the pier which had been recently built by the distillery owner to allow larger vessels to drop off supplies in deeper water; an existing stone pier by the village having also been built by Telford in 1814.

Old corn mill in Craighouse, once known as Milltown
Barnard describes Craighouse as the only place on the island that could be called a village and the village that he saw appears to have been built in the preceding ten years alongside the redevelopment of the distillery, the houses here being the homes of the workmen.  Maps dated even as late as 1882 have the location named as Milltown after the corn mill that stood on the opposite bank of the Abhainn a’Mhuilinn (River of the Mill) from the distillery which was then much smaller.  There was a Craighouse Inn marked beside the distillery on the map, later extended and now the Jura Hotel, so a change in land feu may have accompanied the redevelopment and renaming of the town?

Craighouse village and cloud topped Paps on a dreich day
With a few hours to spare before sunset Barnard’s party ascended the hill behind the distillery and followed the river for an hour to reach the largest of three lochs that feed the river.  He is struck by the brightness and purity of the water and by the extreme contrasts between fertile crofter’s land on the lower slopes and the barren, desolate mountains above.  They returned by a different path to the house that the distillery owner had provided for them and enjoyed a meal before retiring.  Barnard comments on the limited diet available in this remote spot but is “quite content with the repast provided”.

Jura Distillery 'castle'
Their distillery visit began early the next morning when Barnard first notes the appearance being more like a castle than a distillery.  The main buildings have changed since then but the etching in Barnard shows a single turreted window on one building that may have inspired his comment, and is still in place today, although I’m not sure what else was castle like about the place.

Etching from Barnard, the original photo it was taken from is in the distillery
The distillery was first established in 1810 by the laird of the island, Archibald Campbell, on the site of an old smugglers cave.  The first known licence wasn’t recorded until 1831 and the licence then changed hands a few times until James Fergusson & Sons took over in 1876 and set about redeveloping the distillery after being granted a 34 year lease.  New buildings and equipment were provided as part of a £25,000 investment creating “one of the easiest worked distilleries in the district” where no steam power is used, all transportation done by water and gravitation.

The main buildings were all built around a courtyard which was entered through a gateway facing the sea.  A new maltings had recently been built on the slope behind the existing works, with both the old and new maltings the same size and with the common arrangement of barley loft above malting floor above warehouse.  Each one had a kiln attached and the process of malting and milling is fairly standard.  The mash tun is a substantial 20 feet across, one of the largest recorded by Barnard although his only comment is that it is driven by a water wheel.  He does note a secondary mash tun from where the final sparge and the draff are pumped to drain back into the heating tanks for the next run.

The Tun Room contained 4 washbacks at 13,000 gallons each (59,000 litres) and these in turn supply the three stills at 6,650 gallons (30,000 litres), 2,350 (10,700) and 1,200 (5,500) respectively in the traditional triple distillation pattern.  Barnard here describes the Still rummagers as being driven by a wheel 18 inches wide, 12 feet in diameter and placed below the worm tubs.  This sounds like they are powered by the water flowing out of the tubs, themselves elevated by 40 feet and fed direct from the nearby stream.

There were four warehouses containing over 3,500 casks/1 million litres of “pure Highland Malt”, from an annual production of around 285,000 litres, although the works had a capacity of almost three times this.  Barnard also mentions a turbine waterwheel “of simple construction, and yet wonderful power, and capable of flooding the whole place in ten minutes” which suggests a dual purpose of providing power and fire protection.

The company that owned Jura also built Ardlussa Distillery in Campbeltown in 1879 which they ran until it closed during the downturn there in 1923.  At Jura there appears to have been a falling out with the Campbells in the 1890s and after the laird that the Fergussons had dealt with passed away in 1901 they dismantled the operation and gradually removed the equipment and then the maturing whisky casks.  By the time the lease ended in 1910 the operation was long since finished and so it remained for over 60 years.  To avoid paying rates the roofs were removed from the buildings and they were left to ruin.

New distillery built 1960-63
In an effort to regenerate the village and again provide employment on the island work began to rebuild the distillery in 1960 and the new venture ran its first spirit in April 1963.  The current distillery is built on the ruins of the old but all the equipment was built to a new design.  The style of the whisky was also deliberately changed from the heavy, peated style of old and the new stills were designed to provide a lighter spirit from barley peated to just 2ppm.  Heavier peated batches are also run for a few weeks each year for the Prophecy and Superstition expressions, Prophecy in particular starting life at 60ppm and retaining 35ppm in the bottle.

Now owned by Whyte & Mackay, anyone who has made the effort to get to this remote distillery is rewarded with a friendly tour and dram at no cost.  My welcome began in the main street as I was taking photographs.  I was approached by an elderly resident and when asked what I was doing here I said I was working on a whisky project, to which the reply came “Ah, Americans!”, and seemingly satisfied with this he shuffled off to continue with whatever errand he was on.  This lightened my spirits on what had turned into rather a dreich day and I just managed to stop laughing in time to meet Sue for the tour.

Jura washbacks
We began with some of the history and then a tour round the current operation.  Barley is now sourced from the mainland and is malted at Baird’s near Inverness, arriving like most of their supplies via Islay and the Feolin Ferry.  Where the old maltings once stood are now warehouses.  The mash tun and the 6 x 50,000 litre washbacks are made from stainless steel.  Functional and purposeful are important here as any replacement supplies have to be brought in some distance, and if the ferries have skelped a pier or the weather is stormy then quick repairs have to be possible to keep operations going.

Sue introduced me to a new way of appreciating the wash.  Rather than diving your nose into the vapours inside the washback, if you cup your hands below an open hatch then you gather only the heavier, richer vapours that will drift down the outside of the washback and you can breathe in the wonderful grassy aroma from there.  No need to risk whiplash from the CO2 kickback and a different aroma to that inside.

Jura 'Lantern' style stills
There were originally only two stills in 1963 but another two were added in 1978.  The design is of a ‘Lantern’ style and they are among the largest stills in Scotland, 25,000 litres for the wash and 22,000 for the low-wines stills (Udo, 2005) and 25 feet tall.  The shape helps provide a smoothness to the spirit and only the light vapours reach the near vertical lyne arms creating a soft, fruity ‘Highland’ style whisky.

There are now five warehouses, four by the distillery and one on the approach road, now holding 25,000 casks from an annual production of around 1.7m litres.  When the new venture began in 1963 most of the whisky went for blending but they are now holding back around a third of their production for single malt bottling.

