Some times I don’t drink single malt. Sometimes I don’t even drink whisky. Tonight I have a glass of whiskey to savour. Notice the slight difference in spelling. It signifies Irish.
Clontarf 1014 is its name. Made, it claims, by King Brian Boru. Although how that man could have driven the Vikings into the sea at the battle that gives this whiskey its name, and then lived another thousand years to bring me this fine blend, I don’t know. Maybe King Brian Boru is the name of the company. I could Google it I suppose, but on this occasion I prefer to speculate.
An almost brandy-like sweetness assails the nose on first inspection. That alcoholic smoothness that only comes from triple distilling – similar to that from Auchentoshan, which is also triple distilled. It’s bold in the mouth, promising summer and peaches and cream, but as it lingers there’s a faint bitterness – perhaps the Bourbon it was matured in. It is very more-ish. You keep wanting that first hit. A bit like those warriors at Clontarf, so confident at the start of battle and yet the ravens attend the fallen on both sides.
The first day of the new academic year coincided with the rare treat of going out with my wife for food. A very pleasant Thai meal at our local – Sabai Sabai.
But the night was yet young, and like many dynamic couples we opted next to go for Ignatian Examen. A walk up to our friend Sam’s house where he led us through an hour of the Awareness Examen. There’s nothing quite like wrapping up an evening like a Jesuit.
But the night was yet young. I felt energised after the reflection and meditation that Sam had led us through. So on return home I poured myself a glass of Kilhoman (2006). It’s peaty-ness is unlike the others that I love: Ardbeg, which is like drinking soil; Ardbeg Corryvreckan which is like drinking soil put through a blender with a spot of cream and Lagavullin 16 yrs which, for me is the smoking jacket of Islay malts – relaxed, confident and smooth. No Kilhoman is zingy, like the first crackling of a fire. It tastes like the lighting of the fire on Bonfire night – sparky, with anticipation and the faintest hint of cordite. It’s a drink to match the energising feeling following a good Examen.
I drank it whilst making the sandwiches for the morning and listening to a Podcast from Hack Education. So all in all: time with my wife, Thai food, Examen, Kilhoman and education podcast. Perfect.
It had been 28 years since I’d last visited the Gower and as I drove along the peninsular I wondered how much had changed. It was perhaps hard to think these thoughts as I dodged the surfers in their tiny, battered Peugeots hurtling down the country lanes… But when I got there it was like nothing had changed. Rhossili Bay was still at its magnificent best – amazing sand, great views, so big that you’d need a city worth of people to make it feel busy.
I was amazed at how undeveloped the place was. My idyllic childhood holidays were right there, ready to be re-lived. And now bringing my own family, they could be.
But why? Why was it still relatively undisturbed? It’s true that the road into Langennith was narrow and windy – it would deter some caravans I’m sure. But the natural holiday resources are all there for some big company to come along and commercialise it all. The beach is amazing. There are waves and mile after mile of sand. The dunes are pretty good too – probably enough for a golf course if you were that way inclined. There’s history too – hints of long-gone abbeys and iron-age hill forts around the place.
And then it hit me: the surfers. So near to Swansea, Rhossili Bay is a major surfing beach and I’m sure many hundreds career down the winding roads to catch a few waves whenever they can. I’m not a surfer, but I could see in the way they drive that waves are the only things that matter – they didn’t want to waste a single valuable second away from the sea. And good on them too – I’m sure they are the main reason why that part of the Gower is so undisturbed.
Meanwhile back at the Kings Head in Langennith I was amazed to see the whisky selection at the bar. Three rows deep and in alphabetic order it’s the best collection I’ve ever seen, and that includes the bars I visited earlier this year on Islay.
If you ask for it, they hand you a well-thumbed list, including tasting notes. I tried the Penderyn – a Welsh whisky that I hadn’t tried before. It was light and floral, with a honeyish feel to it – perfect for a Summer’s evening. Then I saw that the list had Port Ellen on it – a drink I learned about in Islay and still haven’t sampled. Unfortunately they had run out – so I’ll still have to wait a little longer. So I tried the peated Penderyn instead and I was a little disappointed. I guess firstly because I associated peated whisky more with winter months – so while it is my favourite kind, I had made a poor choice on this occasion. Secondly I thought it tried a little too hard – I felt the peatedness was a little forced and it detracted from the original Penderyn that I had so enjoyed initially.
Langennith for me has now transcended legend. It was a place that I looked back on with fond memories of idyllic beach holidays. It is still that idyllic place, but now it has whisky too.
The sun rose on another splendid morning in Islay, highlighting the underside of the clouds in a marvellous rippling pattern. I should have taken a picture. But I didn’t and half an hour later the sea fog, or ‘haar’ as they call it around these parts, had rolled in. 4 seasons in one day? It can be 4 seasons in two hours in Islay.
Still that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for distilleries and 3 more were on our agenda for today. We began with Bowmore – the oldest on the island. The tour was very informative but unfortunately they’re very secretive about their processes and we weren’t allowed to take any photos beyond the maltings – 25% of which are made on site.
