Whisky visit to Islay

In April 2022 I visited Islay with a few friends to visit distilleries and try whisky. I will write a bit about the distilleries.

Ardbeg

Ardbeg has a more uneven, spectacular and even experimental range of whiskies compared to other distilleries on Islay i would say. In the store you can buy a 3×20 cl kit of Beastie, An Oa (their kind of introduction whisky) and 10YO (the Ardbeg classic). Limited sale of bottles in distillery.

Because of Covid-19 things were not quite normal. In Ardbeg the shop sold a 5×2.5ml tasting that you could try in their café, in their garden or bring home. I brought most of it home and did head to head tasting (I think it is really hard to do something with 5 whiskies at the same time). I rank the from best to worst:

  1. 22 year old Twenty Something
  2. Auriverdes
  3. Traigh Bhan (batch #3)
  4. Dark Cove
  5. Perpetuum

Very short notes follow:

22YO beats Traigh Bhan. 22YO is ligh, fresh, salty with a lingering flavour. Traigh Bhan is more sweet and woody.

22YO beats Auriverdes: Auriverdes is very slightly darker in color, a bit less peated, and a bit more fruity (but not sweet) and winey. 22YO is more aggresively peated on the nose, and has a softer saltier more sea-like complex flavour. Auriverdes is a bit bitter.

Auriverdes beats Dark Cove: Dark Cove is darker and sweeter, richer, with a hint of sherry on the nose. Auriverdes is more ash-dry. Tasting Dark Cove it is both sweet and raw peat, with an unfortunate hint of sulphur in the end. Auriverdes more elegant, integrated and fresh.

Traig Bhan beats Dark Cove: Dark Cove is dark with a hint of sulphur. Traigh Bhan is ashy, very dry.

Dark Cove beats Perpetuum: Dark Cove is sweeter with a hint of sulphur. Perpeteeum is drier, more malty, fresh but more bitter.

22YO beats Perpetuum: 22YO is classic, winey, malty and complex. Perpetuum is pale, malty fresh and dry.

Traigh Bhan beats Perpetuum: Perpetuum is rather dry wood, bitter. Traigh Bhan is light, soft sweet, burnt and a bit sour.

I also made short tastings against other whiskies.

Bowmore 18 beats 22YO Ardbeg: Bowmore is darker, mellow, malty, soft yet peated in the mouth. 22YO Ardbeg is more peated, has more salt and sea, some freshness, but hints of bitterness and rather burnt.

The Ileach vs Ardbeg Perpetuum: Ileach is daker, soft, salty, a bit bitter and the easier whisky to drink. Perpetuum is more dry, ashy and has a strong flavour of petroleum.

Ardbeg Dark Cove vs Bowmore 15: Bowmore is darker, with a rather sweet and fruity aroma with some vanilla. Ardbeg is also a bit fruity, but more dry, sour and peated. Bowmore quite easy to drink, not so overwhelming. Ardbeg has a bit more punch, more petroleum, perhaps more sulphur. Bowmore may be more easy but Ardbeg has more character and Bowmore is not that good to beat it.

Ardbeg 22 beats Longrow 18: Longrow is darker, with a somewhat sweet aroma. Ardbeg is more dry and peated on the nose, and with a fine elegant full peated flavour. Longrow is thicker, more sour, more dirty.

Bunnahabhain 8 Heavily Peated beats Ardbeg Traig Bhan: Very similar color. Bunnahabhain has on old closet smell. Ardbeg more sour peated. Bunnahabhain is soft, rich complex and peated. Ardbeg is lighter , less soft and complex, and more thin.

Ardbeg Auriverdes beats Bunnahabhain 8 Heavily Peated: Bunnahabhain a bit darker, with a softer less peated aroma. Tasting both Ardbeg has a more solid consistent flavour, salty, peated and balanced. Bunnahabhain is a little sour and a litte bit everywhere.

Laphraoig beats Ardbeg Auriverdes: Laphroig a little darker, and with a slightly heavier aroma. Auriverdes a hint of fruitiness on the nose, a bit burnt in the mouth, more ashy and dry. These whiskies are quite similar, Laphroaig being a bit softer in the mouth. Auriverdes is more spectacular.

Kilchoman Machir bay beats Ardbeg Auriverdes: Machir Bay is paler, and with a more sweetish synthetic aroma. Ardbeg is more straight peated. In the nose, Kilchoman is a bit oily, quite soft, and sweetish. Ardbeg is saltier with a hint of petroleum. Auriverdes is more spectacular.

Ardbeg Corrywreckan beats Ardbeg Dark Cove: Dark Cove slightly darker, and with a sweet sherry aroma. Corrywreckan is more dry, and rather salty, reasonably complex. Dark Cove has a fruity taste of sulphur.

Ardbeg Dark Cove beats Longrow 13 Red: Longrow has a more red (unusual) whisky color. Both have a powerful fruity sherry aroma. Longrow is rather nice salty first, followed by some old margarine. Ardbeg is saltier, less balanced. Longrow is more mature in flavour, but too much sulphur.