Jura celebrated the 200th anniversary of their first founding last year and I imagine that the 2013 celebrations may even surpass that, the distillery once more a focal point for the community.  I wish I had planned time for a walk up the river to the waterfalls and loch that Barnard visited but ferry times were against me as I had to make my way back home from Islay that afternoon.  Barnard too had to rush away, the steamer calling by special permission of Mr MacBrayne just as his tour ended, and he left with regret and hoping to return some day too.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Bunnahabhain Distillery, Islay

On my day visiting Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain I stopped for lunch at the Port Askaig Hotel beside the ferry terminal.  The public bar here was the original Inn built over 400 years ago, the rest of the hotel dates from the 18th century, and it still retains that traditional charm and friendly atmosphere that the word Inn invokes.  They have a nice range of whisky and also McEwans 60/- beer on tap and you don’t see too many of those around any more.

Port Askaig Hotel
When I was there I heard talk of a ceilidh to be held in this cosy bar the next night.  Now the Port Bar here is cosy in both senses of the word but their regular ceilidhs are not of the dance hall craze style that have become popular in recent years, but rather the more traditional ‘gathering’ that the word translates to.  Ceilidhs were, and away from cities, community halls and weddings still are, a gathering of folk from the local area to share music, song, poems and stories, as well as some dancing if there is room.  A few drams with convivial company help make these evenings memorable and I encourage you to seek one out on your own travels.

Barnard also had a short rest at Port Askaig and most likely sat in this same bar.  He then travels the long, winding road up to Bunnahabhain describing similar scenery to his trip to Caol Ila, this time commenting on the “numerous herds of hardy Highland cattle – black, white, red and tawny, with fierce red eyes and enormous horns”.  I didn’t encounter any of these strangely photogenic beasts on Islay (a few on Jura though) but I did find a similarly multicoloured herd of normal (i.e. not so cute) cattle by Finlaggan.

The road down to the distillery proper was constructed by its owners, The Islay Distillery Co Ltd, who built the distillery and opened it in 1881, the same year as Bruichladdich.  Despite the road, the main barley and coal supplies and whisky uplifts from the distillery were by MacBraynes steamers that called into the “commodious and handsome pier”, made entirely of iron and with massive piles sunk into solid rock in deep water.  Since 1995 all supplies have now been brought in by road. 
Bunnahabhain pier with Mull on the horizon
Barnard makes a strange comment here – “Ten years ago there were but few Distilleries in Islay, but the increasing demand…encouraged further enterprise in the extension of existing Distilleries and the erection of new ones”.  Strange because, of the 9 on Islay when he visited, only Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich had been built recently, both opened in 1881.  The others were all from the early 19th century or before.

Bunnahabhain Distillery from the rocky shore
The distillery was named after the bay on whose shores it sits and the small village here was built on previously uninhabited land, entirely to provide for the distillery staff and their families.  On maps from the mid 1800s the bay is named as Bonahaven and this offers an interesting variation on naming conventions.  Bun-nah-abhainn is Gaelic for Mouth of the River, bun meaning base or bottom (and those of you now thinking nice buns may well be right) and abhainn being river.

From Bonahaven we get bona meaning good or nice and haven meaning shelter or harbour, and there is a wide, open bay here offering some protection from the swift flowing waters of the Caol.  So the two variations on the name, while sounding similar, may not be directly connected in meaning.  Perhaps the cartographer recorded Bonahaven as that was his hearing of the name spoken by local people, and as this was also an appropriate name for the bay he didn’t question it.  My limited linguistic skills fail me here and I may be overanalysing it, so let’s get back to the uisge/whisky.

Entrance to courtyard, west wing ahead
The layout of the distillery buildings are mainly unchanged since they were built, where once the full malting, mashing and distilling operation was arranged around a large square courtyard entered under a noble archway, with several large warehouses built adjoining these works.  There are also original stone built cottages scattered around the shore and on the slopes above.

Etching of Bunnahabhain from Barnard
The largest building is the double section south wing, where once there was a barley loft above two malt barns and warehousing on the ground level.  Barnard describes the barley being raised to the loft by steam driven elevators and then “propelled by a screw working within a case to any part of the loft; the discharge being provided for by an adjustment of the openings of the case”.  The same arrangement is used for transfer to the kilns and therefore no barrows are needed, “and much waste of grain is thus prevented”.  Barnard believes this is the only arrangement of its kind on Islay and I think it is also the first he has mentioned on his tour; the Archimedes screw now fairly common for movement of grain around a distillery.  The ready malted barley is now brought in by road from the east coast of Scotland.

Old granaries on left, kilns were once in the corner
At the southwest corner of the courtyard there once stood two large kilns, the roof cowls just visible in the etching above, but they were demolished during renovations at the distillery in 1963.  Barnard records that only well matured peat is used in the kilns, “well-seasoned” peat being free from the sulphurous matter that is present when dug.  Another major change that took place in 1963 was to the character of the main Bunnahabhain spirit, changed from a ‘traditional’ Islay peaty style to a much lighter level of under 2ppm.  They do still turn out about 10% of production at 35ppm, this peated spirit known as ‘Moines’, available as single cask bottlings from some of the independent bottlers.

Previous Manager John MacLellan with new mash tun
The west wing of the courtyard once housed the cooperage, coal shed, mill and mash tun.  Unusually for Barnard he doesn’t offer any description of the mash tun.  It was replaced in 1900, the original open topped tun transferred to Bruichladdich where it has sat proudly ever since, and again in 1999 when a new stainless steel tun with a copper dome was installed to replace the previous cast iron tun.

The Still House in the north wing was described as a “vast open building” which included six washbacks and two stills and all the usual cooling equipment and chargers.  In the last of the big changes in 1963 a new mill was installed, a separate tun room created with six much larger washbacks and two new stills were added to the existing two, increasing capacity from 200,000 gallons (909,000 litres) in Barnard’s time to a potential 2.5m litres at full production.

Bunnahabhain's enormous washbacks
Each washback now has a huge 100,000 litre capacity with a normal fill level of 66,500 litres, compared to just 27,000 litres before, and are the largest I have seen at any distillery.  The wash stills are now 35,400 litres and the spirit stills 15,500, 30% and 15% larger respectively than before, but now with double the number of stills processing those huge wash levels.

