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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: Port Ellen

Brora is reborn: ‘ghost’ distillery fills first cask in 38 years

Today, Brora is reborn as the first cask in 38 years was filled. After a four year refurbishment to return the legendary Scotch whisky distillery to its condition in 1983, …

Today, Brora is reborn as the first cask in 38 years was filled. After a four year refurbishment to return the legendary Scotch whisky distillery to its condition in 1983,  Brora opens its gates and is once again distilling. 

At 11 o’ clock this morning, a slumbering giant reawoke. Yes, Brora is reborn as it opened its gates and filled its first cask. We would have been there, but Covid restrictions meant that the whole thing had to be done virtually.

Stewart Bowman rings bells

Brora is officially open

First cask filled since 1983

Still, there was not a dry eye in the house as various Diageo types waxed lyrical about the rebirth of Brora. The film starts with master distiller Stewart Bowman opening the famous wild cat gates at the distillery. He oversaw the filling of the first cask this morning and rolled it into Warehouse Number One, where the dwindling reserves of Brora single malt Scotch whisky are kept. The reborn distillery will produce around 800,000 litres a year and aims to be carbon neutral, powered entirely by on-site renewable energy.

It’s been quite a journey since we announced back in 2017 that Diageo was spending £35 million to reopen both Brora in the Highlands and Port Ellen on Islay. Unlike with Port Ellen where much of the distillery including the stills were destroyed when it closed, Brora had just been left to decay after it filled its final cask in 1983.

Archivist Joanne McKerchar explained, “When we first opened the doors at Brora we walked into a time capsule. As a historian and an archivist for malts, I had never seen anything like that before. It was unbelievable just how untouched it was: as if the guys had just finished their shift and walked out – but, of course, nobody then came back in.”

Painstaking restoration

Yet, it was far from a working distillery. The whole place has been completely refurbished to exactly recreate the conditions of the old Brora right down to the traditional rake and gear mash tun and is using malted barley from Glen Ord maltings, just as before. Stewart Bowman said: 

“We have gone to every effort to replicate, as closely as possible, the conditions, equipment and processes from Brora in 1983 in order to recreate the spirit for which the distillery is famous. The original pair of Brora stills travelled 200 miles across Scotland to Diageo Abercrombie Coppersmiths in Alloa where they were refurbished by hand; we raised up the original pagoda roof to conduct intricate repairs, and rebuilt the stillhouse brick-by-brick using original Brora stone to restore this historic Victorian distillery.” 

But the rebirth isn’t just about using the right equipment, as master blender Dr Jim Beveridge OBE explained: “When I heard of the plans to bring Brora back, I recalled tasting Brora stocks of the 1980s – one of my early jobs at Diageo many years ago. By sampling remaining old stocks of Brora and using historic tasting notes, we slowly built a picture. With my colleague Donna Anderson, we were able to make this vision of the liquid a reality by reverse-engineering the production process.”

Stewart Bowman and family at Brora

Stewart Bowman welcomes his father and two other old Brora hands back to the distillery

Family connections

So once again Brora is distilling. And it’s particularly fitting that Bowman is overseeing it all as his father was Brora’s last exciseman. He explained: “In 1983, my father wrote in an old distillery ledger ‘Commencement of Brora Distillery silent season (undetermined period)’. Growing up in the village we often wondered whether Brora would ever return, but today we filled the first cask. It is with great pride that I can now say to my father, the Brora community, and all the ‘old hands’ that worked at Brora and helped to craft a legendary whisky, that the stills are alive and we are making Brora spirit once again.”

All this misty-eyed romanticism can’t hide the fact that the reopened Brora should be extremely lucrative for Diageo, long before any whisky comes on the market. The distillery will be open to the public from July with two distillery tours available, one costing £300 or you could go for the premium option at £600. Ouch! A reflection of the value of the dwindling stocks of mature Brora. Then there’s the recently-released Triptych, a snip at £30,000. The whisky world has changed considerably since 1983.

 

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It’s goodbye from #WhiskySanta

Well, it’s time for #WhiskySanta to disappear for another year after a bumper Christmas. But before he puts his feet up, he has one more thing to say… Ho ho…

Well, it’s time for #WhiskySanta to disappear for another year after a bumper Christmas. But before he puts his feet up, he has one more thing to say…

Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas!

