(This distillery review was written by Toronto Whisky Society member Stephen Sheps who was recently in Islay. Thanks to him for sharing his distillery experiences!)
Ahh, Islay. There is really no place quite like it, even in Scotland. It’s a place that, despite my having literally zero Scottish roots feels like where I have always belonged. Of course you might be thinking to yourselves now “of course you’d say that, you’re writing for a whisky society’s website and likely cross-posting to reddit’s r/scotch sub.” You’re right to think that of course – it’s absolutely true. However there really is something magical about the place; I’ve been very fortunate to have travelled quite a bit especially in recent years, and based on my experiences so far, it’s rare to make a return visit to somewhere without much time passing (Feb. 2018 – Oct. 2019) and find yourself still astonished by a place. And yet, here we are.
So for the next few posts I’ll be sharing my experiences from my recent trip to Islay! I know, I know, didn’t Smoked Herring just do the exact same thing? Well, yes and no. His trip was a first time visit, and as I’ve already mentioned (humble-bragged? you decide), this was trip number 2. I went with my brother (his third trip) and another friend (first time visit) and because we’ve been before, we returned in order to cultivate the relationships and connections we made at a couple distilleries our first time around. This three part series will break down our trip. The first part starts with a very brief stop at Ardnahoe, followed by an excellent visit to Bunnahabhain’s warehouse #9. The second part will be about our day on the Port Ellen side of the island, which included stops at Laphroaig and Lagavulin before going to Ardbeg for the “Ardbig” tour. Finally, though it was also on our first day, I am saving our Bruichladdich visit for last because this tour was unlike anything we ever imagined possible. It was such a unique experience that they don’t even have a name for what we did.
We arrived on Islay early in the morning, taking the 8AM Logan Air flight from Glasgow. Considering it was mid-October, we were expecting rain but ended up with beautiful skies and perfect pics from the plane opportunities throughout our time in the air. Landing at around 8:45, we were greeted warmly by our amazing driver Heather from Bauld’s private hire. She took us into Bowmore to check in at our hotel, the Lochside, and then proceeded to take us towards Bunnahabhain via Ardnahoe. As we were very clearly on Islay time, there was no real rush. Heather offered to let us check out the new distillery and was quick to point out we could get coffees while we were there – a very good idea considering we still had 2 distillery tours ahead of us.
Ardnahoe is a brand new distillery, the first since Kilchoman and is beautifully situated on a hilltop overlooking the sound of Islay and the Paps of Jura. Opened by the Hunter Laing folks, who decided that they wanted to have their own product rather than merely be an independent bottler, Ardnahoe managed to lure Jim McEwan out of retirement to be the their production director. As a longtime Bruichladdich fanboy, I love this pairing. The first run of their own spirit was barrelled in October 2018, so we weren’t able to try anything while we visited. Instead we had coffees, browsed the IB dominated distillery shop (so many Old Malt Cask bottles!) and went out onto the balcony to see the spectacular view.
From there we went down the stunning but dangerously narrow single-track road to Bunnahabhain. Arguably my favourite distillery (It’s a 1 & 1A situation between Bunna and Laddie), Heather jokingly pointed out that my brother and I might not recognize the place now that the expansion has begun. Part of Bunnahabhain’s charm is how delightfully ramshackle the operation is. The visitor centre, for example, looks like an old fishing shack (because it probably was once), and comes without regular amenities like toilets. This means that after drinking several drams, one must go into the main part of the distillery, up a dodgy flight of metal stairs and into the distillery’s main office to find relief. It’s still funny to me. Renovations and modernization efforts are in progress. The distilling capacity is going to nearly double and along with several other modernizations and refurbishments, soon you’ll actually be able to stay on site. It’s the most remote part of the island, but it’s also breathtakingly beautiful. I see the appeal and while some of the ramshackle charm may be lost to the march of progress, I don’t think I’d mind staying there for my next visit.
In the visitor centre, we found ourselves amongst several other Canadians and realized this warehouse experience would not be at all like our last visit. In 2018, my brother and I were literally the only people and had an amazing afternoon with Sarah, a local girl who may or may not be the ex-girlfriend of our driver’s son. This time, Sarah was there again, recognized us immediately and then told us that Colin, an English fellow would be our guide this time around. Colin did the best he could considering there were 16 people to wrangle, leading us into warehouse 9 and seating us in the church-pew type benches around the 5 barrels we were about to sample in addition to the unpeated and peated new make spirit my brother smartly requested to be included.