One pair of Bunnahabhain stills
The Abhainn Araig, Gaelic for Craggy River, runs down from Loch Staoisha in the hills to the south of here.  This river now only supplies the cooling water for the distillery but Barnard records it under its original spelling of Loch Staoinsha as the supply of water that “delights the heart of a Distiller, being of a soft peaty nature”.  Since the 1950s the mashing water has been piped from Margadale Springs which lie to the northwest.  Further down its course the Margadale River merges into the Abhainn Araig before it empties into the bay just north of the distillery, as the source of the name discussed earlier.

Bunnahabhain warehouses, north side of the distillery
Barnard records several large warehouses but they pale in comparison to the current arrangements here.  In this picture the middle block of four lower buildings, which can also just be made out in the earlier picture from the shore, are the ones to be seen in the etching from Barnard’s time, now flanked by six more substantial warehouses with many more scattered around the distillery and on the slopes behind.

The company that originally built the distillery also provided a reading room and school room to provide education for the children of the 50-70 staff who worked there.  The Education Act that first required all children aged 5 to 10 to go primary school was introduced as recently as 1880 and Barnard describes the act of the company as “praiseworthy liberality”.  Some newer cottages have since been added to the village but attendance at school now requires negotiating the four miles of bendy, scenic road down to the town of Keills.

Just 2 years after Barnard’s visit the company joined with W. Grant & Co, owners of Glenrothes Distillery, to create the Highland Distillers Co Ltd.  Apart from a few short closures during the next century, the company continued until 1999 when the Edrington Group took over but only ran production at Bunnahabhain for a short time each year.  In 2003 the distillery was sold to current owners Burn Stewart Distillers who also own Tobermory Distillery on Mull and Deanston near Stirling.

The whisky has changed recently too.  For a long time the standard bottling was a 40% 12yo which was chill-filtered and one of the lightest Islay whiskies available.  This was changed last year to a non chill-filtered 46.3% and the difference in taste is remarkable and welcome.  I first tried the new version at Whisky Fringe last year and was pleasantly surprised at the extra fullness and just a touch more smoke than before.  I am also grateful that the stallholder insisted that I try their 25yo which has a wonderful combination of sweet flavours and went on to win the 2010 Spirit of Whisky Fringe Award.

I had toured the distillery on an earlier trip to Islay, enjoying the company of John MacLellan in his final week as manager there before he moved to Kilchoman, and on my recent visit the new Manager, Andrew, was very welcoming and helped with my Barnard related questions before having to herd a large group of visiting Dutchmen around on tour.  They had arrived on a three mast Tall Ship which was anchored just offshore, that pier now supplying the distillery with whisky enthusiasts in place of the whisky ingredients of before, and I can think of no better way to travel between the distilleries that are dotted around the coast of this wonderful Island like jewels on a crown.

Tall Ship from The Netherlands, looking south down Caol Ila
Alas, my Islay adventure was almost over, though I still had a boat trip of my own to make, across the Caol to Jura.  The power of the water in the Caol, an encounter with Highland Cattle and a description of one of the most remote distilleries in Scotland are up next, after which I will try to wrap up the Islay story in one final post before we return to the mainland for a journey up the west coast through scenery that can only be the work of a visionary creator.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Caol Ila Distillery, Islay

Having visited all the south coast and western distilleries Barnard completed his Islay trip with a day visiting the two distilleries on the east coast, both overlooking the Caol Ila (Sound of Islay) where the water flows swiftly through the gap between Islay and Jura, less than one kilometre wide at the narrow ferry crossing from Port Askaig.

Paps of Jura and Sound of Islay, from Caol Ila Distillery
Barnard’s party travelled the ten miles from Bridgend to Caol Ila in a dog-cart which set a good pace “through scenery of the most varied description”.  He eagerly anticipates a nearer view of the Paps of Jura and his impression was that they seemed to “rise straight out of the sea, their base washed by the waters of the sound which, looking so beautiful and yet so treacherous, rush between the two islands with a frightful rapidity”.

On their approach the driver of the dog-cart pointed out what Barnard described as “like a stump of a tree on a rock” but which turned out to be the distillery chimney.  The scenery here again captivated Barnard and he records
“for miles nothing met the eye but rolling hill slopes bare of bush or shrub, indented at a lower level with the loveliest little farmsteads, each surrounded with a few trees, all looking inexpressively homely and fertile, and then bursts upon our view an infinite expanse of sea, with Colonsay and other islands in the far distance”.
I’m not sure about Colonsay but the south coast of Mull is certainly visible across the sea from here, the relative closeness and ease of communication between these great isles being an important factor for those noble seafarers mentioned in my last post.

South coast of Mull across the Firth of Lorn
Barnard here shows his slightly nervous side.  The road descended through the hamlet on the slopes above the distillery and he decided that walking down the steep incline would be safer “much to the disgust of the driver, who muttered strange words in Gaelic.  His remarks, however, are lost upon us, that language not having formed part of our education”.

An extra bend has been installed in the road since then to ease out a descent that ends right by the water’s edge, where “Caol Ila Distillery stands in the wildest and most picturesque locality we have seen” and I have to say I agree with the old fellow there.  The views up the Sound and across to the Paps, which change character almost hourly as the light and clouds shift around them, are among the most splendid I can recall in Scotland, certainly as a setting for a distillery.

Caol Ila from shore
Built in 1846 from stone hewn out of the slopes behind the distillery it was then owned by Bulloch, Lade & Co from 1863 and they had made improvements in 1879, including a pier for supplies to be unloaded in any tide, and where MacBrayne’s steamers called to uplift whisky twice a week, bound for Glasgow.  The pier is still there but all supplies are now brought by road and the whisky taken out the same way by tanker.

Pier at Caol Ila, once used for supplies
Bulloch Lade & Co also owned Loch Katrine Distillery at Camlachie in Glasgow and Benmore Distillery in Campbeltown, making them one of the largest total producers of whisky in Scotland at that time.  They were blenders as well as distillers but they were caught up in the spate of failed companies in the 1920s and were taken over by DCL in 1927.  The distillery was silent from 1930-37 and 1941-45 but has remained within the various guises of DCL and has recently been added to Diageo’s Classic Malts profile.

The entire distilling operation was demolished in 1972 and then rebuilt as a larger operation, reopening in 1974.  Only the warehouses survived from before this time and so the layout and equipment is very different to that recorded in the etching in Barnard.  The barley and malting barns that are on the far right of the etching is now the location for the still house, and the two substantial kilns in the middle are where the car park, offices and visitor centre now sit.  Different stages of development can be seen in these pictures.

