The Whisky Tasting Club

Pat goes to Bowmore

Sunday 10th October

One day until I fly out to Glasgow and I’m nervous, although I don’t really have time to be. Between bouts of packing, I am marking MSc dissertations, preparing for 6 consecutive hours teaching tomorrow and looking up Colin Prior on the internet ( Colin is the reason I’m going to Islay, a world-class landscape photographer who organises courses mainly in various picturesque Scottish locations but also in places as far-flung as Bhutan. I’m no expert but this guy’s work is stunning.

This particular trip is five days based at, and sponsored by, the Bowmore distillery. Colin will be taking a gaggle of beginners to various locations and, weather permitting, take some unforgettable shots of the Hebredian islands of Islay and Jura. Although I’m there mainly to look at the trip from a whisky angle, I’m also hugely excited about the prospect of seeing Islay, learning from Colin and taking some great photos, even if it is with my cheap and cheerful digital camera.

Although the trip runs from Tuesday to Saturday morning, I have to fly back first thing Thursday for four hours of teaching on the Friday. You might think this is bad enough, missing two days of Whisky’s equivalent of Lourdes to talk to 40 spotty undergraduates about systems analysis, but it’s actually worse than that. Having just looked at the itinerary, not only do I miss the boat trip to Jura, a trip up the paps and a seafood extravaganza at the Jura hotel, but I also miss the VIP tasting at Bowmore and a meal pairing up various whiskies and seafood. Oh God, why must you mock me like this? I’m hoping the organisers will at least take pity on me and shoehorn a special trip to the warehouses to compensate. Some of the older Bowmore expressions are legendary and the thought of missing out on tasting Bowmore’s new 40 year-old leaves me wondering whether I could fake a broken leg or deviated septum simply to remain there another day or two.

Still, I shouldn’t complain, the itinerary does include trips to local hostelries and dinner at a different restaurant each night with seafood and whisky menus which are already making my palms sweat. One of them – the Port Charlotte Hotel – has a whisky menu with 140 Islay malts alone. On hearing this, my wife considers asking for a separate postcode for my liver on my return.

Monday 11th October

Casting a glance over the itinerary for the next few days, I see a number of 7am starts. Colin Prior is obviously an early bird. Ouch!  Happily, I also see they have shoehorned a VIP tasting session for me on the Wednesday while the photographers are off doing their bit. As sorry as I am not to get the chance to hone my photography skills and be driven round Islay to see many of its hidden corners, I am genuinely thrilled at the prospect of a solo visit to Bowmore’s vaults.  Hopefully with only one of me in attendance, they might let me dip into something really exclusive.  Oh well, we’ll see. Off to bed.

Tuesday 12th October

Meet Colin Prior and Iain Gardiner at Glasgow airport for the 20 minute flight across to Islay, and I like them both immediately. Colin is a softly-spoken Glaswegian who tells me about his various world trips and of the somewhat interesting dietary offerings he has had to endure. Iain is our man from Morrison Bowmore and will be our guide and driver around the island.

Taking off in overcast conditions, I resign myself to seeing nothing of Islay until we actually touch down and having to read the ubiquitous airline magazine which, to my horror, has Russell Brand’s odious features plastered over its cover. Luckily, despite the murk, some of Scotland is visible.  Multiple peaks poke up, making it look not unlike Greenland with the clouds doing a passable impression of an enormous glacier.

Happily, the cloud disappears just as we leave the mainland and by the time we reach Islay, it has all but cleared except for the bit over the Southern part of the Island. I had hoped to see the big three from above but alas…

Islay looks incredibly red, broken only by bright patches of green here and there interspersed with tortuously twisted rivers and streams. Like much of the rest of the country it was hit by periods of drought in the summer taking whisky production with it. Bowmore had to close down for 4 weeks because the river Laggan – its water source – had dried up. Nature is always very much in control here and if it wishes, it can make life on this and every other Scottish island very difficult. It can certainly make life very difficult for photographers and a few days’ drizzle can seriously put paid to any decent outdoor pictures. Fingers crossed.