Well, it’s been a funny old year, funny peculiar, that is, but luckily all the strangeness didn’t affect my ability to spread cheer this season. With a little help from my chums at Master of Malt, I’ve given away over £250,000-worth of boozy goodness, and eaten my bodyweight many times over in mince pies. I do love Christmas!

But now, like the boot cut jean, it’s over, and it’s time for me to say goodbye. Before I go, however, I want to take a moment to remember some of those amazing bottles I gave away including the snappily-titled Port Ellen 35 Year Old 1983 (Release No.11535) – The Stories of Wind & Wave (The Character of Islay Whisky Company), a Glenfarclas 1958 Family Cask, Balvenie’s magnificent 40 Year Old, Tamnavulin 48 Year Old 1970, or, all the way from the US of A, Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition. Extraordinary, even if I do say so myself!

Those were just some of the big ‘uns. I also gave away tens of thousands of gifts large and small to lucky Master of Malt customers who placed orders. Some of you even received your orders completely free!

But all good things must come to an end and, to be honest, despite being a supernatural, omniscient being, I need a rest too. It’s not easy dispensing boozy cheer and writing amusing blog posts while keeping my enormous beard immaculately groomed. In January, I’m just going to put my feet up and put some time into that screenplay I’ve been working on: it’s about a supernatural, heavily-bearded being… Stop! I can’t say anymore, as I don’t want anyone to pinch this clearly entirely original movie premise… 

Merry Christmas and happy New Year, one and all!

#WhiskySanta

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#WhiskySanta’s Port Ellen 35 Year Old 1983 – The Character of Islay Whisky Company Super Wish

Dasher would blush at how quickly #WhiskySanta has been busting his jolly chops to get you all the goodies you desire, but he’s still found time to give away another…

Dasher would blush at how quickly #WhiskySanta has been busting his jolly chops to get you all the goodies you desire, but he’s still found time to give away another stunning Scotch for this week’s Super Wish. 

While I’ve been working around the clock to put a Santa’s ransom worth of gifts in the hands of those who pleasantly send in their many wonderful wishes, I’ve taken the odd moment to reflect on that truest of sayings, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. Which is a lesson I never seem to learn when it comes to mince pies. 

It’s also true of whisky. How many times have we seen demand for certain bottles explode after a distillery has closed? But, while there aren’t many things whisky lovers dream of more than tasting the rare remaining spirits available, sadly a small supply equals a big price tag so few get the chance to do so. But not this time. Because this week you’ve got a chance to pick up a bottle of… 

Port Ellen 35 Year Old 1983 (Release No.11535) – The Stories of Wind & Wave (The Character of Islay Whisky Company), for absolutely free!

#WhiskySanta’s Port Ellen 35 Year Old 1983 - The Character of Islay Whisky Company Super Wish

This is what Islay whisky lovers see when they close their eyes

This impressive single malt, which has one of the longest product names I’ve ever seen, incidentally, was actually distilled the same year the legendary Port Ellen Distillery closed, back in 1983, and has been matured for 35 years before being bottled by that lovely lot at The Character of Islay Whisky Company. It’s for the Wind & Wave series, which is all about showing off the most delightful whiskies from tIslay and this bottling is indeed a delight.

I’m going to run you through how this Super Wish works again because I don’t want anyone missing out on a whisky this good due to a little misunderstanding (like that time the elves didn’t pick up that bottle of Karuizawa Noh I wanted because they thought I said “Karuizawa? No.” I’ll never forgive them). To make a wish, head to the product page and then click the ‘Wish’ button. It’s not hard to miss, it’s red as Rudolph’s nose. A box with options for a pre-populated Twitter or Facebook post will then appear and all you have to do is publish your wish. For those who love the ‘gram (I understand that’s what the kids call Instagram), you can just pop a post on your feed, but don’t forget to use the #WhiskySanta hashtag so the rascals at MoM can find your wish. 

#WhiskySanta’s Port Ellen 35 Year Old 1983 - The Character of Islay Whisky Company Super Wish

Just give it the ol’ click-and-wish.

