ISLAND distilleries offer an unforgettable taste of Scotland’s Year of Food & Drink
BARRELS of silently maturing whisky stretch into the void, as far as the eye can see. We are in a warm pool of light, at a glittering table, tasting some of Islay’s finest food and sampling a tiny selection of its famous whiskies. Oysters from Loch Gruinart, whisky-cured salmon, Argyll venison and Islay-grown vegetables are matched with Bowmore’s best malts, in the oldest whisky vault in Scotland.
It’s the end of a memorable day spent with Bowmore Distillery, experiencing all aspects of whisky making. This privileged insight into what is arguably Scotland’s most famous whisky area saw us start at the distillery’s water source. Here, beside a field and a ruined cottage, the distillery siphons off clear waters from the Laggan River and directs it seven miles down its man-made lade.
We rejoin the lade in a quiet wooded glade, where the winter bark and lichen hues paint surreal pictures and, although it’s mid morning, it’s the first excuse of the day to toast our hosts with one of their finest malts.
Next, we head to a panoramic moor to experience peat cutting… and it’s certainly not as easy as Ginger Willie, a recently retired distillery worker, makes it seem. With seasons of fuel-gathering behind him, he effortlessly slides the lethal-looking metal blade down into the peat and gracefully lifts up the dark core ready to add to the drying pile. Steady downward pressure seems to do the trick in my case and with a successful first attempt recorded on camera I retreat. It may only cost £35 a year to cut as much peat as you need, but it’s no easy solution to the energy crisis. Armed with our experience of the peat and water, we return to the distillery to learn how these vital ingredients are used to create an Islay malt.
If truth be told, one distillery is much like another; the process of turning a grain into a spirit is not complicated. But the flavour – and mystique – is all in the traditions of the individual establishment. Bowmore’s USP is the fact it has its own malt barns where the barley is malted and then dried in rich peat smoke ready for the mash tuns. Sadly, our timing is out and the promise of turning the grain with traditional wooden malt shovels has been missed. Nonetheless, our access-all-areas tour examines every aspect of the distillery, and the purpose of every structure and process is explained while we absorb the heady atmosphere.
The distillery clutches the shore of Loch Indaal, the waters from the Atlantic break on its walls, and as we move from the huge Oregon pine washbacks in the tun room, we’re torn between seascape to the right and the bold beauty of the brass stills ahead. Here the science of alcohol and flavour makes its mark and we watch mesmerised as the clear liquid flows through the spirit safe. Ultimately the spirit ends up in those silent barrels in the vaults, where the dark, the chill and time work with the wood to create Bowmore’s distinctive malt whisky. And a chosen few get to sip a dram in the ancient No 1 Vaults.
This malt, along with the other whiskies maturing on the most southerly of the Inner Hebrides, is big business. Yes, of course, it sells in great quantities across the world but it also draws many admirers to this small island. Whisky makes an important contribution to Scotland’s tourism sector each year and with 2015 being Scotland’s Year of Food & Drink, whisky destinations are set to feature in VisitScotland’s £570,000 marketing campaign. Thousands of visitors tour the eight distilleries on Islay, and many return time and again enthralled by the whisky, so unsurprisingly the distilleries are constantly dreaming up new ways to interest their visitors.
Bowmore, just like its neighbours, flaunts its attractive site, generous visitor facilities and recently opened Taste eatery. Then it has stylish holiday cottages and last year it took ownership of the equally luxurious Harbour Inn and Restaurant nearby.
And so, with a highly experienced executive chef – David Kinnes – installed, Bowmore can fully participate in 2015, offering some serious foodie treats alongside its whisky.
Kinnes (formerly of Rufflets in St Andrews) is committed to fine food and is obviously enjoying cooking with Islay’s produce. The meals he created to pair with our malts were definitely stylish, and also tasted sublime.
It is surprising just how varied the atmosphere is at the seven visitor centres I ticked off on my whisky tour of Islay. Bruichladdich is the trendy teen compared with the traditional Laphroaig (which came under the same ownership as Bowmore in 2014). At Ardbeg, the creative use of the space beneath the malt barn’s twin pagodas incorporates a café serving excellent food.
Then, you step back in time as you reach the end of the remote road at Bunnahabhain and climb the outside staircase to the visitors’ reception. Nearby Caol Ila’s modern glass and steel is a shock, especially when Diageo’s other island distillery, Lagavulin, offers a much more traditional greeting.
Whisky, of course, is not the only reason people visit Islay. Flocks of geese and other birds are a big draw. The landscape (the product of geology and climate tempered by the Gulf Stream) is full of surprises; breathtaking vistas, serene, dune-backed beaches, striking whitewashed cottages and the always-changing sea.
Then, there is Finlaggan, from where the Lords of the Isles ruled their extensive lands. My footsteps rattled the wooden causeway and the reeds rustled in the breeze as I crossed to the island with its remnants of the ancient rulers. Being alone in that isolated spot is rather daunting, but it’s easy to feel what draws people from across the world.
Another place that has that same attraction is the beach at Machir Bay, where my hosts at Bowmore had taken us to sample another whisky as the sun painted its magic on the cloud-packed sky.
By my next visit I’ll have worked out how to balance exploring the island in more detail while still appreciating its full flavour, with drinking and driving now so out of the question.
• Loganair, Flybe’s franchise partner (tel: 0371 700 2000, www.flybe.com), flies between Glasgow and Islay. Fares start from £44.99.
• Tours of Bowmore Distillery (www.bowmore.com) start at £6, with the craftman’s tour £55.
• Rooms at the Harbour Inn, Bowmore (www.harbour-inn.com) start at £145 for B&B, with special deals for DBB available.
Further information www.visitscotland.com