We land in a very mild and bright Islay and are transferred by minibus to Bowmore where we meet our budding photographers, Iain, Jim and Simon, all of whom are far from amateurs and have been doing serious photography for years. All seem a little wary of me at first. Maybe they think I’m some sleazy hack.

Bowmore distillery is in the middle of the village of Bowmore, the ‘capital’ of Islay, and is positioned hard up against the shores of Loch Indaal which almost cuts an enormous gouge in the Western side of the island. Like many Islay distilleries, Bowmore is hard to miss it because its name is writ large in black letters on a whitewashed sea wall. I am immediately struck by the strong stench of seaweed from just over the distillery wall which doubles as a sea break. Surely a sewage pipe empties out nearby?  No, it’s the smell of the seaweed. If anyone was in any doubt as to whether the area immediately around a distillery influences its taste, come to Bowmore on a warm day.

Loch Indaal

Loch Indaal is a picture and still as a mill pond. I talk to Iain about whisky and it’s obvious that he’s a mine of information. One recent development that has us both worried is that the U.S. bourbon industry is now reusing some of its casks (hitherto illegal).  Using them only once has worried the green lobby who are concerned that their resources are being under-utilised, never mind the effect on the rest of the whisky world, but hey, that’s US policies in a nutshell.

The six of us head out to Saligo Bay on the West coast. The beach is deserted except for two figures and a dog. I ask Iain if this place ever gets busy; he replies that even in summer it remains pretty much empty. Although there are huge stretches of sand, there are also some impressive rocky outcrops that represent our first real photographic opportunity.

Saligo Bay

This is also the first chance for the three budding photographers to talk to Colin ‘in the field’. I sense one of the reasons why he is successful is his passion for his work and it’s not long before I glean a few hints which I promise to put into practice immediately.

We climb up onto a headland with stunning views up to the North-West corner of the island. On the top are great crevices of fractured rock, as if someone has simply cleared great gouges out, replaced them with grass corridors, and tossed the unwanted boulders away. In other places, the sea has worn the stone so smooth and sinuous that it looks like reject carvings from the valley of the kings.

Saligo Bay from the headland

Rocks at Saligo Bay

Colin talks about photographic integrity, and the need to shoot what is REAL and what you actually see, and not what you would like to see. Modifying pictures by artificially strengthening colours is clearly a no-no for him; he calls it fantasy.  The man is a purist, pure and simple.

We head back for a late lunch at the Lochside Inn. It’s only when I enter the bar that I notice the racks of rare whiskies at the backs that I remember where I’ve seen this scene before: Michael Jackson’s ‘Malt Whisky Companion’ has a photograph of the bar and I had always resolved that I would visit it. Each Islay distillery is given its own little section. I wonder if 2.15 is a little early to be starting on the whisky but I take a peek at the whisky menu anyway.  One whisky particularly catches my eye, a 1965 Ardbeg for over £200 per single shot. Mmm…maybe I’ll have a pint of draught Islay beer instead.

The Lochside Hotel's whisky section, or part of it

After lunch we turn South West to The Oa, a circular knobble of land on which is a monument to two American ships – The Otranto and the Tuscania.  These were both wrecked here in 1918, one courtesy of a German submarine.   Although many survived, many more perished, and looking down at the jagged rocks below, it is easy to see why.

Unfortunately Colin’s back, tweaked some weeks earlier shifting a table, is playing up again and it’s obvious from the morning session at Saligo that he’s struggling. Although some would be upset if their teacher decided not to join them for the afternoon session, Ian, Simon and Jim pretty much order him to rest it while we head on up to the monument. Clearly, Colin is not happy to do this but there is the real prospect of him making it worse so he reluctantly agrees and opts instead for a couple of hours in Jim’s Volvo, which is fitted with heated seats. As much pain as he’s in, his predicament is put into sharp context by a lady who suddenly appears and tells us her husband has almost collapsed on the path up to the cliffs. Having already had a brain tumour some time back, he is clearly not in a good way. As it happens, she is able to get the farmer’s permission to drive to the headland and pick him up. This makes us all feel rather better about our own health. I hope he’s OK.