Ardnahoe

As I understand it Ardnahoe is as of April 2022 not selling any whisky, just busy producing, so we just stayed for a photoshoot in the morning.

Bowmore

Bowmore is the oldest licenced warehouse on Islay and their facilities indicate “premium” (as Lagavulin). Age statements is important for Bowmore marketing and be aware that Bourbon/Sherry mix varies a lot between ages (with 15YO being pure Sherry). In the distillery I tried a (budget) Bowmore #1 (not available where I live) and I find it preferable to Bowmore 12.

We did a Vault Secret Tour of the distillery ending in tasting directly from two casks in their oldest warehouse and being permitted to fill up a 10cl bottle ourselves and bring home. That was nice.

Bruichladdich

We just did a quick gift store stop in Bruichladdich. I have to admit I am not a very big Bruichladdich fan and we had not planned to do very much there. It seems the Gin brand Botanist (which is excellent) that is manufactured and sold by Bruichladdich is perhaps a bigger business than whisky nowadays.

In Bruichladdich you can fill your own (well, I guess they supply the) bottle from a cask in the store.

Bunnahabhain

Also in Bunnahabhain we just did a stop i the gift shop and strolled around a bit. Bunnahabhain has by far the best shop on Islay for the tourist fan (but check out Lagvulin too). There were several distillery-exclusive whiskies available as 70cl, 20cl or 5cl which is quite perfect when you are on whisky-tour on Islay. They also serve free tastings of those whiskies in the store so you can try before you buy.

Coal Ila

We did not visit Coal Ila.

Kilchoman

In Kilchoman we did a tour and a tasting. Kilchoman opened in 2005, and the thing about them is that they do everything locally. 30% of the barley comes from their own farmland around the distillery – and that goes into the 100% Islay Malt. The rest of the malt is bought from Port Ellen Malteries. Kilchoman is not about age statements, and perhaps there will be occational aged whiskies, but never in the core line. Machir Bay is 90% bourbon cask and 10% sherry cask, it is also the one I like the most. The visiting centre was nice and the shop had some smaller bottles for sale for tourist (20cl, 5cl) which I appreciate.

Lagavulin

In Lagavulin we did a tasting of 6 whiskies in their warehouse lead by legend Ian McArthur. The whiskies we tried were from 10 to 25 years old. For “drivers” or the careful drinker it was possible to get samples home instead of drinking in the warehouse. Ian explained that 16YO is the main expression. Everything else is limited, gimmic. Lagavulin offers a premium standard product, the 16YO, and that is how they want things to remain. 16YO is (as I remember it) is heavier and sweeter than other things I tasted in th Distillery, so 16YO is kind of different. This means that when you encounter a peated whisky that does not taste like Lagavulin 16, it may very well be a Lagavulin nevertheless. The Distillery store, which was very elegantm had plenty of whiskies to buy, Lagavulin and other brands (like Mortlach). Everything in 70cl bottles though so no purchases for me.

Laphroaig

We did a nice standard tour of Laphroaig. I asked and they dont make 15YO Laphroaig anymore and the 10YO is their very popular main whisky. They have plenty of variations: Select, Quarter Cask, and some sherry options. Select is a mix of different things. Quarter Cask is finished an a 125L Quarter Cask, which makes it sweeter. Lore is a more premium old rich mix. Distillery store has a very basic range of Laphroiag bottles for sale, and when it comes to smaller bottles just a 35cl 10YO.

Port Ellen

Port Ellen is under (re)construction and we had the opportunity to take photos of the stills.

Springbank

We finished our journey taking a trip to Campbeltown and Springbank. We did no take a guided tour in Springbank but we ordered a whisky tasting to our table, and they had good choices of tastings! The store was kind of crappy with expensive clothes (like they do not want poor people to wear their brand), and very limited selection of whisky to bring home. I tried the blended whisky Campbeltown Loch which was a surprisingly nice experience (but do not expect miracles of course).

Springbank also hides the bourbon/sherry-ratio as age statements: 10YO is 60/40, 12YO is 100/0, 15YO is 0/100 and 18YO is 50/50. For us bourbon fans it means that the 12YO cask strength is the reasonable choice.

Buying bottles

As a tourist from outside UK I can bring 1L whisky home duty free (that is, paying tax in UK and not paying it again when I get home). I would have been very happy if more distilleries offered 5, 10 and 20cl bottles of interesting whisky in their stores. If you visit Islay and you visit the distilleries in some order it is not so easy to know where to spend your money. So my advice for shopping whisky in the distilleries:

  • If you want a nice 70cl unusual, perhaps even exclusive and expensive bottle, buy it in Lagavulin
  • If you want good selection of smaller bottles, and being able to tast, go to Bunnahabhain
  • If you want something unique – hand filled – buy it in Bruichladdich
  • If you just want to bring home 1L of a good scotch whisky, buy it duty free in the airport on your way home

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