Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Scotland: Islay

Our Journey Begins

We began our journey on May 11. Four flights, four trips through security, one very bad dinner in O'Hare, and 3,600 miles later, on May 12, we arrived in Islay, which is home to Husband's favorite whisky (not "whiskey," get it right!) distilleries. I began thinking about a trip to Scotland late one night during Christmas vacation. Husband had never been out of the country, and we wanted to do a big international trip together. Once we found out our friends L and M were interested in traveling with us, the plan was set in motion! I had discovered a wonderful lady named Christine, Lady of the Isles, who offered services that included arranging outings and chauffeuring tourists around Islay. We would come to know she was worth every dollar (err...pound!).
L, M, husband, and Christine
We arrived in Islay exhausted but excited, and Christine picked us up at the tiny airport. 
The plane was small, and it had propellers!
We learned that only 3,500 people live in Islay, and women even have to fly to the mainland to have their first babies, because Islay boasts only a small country hospital (if there are no complications, a woman may choose to have her second baby in Islay. We learned many babies are born in the air if labor begins unexpectedly!). We found this out because a new baby was on the plane with us, and the grandmother of the new baby, who met the child at the airport, turned out to be the owner of the bed and breakfast where we stayed, the Lambeth Guest House! Her husband didn't accompany her to meet the child at the airport -- he was home waiting for us to arrive!
The Lambeth Guest House was such a sweet, comfortable place. The lady of the house made us hearty Scottish breakfasts each morning, including eggs made to order, bacon, tomatoes, cereal with fresh fruit, and porridge. 
The evening we arrived in Islay the weather was blustery and rainy, but the sun came out intermittently, and we were greeted by a beautiful rainbow over some colorful homes. The majority of the buildings in Islay are whitewashed each year and look remarkably similar, but there were a few bright, unique places among the stark white abodes. 
Our first meal in Islay. 
We were supposed to meet up with our two friends, L and M at Heathrow, and then arrive in Islay together, but things did not go quite as planned...

What Happened to L and M

L and M live in San Diego. They were supposed to take a flight to Los Angeles, but it was unexpectedly cancelled, with no explanation. They hopped a bus to LA, hoping to make their next flight between California and Heathrow, but back in San Diego they hadn't been checked in for all of their subsequent flights, and their reservations were lost. They were able to get a flight to Chicago, and then on to Heathrow (the same flight path we took), but they were unable to get a flight on the propellered puddle jumper from Glasgow to Islay. Instead, they took a ferry, which was probably a lovely experience, but was also a six-hour trip (as opposed to a forty-minute flight). They arrived at last in Islay on the evening of May 13, where we picked them up from the port. In spite of their nightmarish journey, they persevered, and the vacation was smooth sailing from that point forward! As an aside, the port was across from the island of Jura, which is marked by three distinctive hills. We learned that the children of Jura have to take a ferry and then a bus each morning to Islay in order to go to school. 
At the port.
Husband in front of Jura. I love this photo. 
At the port. 

Day One: Bowmore Distillery

After a wonderful night of sleep and a hearty breakfast made-to-order by the lady of the house, Husband and I began our first full day in Islay. We took a quick walk up the main street of Bowmore, where we were staying, to see the Round Church.
View from the Round Church down the main street to the harbor. 
And Husband stood at our location on a map of Islay in the town square. 
Then we ventured to the Bowmore Distillery to meet Christine. We had not packed the proper coats for the chilly and rainy weather, and Christine brought us each one to borrow. Seriously, she was amazing, and we would have frozen to death without her! She had worked at the Bowmore Distillery for many years, so she was well acquainted with the facility (and, really, she knew everyone and everything about Islay in general!). Husband started the day with a few sample drams.
We signed up for the distillery tour later that morning and took a quick excursion to the Islay Woolen Mill.

Day One: Islay Woolen Mill

At the Islay Woolen Mill, they made the tartan for the movie Braveheart, among others. It was a place of beautiful antiquity.

Day One: Back to the Bowmore Distillery

We returned to the Bowmore Distillery for our tour.
We had the opportunity to see their floor malting operation and do a bit of raking of the barley ourselves. 