The Oa, looking North

The views from the Oa are magnificient. The only other occupants of this headland were some sheep, some of whom are risking life and limb to get at the best grass, even if that means munching away on the edge of a sheer slope.

While the three photographers look for the best shots in the fast fading light, Iain tells me another interesting whisky-related titbit. Apparently, whisky can be filtered through milk. This came to light after one distiller had apparently used a barrel with a metal ring on the inside, thereby tainting the taste of the whisky. I have no idea how he did it, but this chap managed to remove the taste of the metal by using milk. Any potential chemistry Ph.D. students looking for a topic? He also discusses Bowmore’s commitment to marketing itself as an inextricable part of Islay and not forgetting its heritage and what actually makes it what it is, i.e, the island itself.

As the light fades, it gives everything a reddish glow which emphasises the redness to the rocks around the coastline. It also gives a healthy glow to the community of highland cattle we encounter. Just to see how brave they are (and I am) I walk up to one to see at what point it decides either to leg it or bunt me over the cliff. Happily, it is the former, but only at a distance of about 3 feet.

Highland Cattle

So, we decide to head back to the car and Colin. Ian, Simon and Jim seem happy with their day’s work and look forward to receiving feedback from Colin back at base – a former bakery next to the distillery converted into some high quality en-suite bedrooms. Head off to An Taigh Osda, a restaurant smack next door to the Bruichladdich distillery and have a quite superb meal in possibly the smallest dining room I have ever eaten in. If I ever go back to Islay, I’m immediately booking a table there. It’s here that Colin decides that the next morning’s excursion will be to Port Askaig, leaving at 6am.  Excuse me?  6am? That means being up at 5.30, doesn’t it. Oh God!

Wednesday 13th October

Somewhat blearly-eyed, we head out at 6am to Port Askaig to photograph the view across to Jura.  When we get there, it’s still dark. The car ferry and myriad fishing boats lie idle in the tiny harbour. There’s no-one around bar the odd fishermen preparing for an early morning voyage.  Apparently parts of the harbour here were rebuilt recently and only after a new section had been completed did someone bother to ascertain whether it was wide enough to accommodate the ferry. It wasn’t. Oops!  I wonder if it was designed by a software engineer.

Colin decides to take us up on the Bunnahabhain road to catch a decent view of Jura’s ‘paps’, the famous hills shaped like lady-bumps.  As the outline of Jura slowly becomes visible, it’s obvious that the cloud cover is going to be a problem for photography.  What we need is sunlight to highlight the various colours on the island, but, alas, there is no sunlight, only a murk filtered through low cloud. Whatever colours there are are visible to neither man nor lens so we decide to give up and go back to Bowmore, but not before we have taken a look at Bunnahabhain distillery, which is another three miles or so further North.

Bunnahabhain’s position at the far Northern tip of Islay renders it a fair way from any supplies of peat, which probably explains its lighter and more delicate nature.  Certainly the most inaccessible distillery on the Island, it is a huge visual disappointment.  As we approach, the few village houses seem drab, grey and uninviting, as is the distillery which looks a little unloved to my tired eyes. I suspect even bright sunlight wouldn’t improve it much. Don’t get me wrong, its whisky is wonderful, but as a place to set the pulse racing, it fails.  Oh well, back to Bowmore and breakfast.

You will probably notice a distinct tailing off in the number of pictures in this part of the blog and this characterises the problem of being on these kinds of trips. They are pretty much weather dependent and the lack of sun today means that any landscape shots are going to be rather uninspiring because of the lack of colour. Obviously taking pictures of anything in this early-morning murk is not going to produce anything of interest, except pictures of dark distant hills in the dark covered by only slightly less dark cloud.  Maybe things will pick up in the late morning.

Given the early start, my intention was to take the rest of the morning off to prepare myself for the afternoon tasting (mainly through sleep), but Colin mentions that this morning’s trip will include a drive along the South-East corner past Port Ellen, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg.  Suddenly, whatever tiredness I feel suddenly evaporates and I can’t wait to see them. It also means that I will have covered all four corners of the island during my time here and this isn’t an opportunity I’m willing to pass up.  Hopefully while they are photographing Rowan bushes or whatever it is he has in mind, I can lose myself in the one of the South-coast big hitters.