Date unknown, picture from Caol Ila Visitor Centre

Caol Ila 1905, picture from Museum of Islay Life

I joined a tour group and our guide Linsay took us out to the courtyard to tell us some history and explain some of the changes that had occurred over the years.  Barnard's tour began at the original barns which had two barley lofts above two malting floors, the barley being raised by a patent hydraulic hoist.  As part of Diageo they now receive their barley from Port Ellen maltings, peated to 35ppm, the same level as Lagavulin.

Barnard notes that the Mash-house and Still-house were combined and adjoin the millroom; today the expanded operation has the three departments adjoining on a much grander scale.  He records the mash tun at one end of the combined room with the worts then pumped to a separate Tun room where there are an unspecified number but “quite an array of” wash backs.  He records this as a beautiful room and today the mash tun sits at one end of a bright and airy room along with the 8 washbacks, 80,000 litres each and made from American larch.  The millroom still adjoins at the south end beside the mash tun and a large, solid looking computer bank now controls all the operations.

Caol Ila Still house
The still house now has six hefty stills, arranged in a row in a bright glass fronted building facing the shore.  Barnard noted only two stills but doesn’t give sizes, the annual output of the distillery then a reasonable 147,000 gallons (668,000litres).  It is now the largest production volume on Islay at 3.6m litres p.a.  The three wash stills are around 35,000 litres each and the three spirit stills 30,000.  As at Lagavulin the wash stills are onion shaped and the spirit stills pear shaped, but the shallow descent on the lyne arms (10 degrees on the wash stills, 5 on the spirit stills) contrasts with the 45 degree angle on those at Lagavulin, creating a lighter texture to the spirit here.

Barnard recorded three warehouses holding nearly 2,000 casks and he is led to believe that demand for the whisky far exceeds supply, which is allocated to buyers at the beginning of each distilling season.  Now the whisky is matured at Diageo’s massive warehouse complex at Alva, near Stirling in central Scotland, and the warehouses at Caol Ila are used as their spirit store and also for maturing Lagavulin casks.  While most Lagavulin whisky is bottled as single malt, 95% of Caol Ila goes into blending, particularly contributing to those smoky notes that appear in the various Johnnie Walker styles.

I understand that the distillery will close again this year from June to December as the operation is once again expanded.  Production will also go from 5 to 7 days a week and capacity will be increased to over 5 million litres p.a., one of the largest productions of any Scottish distillery.  With the new Roseisle distillery which opened last year in Speyside producing 10 million litres p.a., Diageo are clearly optimistic about future demand for their products.
Waterfall behind distillery

Barnard records that the water is “said to be the finest in Islay”, as if all distilleries wouldn’t make the same claim, and it “comes in the form of a crystal stream from a lovely lake (sic) called Torrabus, nestling among the mountains, over which ever and anon the fragrant breeze from the myrtle and blooming heather is wafted.” Easy now, Alfred, easy.  These “mountains” are the same “rolling hill slopes” of his introduction but the same stream does still supply the distillery, tumbling gracefully over a lovely waterfall into a hidden fairy pool that nestles beside the fragrant clover behind the distillery!  Forgive me, its contagious.  Anyway, the water is less peaty and more rock filtered than the streams that supply the south coast distilleries, so contributing to a gentler spirit here.

I was curious about his mention of Lake (hmmm!) Torrabus as it isn’t marked on any maps.  Loch nam Ban is the water source recorded here and is marked on old and new maps as the source of the stream that supplies the distillery.  I asked Linsay about this after the tour and she promptly phoned the man who would know about these things, her father.  He mentions an area called Torrabus off the road to Bunnahabhain and a duck pond above the village, so I say my farewells and head off in search of this mystical place.

Translating Torrabus from Gaelic to English doesn’t leave much to the imagination.  I think ‘torr’ means mound or hill and an ‘abus’, a very common suffix to place names on Islay, is a farm, so literally just ‘hillfarm’; not very precise given the number of farms in the hills around here.  However, Loch nam Ban means Loch of Women, which provides much more for the imagination and I wonder if there is a lost story to tell about this place?  If any reader knows about the origins of the name then I would welcome the story added below.

Loch nam Ban in the hills above Caol Ila
Nevertheless, the maps suggest that this must be the same loch, and as I found often in the Campbeltown reports a local name may have been mentioned to Barnard at the time.  He records “This lake yields a never failing supply of this most essential factor in Distillation.”  Hmmm, the current supply when I visited looked like it may have been tinkering with the idea of failing, a fate that befell some other distillery supplies for a short spell last summer.  The picture here shows the dipstick for the loch rather adrift on dry land, although I imagine the snowfall last month will have helpfully replenished this essential resource for the months ahead.

I hadn’t given up on the Loch Torrabus name though, and intrepid as ever in the cause of providing you with a story I once more knocked on the door of a nearby dwelling.  I explained my predicament to the gentleman who answered but he hadn’t heard of the other loch name either, although there were some marshy patches on the slopes below us towards the distillery.  This meeting was not entirely in vain though as I was told a wonderful story with which to round up this post.

View south from Loch nam Ban
The gentleman had previously lived in Cornwall where he owned a large yacht.  While opening a bottle of Caol Ila whisky his wife commented on what a lovely sounding name it was, and so the yacht was christened.  That inspired a later trip up the coast and through the Sound of Islay, and now they have the pleasure of living on the slopes above the distillery and enjoying those spectacular views.  Be it providence or fate, perhaps naming your most cherished possessions after whisky can inspire adventure and help to realise your destiny.

I enjoyed my visit to Caol Ila and my thanks go to Linsay (and her father) for helping with all my questions.  It seems fitting to end with Barnard’s own last words on his visit to the distillery, a sentiment I fully endorse - “We now bid farewell to this charming spot hoping that some future day will bring us an opportunity of a revisit to Caol Ila”.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Loch Finlaggan and the Council of the Isles

When Barnard visited Lagavulin he identified Dun-naomhaig (Dunyvaig) Castle as a stronghold of the Lords of the Isles and he briefly mentions Loch Finlaggan where the Council of the Isles met and the King was crowned:
“The picturesque ruins of the principal castle and chapel where the Lords of the Isles resided in royal pomp are on an islet in Loch Finlaggan, a lake three miles in circumference, and several traces are still to be seen on its shore of a pier and habitations used by their guards and men-at-arms. In former times a large stone was to be seen on which the MacDonalds stood when crowned King of the Isles by the Bishop of Argyle.”
Loch Finlaggan
It is not clear if Barnard ever visited Finlaggan himself and he doesn’t mention either it or the MacDonalds in any other Islay report.  He doesn’t attribute a source for his description above but it is almost certainly taken and adapted from Anderson's Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, first published in 1834, and I can imagine that Barnard carried a copy of this with him on his travels, to help guide him and open his eyes to Scottish history and culture.

