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A Taste of Scotland (Pt.II)

Our first distillery business meeting was at Kilchoman, Islay’s youngest distillery. Kilchoman describes itself as a Farm Distillery, in that it is smaller in size and production volume than more established distilleries.  I suppose the description is apt, as the distillery literally sits on a farm. Distillery Manager, John MacLellan, met us bright and early to give us a tour of his facility.  He is the prior manager at Bunnahabhain on the northeast coast of Islay. John explained that the mash tun and washbacks are fortuitously 1/10th the size of the corresponding equipment at the much larger Bunnahabhain distillery, making it easy for him to calculate the volumes of ingredients going into mash and wash.

We were fortunate to get to spend time with Tony and Robin, a couple of local guys who work the stillroom.  They offered some deep insight into how and why Kilchoman is distilled and aged as it is.  They also let us sample some of the new make spirit. It was moderately sweet, thick and had a great, oily mouthfeel.  It was every bit the spectacular backbone of a true Islay whisky. The heart of the run is collected for casking, and the feints and tails are redirected to the spirit still for further distillation. John led us to the malting floor, where some of the annual maltings are handled in-house.  Kilchoman offers a local bottling that uses all local ingredients, including the barley, which they malt in-house.  Kilchoman sends part of its spent barley husk meal (known as “draff”) to farmers for cattle feed, and the rest gets shipped off to Bruichladdich to be fed to the biomass furnace to generate renewable energy.  Before concluding our time at the distillery, we met with Managing Director Anthony Wills for some business conversation in the clean, well-appointed decorum of the Visitor Centre.

We left Kilchoman in time to grab a cheese and cracker lunch in the car on the way to Bruichladdich.  We each chugged down an Irn-Bru to bolster us for our next experience.  If you’ve never been to Scotland, then a quick tutorial is in order.  Irn-Bru is an orange-colored, mildly citrus-flavored, lightly effervescent soft drink that delivers carbs and a kick of caffeine. It is prolific, available in many package styles across the countryside, and it is a great pick-me-up for jetlagged travelers.  Think Red Bull with a Scottish accent.

As a side note about Islay: the flora and fauna are truly unique in this special corner of our globe. Not only do sheep graze wild everywhere you look, but every field contains astonishing samples of game fowl, like ring-necked pheasant and grouse.  In the hunting days of my youth (spent largely in New Jersey), I would have felt as if I'd died and went to heaven with the number of pheasant roaming about like little, fat, feathered targets.  And the harsh, windblown Atlantic-facing landscape produces a phenomenon I have only seen in one other place.  Some of the short, thick-branched trees of Islay grow with their bows arrayed eastward on a horizontal plane, having been trained by stiff offshore breezes like the divi-divi trees of Aruba, an ocean away.

Our next business meeting was with Duncan McGillivray, the Distillery Manager at Bruichladdich.  When we arrived, Duncan met us in the Visitor Centre and showed us up to his second-floor office overlooking Lochindaal (and on a day like ours the view takes in Laggan Bay and Bowmore distillery), with its gentle waters lapping up against the “raised beach” that gives the distillery site its Gaelic name (Whisky Dream: Waking a Giant, Stuart Rivans, pp 28-29).  We sat and talked like friends for almost an hour, Duncan catching up with Josh and Jason, and me just feeling fortunate to be in the room.  Duncan regaled us with the hilarious story of how they reclaimed parts from a recently closed Glasgow distillery and had them shipped out to Islay, he leading the scrapping junket. He told us all about his mechanical hobbies, proudly showing us photos of a steam tugboat and an antique lorry that he rebuilt by hand.  Duncan is one really cool guy; so laid back and unassuming for a man whose profile far outweighs his appetite for recognition.  A true gem and a giant in the industry. And he personally walked us around the grounds and through the warehouses, deftly uncorking casks and extracting samples of some terrific whisky for us.  His pride was apparent through each labyrinthine turn through the dunnage rows and between each set of high, seemingly endless rack installments.

On this trip I was determined to grab a couple bottlings available only at the distillery.  “Pour Your Own” is a really neat experience not to be passed up while visiting. And the price is usually fairly reasonable, as well.  With this in mind, the next bottle I purchased was the Valinch (Bruichladdich’s "Pour Your Own" bottling available only at the distillery Visitor Centre).  The Valinch selection available during our visit was Master Distiller Jim McEwan’s Prediction Port Charlotte expression, bottled at 63.5% ABV (that’s 127 Proof!). The quintessential Islay Malt, this Port Charlotte ‘laddich comes on with salt air, pungent notes and sour Islay scrub berries, then finishes with refined, sweet complexity that calls you back to this unique island and boasts Ileach heritage with every sip (the Ileach are the indigenous Islay islanders – who comprise a proud and close-knit community). The icing on the cake of my trip to Bruichladdich was Duncan McGillivray’s autograph, both on my Valinch bottle and in my Stuart Rivans book Whisky Dream: Waking a Giant, about the purchase and reawakening of Bruichladdich after being offline for seven years.

After a whirlwind day that started early with John MacLellan (Distillery Manager) and Anthony Wills (Managing Director) at Kilchoman and ended late with the inimitable Duncan “Big Duncan” McGillivray (Distillery Manager) personally guiding us through warehouse samples at Bruichladdie, it was time to set sail on the MV Finlaggen again, before a four-hour ride under the cover of darkness to Inverness on the northeast tip of Loch Ness.  This ends Part Two of this four part series.  In the next installment, I will detail some of our whisky exploits in Speyside.
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