Day 3 (Trip to Islay)

Day 3
Port Charlotte Circuit
(31 km total ⇒ 27km walking)
Port Charlotte Lighthouse

As promised by the hostel keeper, the weather improve. The winds died down a little and the amount of rain that fell that day declined significantly. It's only a two mile stretch of coastline that separates Port Charlotte from Bruichladdich. But the Scottish weather can be a fickle mistress: pleasantly warm and sunny when I closed the hostel door behind me, gloomy and raining by the time I reached my destination.

  With all that rain, those highland cows probably mistook me as one of their own.

Two observations, firstly mornings on Islay were wet, with rapid interchanges of sunny spells and gusts of rain: every ten minutes the weather would change. After a rainstorm you had a ten minute interval to break up your tent and get everything bagged up. At all times you would to keep a watchful eye out for the next cloud front appearing on the horizon.

Secondly, the main roads on Islay are utterly unsuited for hikers. And there are few alternatives for those roads available. For instance, why is there no footpath connecting Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich? One would expect it to be possible to travel along the coast, but most areas are simply fenced of and even the locals jump into their car for the short ride.

But I digress,...


From the inside, the Bruichladdich distillery is a sight to behold. The Victorian equipment is in running condition after all these years, it is living history. 

Our tour guide, once again a lovely young lady, gave us a tour of the mill, mash tun, wash backs, stills and warehouse.
The open mash tun is an iron cast survivor, instruments such as these are what makes this distillery stand out. I had my first taste of wash and I have to admit, it doesn't taste half bad. For those who know it, it comes very close to a sour Belgian white beer, like Hoegaarden. And it stills tastes better than any British beer that I've tried !
Inside the wash back

The still house is a lot darker than most of its counterparts and the dark coloured stills are true beauties 


But of course the eye catcher is the "new" lomond still from the old Inverleven  distillery, now being used for the production of their "botanist" gin. Ugly Betty was meant to be used in the future Port Charlotte distillery, but it has luckily been taken out of the cold and found a new destination. I forgot to ask if she still has her rectifier plates, or if she had been lobotomized like the one in the Scapa distillery. 

Ugly Betty, a pretty small still, but a true beauty.
The classic haversack pose, hard to believe but I was actually having fun.

Of to the warehouse than, where a wide variety of casks were on display. Bruichladdich was for some time known as the Willy Wonka's chocolate factory of single malt whisky, where anything could happen. And given the wide variety of casks here in Warehouse Two, they still have some excited experimental casks laying around from the McEwan-Renier period.  Which will probably be released as pricey limited edition bottlings, better get your wallets out gents.

At the end of  the tour there was a visit to the bottling plant.
After the visit they lined up six or seven bottles for a wee taste, but you only got to pick one. Wait and you can't keep the glass? That's a bit meager wouldn't you think so?
I picked a dram from the Vallinch available in the store. That thing had caught my eye as soon as I came in, it was leaking pretty bad, a sad thing to see so much good whisky going to waste. £75 for a 50cl bottle was pretty expensive, but hey you can not put a price on a limited edition, 24yo single cask whisky. A 50cl bottle still might have fitted in my backpack, so why not give it a  try.
The Andy Ritchie Valinch 07 is a cask picked out by the (bottling hall manager?), who's going on retirement. A 24yo (1989/2014) cask, matured in a bourbon cask, finished in a rioja winecask at 51.4%ABV. Rich and smooth, fruity on the nose: hints of cherry, peat, red fruits and iodine on the palate, with a peppery finish.
A good and complex whisky, an interesting take on the classic Bruichladdich whisky, but not convincing enough to go through the trouble of buying a bottle. Added some water from the large water jug, a slightly bit too much, but not more than 20% or so. Causing the other Belgian visitor to cry out that I was doing it wrong.  If there is one thing that I hate, than it are these so called experts. Mind your own glass, I thought while keeping a smile on my face, there is no wrong or right way of doing it, just keep it to yourself .

Plenty enough other good Bruichladdich official bottles available in the shop, but nothing except for some older leftover valinches that I couldn't find in Belgium at a better price.

At the counter I asked for a taste of the Octomore 6.1, as I really enjoyed the 5.1 a long while ago. 
This is not the same peaty beast as its older brother, a lot of the power and roughness had gone. The 5.1 was a true powerhouse, a iron fist in a velvet glove that would kick you right in the nose.
I expected so much more from this one. 

Nose: Leather, medicinal peat,  notes of sea spray, strong hints of tar with underlying notes of lemon. 

Mouth: Rich and fruity on the palate: white fruits, pears, teaspoon of honey, cinnamon, with powerful notes of vanilla and peat of course. 

Finish: A long and smoky finish, with hints of dark chocolate and berries.

Good, but.... not as great as the 5.1. But as there are more Octomores on the way, even more powerful than their predecessors. So I keep, my hopes up and wait for an Octomore that can outclass the 5.1. Oh well, the 6.3 will soon become available and I saw a flask with Octomore 7.2 in the warehouse, good times ahead people. 

