Took a trip over to Islay and Jura with my Dad last week for a few days, which was a fittings cap for his trip here during the month of February. Here are some notes and pics.
- Islay and Jura are isles (islands) off the west coast of Scotland known for the number of distilleries (9-10 depending on how you count) within relatively small distance between each. Because of their location, they take some time to get to, but the driving is great from Glasgow through the Trossacks National Park and the along the lochs, both for scenery and for the fun of the winding road. It’s approximately 2.5 hours to the remote ferry terminal of Kennacraig and another 2 hour ferry ride to Islay.
- We stayed in Port Ellen, on the south-end of the island, at the Trout Fly Guest House, which served a great breakfast and was an ideal location for hitting the whisky trail.
- The whisky trail (aka the three distilleries walk) starts in Port Ellen and connects Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries with an excellent walking trail that totals about 4 miles total. This was the first days excursion, hitting all three with walking in between tastings was perfect for evening things out for a day of drinking. The weather was cold but our bellies warm. Nae bother as they say.
- The second days excursions were more adventurous, as we set off to go to the isle of Jura and the Jura distillery. This meant getting on a tiny ferry that fit about four cars which somehow they managed to get six on at times. Oh, and you had to back onto it, which made things much more interesting. Glad I didn’t have any whisky beforehand!
- The Jura ferry was unexpectedly closed for the morning, which only meant we had time to visit another remote distillery, Bunnahabhain, located at the end of a 4 mile single track road just north of the ferry terminal. This was the best tasting we had by far (generous drams doesn’t begin to describe the size of the pours) and we got to see some highland cows on the way, bonus!
- Our nights were spent retiring to the local (only) hotel bar for a couple of beers and a big dinner, before heading back to the guest house to play cribbage, sample more of the whisky we obtained during the day, and listen to music (The Essential Merle Haggard, Best Tracks from Tarantino Films, Dave Brubeck Timeout).
- I had a basic enough understanding of whisky, and specifically scotch whisky, before the trip but had never tasted as many of such caliber and variation and am still very much a beginner in this world of spirits. In order to understand the drink you have to, well, drink it. Let’s just say I have more work to do.
- I did learn quite a bit of random facts about whisky throughout the trip:
- Peated water is also a source of the smoky flavor in whisky, particularly in Laphroaig. Dad grabbed some water from a stream on Islay in a bottle and you could taste the peat in it when we got home.
- Peat, the source of smoke in Islay whisky and fuel for homes as well, is just earth cut into bricks. A soft earth fossil fuel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peat
- Whisky is only considered whisky after it’s been aged for 3 years and one day, the one extra day being added to account for the leap year that happens every 4 years (side note: this may or may not be true based on some brief looking online ¯\(ツ)/¯).
- Whisky is aged in all kinds of barrels, but most common is bourbon barrels of American white oak that are shipped over, sometimes whole, sometime in pieces to be reassembled by a cooper. The other most common is sherry. The barrels are recharred/recharged after use, and can only be re-used 6-7 times max, typically more like 3-4 (in the case of Bunnahabhain).
- Sherry barrels are very popular for maturing and finishing whisky and since sherry is no longer a popular drink, these casks are becoming increasingly expensive and will be harder to come by as time goes on. The link between sherry and whisky goes back a long time, with sherry being made in Spain in British colonies and imported to great Britain.
- The bottle date of a whisky matters, but it’s generally not listed. The bottling of an 18 year old scotch will vary over time as the barrels (and other factors) change.
Map of some of the main destinations we visited on our way to and from Islay and Jura. (Glasgow on the right, Islay and Jura on your far left)