However, he is prone to embellishment at times and the words “resided in royal pomp” above are his addition, presumably because the book actually states “principal castle or palace and chapel”.  Celebrations and feasting were then part of the Gaelic culture, however the royal nature of the Lordship was not akin to that in Medieval England, and the clan structure was certainly less pompous that the royal lineage in England, France or even mainland Scotland.  We have seen Barnard’s revisionist style before at Dalaruan Distillery in Campbeltown and it seems like an editorial decision, perhaps to help the London readers of Harpers to identify with the story?

Some of his revisions are done for effect though, or to help narrate a story, and of one particularly violent tale about the Lord’s bodyguard he embellishes the story a little and introduces it’s gory details with relish and wry anticipation - “The last gang was destroyed in so ludicrous a manner, yet withal so sanguinary, that we cannot forbear relating the tale to our readers”.

The full historical description of Islay from 180 years ago is an interesting snapshot of island life at the time, following Martin Martin and Boswell and Johnston’s descriptive journeys in preceding centuries, and it can be viewed in an online book, p570 onward; the bloodthirsty amongst you can skip to p578-9 for the short tale that Barnard recorded.

The approach to Eilean Mor
The first Lord of the Isles was Somerled, son of Gille Bride, who, in the 12th century, fought and vanquished the Norsemen from the Hebridean islands that his ancestors had once ruled.  Two generations later his grandson Donald was the head of Clan Donald as it claimed its position as ‘Ceannas nan Gaidheal’ – the Headship of the Gael.  For over two hundred years Gaelic culture spread and flourished on the west coast of Scotland, overseen from the small island of Eilean Mor in Loch Finlaggan and the ‘Council Isle’ beside it.  The loch played a very important role in the development of Scotland as a nation and in the survival of Gaelic culture.

The MacDonalds were renowned for their poetry, music and craftsmanship.  The history and culture of the people survived through oral traditions – instruction, history and morals passed on in song and verse rather than writing.  At a time when it was easier to travel long distances by sea than by land, the Lords of the Isles were skilled seafarers and this enabled them to rule the entire western seaboard, from Kintyre to Lewis, from their base on Islay.

Ruined chapel and view to the Paps of Jura
Finlaggan had been occupied by earlier peoples and there is evidence of settlement from the Neolithic through to the Iron Age and beyond, both on the shore and on ‘crannogs’, or artificial islands in the loch.  These earlier communities introduced and relied on agriculture and so aspects of the landscape would play an important part in their celebrations and rituals.  The importance of Finlaggan as a location for settlement is enhanced by the view north-east to where the Paps of Jura, considered symbols of fertility and perhaps worshiped in the name of a mother goddess, stand bold on the horizon.  A sense of place and belonging were also important and the continuity of settlement through to the medieval period conferred authority to the Lord to rule these lands in the name of his ancestors.

Council Isle beyond the ruins of the Great Hall
The Council Isle, Eilean Na Comhairle, lies just off Eilean Mor and would have been reached by a causeway.  This was where the Nobles and Clan Elders would meet to discuss matters of land, to dispense justice and to inaugurate each new Lord.  Here lay a large stone with the carved outline of a footstep wherein the new Lord would stand when crowned to show the continuity of the right to govern these lands.  A similar footprint can be seen at Fort Dunadd near Kilmartin, once the capital of the Kingdom of Dalriada in the 6-8th centuries and a precursor to the Lordship of the Isles.

Footprint of the King at Fort Dunadd near Kilmartin
By the 15th century Scotland was in political upheaval and the Lords of the Isles were not to survive through it.  After numerous battles their lands were forfeited in 1493 and the title eventually passed to the crown in 1542.  In Barnard’s Lagavulin report he includes a verse that is also in the guide book but unattributed.  I haven’t been able to trace its origins although it sounds like it may be from Sir Walter Scott who died just before the guide was first published:

"Where are thy pristine glories, Finlaggan!
The voice of mirth has ceased to ring thy walls,
Where Celtic lords and their fair ladies sang
Their songs of joy in Great MacDonald's halls.
And where true knights, the flower of chivalry,
Oft met their chiefs in revelry -
All, all are gone and left thee to repose,
Since a new race and measures new arose."

Another poem in the 16th century book of the Dean of Lismore carries the mournful lament “It is no joy without Clan Donald” in longing for the days when music and laughter, kinship and valour were the bonds for a people spread throughout this littoral realm.

The buildings on Eilean Mor and Council Isle now lie ruined, some built over by later farm steadings themselves now gone, but the history is not forgotten.  The Finlaggan Trust oversees these two small but influential islands and there is a visitor centre on the shore where the history is told.  A wooden causeway crosses the marsh to Eilean Mor where information boards tell the story and the landscape provides atmosphere and inspiration.  The old chapel contains graves that are covered by historic carved grave slabs, one carrying the motif of a galley ship, symbolic of the Lordship of the Isles.
Buzzard? at Loch Finlaggan
I came this way twice during my stay on Islay, once in daylight to take photographs and get a sense of the location, and once at dusk to scare the hell out of myself.  Actually that wasn’t my objective but the ghosts decided otherwise.  In daylight there is a quiet sadness to the place, a sense of loss and it is hard to imagine the scenes of celebration that once gave life to a community here.  We fleeting visitors are the only life now, and a recent wedding party who held a torch lit procession here at midnight in a brief reflection of the past, and the birds that nest by the shore.
Loch Finlaggan at dusk
At dusk, wisps of mist floated on the calm water and the moon glimmered through the menacing clouds that had gathered to dampen the end of the week, all adding to an atmosphere of foreboding.  My heart pounded as I crossed the causeway in the gloom and my torch was a blessing when reaching the isle in near darkness.  I had hoped to watch the sun set at the far end of the loch but the clouds conspired against me and left me there with both types of chill running down my back.  When I reached the far end of Eilean Mor my camera flash wouldn’t carry to light up the Council Isle so I turned for home, a little dejected and also a little happy to soon be free of the darkness.

