“It has to be Ardbeg!” The (familiar) accent was reassuring, and the confidence disarming as Smokin’ Josh Smit elbowed the duty free sales guy aside and stepped in to help me choose a whiskey.
He had listened to my description and had no doubt as to what I was after. So Ardbeg it was … and is.
When we met at Heathrow Josh was on his way back to South Africa after three days on the road in Islay.
Alone and on a shoe string, his trip was the stuff that dreams are made of …
This is his story about the trip of a lifetime …
The words do not exist to properly describe an Islay whiskey, but let me try to paint you a picture…
You can tell immediately that you are drinking an Islay whiskey when you take your first whiff … a distinctive smell hits you hard on the nose and quickly follows with a salty, smoky aroma reminiscent of fresh soil mixed with a clean ocean breeze. That’s just the start … Islay whiskies have a very distinct characteristic: they are generally very smoky and extremely peaty.
Peat is a spongy, soil-like substance formed as organic matter decomposes in wetland environments. When dried and burned it creates a lot of smoke. This was used to dry barley when whiskey production first started in Islay in 1779 because a high proportion of the island is covered in peat, and this is what gives the whiskey its unique smoky flavour.
After your nose has been assaulted by the smoky tones of the whiskey it is time for the best part, the first sip. Expect a second assault on the senses: as soon as it touches your lips there is an explosion of that smoky flavour.
This is either a love it or hate it moment. Either way it will grab your attention and quite probably never let go.
Die-hard fans of Islay whiskeys are the smoke-heads of the whiskey community. I am, without a doubt, a dedicated smoke-head.
I had dreamt of visiting Islay since I took my first sip of Lagavulin (a very peaty, but slightly sweeter single malt that is produced in southern Islay). On a recent visit to the UK I decided to grab the opportunity to pop over and see where the magic is created.
There are two ways of getting to the island. Going by ferry, my first choice because I have heard is beautiful beyond words, was not possible because of time constraints. The second option, by plane, is an experience in itself. The weather in the area is not usually ideal for travel in small twin-propeller aircraft and I spent much of the flight wishing I had paid more attention to that pre-flight safety briefing.
I had wanted to organise a tour of Islay in advance so as to make the most of my time there, but with prices starting at £689 (approaching R12000!) for 2 days I decided to wing it. I didn’t manage to book accommodation either since every place I tried was full (it was peak season). Still, I felt this was something I HAD to do so I bought a plane ticket and set off.
I arrived at the airport, hired a car and headed for Ardbeg, which is down south along with two other classic malt distilleries, Laphroaig and Lagavulin. These three whiskies are known for their strong peaty flavour, Ardbeg in my opinion being the most intense of the three.
A key process is the production of whiskey is malting, where a peat fire is lit under the barley in a kiln and the grains absorb the peat smoke giving the whiskey its flavour.
Every distillery on the island has their barley malted (or peated) to a different PPM (parts per million). Laphroiag, Lagavulin and Ardbeg have their barley peated to 40ppm, 38ppm and 55ppm respectively. A distillery I had not heard of before my visit to Islay, Bruichladdich (pronounced, bruch laadie), makes a vast range of whiskeys ranging from those peated to 2ppm all the way up to a mind-blowing 167ppm.
This is all sensational stuff but on my first day on Islay I started to realise that the whiskey that had brought me to the island was fast becoming my second favourite part of this adventure – the first being the incredible scenery in every direction.
I realised that there was no room on Islay that would allow me the amazing views I could experience from my little Toyota Aygo so I stopped worrying about finding a place to stay and started looking for beautiful spots in the middle of nowhere to park my newly improvised ‘camper van’. These were not the most comfortable nights of my life. At times, I imagined that a wheelbarrow might be more comfortable, but nothing beats waking up to the rising sun turning a loch into a giant mirror
The whiskey that is produced on this magical island is certainly infused with a large dollop of magic during the distillation process, when the alcohol is separated from the other elements. The liquid, at this stage described as the ‘wash’, is put in large copper stills where it is heated to just below the boiling point of water (because alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water).
This causes the alcohol vapours rise up the still, condense at the top and run off down the spout. Islay whiskies are distilled twice. The first being in the wash still, where the alcohol produced is around 25% proof. Later, that alcohol is put into another still called the spirit still, where it is knocked up to around 60-80% proof. No two stills are the same – the shape, height and length of the still all influence the taste of the spirit produced.
The first vapours that form and condense are very strong, too strong to use in the final product, and are called the head. Similarly, the last vapours from the still are too weak to use and this is called the tail. The head and the tail are also known as the feints, and they are separated in the spirit safe after they come out of the spirit still.
The alcohol produced between the head and the tail is known as the heart. The heart is the magic spirit we know and love that goes into the casks for the final process, maturation.
In three days there I visited five distilleries. All the distillery tours are very comprehensive and given by people who really know what they are talking about. A lot of tours offer tastings straight from the cask and often you get to taste whiskeys that you can taste only on Islay.