Now get those wishes in and give yourself the chance to land the best Christmas present around. In the meantime, I’m going to grab myself another couple mince pies fresh from the oven and try to remember to appreciate them this time…  and they’re gone. One day I’ll learn.

#WhiskySanta

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New Arrival of the Week: Laphroaig 15 Year Old 2004 (COIWC)

Today we’re welcoming a series of exciting bottlings at MoM from that mecca for whisky lovers, the Jewel of the Hebrides itself, Islay, including releases from Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Octomore…

Today we’re welcoming a series of exciting bottlings at MoM from that mecca for whisky lovers, the Jewel of the Hebrides itself, Islay, including releases from Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Octomore and, rarest of all, Port Ellen. The collection is called The Stories of Wind and Wave and it’s brought to you from the aptly-named Character of Islay Whisky Company.

It can be quite an adventure getting to Islay. Many times Master of Malt team members have tried to reach the island only to be thwarted by adverse weather conditions. And should you be lucky enough to have your flight from Glasgow cleared for take off, the wind-blown descent into the island’s airport on the tiny propeller plane can be terrifying for the uninitiated. Or there’s the joy of a two hour crossing on a CalMac ferry through rough seas. The fun doesn’t stop when you arrive down either, on a visit last year to visit Islay’s newest distillery, Ardnahoe, the air was thick with the scent of burnt heather. A combination of high winds, dry weather, and, probably, a stray cigarette end had set much of the south of the island on fire. The air smelt just like Islay whisky. 

For whisky lovers, this very inaccessibility is part of the magic of the island. You have to really want to visit. And the lure is, of course, the extraordinary concentration of distilleries all with their own unique character and the way the whiskies taste of their location, salt, peat smoke and seaweed. There are other peated whiskies from Scotland, but it’s the ones from Islay that get all the attention. 

Laphroaig John Campbell

Laphroaig on a rare sunny day

Those names, Ardbeg, Bowmore, and Laproaig, are music to whisky enthusiasts. And aiming to bottle some of that music, if such a thing were even possible, is a batch of rare malts that has just landed at MoM towers. It’s from our friends at the Character of Islay Whisky Company which previously released whiskies from anonymous distilleries on the island, but for this batch has revealed where they came from. Which is nice of them. The series is called the Stories of Wind and the Wave and includes bottlings from Bowmore, Laproaig and Ardbeg (see below). Plus still to come some Octomore and something tres fancy from Port Ellen.

The one we’re highlighting today is from Laphroaig, the most medicinal of all the Islay whiskies. It gets its distinctive character from only using Islay peat. The distillery has a traditional floor maltings and makes about 25% of its requirements using local Machrie moss peat which cold smokes the barley. The rest of the malt comes from the nearby Port Ellen maltings. Islay peat is largely made from seaweed which is where that love-it-or-hate-it salty iodine flavour comes from. The reason it tastes of the sea is because it comes from the sea, albeit a long time ago. This smokiness is accentuated by taking a late cut, so you get more of that peat smoke. 

The classic expression for lovers of medicinal malts is the 10 year old. But the longer you keep Laphroaig, the less smoky it becomes and the more tropical fruits start to appear. Release No.11693 was distilled in 2004 and aged for 15 years in a refill bourbon cask so you’re not getting that much wood influence. It’s bottled at 50.2% ABV. All that smoky character is still there but it’s been joined by stone fruit and quince (see below for full tastings notes). It’s a great dram to launch a series of rare and unusual whiskies that Islay fans will not want to miss. They’re the next best thing to a visit to the island itself.

Here is the full range of Stories of Wind and Wave whiskies currently available from Master of Malt:

Laphroaig 15 Year Old 2004 (Release No.11694)

Laphroaig 15 Year Old 2004 (Release No.11693)

Bowmore 18 Year Old 2001 (Release No.11715)

Bowmore 18 Year Old 2001 (Release No.11714) 

Bowmore 16 Year Old 2003 (Release No.11698) 

Bowmore 16 Year Old 2003 (Release No.11699)

Bowmore 16 Year Old 2003 (Release No.11697)

Ardbeg 15 Year Old 2004 (Release No.11673)

Tasting note for the Laphroaig 15 Year Old 2004 (Release No.11693) from The Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Waxy peels, peppermint leaf and smoky black tea with a touch of baked earth to it.