A splash in the loch just off shore stopped me for a moment, the next splash got me moving a little quicker than I had before.  By the time I had reached my car I had convinced myself that it was probably a fish catching twilight flies on the surface of the loch and my nerves eased a little.  Not for long.  Sitting in my car writing up some thoughts I began to hear an intermittent tap from the back of my car.  Keen to reassure myself I quickly guessed that it was just my exhaust cooling, until I remembered that I had parked about an hour ago and by the time the tapping got louder I was heating up that exhaust again as I hightailed it up the track.

Ruins of the Great Hall and Chapel with the Paps of Jura
I later reflected on the timeless nature of this landscape, ultimately claimed only by the elements, and our ancestors, those who lived, ruled and were buried here in centuries passed, were but temporary guardians of a place for their people and their beliefs.  Yet we remember them, as they too both celebrated and offered continuity to their predecessors, their footsteps on the landscape now just shadows in our memory.  Tread there not with fear or foreboding, but with rejoicing for the legacy that they brought us.

Right through to today those traditions are still strong in the Western Isles where many are born blessed with the gift of music and song.  These traditions are celebrated at the Royal National Mòd, a festival of Gaelic culture that is held at a different location each year.  This year the Mòd will be based around Stornoway and the first spirit distilled at the Abhainn Dearg Distillery on Lewis will have aged three years just in time to be poured there as whisky for the first time.

The Mòd, sometimes less formally known as the Whisky Olympics, has its roots in traditions that were once held dear at Loch Finlaggan.  There is still joy with Clan Donald and it survives and flourishes, along with many other clans, through the interest and involvement of the Scots Diaspora, whose ancestors may once also have found joy at Finlaggan.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Kilchoman Distillery, Islay

I left Bruichladdich in good spirits but still with much research to do, so I headed back towards Port Charlotte to visit the Museum of Islay Life.  I mentioned the museum in my Lochindaal post and it’s a great wee place to get a feel for the Island’s past.  Archaeology, history and a small library are all provided in a converted church building and inevitably whisky plays a part in the display.  The curator was very helpful with my questions and she found some useful information in the library, including that plan of Lochindaal that requires further investigation.

Museum of Islay Life, Port Charlotte
Researching both distillery and local area history, and resolving the conundrums and contradictions in some of the evidence (or lack of it) are proving to be the most time consuming parts of this project.  The actual distillery visits and the travelling are all too short by comparison, or perhaps it just feels that way, as I often wish for the journey to last as long in reality as it does in the many fond memories I recall.  So I have to drag myself away from the museum, no time even to look at the archaeology that should interest me through the profession I should be following when not avoiding real work on projects like this!  I find the guilt eases after a dram or two!

From Port Charlotte I retraced the road back past Bruichladdich and found the turning for Kilchoman Distillery and Machir Bay.  Four to five miles along a windy, bouncy single track road brings you to Rockside Farm where the distillery is based, the dunes of Machir Bay a mile further on.  The distillery is named after the local parish and an old church nearby.  The new church here is called St Kiaran’s, named after Saint Ciaran who also founded the settlement of Kilkerran at Campbeltown.  A wonderful carved Celtic cross stands in the churchyard here.

When I began this blog I promised to visit not only every site that Barnard had but also to include every current distillery that has opened since then (and I wonder why this is taking so long…).  Kilchoman is the newest distillery on Islay having been built in 2005 and the first distillation ran in December that year.  This was the first distillery to be built on Islay in almost a century after Malt Mill was built beside Lagavulin in 1908.  I did make a quick stop here, however this was the only Islay distillery that I didn’t take a tour round as I just couldn’t work it into my timetable and the Barnard list has to take precedence, so the information here is just a quick summary.

Kilchoman is an echo of the original farm style distilleries that were scattered around Islay, and elsewhere in Scotland, long before Barnard came calling.  This heritage is recognised in the distillery visitor centre where the old distilleries are recorded on a map with brief details of each one.  Names like Octomore, Tallant, Newton and Daill still live on as farms on the island, as well as distant memories of their whisky past.  Farms often started their own small distilleries to make use of excess barley and generate some income, now major distilleries support farms by both buying their crop and supplying draff as cattle feed (you know, I don’t recall anyone using the ‘happy cattle’ joke on Islay, must be a mainland thing?).

Kilchoman are producing around 100,000 litres of spirit p.a. which is comparable to Laphroaig when Barnard visited (105,000 litres).  Laphroaig had the smallest output on Islay at that time but would not have been classed as a farm distillery.  The true farm distilleries had all closed by then, most of the twelve or so lasting only a few years from around 1816-1822, just before the Excise Act 1823 licensing requirements, although three lasted for 30-40 years.  The last closure and longest running was Lossit Distillery near Ballygrant, from 1821 to 1860 (Udo, 2005).  All this excludes the illicit distilling that certainly continued into the early decades of the 19th century.

Malting and kiln at Kilchoman
True to the old traditions Kilchoman have every stage of production on the one site, from growing their own barley to bottling the final product.  Admittedly they don’t produce enough malt for all their requirements (c30%, the remainder from Port Ellen Maltings) but they are, this year for the first time, releasing a bottling that is entirely farm produced.  Distilling from the two malt sources is kept separate and this should be an interesting comparison with the existing whisky.

The barley is peat dried for 8 hours to 20-25ppm before air drying for 40 hours, so a mid-level peating in the Islay range.  There are 4 washbacks which, like Laphroaig, are made from stainless steel, and two stills.  Most of the spirit is matured in Bourbon casks from Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery and around 20% is matured in Oloroso sherry butts.

Even at a young age this is a cracking good whisky that hints at a great depth of flavour to come as it ages.  The first few releases all hang onto a little of that evocative barley sweetness you find in New Make, with additional fruit notes coming through the smoke and I find the peat a little more pronounced in more recent bottlings, in a good way.  I have also tried a wonderful 4yo single cask bottling from an Oloroso sherry cask.  Lots more to come from this new distillery and I will be tracking their progress with interest.

