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The Travel Journal of Jacqui and Lars

 

Scotland - 18 May, 2004

 

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Location Latitude Longitude Elevation

Travel Distance

Start Tarbert (Moorings B&B) N5551.907' W00524.463' 17 meters .
Kennacraig . . . .
Aboard Caledonian MacBrayne MV Hebridean Isles to Islay . . . .
Port Ellen, Isle of Islay (Mingulay B&B) N5537.765' W00611.077' 9 meters 65 km (by car ferry)
-  Ardbeg Distillery . . . .
-  Laphroaig Distillery . . . .
-  Port Charlotte . . . .
Finish Port Ellen, Isle of Islay (Mingulay B&B) N5537.765' W00611.077' 9 meters 120 km

Total (BMW 330CiC)

3,420 km

Total (other):

990 km

Total:

4,410 km

 

Weather: In the morning partly cloudy, occasional sun, warm and windy (about 10-12C).  In the evening cloudy with occasional rain, cool and windy.

 

 

We have a very early start to the day - our ferry leaves Kennacraig at 7 AM, so we are up at 5:30 AM.  After a brief snooze, we get ready, load up our stuff and drive the short distance to Kennacraig.  This morning we are on time, and we are soon driving our car onto the ferry.  We grab our stuff and head up to the lounge deck.  Besides taking a few pictures out on the open decks, we spend the time onboard working on our journals.  The total cruising time is a bit over two hours and it is a smooth sail.

 

Soon we are approaching Islay and Port Ellen, where we will be getting off the ferry.  Disembarking is a smooth process and we are soon driving of the ferry and into the small town.  We find the information office without too much trouble and enquire about B&Bs - they are friendly but not too helpful.  They have a list of selected B&Bs with phone numbers, but no prices nor availability.  We decide to drive out and check some of them out.

 

Our first thought is to see if we can find one outside town - a farmhouse or something like that out in the country.  So, we head out of the small village and try to make our way around using a pretty unclear map.  But we do not get too lost and find our way to the first one on our list.  It is a farm, but not very nice and a bit smelly, so we decide not to stay there.  But along the way we get to see some great views of the sea and a cemetery with a great location on the bay.

 

The next one takes us across the peninsular.  It would have been a great spot - a farm on a windswept beach with great views.  The only problem - it is full.  But at least we got to see a wonderful little spot.

 

Back to the small town of Port Ellen.  We check out a few, but no luck.  So, what else to do while on Islay?  Go check out some of the distilleries, of course!!!!  The first one that we decide to visit is Ardbeg.  Why, you may ask - well it is time for lunch and we were told that they had a nice cafe.  What a wonderful visit it is.

 

We walk in to their visitor center, which is a combined tasting center, gift shop, and cafe.  At one end of the room there is a table with plenty of tasting glasses and few different bottles of Ardbeg single malt.  Us and a few other people are soon standing around, wondering whether we should just jump in and taste or if we should wait for an invitation.  Soon a nice young lady comes by and says that we are free to just taste and she then gave us a brief overview of the history of Ardbeg  (founded in 1815, but with it's ups-and-downs) and the types of single malts that they produce.  Interesting, but the tasting was the best part.  We could pretty much just take as much as we wanted and we got to try several different types.

 

We decide to stay for lunch and we order a few sandwiches.  We also take advantage of the nearby tasting table and bring over to our dining table a few drams of their very nice single malt.  We also decide to try out their local dessert - a specialty of the house. A dumpling pudding that is wrapped inside a cloth and steamed (we believe).  It was great, but it was even better (and more moist) when we poured a bit (well, maybe more than a bit) of their malt on it.  It was then just fantastic.

 

It was a great visit and we buy some of their shot glasses a bottle of their six year old single malt.  A bit young and rough and fiery, but it has a very interesting flavor and a very long finish.  And we did not think we could get it easily in the shops (we were proven correct later as we checked around), we picked up a bottle here.  One reason to come on this tasting trip was to try out some of the different types, in particular the ones harder to get in regular stores.  We succeeded here.  Time to head on.

 

Right nearby are two other distilleries - Lagavulin and Laphroaig.  We first stop in at Lagavulin - they are about to shut for lunch.  But when we are there, we discover a few things.  The receptionists was not as nice (maybe we were holding her up from her lunch), they charge a high fee for a tour, and you must go on the tour to taste.  We decided to pass on this one for now.  Just down the road is Laphroaig.  They are closed for lunch, but a sign tells us that the next tour is at 2 PM and it is free.  We now know what we will be doing at 2 PM.