Palate: Sweet smoke with savoury hints of salted butter and cedar underneath, plus stone fruit developing later on.

Finish: Polished oak, a touch of ash and continuing fruity elements.

 

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Hey big spender: private cask sales part two 

In the second part of his investigation, Ian Buxton looks at well-known distilleries that have specialist sales teams selling mature casks at six figure prices and above to high rollers,…

In the second part of his investigation, Ian Buxton looks at well-known distilleries that have specialist sales teams selling mature casks at six figure prices and above to high rollers, big spenders and fat cats.

As we moved into the final years of the twentieth century it may have seemed that the private cask [read the first part of the story here] would become little more than a curious historical footnote to whisky’s story. But the industry is nothing if not cyclical. Though most larger distilleries eventually closed their doors to the private clients, fresh opportunities arose, slowly at first and, from the turn of the millennium began gathering pace. New distilleries, some actually opened and some merely a glint in a promoter’s ambitious eye, began to sell casks of whisky yet unmade to finance their construction or expansion.

Not all were successful. There were some very suspect deals around and, on occasion, well-intentioned failure, such as the Ladybank Company of Distillers. In 2003 it announced plans “to create one of the world’s greatest single malt whiskies” at a proposed micro-distillery in Fife, charging their founder members an initial £3,250 for the promise of future bottles. Perhaps the 15% commission on offer to intermediaries should have sounded the alarm – in any event, by 2007 problems were apparent and the business placed in liquidation by 2011, with investors losing their entire stake.

However, the sale of single casks to the public has gained renewed impetus and, if willing to risk your money to a start-up at some historically rather inflated prices, there are several offers from new ‘craft’ distilleries available on the web. But what if you would like a cask of something special from a recognised distillery?

Macallan cask, probably worth a bit

Well, once again you can but this side of the business has changed a lot since the 1980s. Not just anyone can buy. It helps to be VHNW or, better still, UHNW (that’s Very or Ultra High Net Worth – filthy rich to the rest of us) for this is where the private cask action is to be found today.  Macallan appears to have started the trend, launching their En Primeur programme in April 2007 with a large and very tasteful brochure. At 30 x 41.5 cm it was indeed very large, but then ‘go large’ was clearly the message: prices started at £5,000 (presumably for the 200 litre ex-bourbon barrel) with more to pay on delivery after the recommended 12 years maturation. 

This was a whole new level of pricing for new fillings and, in retrospect, may be seen as a landmark in the transition of certain whisky brands to Veblen goods, where the marketing becomes as much about the trappings and experience of purchase as the product itself. We enter here the world of luxury and high-end marketing. Macallan maintains that the scheme proved a success, stating that they “took the decision to close the En Primeur programme in 2019 indefinitely due to unprecedented demand and an extensive waiting list of over five years.” Currently, no new applications will be considered.

But then, very quietly, something really interesting happened: brands noticed that very old whisky, long rather looked down on, could be very valuable indeed especially if it could be sold direct (just think of the margin). So single casks are once again available for sale. Not new make, however, for the new class of very wealthy buyer does not want to wait while their purchase matures – no, the demand now is for exceptionally old casks from distilleries with an established reputation that can be enjoyed as trophies.

Now let me stress that there’s nothing illegal going on here, though very few of the companies involved in the business want to talk about it. While multiple anonymous sources maintain that “everyone’s in the game”, I’ve seldom encountered such a wall of silence.  However, both Whyte & Mackay (W&M) and Diageo were willing to describe some aspects of their operation to provide a glimpse of this market.

Your own private label whisky would look splendid on your yacht

Both have identified that there is a small group of intensely private buyers prepared to pay handsomely for exclusive access to rare single malts. They may contact the distillery but, more likely, the marketing team have tracked them down to make a personalised approach.  As W&M’s Rare Whisky and Private Client team see the business, it’s more of a relationship than a transaction and they look to trade with “the right people for the right reasons”. That definitely precludes flipping these precious bottles for profit and it’s stressed that the whisky is sold for drinking not for investment, with prospective buyers carefully vetted as to their suitability.

