Wednesday on Islay is Bowmore Day, and as fortune would have it we were staying in Bowmore so the 09:30 tour wouldn’t require a massively early start. Except that it did, as we were up and at the distillery for 07:30 to obtain a precious silver ticket that would allow us to buy a bottle of the more affordable Bowmore Feis Ile bottling. We’d arrived too late on Saturday to make the distillery so we were keen to ensure that we were able to obtain a couple of the final 300 bottles.
Catriona was leading the early tour and after handing out some fancy Bowmore glasses we were whisked onto the malting floor with a dram of 12 year old and were given the chance to have a go at trying to turn the barley. Catriona was an excellent guide, very knowledgable and clear, and as she led us around Islay’s oldest distillery we were offered (and gleefully accepted) drams of the travel retail exclusives Bowmore 15 Mariner and Bowmore 100 Degrees Proof. We also tried the new make spirit in the still house before we were ushered down to the warehouse for a final treat – a meeting with Ginger Willy! Ginger has recently retired from the warehouses after a career spanning around four decades and he was back for the Feis day to entertain and share stories of his many years in the Bowmore vaults – what he doesn’t know about the warehouses at Bowmore isn’t worth knowing! All in all this was a great start to the day!
Time was running short and we had a hot date with the Master of Malt crew at Laphroaig. After carefully negotiating the low road (for the umpteenth time) we found ourselves at the distillery with some familiar faces, including Andrew and his wife Alison who run the Bowmore House Bed and Breakfast. They’re a lovely couple who made us feel so welcome over the week (we were staying near them in their fabulous annex), but for now they were the competition!!
We were at Laphroaig to take part in the final round of Master of Malt’s competition which would see the winners have their faces on the next batch of That Boutique-y Whisky Company’s Laphroaig which is due out later this year. Finding the bottle in Bowmore the night before by wading into Loch Indaal meant we won a bottle of Caol Ila and also meant that if we emerged victorious from the challenges that lay ahead, our faces would be on the bottles! We did rather well in the quiz section… Mike impressed with his Back to the Future knowledge, we somehow guessed 5 out of 5 on the Feis Ile nosing element, and we knew rather a lot of the whiskies that Master of Malt have released recently. That put us in the final two. The challenge that now lay before us was to be first in a treasure hunt (walking for legal reasons) race around the distillery. It was down to me. After a bad start – through working out the answer to be a warehouse rather than the spirit safe we pulled level through clue three. Clue four was slightly easier to solve and this led me to the finish line and what is surely going to be the best/worst* (*delete as appropriate) selling of all of That Boutique-y Whisky Company releases – the one featuring the guys from LivingRoom Whisky in Back to the Future poses!
We didn’t have time to bask in victory – we had little over 40 minutes to get to Kilchoman for a tour led by manager John McLellan so it was back off to safely negotiate the low road once more!
Kilchoman is Islay’s newest distillery. Founded in 2005 it is the only distillery on the island that can claim to carry out the whole whisky process itself which it does with its annual 100% Islay releases (for example Bruichladdich doesn’t have a malting floor despite bottling on the island, and Bowmore / Laphroaig don’t bottle on the island despite having a malting floor – Kilchoman has it all and even grows some of its barley at the farm where the distillery is). The tour, led by John who previously managed Bunnahabhain for 21 years, was a real highlight of the trip and he was able to share a lot of experience, knowledge, humour and passion with all assembled. This is the third time I have visited Kilchoman, but only the first tour I have done and it is now highly recommended – we will be back!
What really brought home the local and Islay heritage of this experience was that as we finished up in the warehouse with a tasting of a 2008 sherried Kilchoman straight from the cask, the very same cask was rolled away by one of the warehouse men to be bottled that afternoon. Indeed, if we’d turned up the following day we could have bought it – I love that local scale that this provides; it all happens on Islay for Kilchoman and on top of that, the spirit and whisky produced is first class. We finished up in the shop with a couple more drams as John answered questions (including Nick’s rather geeky methanol, copper contact, alcohol one – he finally has an answer and can stop bugging people!!)
We were about to leave when we bumped into Colin Dunn and David Sinclair in the courtyard. What is great about Islay is that there is no rush – they both joined us for a chinwag and after putting the world to rights we headed off to the nearby Machir bay beach to jump waves, write LivingRoom Whisky in massive letters in the sand and enjoy the rest of our Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 5 – is their a better dram for a sunny evening on the beach?
That was day five, and it was fabulous… could it be bettered… wait until we write about the rest of the Feis and then you’ll see…