 

In the meantime, we head back into Port Ellen to look for a B&B for the night.  We drive around a check out a few places, but none seem to be open.  In the end, we find a small place called Mingulay B&B, right on one of the main streets.  The lady who ran it was, well, a bit different, but very friendly.  And the room was pretty nice, even though it was not ensuite.  We wasted no time there, however, as we have to rush back to Laphroaig (which means "the beautiful hollow by the broad bay") and the 2 PM tour.

 

And what a great tour it was.  We signed in for the free tour with a nice lady and then a gentleman, who used to work in the distillery, came to bring us on a tour of the facility.  It was a very thorough and entertaining tour.  Our guide was excellent and we got to see the entire whiskey making process, step by step.  It seems pretty much like it must have been almost 200 years ago when the brothers Johnstons began operations here in 1815.

 

First, we were taken to the large rooms where the water soaked barley is laid out for a few days to germinate and grow small shoots.  This is the malting process.  The barley must be turned on a regular basis and the temperature maintained at a certain level.  The starch is slowly turned to sugar in this process.  We get to taste a few sample - this is just ok

 

From here, the barley is taken to smoking rooms where it is laid out on a steel mesh floor.  Below this level is a furnace where the peat is slowed burned, creating a smoky heat that rises up and flavors the malt and stops the germination process, drying out the grains.  We get to see one furnace in action, with the smoke filled room smelling like the burned peat.  This is very important for the ultimate flavor of the single malt.  At this stage we also get to taste the malt - this is quite yummy with a nice smoky flavor.  We suggest that this could make a nice breakfast cereal.

 

Next is down to the furnaces themselves.  Here there is a surprisingly small fire in the furnace slowing burning the peat in smoky flames.  After this we come to the grinding stage, where the malt is ground or crushed into a fine powder.

 

Then the ground up malt is mixed with hot water in the mash tun at various temperatures to extract as much of the sugars as possible in a liquid form, called the wort.  This sugary water is then cooled and put in the fermentation (washback) tanks along with some yeast for 48 hours or so to ferment.  It certainly bubbled and foamed away.  At this stage it smells a bit like beer - we even get to taste some.  Not too tasty - a bit like the home brew stuff we tasted in South Africa.  But be careful when you put your head into the tank to smell - you get hit in the sinuses with the force of the carbon dioxide that has built up.  One good way to clear blocked sinuses.

 

Then it comes to the distilling process.  We come to the large room with the row of copper vats with their long, bent necks through which the wash is distilled.  It is hot in here, as we get to wander amongst the large stills.

 

The most interesting part is the safe, locked up by the excise people to make sure none is lost with out taxes being paid.  Here, the stillman controls the quality of the spirits that comes out of the stills.  With a turn of a handle, the spirit either is recycled back into the process, or sent off for maturation in special oak casks.  The first third is too cloudy and the last third is too weak.  We get to dip our fingers in and taste the very strong, center cut, spirit that pours out with an alcohol content of about 65%.  It is nice how they let us wander around.  Guess there are no real trade secrets here.

 

From here we go to the area where the raw spirits are poured into the oak casks and left at least ten years to mature in the casks as they sit in the warehouses being washed by the cool, fresh winds straight off the North Atlantic.  Some is even kept for fifteen years - this is the really good stuff, in our opinion.  During this time we also learn about not only the angels share (the 4% or so that evaporates each year, but also the devil's share (the few drops that seep out through the casks and drop to the floor).

 

Now comes the best part - the tasting.  The friendly guide pours us a dram each which we get to taste.  If we need a bit more, he is friendly and obliges.  It is here where Jacqui decides to buy Lars his birthday present - a bottle of 40 year old Laphroaig.  While we do not get to sample it, we are pretty sure that it must be good.  It is a wonderful present and something that we will sample each year to celebrate Lars' birthday.

 

By the time we finish the tasting and the tour, it is already 4:30 PM.  As everything pretty much closes by 5 PM, we decide to head back into town and check out the internet cafe.  It is in a youth center that has a cafe, pool tables and other activities for the local youth.  A great idea.  And the are very helpful with the internet connection and allow us to hook up our laptop.

 

While at Laphroaig, we met a nice American couple from Florida who invited us to join them for dinner.  It was now time to drive over to the other end of the island to meet them in Port Charlotte at the Port Charlotte Hotel where we will have a pub dinner.  It is a nice place with a very good atmosphere, and the food and beer are also very good.  We have a very enjoyable conversation, while warmly ensconced in the friendly pub.

 

But soon it is time to head out into what has become a windy, cool and drizzly evening.  We drive the 30 minute route back to our B&B, where we retire for the night.

 

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