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Published: March 18th 2011
For the whisky fanatic, Islay is a true Mecca: it is a relatively small Island in the Inner Hebrides directly west of Glasgow that boasts a whopping eight distilleries - and famous ones at that. Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig... but for two windy days in early March we had the pleasure of visiting one of the prettiest-situated distilleries of them all: Bowmore. At their invitation, I and two of my colleagues: Granville (from Jeroboams Wine Merchants) who is coincidentally Scottish and Isabel (from Milroy's of Soho - www.milroys.co.uk) who is incidentally Argentinean, were given the chance to experience the distillery, its eponymously named village, and a bit of the island itself.
For those who don't know we are from Jeroboams Wine Merchants and It was an effort to get to. From the time we arrived at Glasgow from Luton it was raining, and the relentless westerly wind never stopped during our entire stay in Scotland. Our second plane, that took us from Glasgow to Islay, was a "wee" one, so the experience of slamming into black rain clouds and being shaken about by Atlantic gales meant that by the time we were back on terra firma I was feeling very grateful
to be alive and with my nerves severely jangled.
It is a barren place compared to the lushness of Southern England - much of the island appeared to have no agriculture at all, and the natural ground surface is subtle shades of red, purple and brown from the native grasses, bracken and heather. Virtually all houses and other buildings are built from stone and are painted white - and so can be seen for miles standing resolutely in the wild landscape.
We had the run of Bowmore House, an apartment adjoining the Distillery. A welcome call to arms greeted us on the sitting room coffee table: a fresh bottle of Bowmore 12 year old. "Start as you mean to go on" I say!
As this was the first time I have been to Scotland I was determined to experience as much of Scottish culinary culture as possible: Haggis, Stornoway Black Pudding, smoked haddock, Scottish beers, whisky and Irn Bru. I had to draw the line at "Buckfast" which is apparently a highly alcoholised and caffeinated beverage that fuels the violence and crime in Glasgow. If I'd been there two nights rather than one I would have had
a go. After a careful attempt to try as many Islay whiskies as possible (various distilleries, ages, oak treatments...) I found that in the morning I was in some need of trying the famously tasty Islay tap water.
The weather was epic: the relentless wind was buffeting us from the Atlantic. For half an hour we would be rained upon and for half an hour it would be fine - and this cycle repeated itself for the entirity of our stay. Perhaps for our own sakes the distillery manager Eddie McAffer said when we met us that it probably wasn't a day for going out in the bog to cut peat. I asked "Really...? Not even for a minute?!?", he swore, walked away, and came back with Wellington boots. I got my way: despite the weather and Granville's badly twisted ankle, we were driven to a beautiful patch of strangely bouncy orange field and dug out some peat - that will probably contribute to the smoky flavour of your Bowmore dram in thirteen or so years from now.
The distillery itself was quite amazing: Willy Wonka does Whisky. We turned barley on one of Scotland's few remaining grain
floors, stepped into a peat furnace, put our head in into gigantic copper cauldrons with hypnotically bubbling liquids in various stages of fermentation, and drank once-distilled whisky (basically, really bad beer). But the highlight was without question the cellars downstairs. They were cool, dark and damp with fur on the walls which was algae that live off evaporating alcoholic vapours - what we in the biz call "the angels' share". Eddie would wedge a large cork out of a sherry or bourbon cask and dollop out a large sample the whisky that was aging inside. I may not drink a lot of whisky, but it didn't require an avid whisky "anorak" to recognise that we were sampling some absolute stonkers!
After all that, Derek very kindly took us on a quick tour of part of the rest of the island - to Portnahaven in the extreme west. The small village of sweet white stucco cottages surrounded a small bay which has several seals playing around. In the end of the almost completely enclosed bay we could see the Atlantic Ocean in the near distance - the sea seemed to form a steep wall and beyond it were ferocious, gigantic
Islay from above
Could be Mars really!
waves. Then it started to rain again for the tenth time, so we escaped.
I couldn't stay awake much longer but it didn't matter, as our work was done. All that was left was to catch another small plane, fly directly into another storm cloud, have a little roller coaster ride, and try not to scream until Glasgow. While Granville and I were both being traumatised by the rocky journey, Isabel was cool, calm and collected - even with a faint smile of pleasure.
The weather may not have been amazing, but that didn't spoil the scenery at all, and anyway - rain, howling wind and an open fire make the perfect accompaniment to a wee dram of whisky... once you’ve been there, it all makes perfect sense!
A special thanks to Derek Murray from Morrison Bowmore for being an excellent host, guide and chauffeur!
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Islay looks rather inhospitable. I guess the "wee dram" constitutes basic central heating for the locals! YELF