I tasted a pleasant dram of 12-yr old Bowmore overlooking the shores of Loch Indaal – a really stunning place to drink whisky.
Our next stop was Bruichladdich, but with some hours to kill before then, we stopped on the Islay Woollen Mill – an amazing operation in a stunningly beautiful setting and patronised by royalty. My wife bought me a jumper.
It really is a great place to visit to see a master craftsmen at his traditional best.
Our guide then took the cunning choice to walk the mile and half to Bridgend for lunch. A good idea on the face of it, even the dram of 12-yr old Bowmore we took half way couldn’t disguise the muddiness of the path, nor the wetness of the drizzle. Both of these things preceded our bedraggled arrival at the Bridgend Hotel, which I can say, serves both excellent food and excellent whisky.
Our next distillery stop was Bruichladdich. A relatively new distillery having re-opened ten or so years ago, this place boasts an overwhelming range of different whiskies – almost too much too choose from. However when I tasted the heavily-peated, 9-year-old, wine-cask-finished Port Charlotte and then discovered I had the chance to bottle my own – I just had to go for it. I was also impressed with the Octomore 4.2 and came away with a bottle of that too.
Kilchoman was a last distillery on the tour. Having started in 2006, it only has very new malts, but both that we tried were really pleasant. The 5-yr old bourbon-cask was heavily peated, but excellent, and the 5 yr-old sherry-cask was much richer, but with an equally long peaty aftertaste – my favourite sherry finish that I had tried thus far.
Now there remains a ferry trip and a stop at Loch Fyne whisky shop on the morrow.
A short ten miles from Bowmore this morning and we were in Port Ellen. Once home to its own distillery (and still sadly mourned by some), Port Ellen now only hosts a ferry terminal and a huge maltings house that supplies many of the distilleries on the island. It is also the gateway to the big three – Lagavullin, Ardbeg and Laphroig.
Our first stop was Lagavullin. There we met the effervescent Ian, who I had first read about in Michael Jackson‘s mighty tome: “Whisky”. In his fortieth year at Lagavullin, Ian led us through a tasting of various Lagavullins, from the regular 12-year old, through a 15 yr old, 19 yr old, 46 yr old and then a double matured. While it was a treat and a privelege to hold a glass of nearly 50 yr old whisky, I wasn’t that impressed with the taste and much preferred the 15 yr old and the 19 yr old. However it was then both amusing and frustrating to hear Ian tell us with garrulous charm that there was nowhere we could buy the 19-yr old – it had all run out.
Ardbeg was our next stop. After lunch there we went into a room with Jackie for a tasting of different Ardbegs. All of them I liked, preferring Ardbeg over Lagavullin, but my very favourite was a variety called Corryvreckan, named after a large whirlpool that develops between Islay and Jura in certain conditions. For me it contained just the right bend of smokiness, bitterness and body, although maybe I’d be better off describing it when I taste it by itself and not after a few drams of Lagavullin.
Our third stop of the day was Laphroig. It was another amazing place with a good tour and a splendid tasting room, although at this stop we only sampled one variety of Laphroig. It was great to see the maltings in operation at Laphroig – they use 15% of their own malted barley – the rest come from the big maltings in Port Ellen.
It had been Laphroig who, earlier in the day, we had seen cutting the peat bogs on the road to Port Ellen. This is an operation they still do in a traditional style, by hand and using no machinery other than hand tools on the turf. Perhaps this is a reason why Prince Charles chose to bestow his Royal Mark on Laphroig some time ago – he’s also been one for believing in natural, traditional methods. Or maybe he just likes a wee dram of Laphroig.
The stills were impressive too, pumping out their spirit at a fast rate.
With Laphroig done our touring was over for the day. Tomorrow we sample Bowmore, Bruichladdih and Kilhoman. Should be interesting.
Auchentoshan was our first stop on the whisky tour. Just outside Glasgow, the tour is well-organised and quickly takes you through the essentials of whisky production. Our guide, Ali was knowledgeable and friendly, even if the noise of this fully-operational whisky distillery made it difficult to hear at times. Our guide at Auchentoshan
The whisky was certainly colourful. The difference from the 6 year old to the 21 year old made a splendid display.
And it tasted splendid too.
There followed a long drive. The countryside was marvellous – beautiful views of Loch Lomond, followed by Loch Awe. However the quality of the road and the quantity of the roadworks (too features which must be somehow linked) put a dampener on the beautiful sights.
We stopped on the way in Oban, for lunch and briefly popped into the distillery there. We stopped briefly at Kilmartin and saw it’s ancient church, Cetlic Cross and grave carvings. We also stopped at Tarbert where once Viking lords had pulled their longships across the land to claim the Mull of Kintyre.
Finally we were on the ferry to Islay. The light coming through the clouds was stunning, and the brand new ferry meant for a very pleasant crossing.
Now tucked up in bed next to Bowmore distillery, I’m looking forward to a trip to the peaty ‘Big 3’ on the south part of Islay tomorrow.
In preparation for our whisky tour we arrived in Glasgow yesterday. First impressions of the place: friendliness. From the receptionist at the hotel to the man who asked if we needed help when we were looking a bit lost this morning, everyone has been friendly.