After a wonderful breakfast served at the cosy and welcoming Harbour Inn (opposite the Bowmore distillery), we head off to the South-Eastern corner of Islay, through Port Ellen and past the distinctly low-key Laphroaig distillery.  But not quite.  Colin has suddenly seen something worth photographing in the woods and we turn back to the warehouse entrance adjacent to them.  I should say at this point that the distillery warehouses are not always their finest feature.

Warehouse at Laphroaig

Laphroaig’s warehouse is drably painted and encrusted with a greeny-black fungus. And then it strikes me: fungus is a by-product of the maturation process as it seems to love the atmosphere in and around the distillery warehouses.  Warehouse managers will often religiously leave it on the walls to perpetuate whatever conditions have worked for them.  Colin has seen some distinctly weird lichen patterns on the trees next to the warehouse suggesting that they might also be affected by the alcohol-laden atmosphere.

Tree Lichen at Laphroaig

His back is getting progressively worse which doesn’t bode well with the prospect of a choppy boat trip round Jura the following day. He is gutted that he cannot give his students as much ‘in-the-field’ attention as he would like and he is probably going to have to leave the photographers to their own devices for some of the trip. He will, however, ensure that he gives them plenty of time to critique their work afterwards. It is clear that the three amateurs revere Colin for his excellence as a photographer and teacher but also as a man of genuine humility and humour.  He even has time to chat to me about the basics. Although I only have my cheapo digital camera, there are still some things I can do to improve my own photography.  Firstly, is to take some time to work out exactly what my shot will be. Before he launches into actually taking pictures, Colin conducts a rigorous search of the wood before working out where the best images are to be found. He also recommends that if I am to take pictures of these lichen-covered trees (or indeed any other colourful foliage) that I keep any background sky out of the shot.  Looking at the shots I have taken, he’s absolutely right. The light detracts from the stunning patterns of the lichen and the one shot I do have that really works is the one with no background sky.

Tree Lichen sans sky

We spend at least 40 minutes shooting in the wood before we move on to our next stop, which happens to be an enforced nature break at the Ardbeg distillery.  Going past Lagavulin and Ardbeg was a real treat because they are both beautifully maintained distilleries (I didn’t really see Laphroaig from the road) and are remarkably close to each other, probably less than a mile. After the briefest of stops in a seemingly deserted Ardbeg, we head on to the Kildalton Cross, one of the UK’s earliest Christian crosses, set outside a ruined chapel.

The Kildalton Cross

It is a wonderfully peaceful and atmospheric place and I fall immediately in love with it. After a few photographs we move north to Claggain Bay, a large cove near the bottom of the East coast. The cloud still hangs over the bay and renders any colourful pictures unlikely. We decide instead to tuck into our packed lunches, to which Iain Gardiner has added a three pack of Bowmore special editions, bless him.


We sit and eat our packed lunches and sip the different Bowmores, all special editions ordinarily unavailable in the UK markets except travel retail. The 15 year old ‘Mariner’ is excellent with the usual Bowmore Parma violets seam running through it, as well as a hefty but not overbearing dose of pepper and peat. I then try the Oloroso-finished 17 year old which, like the Mariner, also has that signature sweetness but also a sherried and fruity smoothness too. As much as I would happily sit and drink the 17 on a distinctly cool day like today, it is the Mariner that takes my heart on this occasion. I don’t get to try the other 12 year old but intend to put that right later on.

Bowmore, obviously

We get back to Bowmore in time to meet distillery manager and Islay-born Eddie MacAffer who has been at Bowmore for over 40 years and who is going to give us a VIP tour of the distillery, including the legendary number one warehouse where some of the oldest and rarest Bowmores are kept. But first we start in the malting floor where I try my hand at turning barley, unsuccessfully as Eddie points out. Bowmore is only one of two distilleries on the island that malt some of their own barley (Laphroaig being the other).  Then we do something I have never done before – we go onto a peating floor, where the barley is dried using peat fires.