Be clear that we’re looking at a minimum of six figures to pay to play, and frequently the transaction will run well into the millions including bottling and bespoke, customised packaging.  But then the likely client may call up from his superyacht (the typical client does appear to be male) where the whisky will be served to his guests while glancing casually at his million-pound Patek Philippe. Some of the figures quoted were eye-watering – one deal was mentioned at close to £20m!

Diageo, too, is represented here with a Rare & Collectable Spirits team established in 2015. It offers the Casks of Distinction – described as “special, old and very rare; entirely unique and individual in character… representing the most exceptional and singular expressions of their distilleries’ character.”

Feis Ile

You could even have your very own cask of Port Ellen

What distilleries? Well, any of them it seems. According to James Mackay, the head of rare & collectable spirits, nothing is off limits, and includes “some of the most famous Scotland has ever known; Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Caol Ila, Talisker, Mortlach and Cardhu, Clynelish and Brora, Oban and Royal Lochnagar on Royal Deeside” as well as “Benrinnes, Blair Athol, Carsebridge, Convalmore, and Dalwhinnie to Dailuaine”.

Like W&M, marketing is very discreet. “Casks of Distinction are offered only by appointment with one of Diageo’s network of private client teams in various cities around the world,” says Mackay, adding that “because Casks of Distinction is such a very small and niche programme, addressing the needs of a community of individuals who tend to be quite private by nature, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to promote it widely.”

So there you have it. If you haven’t been asked, don’t keep a Bugatti as your weekend car and consider flying in First Class a tiresome economy, you can probably forget access to these exceptional whiskies. In the words of an old song, “It’s the rich what gets the pleasure” but whether or not you find it all a “blooming shame” probably depends on the state of your bank balance.

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

 

 

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Planning permission given for Port Ellen

It’s all go at Port Ellen as the local authorities have agreed to plans for the rebuilding of the great lost distillery on Islay. The famous, no legendary, Port Ellen…

It’s all go at Port Ellen as the local authorities have agreed to plans for the rebuilding of the great lost distillery on Islay.

The famous, no legendary, Port Ellen distillery on Islay last produced whisky in 1983 but, as we’ve reported before, Diageo is planning to bring it back from the dead. Now news has just come in of an important milestone in the process: the local authorities have agreed to the plans including a traditional pagoda-roofed kiln house alongside modern production buildings. Very little of the original distillery is still standing so the team at Diageo are essentially building a new distillery from scratch.The set-up is going to be a bit unusual with two pairs of traditional copper stills, exact replicas of the original stills, alongside two smaller stills for experimental runs producing different styles of spirit. 

whisky crash

Traditional meets modern, an artist impression of the new Port Ellen distillery

Master distiller Georgie Crawford commented: “We are delighted to have reached this important milestone in our journey to bring Port Ellen back into production.We are grateful to Argyll & Bute Council and to the local community who have engaged positively with us during the planning process. We are incredibly excited to begin the next phase of the project and to make our long-cherished dream of restoring Port Ellen distillery a reality.”

Port Ellen has had a turbulent history. It was first opened in 1825 by Alexander Ker MacKay as a malt mill before being developed as a distillery by John Ramsay between 1833 and 1892. The distillery later went into a decline, and closed and was mostly demolished in the 1930s. Then it rose again in the 1960s to meet the global demand for blended Scotch whisky before finally closing its doors in 1983 as the market dipped. It was never released commercially as a single malt in the modern age while the distillery was open and it was only as mature cask bottlings came on the market after it had closed that Port Ellen developed a cult following. Then in 2017 Diageo announced that it was planning to reopen the distillery along with Brora (production is due to start at both in 2021). Let’s hope this time Port Ellen stays open for good. 

 

 

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We put your Port Ellen distillery questions to Ewan Gunn!

Join us as we put your questions about the new Port Ellen distillery to Ewan Gunn, Diageo’s global Scotch whisky master, during Fèis Ìle 2019! What a week (and a…

Join us as we put your questions about the new Port Ellen distillery to Ewan Gunn, Diageo’s global Scotch whisky master, during Fèis Ìle 2019!