We also touched their peat, which was very dry. The burning of this peat is what gives Islay whiskies their smoky, earthy flavor (which is an acquired taste, to which I can attest, as it is a taste I still have not acquired).

We continued on through the process of distillation, including their washbacks, which are a series of huge, deep barrels.
 Husband looked like a kid in a candy store this entire trip. 

We ended the tour by viewing part of their warehouse...

...and then returned to their visitor's center for another dram, where we met some friends from Switzerland and Osaka.
Taking down Husband's e-mail address. He and his compatriot had just come from a trip through France's wineries. He said they spent most of their vacation drunk!

Day One: Laphroaig Distillery

After our time at Bowmore Distillery, we went on to a very special Water to Whisky Experience at Laphroaig Distillery. Laphroaig is Husband's favorite whisky, and he was so excited to visit. 
After first purchasing a very special twenty-five-year-old bottle of Laphroaig, Christine hunted down the master distiller to have him sign the bottle. Husband was on cloud nine. 
We began the Water to Whisky Experience with a dram and a tour through the distillery. Laphroaig also does floor malting of their barley.
Laphroaig's peat is very wet and heavy, producing even more smoke and flavor (or should it be "flavour"?!). 

Their washbacks are aluminum, but their stills look very similar to Bowmore's. 

Our tour ended at their warehouse, where we were able to sample three special drams straight out of the casks, which we got to draw ourselves. 
We then each picked our favorite and bottled our own to take home!
Because the weather was cold and rainy, we skipped the picnic outside and instead lunched in one of their board rooms. Then we put on our wellies, hopped in the Laphroaig van, and tromped out to cut some peat ourselves!
A professional peat cutter had to intervene and show us how it was done, but when Husband tried his hand at it, he did a great job!
We returned to the distillery for some souvenirs, and then Husband and I made our way out to his plot of land. As a "Friend of Laphroaig," he owns a square-foot plot, where he planted his American flag.
Afterward, we picked up L and M, and the fun really began!

Day Two: Lagavulin Distillery

We began our second day in Islay at the Lagavulin Distillery, with a distillery tour and an expansive warehouse tasting (eight casks, if I recall correctly). 
Not even a whisky lover like husband could drink eight drams, so we were able to taste and then toss on the dirt floor that which we could not drink. Husband was allowed to draw a dram out of one of the casks, which he had to do by sucking it up with his mouth!
We tasted a range of whiskies, but the highlight was a forty-seven-year-old dram. Forty-seven. Seriously, that whisky has a healthy 401K and just finished its mid-life crisis by buying a red sports car. 
L, M, and Husband with their newest forty-seven-year-old friend. 
After Lagavulin, we made a pitstop to see some castle ruins, and then went on to a desperately needed lunch with bread, so much bread. 
Difficult to see, but the ruins are the thing right in the middle of this image. 

Day Two: Ardbeg Distillery

At the Ardbeg Distillery, we did not do a tour, but we ate in their fabulous cafe and took some pictures on the small cliff overlooking the water in front. It was a gorgeous day.
L and M are getting married in March 2014. Aren't they adorbz?

Day Two: Bruichladdich Distillery

We ended day two with a tour of the Bruichladdich Distillery. This was my personal favorite, because of their distinctive blue branding and their gin (finally, something other than whisky!).
Do you see the feet?
 Bruichladdich only recently re-opened, so while it is very old, it is also very young. It definitely was the hippest distillery we visited, and it had the most fun tour guide gal. 
 This was totally open to our viewing. It was very steamy and hot in there!
This is the pre-whisky product. I guess it's essentially beer. Warm beer, straight out of the washback. 
Their gin still is called Ugly Betty, and it is painted with a pin-up girl, like a WWII bomber. We also got to see the oldest still on Islay.
I don't know her name!
Afterward, we enjoyed one last meal in Islay, and the next day we hopped a propeller plane back to the mainland in Glasgow and took a train on to Edinburgh. We were only getting started!

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