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Visiting Kilchoman and Bruichladdich a Good Saturday in Islay

Saturday was our first full day in any one place on this trip – and after what felt like three days of travel straight it was pretty nice to just wake up and know we had a mild itinerary ahead.  I was also looking forward to Joy's breakfast at the B&B.

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The goal of the day – a drive to the other side of the island to do a tasting at Kilchoman then take in a tour and a special warehouse tasting at Bruichladdich – two of the "newest" players on the Islay Scotch circuit. Although Bruichladdich was founded in 1881 it only restarted again in 2001 (after a shut down in the 90's). But first – breakfast.

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Joy was cheerful as ever and offering three options for breakfast including – the traditional breakfast of all meat (bacon, sausage, black pudding with a side of eggs) or grilled kipper and scrambled eggs or smoked haddock and poached eggs.  I went with the grilled kipper as the traditional just seemed like too much (and I did't want anything but the black pudding).

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If you haven't had herring for breakfast, I highly recommend it. I was barely able to finish the fish and get through half of the eggs before I was extremely full. Taking the plates Joy said "I have been accused of making rather big breakfasts, but its better you be full to go tasting whisky, then I don't have to deal with drunk people."  Truth. 

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The sun was shining on Port Ellen in the morning so as we waited for the taxi we took a short walk-about. We found the wind to be just as strong regardless of the sun shine, and that the water turned a crazy aquamarine blue.

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Carol's taxi came to pick us up just after 10 am and we headed Northwest to the "other side of the island" as Joy our B&B host puts it.  Carol explained to us that it is always at least a 40 minute ride and that the meter would run up because of the miles we were putting between us and our hotel.  Our first location Kilchoman is also the most out of the way distillery on the island.  Paying for a driver was worth it however, as the road is primarily a narrow single lane shared with large trucks and cars going the other direction. There are also no road signs that I could see – so apparently you find your way around the island by sense of smell, or like our driver, you have lived on the island your whole life so you just know where to go.  

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Despite the frightening continuous game of chicken played on the road the views of Islay's landscape out to Kilchoman were breathtaking. We got to the distillery at a little before 11 am and the sun was still shining. There were sheep on the hillside and the smell of malted barley was in the breeze.

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We walked into the Visitors' Centre/gift shop/cafe and asked about doing a tasting (we had no prearranged tour) – and were presented with a couple of options.  We chose the standard tasting of the distilleries flagship single malts. 

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Kilchoman is the newest of the distilleries on the island founded in 2005. They call themselves the farm distillery as they grow and malt all of their own barley and are the only "inland" distillery -in that they are not sitting on a coast of the island. They apparently also have the smallest production of any of the distilleries – making them in some ways the micro-distillery of Islay – as they produce in a year what some of the others produce in a week.

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We tasted the Machir Bay, Sanaig, and Loch Gorm – all of them had a slight honey flavor, a very light peat but no smoke.  The Loch Gorm was casked 100% in sherry barrels so it had both a distinctive color and flavor making it quite smooth and sweet but finishing peaty with a strong pleasant linger in the mouth. 

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After Kilchoman we headed towards Bruichladdich for a standard tour and a "warehouse experience."  Having not made any of the reservations for this trip in the liquor realm, instead entrusting the choices to those more "geeky" in this area than I (now missing a member of our party for reasons that are unfortunate) I had no idea what we were walking into.

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What I learned is that Bruichladdich, started in 1881, "closed" in 1994, "reopened" in 2001, is currently the largest employer on Islay with 91 persons including a newly hired botanist name James (who will forage for the herbs found in the gin called The Botanist) – and runs everything in the distillery without automation or computers of any kind. It is a devotion to a traditionally considered "lack of efficiency" for the sake of making sure everyone has a job, and the old adage "if its not broke, don't fix it." 

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For example, this milling machine and conveyor belt system – originally installed in 1881. They have two engineers that come in twice a month to keep it in good repair and to watch the belts but they have absolutely no computers or anything else automated to mill or move the barley over to the wash house.  

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Also this open mashing tank with cast iron mashing arm – it is original install 1881 and still going strong – they have to do a few things slower and have a few more humans double check that the equipment is doing what it is supposed to, but everything is still in working condition and as long as it is maintained it will never break.  So in a way they are preventing waste, in that the machinery of the distillery, as long as taken care of will last for generations to come.  They will not need to reinvest in equipment like most companies have to every 5 or so years. 

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They are devoted to no computers – every single thing in the distillery is computer proof, which in the distillery appears to the observer as people in love with what  they do and enjoying their job. Which is the best recipe for good whisky ever.

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After the enlightening tour of the distillery, John and I had to hurry away to our warehouse experience tasting.  Until the moment we walked into the warehouse and were lead to a seating area around four whisky casks, I had no idea what warehouse experience meant. I quickly learned. 

We tasted three whiskys straight out of the barrel. These are whiskys we could never purchase at any point in time anywhere in the world, including at the distillery.  One of a kind tastings from a barrel reserved completely for people who purchased the experience.  Wow. 

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Our experience tour guide also engaged in some interesting manual practices to get the whisky out of the barrels.  But it is whisky so no worries about health and safety – it was all for fun and enjoyment.  The first sip we had out of the barrel was a 1988 Bruichladdich from the 20 thousand barrels of back stock that came with the purchase and reopening of the distillery. Our second was a 2003 Port Charlotte aged for 13 years in a sherry cask – originally purchased by a consortium of Norwegians that for some reason returned it to the distillery's ownership after 10 years. The third and final was and is the oldest available version of the distillery's 80 ppb (parts per billion) peated Optimore – the most peated scotch available in the world, and this is the oldest vintage of it coming in at 12 years casked in 2005.

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After a large amount of whisky we made our way back to the B&B with the help of Carol's taxi. Breakfast finally wore off and we were in need of a snack – so we explored the little grocery store just down the street and found some things.

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After a couple of accidental naps, we went to dinner. Which was phenomenal.  You should be able to see why it was phenomenal based on these photos below of the scallops – but make your own decisions.

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This evening we went to Sea Salt, the other restaurant in Port Ellen. The special was hand picked scallops. The biggest amazing surprise was that they showed up on the plate with their roe. No one thought this was weird but us – the scallop roe was so rich and filling that I could not eat all of it – a first with scallops, and almost tragic because the flavor was so fresh and tasty straight from the sea.  

Then we ran into people we had been on tastings with that day and decided to make friends, chatting about many things including whisky.  Then we heard live traditional sounding music coming the pub (that is also the restaurant right next door to the B&B) and decided to check it out. We walked in and found an amazing idyllic scene of small town on a small island on a Saturday night.  

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It was a great day.


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