Surf's up at Machir Bay
Machir Bay looking north
I didn’t have time to visit Machir Bay on this visit but I had been there once before.  A short drive on from the distillery and with parking available near the beach this is a delightful place to visit for a walk on a nice day.  The Atlantic waves rush onto the shore in a turbulent surf and the glorious sands stretch for about a mile.  Machir is actually the name for the style of grass covered dunes just behind the beach, the grass seemingly holding the sand together against the wind and tide, and a perfect place to lie back and watch the sunset with a dram of Kilchoman in your hand.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay

Barnard visited Bruichladdich Distillery on his way back to Bridgend from Port Charlotte.  His time spent travelling around the Loch Indaal area had convinced him that Islay “well deserves the appellation of the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’.”  Bruichladdich village he finds “aspiring and tastefully built…on one of the finest and most healthy spots on Islay”.  Today, as then, the distillery dominates the centre of the village and is the only one of the original coastal distilleries not to have its name emblazoned in bold black letters on a shore facing wall.

The village must have been recently built in the 1880s, likely developing around the new distillery, as maps from the National Library for the mid 1800s only record a Lodge House, kennels and a smithy near the shore on the south side of the Bruichladdich River.  The distillery was built on the north side of the river in 1881, one of the last on Islay with Bunnahabhain also opening that year.  It was built, owned and managed by three brothers from the Harvey family who we have met before as owners of Yoker and Dundashill Distilleries in Glasgow.  There were some disagreements and changes in ownership between the brothers but the family company remained in charge until 1937.

Bruichladdich late 19th Century
The distillery was described as “a solid handsome structure in the form of a square, and entered through an archway, over which is a fine stone-built residence for the use of the partners when staying on the island”.  The residence was the tall noble building on the near corner of this undated picture (from The Museum of Islay Life) although the archway is not clear and the main gateway that is still used is shown.  A fire in the 1930s destroyed the residence and the adjacent spirit store and there is now a two-storey building in a style in keeping with its neighbours.

Distillery front facing the shore today
Barnard later notes that “The Distillery having been completed all at one time the buildings are more distinct and separate than in some of the other large works…thus ensuring the greatest possible security against fire for the Whisky lying in Bond.”  Other distilleries that were purpose built before this time chose to build more compact interconnected units but Bruichladdich had distinct separations, keeping anywhere involving heat and flame away from the malt barns and warehouses.

My own arrival at the distillery was on route from Bridgend and having emailed the week before I was welcomed by Mary McGregor who ‘recognised’ me from my email.  A warm start to the tour then and we had a merry international group of seven visitors to follow the absorbing distillery story that Mary was to engage us with.  My project was made known and Barnard was given a place on the tour as well.

Old barley loft and hoist
Mary first took us to the mill room below one of the old malting floors and I tried to match up the location with Barnard’s notes.  There were originally two buildings with barley lofts above malting floors above warehouses.  The larger one was four stories with the bottom two as warehouses and this building forms the west side of the square opposite the gateway, the lower levels still used as warehouses today.  The other building, at the front of the square, only had one ground level warehouse and this is now home to the shop and tasting room.  Hoists to the barley loft doors can still be seen on the outside wall.

Belt driven Boby mill from 1913
The old kiln building is now long gone but it once dominated the centre of the courtyard which we had just crossed.  The louvered peak to the roof can be seen on the old picture above, just to the right of the residence.  Barnard notes that the barley was transferred to the kiln house in bags carried across gangways above the courtyard.  The dried malt was then transferred back to the mill house where a ‘Boby’ mill built in 1913 is now in place, still belt driven and with an old wooden dresser hiding in the loft above to remove stones from the barley.  The barley is now malted at Bairds in Inverness before being brought here for milling.  The grist was transferred to the grist loft above the mash tun by a long elevator when Barnard visited, the now bricked up opening in the wall still visible from the courtyard; an Archimedes screw now caries the grist across the way.
Grist loft and transfer from mill room
The mash tun was a good size and one of the deepest Barnard had seen at six and a half feet.  The tun used today also dates from 1881 but was brought from Bunnahabhain distillery in 1900 and is the only open topped mash tun on Islay.  The water still comes from a reservoir in the hills behind the distillery and Barnard here records an energy efficient practice – the water used to cool the worts in the refrigerator “is of sufficient pressure to rise to the Brewing Coppers, into which it flows at a high temperature, thus materially reducing the time and cost otherwise necessary to boil the water in these Coppers for mashing purposes”.  The same coppers are used today.

Mash tun with lauter rakes

Original coppers for mashing water
Barnard observed six washbacks which could ferment 7,000 gallons each (32,000 litres) and the same arrangement is in place today, one of the original backs still going strong after 125 years.  They have a volume of 45,000 litres but a fill level still of 32,000 and no switchers are needed here as there is sufficient clearance above the wash for the bubble activity to regulate itself.

Wash Still from 1881
There were originally two stills and although Barnard doesn’t provide the sizes one of them still remains here as Wash Still No.1, capacity 17,300 litres.  The original stills were coal fired and were stoked from outside which helped keep the still room clean.  There are now four stills, heated by steam coil, two wash stills around 17,300 litres each and two spirit stills around 12,270.  The two newest stills were installed in 1975 to double capacity.  The tall, slender necks of the stills, particularly the spirit stills, produce a light, pure and fruity spirit that contrasts with the heavier, oilier spirit from the stockier pear and onion shaped stills I had seen at other Islay distilleries.
Spirit stills from 1970s
Actually, there are now five stills at Bruichladdich.  An old ‘Lomond’ style still was saved from the Inverleven distillery at Dumbarton when it was demolished in 2004 and it was installed at Bruichladdich about a year ago.  Nicknamed ‘Ugly Betty’ the still was reconstructed and altered and in August this year they ran Islay’s first distillation of … gin!  Nope, not kidding, and it’s available in the shops now and it’s really quite wonderful.  A long, gentle fifteen hour simmer produced a sensational flavour from the 31 botanicals, 22 sourced on Islay, that were packed into the newly designed chamber on the lye pipe and give the gin its name The Botanist.

Ugly Betty 'Lomond' still
More information about the history and design of Lomond stills can be found on Bruichladdich’s website.  For now, well we had reached the end of the distilling process and there was only one place left to go.  Yup, the warehouses were calling and my project was about to open a door to another world for our group to enjoy.  I love the aroma in a warehouse, the maturing spirit the end result of the craft and traditional processes, with some interesting finish experiments and knock-out peat beasts developing here.

