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An Introduction to Islay and Touring Laphroaig Distillery

As I went to bed last night, after getting my luggage back and months of planning for this trip, I was happy to enter dreamworld knowing the results of all that planning would begin the very next morning. At 8:30 am we boarded a flight to Islay – the land of my favorite Scotch Whisky – where we would spend the next four and half days exploring distilleries.

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I woke up super extra early because I'm still adapting to my time zone.  At 4 am in Glasgow there is nothing really to do but blog so I worked on writing and tried to get myself centered to physically being in Scotland. We left our central Glasgow flat at 7 am to ensure we got on board a small airplane to Islay.

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The flight from Glasgow to Islay is just 25 minutes flying time with the same amount of taxing on the runway. Our airplane had 14 rows, with only 3 seats per row – it was cute and completely full of passengers going to Islay.

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Islay is both what I expected and not.  How something can be both smaller and larger than one predicts, I am not sure, but that is what Islay is turning out to be.  Larger – we thought the airport was somehow attached to the port.  It is not, it is about 10 or so minutes away by car.  Smaller – we thought there were more than two restaurants in Port Ellen, there are not, there are exactly two. Larger – Laphroaig distillery is just a mile walk Port Ellen, it is not – it is just over 2 miles and takes over 45 minutes to walk there when you are a tourist obsessed with taking pictures. Smaller – you keep running into people you had lunch or a dram next to, and they are likely competing for your taxi. Larger – Islay is apparently an Easter weekend destination so it will be hard to get a table at one of the two restaurants.

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But enough about the island generally – let's talk briefly about Joy – the most wonderful lady and manager of our B&B, The Askernish

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When we arrived at The Askernish at around 9:30 am, we were greeted by Joy with much enthusiasm. All of her guests from the previous run had left at 7 am, and she forgot that we would be arriving early because of our flight until just before we got there. The result, Joy got to sleep in, but she didn't have our room ready or breakfast – but there was coffee and crumpets and we got to know Joy.

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Joy has been single-handedly running the Askernish for 20 years, providing wise advise about the island and amazing breakfast and hospitality to visitors that whole time. In her spare time she likes to travel to Formula One races around the world with her son. She dreams of a trip across the whole of Canada and may do that this year in the slow season, shutting the B&B down for an entire month. "But we are not there yet."  She said.

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As our room was not yet ready, and our tour of Laphroaig not until 2 pm – we headed out into Port Ellen to explore our surroundings and choose lunch at one of two available restaurants.

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Port Ellen is a small little working port with an industry of Inns, distilleries, and malting barley. The smokestack in the picture above is from the malting facility. Our cab driver's son works there, as do many others on the island. The malt makes each batch to the specifications of all the distilleries on Islay. It used to be the home of Port Ellen distillery, but it shut down in the late 1970's leaving the facility to become the resource it is for the rest of the island today.

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It was a cold walk-a-bout Port Ellen. The breeze off the ocean was wet and damp and more like a cutting wind. The beauty of the stark seaside landscape was just as breathtaking and the air held a strong scent of ocean brine and seaweed.

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It was getting on time for lunch so we stopped back at our B&B, got settled in our room, and made our way next door to the Islay Hotel for lunch.

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The theme for food in Islay is abundance. Abundant seafood – above is John's fish pie featuring salmon, haddock and pure fruit of the sea local goodness with a potato and parmesan crust.

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Abundance from the land – I couldn't resist ordering wood pigeon again – and I was not disappointed. In this small dish I tasted the earthy moss bed of scrumptious joy – tender rare bits of pigeon breast on a small serving of lentils with an unidentifiable but yummy green sauce.

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Abundance of plants – represented here by the heirloom tomato salad I had alongside my wood pigeon. It was a delightful lunch and represented fine culinary skill using locally available ingredients. And the time passed so quickly that we realized almost too late that our appointment at Laphroaig was upon us.

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According to the website, Laphroaig is just a little less than a mile away or a 30-minute leisurely walk from Port Ellen.

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We started out leisurely, stopping to take pictures of the scenery and about a little more than a mile in we switched to a full fledged hurried walking clip. The distillery was nowhere in sight and our appointment time was creeping up quickly. 

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At 2:02 pm we entered the Laphroaig visitors' centre a little harried but mostly on time to find that we were not the only ones running a wee bit behind. We noted that the walk was way more than a mile and the lady checking us in said "It is just over 2 miles. Things in Islay are always a little bit bigger than they seem. It's OK though – your tour is still waiting on a few more stragglers and hasn't left yet." We were handed two green Laphroaig lanyards with a tasting glass inside and three tokens for dram tastings after the tour.

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Our tour began with the barley and the water taken directly from the distillery's location seen here.