What a week (and a bit!) Fèis Ìle 2019 was! Not only did we check out every distillery day, get the lowdown on the festival bottlings AND have a thoroughly lovely time, we also asked the great and the good of the Islay whisky scene YOUR questions, as gathered via Twitter and Instagram!

We’ll be putting out the footage every day, up until Friday 28 June. So follow the Fèis Ìle tag on the blog, Twitter, Instagram Stories and Facebook Stories, and see if we asked your question!

First up: we quizzed Diageo’s Ewan Gunn about the revival of Port Ellen. Enjoy!

Feis Ile

It’s Port Ellen!

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Fèis Ìle 2019: Day Zero

Team MoM is safely installed on Islay! And what a first day it’s been. We’ve been all over the island checking out Bruichladdich, the Port Ellen Maltings and the Scotch…

Team MoM is safely installed on Islay! And what a first day it’s been. We’ve been all over the island checking out Bruichladdich, the Port Ellen Maltings and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society at Islay House!

First things first: it feels mighty strange calling this blog Day 0 when actually it was mega action-packed and full of fun. But traditionally the first day of the Fèis has been Lagavulin so… maybe the whole shebang needs a bit of shaking up? But that’s a debate for another time. Preferably over a dram…

Right. So, Team MoM is on Islay! Our main home for the first part of the week is ever-so-fancy. Yes, yesterday we checked into The Machrie, and no joke – it is stunning. Gorgeous rooms, great service, lots of whisky. But! We did manage to lure ourselves away first thing in the morning because the lure of Bruichladdich was strong.

Filming up at Bruichladdich

Those of you with half an eye on the Islay calendar will well know today is NOT Bruichladdich day. But Christy McFarlane, malts communications manager, enticed us over early with promise of barley news. And it was cool. We had a good chinwag as we wandered up to the new croft, taking in the views across Loch Indaal and back towards Bowmore as we climbed. The views were spectacular and the barley trials exciting indeed. Watch this space – a video with all the deets is coming soon!

No real time for a stop though as we traversed back across the island to the Port Ellen Maltings (via the all-important Co-op in Bowmore for a vital sandwich stop). This was Mega Exciting (capital letters very much intended) for both me and Jake – we’d never visited the site before, and it is integral to the island’s whisky industry. The Diageo-owned facility malts barley for seven of the nine distilleries – not just its own, Caol Ila and Lagavulin. The team had put on their own almost-distillery day, complete with music, gazebos and all manner of malting facts. And, of course, there were tours.

Feis Ile

It’s Port Ellen!

Before we had a nose about, we went down to Port Ellen beach with the maltings’ site operations manager Sam Hale and Ewan Gunn, Diageo’s global scotch whisky master. In front of the old Port Ellen distillery we put your questions to them both, covering production at the maltings and the revival of the distillery itself. Videos to follow! (If you’ve got questions for any of the Islay distillery teams, send them to us on social or pop them in the comments below!).

Feis Ile

Dogs of the day!

Then Hale showed us round the maltings and the scale was something else. Super impressive, indeed! From the eight 25-tonne steeps to the enormous drums, and the gigantic kilns, which take in 6 tons of peat per batch, it’s clear that the operation is something special. We popped into the control room (like a spaceship) and even out onto the roof overlooking the old Port Ellen distillery. It was like glorious, peat-scented magic.

Feis Ile

SMWS ‘s Highland Games at Islay House

Time for a quick ice-cream break, then it was up towards the other end of the island for another village fete-type set up: the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Islay House takeover! There was bunting, drams galore, and a whisky-themed Highland Games, complete with axe-throwing and archery. We did not partake, but we did spot a trio of excellent dogs! We also caught up with the SMWS team, including the intrepid Richard who is taking on the recently-established Tour of Islay tomorrow. If you see a bunch of folks in SMWS cycling kits pedalling along, give them a wave or hoot – they’re aiming to cover all nine distilleries and 65-ish miles in one day!

That’s all too much energy for us. We’re off for tea. And a dram or three. Roll on Lagavulin Day tomorrow!