Smoked Pat, anyone?

Bowmore is not really a heavily peated whisky, only using peat to a phenol level of between 25-30 parts per million (half that of Ardbeg), not that you’d know it on the peating floor. The air is thick with swirling smoke and I step outside with my glasses completely steamed up and feeling like an Arbroath smokie.  Just in case I hadn’t been fully-peated by that experience, we are allowed into the peat ovens themselves which are pitch-black save for the unearthly glow of the fires over a wall.  As fascinating as Eddie’s commentary is, the rest of the tour of the distilling process is intrinsically no different from other distillery tours I have been on; after all, how many ways can you find to discuss what happens between the malting stage and the filling of barrels?

The Stills at Bowmore

One thing that does stand out, however, is the smell from the washback number two. I had expected the usual sweet and flat beery smell.  What I hadn’t expected was a beautiful fruity and berried sweetness, like a fruit squash. Frankly, I could stick my head in here for hours. Eddie tells me that this smell is produced by the distillers’ yeast used, and for the first time I regard yeast as an important determinant of a whisky’s smell and taste. In washback number six I am further amazed by the volatility of the yeast’s effect on the wash; it looks like it is being vigorously boiled but is, in fact, simply the yeast doing its job.

Caution! Yeast at work.

After the production part of the tour, we move in to the cavernous number one vaults which I am assured is the oldest maturation warehouse in the Scottish whisky industry and which is below sea-level. Part of its appeal is that regardless of the conditions outside, it is always between eight and nine degrees Celsius inside, perfect for whisky maturation.

Bowmore's Number One Vaults

With the ubiquitous black fungus adorning the walls, it has some of the most valuable un-bottled whisky in the world.  Eddie heads straight away for casks dated 1957 and 1958, whose values are beyond estimation at the moment. Of course, we don’t get to try these but simply to see them is a thrill.

But we do get to try some of the new stuff. First we try the new-made spirit, about four hours old. Normally, I can’t detect anything other than acetone in new-spirit, but this one (in the nose at least) had a peppery but real red-fruits belt to it. I don’t actually taste any of this on account of Eddie’s story of a Japanese tourist who, some hours earlier, had downed a glass of it in one. I suspect he’s tracing a comet’s path around the island even now.

Our first actual taste is of a 1999 bourbon-matured malt which it seems will soon see the light of day in the shops.

Bowmore 1999 bourbon-matured:

Nose: Citrussy, creamy, white chocolate, banana.

Taste: Tropical fruits, banana, vanilla and light peat evident only at the end.

Despite being 69% abv, there is no alcoholic burn, but only a playful pepper around the tongue and a long, light peppery finish. I think we are all stunned by how good this one was.  Next, we tried a:

Bowmore 1995 Oloroso first fill-matured:

Nose: Clean sherry, smooth, dark fruits.

Finish: Christmas pud, coffee, more dark fruits, late pepper and peat.

In both of these, it’s only at the end that the Bowmore character is evident, with a balanced pepperiness. This 1995 vintage is nice and smooth but maybe a bit over-sherried for me. The 1999 is a stunner and hardly reminiscent of an Islay malt at all and everyone is keen to get hold of a bottle of this.

Before our last treat, Eddie tells us many funny tales of his 40 years at Bowmore, none better than how they used to deal with officious young excisemen. By laying out pornographic magazines at strategic points throughout the warehouse, it seems the excisemen found better things to concentrate on than the contents of various casks or the activities of the warehousemen. Simple but effective.

Hard at Work

Then it was on to our last treat, a mere sniff of a now empty cask.  By stunning coincidence, this is a cask that held whisky a bottle of which I was promised by the man who bought it. World Duty Free had purchased however many bottles’ worth there were (less than one hundred) and sold them for about six thousand pounds at various airports. Forgive me if I lapse into hyperbole on this one but this is possibly….no, definitely the best nose of any whisky I have EVER had the pleasure of sniffing. This is:

Bowmore 1965 cask no. 811, bottled at about 42 years.

Nose: Ripe fruit bowl, vanilla, red berries, cherry spangles.