After telling some very funny stories and letting us all settle in, Colin decided it was time to pour some whisky. It was the exact same lineup that Smoked Herring tried a couple weeks prior, though he and I differed slightly on our perspectives I think. Anyhoo, enough talk – onto the whisky.
#1: 6 Year Old Ex-Bourbon 57.5% ABV
Colin called it a ‘breakfast dram.’
Nose: Immediate stone fruit, lightly salted Serrano ham, a hint of pine needles.
Mouthfeel: Lactic, thick, chewy.
Taste: Melon, cured meat, a hint of soap, white pepper, rosemary.
Finish: Long, smooth and clean. Bright but not as youthful or brash as I expected.
Not my favourite Bunna but it’s nice enough. Great palate opener but not much more than that.
#2: NAS Rejuvenated French Oak 57.3% ABV
This came from a cask formerly owned by now ex-master distiller Dr. Kristie McCallum, who has since moved on to work at Glen Moray. The story behind it was that this was Dr. Kristie’s personal barrel and she only used it for VIPs. Many things have come in and out of it, apparently. Colin didn’t know what was in it this time and how long this particular spirit has been in there. He said it wasn’t new make that entered the barrel and that it might have been more than 1 thing. It’s essentially a shit mix marriage of different casks, or to make it sound classier, something akin to what Cadenhead’s living casks might be.
N: so many things. Red fruit, sherry, raisins. Raspberry white chocolate cheesecake. Sea salt. This is a nose that speaks to whisky nerds.
M: Chewy, oily, astringent, sticky.
T: Black pepper, sugar plums, fruit leather, chili oil.
F: Soft, supple. Good length. Slight spice.
It was weird, totally unbalanced but strangely very tasty. It should not have worked as well as it did.
#3: 11 Year Manzanilla Sherry. 54.2% ABV
Aged in a first fill Manzanilla Sherry butt. They actually spent lots of £s on this barrel and its equally active sister cask.
N: Maple syrup, Werther’s original candy, hint of salt.
M: Thick, syrupy, oily. Classic Bunna texture.
T: Heavenly. Strawberries, pralines and cream, rum raisins, leather.
F: Long, leathery, soft tannins, black pepper and a hint of strawberry. Slightly dry and astringent but the berry sweetness lingers along with it.
This dram was an absolute stunner, my favourite of the tour. I liked this so much I asked Colin to let me take home an extra driver’s dram (3cl sample bottle), to which he was happy to oblige. There were also a few remaining 20cl bottles of its sister cask (a 10 yr) that was previously in warehouse 9 for sale in the shop – it was just as good so I brought one home.
#4: 12 year Palo Cortado (2017 cask AR16) 55.7% ABV
Unlike the Manzanilla cask that was a full maturation, this one was a ‘finished in’ barrel, the 2nd time it was used. No matter, the sherry character was just as present. It must have also be a very active cask.
N: Now this is why I love Bunnahabhain. Glossette raisins, toffee, dark maple syrup, brown butter. Demerara sugar caramelizing in cast iron, gun powder.
P: Medium body, not as oily as anticipated but coats the tongue. Sticky.
T: Dry, baking spice, cocoa nibs, leather, orange, salt, yeasty.
F: Tannic but in a good way, dried fruit, leather, cardamom. Long. Opens up beautifully. Keeps going and going.
Insanely good and keeps changing. There were very few bottles left in the shop, but between the three of us and our two new friends from Calgary that were also at the tasting, there weren’t any left when we left. I’m glad I brought one home.
#5: 16 Year Moine Bourbon (ex-Wild Turkey Cask) 55.4% ABV
N: Vanilla, salt, brine, toffee, peat.
P: Creamy, smooth and approachable.
T: Matches the nose almost entirely. It’s what Lagavulin 16 wants to be but isn’t. Grilled pork. Toffee, caramelized sugar, peat.
F: Long, spicy black pepper, salted caramel. Lingering peat smoke.
I didn’t take notes for the other few things we tried, included the Feis Ils Sauternes cask, both new make spirits and a PX single cask that was just finished a couple weeks prior but available to purchase in the shop, but I did keep scores for each.
New Make (Unpeated): 78
New Make (Peated): 86 (had it been in the budget, I would have purchased a bottle – it was that good. Imagine liquid peat-smoked strawberry jam.)
12 Year PX finish (Cask AR 13/89304): 81 (actually a huge let down. The 13 year full maturation PX Noe we tried the first time I was there was an exquisite and truly special dram. This was just merely good.)
Once again Bunnahabhain’s Warehouse 9 Experience was impressive. I love visiting this place and really look forward to my next visit. And yet as good as it was, I had no idea what was still to come.