 

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Port Ellen rebirth moves one step closer

Diageo has reached a new milestone in its bid to bring back Port Ellen, the iconic Islay distillery that has been silent since 1983. Hurrah! We don’t know about you,…

Diageo has reached a new milestone in its bid to bring back Port Ellen, the iconic Islay distillery that has been silent since 1983. Hurrah!

We don’t know about you, but any news about the return of famous ‘silent distilleries’ reopening gets us pretty excited. So it’s fair to say that ever since Diageo announced a £35 million investment programme to bring back Port Ellen and Brora distillery* back in October 2017, we’ve been all ears at MoM Towers waiting for updates. And we’ve got one, just as Fèis Ìle 2019 approaches. They do know how to spoil us on Islay, don’t they?

Diageo has revealed this week that Argyll & Bute Council has received detailed planning application following community engagement and pre-application consultation with key stakeholders, setting out proposals that will see Port Ellen reopened more than 35 years after its sad closure.

 

So, what can we expect from the revived Islay legend? Well, Diageo’s plan is for Port Ellen to utilise both traditional and innovative approaches to distilling under one roof, with two pairs of copper pot stills and two separate distillation regimes.

Primary distillation will take place in two stills that exactly replicate the Port Ellen originals, with the aim to recreate the original spirit character of the distillery that has made its single malt Scotch whisky among the most sought-after in the world.

The distillers at Port Ellen will also have the freedom to experiment with new whisky styles, however, thanks to the second, smaller pair of stills which will produce alternative spirit characters. It’s a best of both worlds situation, and we’re very much in favour of it. Port Ellen experimental bottlings? C’mon, people!

The second pair of stills will also pay homage to the former owner of the distillery, John Ramsay, who led Port Ellen in its formative years. Ramsay is credited with establishing its reputation as an innovative distillery in the 19th century, pioneering techniques and equipment that would become mainstays of the industry.

Port Ellen Distillery

A sketch image of what Port Ellen could look like

Distillation will take place in a combination of modern and heritage buildings, although following its most recent closure in 1983, very few of the original structures remain. What will be present is the original kiln building, with its classic pagoda roofs, and the traditional sea-front warehouses. Both will be restored as integral parts of the revived distillery, while a beautiful new stillhouse will be created to house distillation.

Georgie Crawford, the master distiller leading the Port Ellen project, commented on the news: ‘This is another hugely significant milestone on our journey to bring Port Ellen Distillery back to life. This is no ordinary distillery project, we are bringing a true whisky legend back to life and we believe our plans do justice to the iconic status of Port Ellen and will capture the imagination of whisky fans from all over the world.”

Let’s all hope the plans are approved, we want more Port Ellen!

*Both of which closed in 1983, which is also when M*A*S*H ended. Tough year.

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Ardnahoe: A closer look at Islay’s newest distillery

A new Scotch whisky distillery is always an exciting development, but there’s something extra-special about a new one on Islay. So, when Hunter Laing invited us to visit Ardnahoe, how…

A new Scotch whisky distillery is always an exciting development, but there’s something extra-special about a new one on Islay. So, when Hunter Laing invited us to visit Ardnahoe, how could we refuse?

Just getting onto Islay proved tricky for many invited to the opening of Ardnahoe Distillery. Gusts of 70 mph meant that all the ferries were cancelled. Luckily, the plucky folk at Logan Air weren’t deterred, and the tiny propeller aircraft I was aboard touched down safely on the island. During the journey from the airport to the distillery, the driver pointed out the scorched smoking landscape. Dry weather, high winds and perhaps someone’s carelessness with a cigarette had set off wild fires the night before. The air smelt like an Islay whisky.

Hunter Laing

We are family: from left, Scott, Stewart and Andrew Laing

Ardnahoe is located in the north of the island, facing Jura and near Port Askaig. “We think it’s the most perfect location from a scenic point of view for a whisky,” Andrew Laing from Hunter Laing told me. It’s a family business run by Stewart Laing and his two sons, Andrew and Scott. The company, which bottles whisky and rum, has been going in its present form since 2013, though the Laing family has been in the whisky business much longer. Stewart Laing is clearly very proud of his sons: “They are the real driving force developing the profitability of the company,” he said.