The above notes don’t and can’t do this whisky justice. This is such a clean and immensely fruity nose with immense depth, untainted by any negative aromas at all. Needless to say, the promised bottle never appeared from my friend. Damn!  So ends our tour of number one vault. I could happily have sat and listened to Eddie’s stories for about a week.

And so to the Bowmore bar to taste the Tempest version 2 which isn’t a million miles away from 1999 bourbon-matured Bowmore from the vaults. Both have a low level of peating that make them more of a highland style and they would certainly be palatable to those who profess not to like Islay malts.  The bar is in the visitor centre, which is small but packed with interesting bits from Bowmore’s history. It also looks out over Loch Indaal and, as places to sit with a dram go, is perfect.

The Bowmore Visitor Centre

Back to our rooms for a brief rest before dinner at the Harbour Inn where we have another great meal and more whiskies. I try the new Kilchoman (pronounced Kilc-homan, as far as I can ascertain) and find it a little spirity. No doubt this is because it is still very young, only about 4 years old or so. Pleasant enough but maybe I’ll give it a few more years. Next up is Ardbeg’s Corryvreckan which I love but which isn’t doing it for me tonight. Maybe this is an example of those fleeting ephemeral moments whereby a whisky will hit the spot at a certain time or place. Outside that place, nothing quite clicks. Back in Norfolk, I sat nosing it for 30 minutes. Here, I cannot find the same depth. Oh well.

Iain hands me another little treat, samples of the new 1981 vintage and 40 year old. What a star the man is. Given they’re in fragile-looking sample bottles, I had better try them now, just in case the airport baggage handlers get a bit frisky.  Or thirsty.

Bowmore 1981 (28 years old) bourbon cask, 49.6% (only 402 bottles available)

Nose: Parma violets, sweet smoked oak, citrus skins, vanilla, toffee, blackcurrants.

Taste: Sweetness predominates, a very distant hint of peat and spice.

A lovely nose but, as much as I love the ubiquitous Parma violets taste of older Bowmores, I find this one a little one-dimensional. The nose is great but the palate is rather disappointing in terms of its depth.

Bowmore 40 year old bourbon cask

Nose: Wood, ripe fruits, coffee, dusty and perfumy, blackcurrants (again), light peat.

Taste: Immediate citrus skins, lychees, vanilla pods, woody sweetness, light peat.

This is excellent but you’re going to have had large amounts of disposable income to afford it at £6500 a bottle, even if the bottle is actually a stunning hand-blown glass decanter. Such was the lightness of the peat that my first impression is that someone had slipped me an aged bottle of Balvenie by mistake, and for me that’s no bad thing. As great as this is, would I choose this over a bottle of the one I nosed in the vaults? No, but then there’s not much I would choose over that.

Right, that’s enough whisky for one night. To bed.

Thursday 14th October.

Ahhhh Sleep!!! Up at 7.30 for a decadent 8am breakfast at the Harbour inn and then it’s off to the airport where checking in takes about 2 minutes.  Islay airport apparently has the tightest security in Europe and the prospect of having my luggage systematically dismantled is a very real one. It’s not suitcases full of alcohol they’re looking for, but drugs. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for foreign fishing vessels to drop off large quantities of drugs on the Islay coastline to be smuggled onto the mainland. Hopefully I don’t look like a drug-dealer. As it happens, I get through without a murmur while infinitely more honest-looking people than me get pat-downs (no pun intended) and suitcase searches.

The Harbour Inn, Bowmore

As I’m writing this, I see an elderly chap in tweeds who looks familiar. Blimey!! It’s Professor Toby Lewis, who actually taught me at UEA in the 90’s and who, having retired, can still be seen occasionally flitting about campus. Don’t know him to ask him what he’s doing here. Maybe I’ll try and ingratiate myself with him later on; presumably he’s on his way down to Norwich too (he was).

If my account of the last three days all sounds a bit luvvy, I’ve been met with nothing but kindness and good humour in the short time I’ve been here. The people of Islay in general and Bowmore in particular were hugely welcoming and I have been looked after superbly. I’ll be back, hopefully for the festival next year.

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