Definitely in the top 3 of all the distilleries that I've visited.
Just a quick suggestion to Bruichladdich: now that they are focusing more and more on the "terroir" aspect of their whiskies, how about a malting floor and a proper kiln?
I guess that they would swimming against the tide, but wouldn't it be great if the Octomore was made with Islay peat, instead of the Biards of Inverness malt smoked with peat from the Orkneys(so I have been told). No stab at the good people of Bruichladdich, but just a hint for improvement, making this distillery even better? Maybe an idea for the new Port Charlotte distillery, if that projects gets of the ground someday.


On my merry way, along the main road until somewhere halfway between Bruichladdich and Bridgend, I reached the route to Loch Gorm and Kilchoman. At the crossroads I came across my future guide who was loading sandwiches into the back of the Kilchoman truck. Deeling bad about the previous day, I didn't ask for a ride as I wanted to get some serious walking done, taking  those rides out of the rain felt like cheating.On top of the ridge, you could see both Loch Indaal and Loch Gruinart. almost touching each other Who knows maybe in a couple hundreds of years the Rhinns of Islay may become a separate island. As I got closer to the dark waters of Loch Gorm, the landscape changed from heathland to farmland with fields of golden barley, I was getting close to the Rockside farm, famous from the Bruichladdich bottlings.

Tempering with the modes of my camera
Loch Gorm with the cliffs of  Ardnave Point in the background

After a short walk, I arrived at the Kilchoman distillery and oh my goodness me, this might actually be the busiest distillery judging from the amount of traffic that past me by on that small road. It was not that easy to find the entrance of the distillery, you'll have to go around the back, past the casks from the Buffalo Trace distillery to make your way to the shop.

The shop and restaurant where they offer locally prepared food were quite crowded, though the possibilities of getting on a tour were limited. On thing that  you'll immediately notice is that the visitor center is larger than the distillery and a lot of the stuff that they'll sell here is not whisky related. With an hour to go till the next tour, I left my bag behind in one of the distillery's offices and headed out again to see the old Kilchoman parish church, which nowadays lays in ruins.

Kilchoman parish church in the distance
Celtic Cross in the Kilchoman kirk yard
The decaying parish church of Kilchoman
Back at the distillery, there was a visit to the malting floor, which is also is used to storage facility. A good example of how cramped the small distillery actually is. They already had to give up their cask warehouse in order to create room for a bottling plant. (their casks are stored at Bruichladdich)
A handful of green malt from the Kilchoman floor

Kilchoman is slowly excepting some modest technological upgrades. New machinery like a conveyor belt to transport the malt from the floors to the kiln and a new corking machine have been introduced to make the lives of the crew a bit easier. But most of the work is still done in a manual fashion, the sole fact that they have to climb to the top of the smoking kiln with a ladder in order to turn the barley manually, earns my respect. Kilchoman uses Islay peat for their whisky, but unlike Laphroaig, it is mechanically cut.

Just like with the Laphroaig distillery, they use stainless steel wash backs to create a sweeter taste. And in the stillhouse both the wash back and a set of small stills were installed.

All sweaty, after a sprint to get back to the distillery on time
The tour ended with a taste of the Kilchoman Machir Bay 2014 and Kilchoman 100% Islay.
Machir Bay 2014: A lightly peated expression born out of 5yo bourbon and  oloroso sherry casks.This is the Kilchoman house-style expression. 

Nose: soft on the nose, prominent notes of citrus and freshly cut grass, with a few layers of ashes and peat underneath.

Mouth: sweet on the palate: fruitiness from the sherry vanilla from the bourbon, spiced up with soft notes of black pepper and aniseed. 

Finish: Long and lingering with aromas of vanilla and oak.

I must admit that I liked the Machir Bay 2013 edition better (although, it has been some time since I last had a taste), but there is a high consistency in taste between the two batches.
100% Islay 4th edition: A whisky that only uses locally produced barley, aged in first fill bourbon casks and bottled at 50%ABV. Only lightly peated and going by the introductory remarks of our tour guide, this is what's supposed to be their ultimate product. 

Nose: notes of citrus, biscuity malt, figs, brine and a fairly soft layer of smoke. 

Mouth: sharp on the palate, a body that is both creamy and briny  fruity notes of pears, some vanilla and wood polish. 

Finish: medium long finish: peat, lime and elements of oak.

No taste from my favorite Kilchoman expression, the Loch Gorm, but I did get a delicious piece of sponge cake from the cafeteria and a free glass. It was time to return back to Port Charlotte, this time using the passage along the cliffs and the beaches of Machir Bay. A slight change of plans was required due to the presence of a bull in the fields.
More like a whole field full of young bulls
The sands of Machir Bay, more rain on the horizon
I made my way back trough the hills past the the Kilchiaran farm and back on the road to Port Charlotte. The Rinns of Islay are an exquisite part of Islay, quiet and almost completely void of tourists. Not a living soul to be seen, except for some kettle. It started raining again, but somewhere along the way, the brother of the owner of Kilcherian farm gave me a ride. Apparently he was a former engineer at the Rolls Royce factory in Glasgow, who returned to Islay after his retirement. And the Kilcherian farm is one of the local barley suppliers of Bruichladdich.
I got to the Port Mor campsite, put up my tent, just in time before the next rainstorm hit. Had a drink at the Lochindaal Bar later that evening, which is probably the best pub of Port Charlotte.