A distillery of their own was the inevitable next step. “We looked at a couple of options to buy distilleries, but it became apparent that for reasons of cost and for reasons of finding the right project, that we really needed to build one rather than to buy one,” Andrew explained. “ If you’re building a distillery, from our point of view, the only place to build one was Islay.” The Laing family has history on the island. “On my grandmother’s side, on my dad’s side, we have a family connection to Islay going back to the 1700s. More recently my father studied whisky making at Bruichladdich in 1966,” he continued.

Work began on the distillery (the first new one on Islay since Kilchoman opened in 2005) in 2016 and was completed last year. It hasn’t been all plain sailing, though. Stewart Laing mentioned some neighbours who had been less than supportive when they were seeking planning permission. Andrew was more diplomatic: “there was some opposition at the planning stage, which is fair enough.”

Worm tub condensers at Ardnahoe distillery

Look at those worm tubs!

The Ardnahoe set-up is sure to get whisky fans hot under the collar. It has Oregon pine fermenters, two lantern shaped pot stills (a 13,000 litre wash still and an 11,000 litre spirit still), the longest lyne arm in Scotland (or so they tell me), and worm tub condensers. “That slower condensing that we get from the worm tubs and the fact that we’ve got more copper contact in vapour form gives us a wee bit more character, texture and complexity,” Andrew explained. We thought even if it makes one percent difference to the whisky, it’s worth the extra expenditure.”

The distillery manager, Fraser Hughes, gave me some new make to try. It’s a complex dram, smoky as you’d expect (it’s made from malt peated to between 40 and 45 PPM from Port Ellen Maltings) but with tropical fruit and earthy cereal notes. Hughes described it as “dynamic but not dirty or in your face” and went on to say “it will be better in a few weeks when you have more foreshots and feints in the system.” According to Andrew Laing, that fruitiness comes partly from a long slow fermentation, around 72 hours.

Jim McEwan, who consulted on the project, joked that finding the cut point in the spirit was a difficult as giving birth. The Laings are clearly delighted to have worked with McEwan and vice versa. “To be honest, he didn’t take very much persuasion to come out of retirement for this project,” Andrew Laing said.”He was very excited and who can blame him! To build a new distillery on Islay!”

The official opening was in April, but the distillery has been filling casks since 2018. “Last year we did an inaugural first year production offer of just over 400 casks, and it was oversubscribed. We sold them all,” Andrew said. These first casks are sitting in the distillery warehouse (though most of the production will be matured on the mainland). He told me these will be split between “about 70% first-fill bourbon barrels; then about 20 or 25% first fill ex-oloroso hogsheads and some butts. And we’ve got some other wines casks, such as Port, Madeira, Muscat, Rioja, and some rum.” As a rum bottler, there’s a decent supply of used rum casks.

Ardnahoe Distillery Still Room

Still room with its beautiful view

It’s a great-looking distillery, modern but fits beautifully into its natural setting. “We made sure first of all that from the experience point of view, it’s a welcoming place and an enjoyable place to visit,” Andrew Laing explained. “It’s very bright, very airy, a comfortable place to spend some time.” He added that whisky tourism is growing “in a big way”. The team is gearing up for Fèis Ìle (24 May – 1 June) with a screening of a new whisky documentary, The Water of Life, featuring Jim McEwan.There will also be some premium Kinship whiskies bottled for the festival and available only from the distillery. “It brings a fair penny in,” joked Stewart Laing.

One of the advantages that Ardnahoe has over other new distilleries is that its owner, Hunter Laing, is a spirits bottler.  Even without its own mature whisky, there are lots of exclusive things to try. Not just whiskies from all over Scotland (including a special local blend called Islay Journey, which you can bottle from the cask yourself), but rum from around the Caribbean under the Kill Devil label. After expressing an interest, Andrew was soon opening bottles from Hampden in Jamaica and Diamond in Guyana, and enthusing about a blended rum that is in the pipeline. We were having so much fun that part of me hoped that the weather would get worse and my flight would be cancelled. Stranded at a distillery on Islay, isn’t that every whisky lover’s dream?

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