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There are two things that make a Scotch have the distinctive qualities that it has: 1. the water – always coming from the exact geographic location of the distillery itself and 2. the barley and how it is treated and flavored (there is argument about whether the location the barley comes from matters). Laphroaig's treatment of its barley is unique for two reasons 1. It is 1 of only 7 distilleries that still floor malt their barley (shown above is one 14 ton batch of barley in the 6 day germination cycle) and 2. peat, hand harvested peat that is burned to smoke the barley and infuses the taste of Islay's unique briny seaweed peat flavor into it. Hand harvesting peat allows for more of the peat flavor to be preserved.

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Here is the pile of peat that is burned inside this kiln

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to create cool smoke to treat the barley placed inside this room. (Laphroaig burns about 1 ton of peat per day, 250 tons per year to make its 3.3 million litres of whisky).

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The result being this barley pictured in my hand. 

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I ate the sample barely and it was the best "whisky" flavored cereal I've ever put in my mouth. Tasting the barley was the missing link for me about the flavor of Scotch, and especially Laphroaig's particular smoky peaty brand of Scotch. It's all about the treatment of the barley. Laphroaig's process somehow turns this little kernal of grain into a ballet of smoke and ocean salt flavored peat, melding forever the flavors of Islay's terroir for the foundation of its spirit.

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After smoking, the barley is milled and then put in this giant steel mash tank with 53 thousand litres of water. 

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So begins the industrial life cycle of the barley turning slowly into Scotch with large machinery. At some point it is transferred to another tank where yeast is added and it becomes a 8% alcohol solution – then and only then does it go to the Still house.

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Somehow, through processes I was unable to hear clearly, via two different stills (one called a wash still the other called a spirit still) the 53 thousand litres of water are reduced to just 800 litres of almost finished whisky spirit.  All of this spirit then goes through bowls and a device called the Forsyths.

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If I heard correctly every single bit of Laphroaig's 3.3 million litres of whisky goes through these bowls and is the diluted with water directly from the Laphroaig source.  After this point it is placed into charred bourbon barrels and warehoused to age.

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The Laphroaig warehouse has three foot thick walls that keep it at a steady temperature all year round and over the course of their aging the casks give up about 2% of their volume (this is called the Angels' share).  I didn't know prior to this tour that Scotch whisky in most cases is aged in American bourbon barrels. U.S. law dictates that a bourbon barrel can only be used once, as a result, the Scotch industry in Scotland has a source for barrels (which it uses multiple times over and there is even an industry around repairing barrels for reuse). Our tour guide noted that if United States bourbon regulations ever change and allow bourbon makers to reuse barrels the price of Scotch would dramatically increase as barrels are not an inexpensive part of the process.

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So ended our tour with a 3 dram tasting of different types of Scotch currently available.  We opted for the Quarter Cask, 10 year Cask Strength, and Lore. The variation between each was stunning – all obviously filled with Laphroaig's signature peat smoked barley but the blending of spirits aged in different casks and strengths of alcohol has a significant effect on the flavor.

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Because we could, and likely wouldn't have the opportunity again, we tried the 25 year aged and the Brodir. Brodir is aged in a port cask and as a result it has a light purple color and fruit forward flavor, its still peaty and smoky but its also porty. The result is pretty tasty and not very available in the United States. Meanwhile, the 25 year aged Laphroaig was a masterpiece – a brief moment of enlightenment for my tongue – just a fleeting glance where you see the truth of all things as it massages its way across your taste buds.

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As all goods thing must, our time at Laphroaig Distillery came to an end and we started our two mile journey back to Port Ellen. The expression on this angry sheep is an allegory to the 5 types of weather we experienced walking back fro Laphroaig – including a light rain, a frigid head wind, freezing rain turning into hail with more head wind, and finally when we reached our B&B damp cold and forlorn, a little sunshine again.  We dried off, changed clothes, had some hot beverages and made our way to dinner where we basked again in the abundance and variety of Islay's food, hospitality and flavor.

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This was probably the best crab pasta dish I have had in my life. It definitely included more fresh crab in it than I ever received in one sitting. The red pepper, arugula, and tomato gave it a light flavor that highlighted the natural sweetness of the fresh crab bringing it all together in the most harmonious of symphonies in my mouth.  

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John ordered the Skate wing – which was also amazing (one because I never had skate before and two because it is a prehistoric looking fish so its like eating a reptile wing).  I don't know if my pointing out the reptilian nature of my traveling companion's food was appreciated but I thought it was pretty cool – and again the flavors were scrumptious with the wet meaty (almost like a slow cooked pulled pork texture) of the skate's wing flesh combined with the briny olives and sundried tomatoes made for another light but delicately full flavored dish. 

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This is a photo of our appetizer – a haggis, neep & tatties fritter. I could tell this one included sheep haggis (as opposed to the venison of the day before) – though it was very mild through the potato and turnip puree surrounding it. The verdict though, is that I like haggis quite a bit.

After dinner we had a dessert of multiple "fais" Scotches blended specifically for the Islay whisky festival annually.  These are versions of the names you know in Scotch but completely unavailable anywhere but on Islay.  We drank ourselves happy and tired and with droopy eyelids made are way to home and to bed.

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