Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Aleria's Jaunt to Scotland: 10 July 2013 Islay, Scotland

Get out the bikes, Islay and the whisky* trail beckon

Coming into Port Ellen inner harbour

The visitors' pontoon in the marina
The village contours follow the beach


We got up excited about being in 'a foreign country'. As Alex is an Irish citizen and I have an EU residency visa, we didn’t have to check in to the UK.  But we were still visitors and had to display proper etiquette. No need for a Q flag but every need for the Scottish courtesy flag. 

The dinghy dock
The fog was still with us and it was hard to see where town even was. We decided to do a quick reconnaissance trip ashore by dinghy from the distant anchorage to see what the marina had to offer in the inner harbour. Then we thought, we might move Aleria in closer to town so our dinghy delivery of our folding Montague bicycles would be less arduous. 


We packed our rucksacks thinking we might have a nice morning walk, and Alex took GPS coordinates on the handheld GPS device so we could find our way back to Aleria. Onyx took our shore leave with her usual excitement as it meant quiet time for a snooze all on her own. As long as we left her enough food to tide her over. 

Alex on his Montague folding bike
And so began the first day of putting layers of clothing on and taking them off, seemingly hundreds of times during the day. The little town was charming, having been developed in the 1800s as a seaside resort.  It had a hotel/restaurant, a pub that opens in the evening, a general store, a co-op supermarket (fresh bread comes in at 10 am), a Spar supermarket, an Indian restaurant, a second hotel, a couple of B&Bs and a distillery. The bank, being Bank of Scotland, appeared firmly closed. There was also apparently a bus that does a circuit of the island.  We did not see a bicycle rental.  The small public marina has a pontoon for the local boats where one can also tie up a dinghy, and a pontoon for visiting yachts which is first come first serve. There were several slips that had opened up while we were there, and quite a few that appeared to be occupied longer term, including one by a rather large motor yacht with a strict warning sign not to tie up beside her. The marina is managed by volunteers so eventually someone comes to collect the fees.  They have a skip for garbage and containers for recycling. It was a welcome stop.  

The locals' pontoon.
Grain elevator dominates the harbour.
We had a week's worth of garbage and recycling to dispose of, then we walked the town. It took about an hour and we did a complete circuit to the end of the main street and back down the back streets.  People were very friendly and helpful. We bought a Scottish flag at the general store, fresh rolls, bread, and pea soup at the co-op, checked the menu at the restaurant, and went back to Aleria for lunch.  

The anchorage at Laphroaig

Islay has the distinction of being the island in Scotland with the most whisky distilleries. There are 10 of them on this little hilly green lump of land. There used to be 23. The one that truly interested us was Laphroaig, and it was the closest to Port Ellen except for the one right in Port Ellen which is only a contract malting site.  How fortunate, but still not close enough to walk.  So after lunch, we brought our bikes to shore and headed out on our whisky trail. The fog had lifted, the sun was shining brilliantly, and it was a beautiful day for a ride. 

The Laphoaig Distillery
The dram of whiskey - our rent 
About 15 years ago there was a Laphroaig promotion in the US that offered a square foot of Islay, enough to stand on in your wellies, to people who signed up as Friends of Laphroaig. It was one of my sister's favourite scotches, and I often brought her a duty free gift on return from Ireland. I had signed up and received a deed for my square foot with the promise that, should we visit in person, we would be entitled to collect a dram of whisky as rent.  Well, all those years later knowing we were going to Scotland, I tore the house apart but could not find the certificate. It must have been lost in our move overseas.  We went to the distillery dejected that we wouldn't be able to claim our rent. We explained to the young lady expecting her to tell us that the promotion had been discontinued years ago or that she'd never even heard of it. Instead, she asked for our names and told us we should be in the computer.  Sure enough, there we were having signed up in 1997! And now they had more than 500,000 Friends of Laphroaig and had to buy more land. What an amazing marketing effort to have been continued so religiously. Kudos!

Alex leading the way to our plot of land
by GPS coordinates
She gave us a deed with the GPS coordinates, two drams of whisky as we were both in the database, and told us to don wellies and go find our plot and plant flags on it. When we returned, we would be just in time for a tour of the distillery, which we signed up for right then. We walked out to the field across the road, and as Alex still had the GPS along, we found our plot, planted our flags - US and Eire - and drank a toast to my sister, Oksana, in heaven and to all the Friend of Laphroaig! It's an experience we will never forget. 

Daria toasting to Oksy
on our plot at Laphroaig
The tour was most interesting. We learned how complex it is to make whisky, how the grain is malted, then dried over a peat fire, then fermented, distilled three times, and aged in oak bourbon whiskey casks.  Some is then bottled directly, some is aged further in wine barrels, and some is diluted and bottled.  We learned that a certain amount is lost during the aging  process and that is called The Angels' Share.  How fitting! I am certain my sister is quite happy in heaven if she gets to partake of the Angel's Share in perpetuity. 

Then we got to taste the range of whisky offered by Laphroaig. The classic 10 year old, the 10-year-old bottled direct (cask strength), the 10-year old quarter cask finished off in sherry barrels, and the 18 year old. We found those with the higher alcohol content (cask strength and quarter cask) were harsher. The 18-year old was deliciously delicate and peaty but pricey.  The classic 10-year-old was just right and on special sale in July, so we bought a couple to take home. 

Tasting whisky in the late afternoon 
The visit to Laphroaig turned out to be the highlight of our trip to Scotland and we highly recommend it. We stopped at Lagavulin, but it just wasn't the same experience.  Diageo has bought up many of the whisky brands and they reflect the group corporate experience rather than the independent.  And by the way, if you go, please note that most of the distilleries close down for two weeks during the hottest part of the summer to clean their premises and preserve water.  So check before you go.  We made it just in the nick of time!

Laphroaig Distillery
Where they malt the grain
The peat fire over which the grain dries
The fermentation tanks
The distillation room

Oak barrels aging the precious
single malt whisky

Lagavulin, now one of the Diageo brands
We rode our bikes on to Lagavulin and then back to Port Ellen rather precariously, and it was so hot we just had to stop at the pub for a taste of the local brew as well. We ordered a local ale made on Islay.  Alex asked if the other beer on tap was local. The barkeep retorted, “Ah no, it’s Scottish!” It was pulled not forced and cool but not cold. Creamy and tasty. What fun! It was full of 'old geezers' catching up on the local news of the day. They made sure they got our story just as the place started filling up with folks from the other boats.


Locals and sailors mixing; sailors asking about the tides the next day. They asked if we’d be heading off the next day and we answered that we weren’t sure yet. “Ah sure, we’ll see ye tomorrow then,” was the response. It left us with a grand impression of the character of Islay, and we vowed to return again.  
Aleria at anchor in Port Ellen, Islay





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