Production when Barnard visited was 94,000 gallons (434,000 litres) but is now around double that.  All Bruichladdich’s spirit is matured on Islay in twelve warehouses, double the number that Barnard saw, with both dunnage and racking warehouses dotted around the site and further storage at Port Charlotte.  Barnard described the warehouses as all having good head room and that certainly applies to the tall racking warehouses today.
Plenty of headroom, and cask room, in a racking warehouse
There are also now some casks stored in a palletised fashion, i.e. standing on pallets, in an orderly grid, and upright I tell you!!?  I was so disturbed by this I didn’t take a photo - it just looked, well, it looked wrong!  Traditional storage arrangements may be less space efficient but they seem to add a kind of charm to the warehouse experience that was missing with these maverick, upright, upstart casks.  You can get the feeling that if you bend your ear to a dunnage cask it will whisper to you of the secrets held within.  A palletised cask just offers functional silence, the dark and mystical happenings in these hallowed spaces locked away, no story to tell.

I’m not going to dwell on the pallet arrangements but there is an interesting discussion on different warehouse types on the Whisky Magazine forum here if you are curious.  Our next stop was at the bottling hall, something I don’t think Barnard would have seen at any distillery with most whisky in his time being sold to blenders and bottlers in the major cities, or sold by the cask to stand in the cellar of a bar or licensed grocery store.  The water used to bring the whisky down to bottling strength is from the Octomore spring mentioned on my Lochindaal post.

Bottle your own whisky at Bruichladdich
The Bruichladdich website includes a wealth of information on the history of the distillery but a few key developments are worth noting here.  The first quiet time for the distillery came in 1907 when financial problems led to stock being sold off cheap and the distillery closed until after the war.  From 1919 another decade of distilling took place but prohibition in America and a slump in the whole industry again forced closure in 1929.  The distillery restarted in 1935 just before the Harvey family ownership ended, and apart from closing between 1941-45 the distillery then operated until 1995 before closing again.  During this time Invergordon had doubled capacity in 1975.

The current venture began in December 2001 after a seven year gap.  The distillery was bought for £7.5m, including £5m for stock and the old name of Bruichladdich Distillery Company, once the Harvey’s family company name from 1886, was resurrected and the distillery reborn, privately owned for the first time since 1937.  Jim McEwan, after nearly 40 years at Bowmore, was brought in as production manager and Duncan MacGillivray who first worked at Bruichladdich as Stillman from 1974 returned now as Manager.

The new team describe themselves as “progressive Hebridean Distillers, proudly non-conformist, fiercely independent”.  Mavericks maybe, but also custodians of heritage.  Despite many changes in ownership over 120 years the main buildings, layout and operations have remained much as Barnard found them just a few years after the distillery was built.  The Coppers, an old mash tun, the original wash still, traditional craft and experience rather than computers used in the production process - so much of the history is still in place and preserved here.

No computers needed in the still room
Barnard could also be considered a maverick; Richard Joynson certainly thought so in his introduction to Barnard.  His great journey, while echoing the grand tour approach of those other great travellers of Scotland before him, Martin Martin in 1695 and Boswell and Johnston in 1773 was, a further century on, a first attempt at distillery bagging and a unique and fresh view on both the distilling traditions and the wider landscape of Scotland.

Yet I wondered how he would view the current fixation with wine finishes, or Additional Cask Enhancement (ACE) that Bruichladdich experiment with.  They also produce an Organic whisky, a distinction unthinkable in his time when ‘scientific’ farming was still developing.  Their Octomore whisky has been peated to 152ppm for the 2010 release, the peatiest whisky we know, probably more so than when peat was the standard fuel across Scotland in Barnard’s time.  The webcams around the plant that you can log onto to see the different stages of production from your desktop would seem like witchcraft in 1885, akin to the second sight that people once feared in the island communities.

Questions to ponder over a dram or two and we were treated by Mary to a wonderfully varied tasting back at the visitor centre where my inferior pallet, sorry palate could be tested.  The standard Bruichladdich spirit is very lightly peated at only around 3ppm and their whisky mostly matured in ex bourbon casks.  The ‘Rocks’ whisky has been ACEd in Grenach casks that I thought provided a hint of kiwi fruit to the gentle peat notes.  A 21yo matured solely in Oloroso casks gave me a wonderful mouth full of sweet honey and banana flavours.  And then there was that Octomore.  Wow, only more so!  A big hit of peat that slowly mellows from flame to embers, but with a sweetness just there under the surface, peach and treacle drifting in the smoke.

Bruichladdich visitor centre and tasting room
I quenched the flames in time to meet the legendary Jim McEwan who was kind enough to invite me to his office to discuss Barnard and Bruichladdich, a meeting and some wisdom that I will long remember.  Jim describes whisky maturation as like watching your family grow, special at every age for different reasons, all memories to cherish.  By using traditional methods to produce quality and experimenting to provide variety and choice, Jim endeavours to create whisky that can be special at different ages, from the young Port Charlottes and Octomores to the deep, rich 21yo I had sampled earlier.

Jim views a Still room as like a kitchen - a good chef can create wonderful things from quality ingredients and the same can apply in a distillery given time and imagination.  A still house can be an evocative place, late at night the “silence of the stills” as he put it can perhaps inspire thoughts and dreams.  I began to consider whisky as being as culturally ingrained as raising a family, or cooking, woven into our lives and developing alongside us, providing moments to cherish.  Jim finds some of those moments when he is alone in a warehouse with a glass, a valinch and a torch, finding that one cask that stands out as special in its time.
R>L Mill house, grist loft, tun room and still house / kitchen
My Bruichladdich experience came to an end with a view across Loch Indaal and with thoughts of tradition and heritage wrestling for space with newly inspired ideas that were cooking in my head.  Hey, if a still house can be seen as a kitchen then maybe, I thought, my kitchen could become a still house, no?  Okay, perhaps not, I will leave it to the professionals, those like Jim with experience and imagination, and the relevant customs documentation.

In the meantime I will be looking out for the next Hebridean progression from cask to bottle and the first brick to be laid at the new distillery in Port Charlotte.  I will finish with my thanks to Mary for her warm welcome and infectious spirit and to Jim for his wisdom and inspiration, all four qualities to be found infused in the fabric of life on Islay, and if you can’t get to Islay then let Islay come to your glass and find them in a well crafted and cared for whisky.  Bruichladdich have quite a few to chose from.