Different distilleries use different type of casks for the maturation of their whiskey, but the majority of them on Islay use old bourbon casks. The distilleries experiment with different casks, using muscatel casks, sherry casks, or old wine casks for different periods of time. Some even char the inside of the casks before filling with the whiskey.
The possibilities are endless and often these “experiments” are available for tasting only at the distilleries. You and the angels that is. As the whisky matures in the cask about 2% of it is lost through evaporation each year. This is known as the “angels’ share”.
A tour of Lagavulin is followed by a warehouse tasting where you get to sample 5 different whiskeys straight out of the casks. The grand finale is a 1988 Lagavulin that is so smooth that if it wasn’t for the temperature difference you wouldn’t feel anything going down your throat.
Laphroiag next door is really worth a visit for the ‘water to whiskey’ tour. It is pricey at £80 but it’s been voted the best and most comprehensive whiskey tour in the world. You start off by visiting the water source of Laphroiag, where you have lunch with a dram of the Laphroiag 10-year cask strength. I used water from the source to splash in my whiskey … which made it taste that much more special. After lunch you head to the peat fields where you get to cut the peat by hand before heading back to the distillery for an amazingly in-depth tour. After the tour they take you to the warehouse where you get to taste three unique whiskies that you can get only there, a 1998, a 2002 and a 2005. Then you get to bottle some of your favourite of the three and take it home to show off to your friends.
When the battery on my camera started to run low I had to improvise. I went to bar for a pub dinner and an Islay beer (not too bad, but I prefer my beer cold and bubbly … whereas they, for some reason, in the UK they like it warm and flat … I guess nowhere is perfect) and the barman let me charge my camera there.
That’s another thing about Islay, the people there are the friendliest I have ever come across. They will go out of their way to help you and always with a smile so broad it will brighten any day. Even driving down the road… whenever a car passed, the occupants waved. At first, I found this a little disconcerting as I thought they were trying to tell me something. But I soon realised that they were all just saying ‘hello’. A far cry from the hand gestures I’m used to from other drivers in South Africa.
As for the other services offered by paid accommodation, again I managed to improvise. One night I found an amazing little beach far down south and had to do a bit of off-roading with my little motorised wheel barrow to get to the spot I wanted … and my oh my, what a beautiful spot it was! I did what any logical person would do who found themselves on a beautiful isolated beach and in need of a shower. I took the plunge … and immediately regretted it. After getting out of that water, I wasn’t even sure I was still a man, but I was semi-clean and feeling a lot fresher after that arctic rinse.
I saved the best for last and started the final day of my whiskey adventure at my all time favourite whiskey distillery, Caol Ila. This in my opinion has the most beautiful setting of all of the Islay distilleries. It overlooks Jura, Islay’s neighbouring island. And its beautiful shoreline, littered with thousands of shells and pebbles, seems to go on forever.
After my tour there I had a couple of hours to kill before the Caol Ila premium tasting and ended up walking down the shoreline, admiring the beauty around every cove. I came across an old fishing barn on the shoreline, it must have been abandoned decades ago, but all of the old tools and boat parts were still there, rusted beyond recognition. Then out of the blue a man with a dog rocked up, scaring the living crap out of me. I immediately started apologising for trespassing, and he replied, “No worries mate, make yourself at home. Beautiful isn’t it?”
We immediately clicked and chatted for the best part of an hour. Justin Ruthven-Tyers, a novelist and boat builder, told me he had happened upon this place, which had been abandoned 25 years before, and decided he wanted to rebuild the old rowing boat that was left there.
His book, “Phoenix from the ashes”, tells the inspiring tale about his life after he lost everything in a fire. In a nutshell: he bought some wood, built a boat and sailed around Europe, living from day to day, with a lot of adventure thrown in. Today he is settled on Islay, with his wife and dog, living life as he wants to.
My own adventure ended with the premium tasting at Caol Ila … the Big Daddy, the one I had been waiting for. We were given 5 different whiskies: the pure spirit straight from the still, the 12-year-old, the distiller’s edition, the 25-year-old and the festival edition. Once we had tasted all of those they had a little surprise for us: a 1988 Caol Ila that had been matured in a sherry cask. The cask was ‘found’ in a warehouse somewhere in the highlands. It had no barcode to say where it had come from, only a stamp reading 1988 Caol Ila. Neither the warehouse owner nor anyone at Caol Ila knew how this cask got there. Some say it was stolen way back when and hidden at the warehouse for retrieval later, but the robber either got cold feet or got caught and never went back. The beauty of it is that it is one of the only whiskeys produced by Caol Ila that was matured in a sherry cask from day 1.
I can honestly say it is the greatest thing that has ever passed my lips. The colour is amazing, the smell is unbelievable and the taste … I am not even going to try to describe how it tastes. Caol Ila is the only place in the world where you can taste this whiskey and, take my word for it, it is worth the long journey from wherever you are to Islay just for a sip of this.
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