My two predecessors, Past Masters MacKay and Driver had been unfortunate enough have had the plans for a Court Trip in their years (to Japan and Speyside respectively) scuppered by the pandemic.
I therefore felt it very important to restore the tradition of the Master’s Court Trip this year. I chose the magnificent island of Islay as our destination. I had chosen Islay since Liveryman Simon Coughlin of Bruichladdich Distillery, a long-time friend, had suggested some time ago that we would be welcome to visit there. This led to me thinking how intriguing it would be to focus on a few of the newer, family owned distilleries on the island, given the current surge in interest for fine whisky, it’s providence and levels of production.
The fifth-largest Scottish island, the isle of Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides. It is 240 sq miles, has a population of just over 3,000 people and many, many sheep … and even more geese.
It’s capital is Bowmore, the namesake of the oldest and that most famous of whiskies owned by Morrison Bowmore. I owe a huge debt of thanks to Past Master Brian Morrison and to Michael Urquhart of Gordon & MacPhail who helped me with contacts and guidance at the start of this trip’s planning stages almost two years ago.
Our party consisted of myself and Alison, Past Masters Brian Morrison and Bob Howell, Middle Warden Lorne and Seana Mackillop, Renter Warden Nick and Louise Carr, Assistant Kirsten Grant-Meikle, Steward Graham and Sandra Franklin and Steward Bob and Ann Russell.
We assembled at our base for the duration of the trip, The Machrie Hotel, a 10 minute drive from the ferry port of Port Ellen on the south side of the island, or a 3 minute drive from the tiny airport of Glenegedale.
On the first night we entertained our guests to an opening night dinner at The Machrie, those who were kindly hosting us on our visits in the forthcoming week. Liveryman Anthony Wills (Founder and MD, Kilchoman), Mr Paul Graham (Visitor Centre Manager, Ardnahoe), Liveryman Simon Coughlin (CEO, Bruichladdich) and Mr Colin Gordon (Distillery Manager, Ardbeg) – all were most welcome and a thoroughly good evening had by all.
We had originally intended to visit Bruichladdich on the Monday morning, which was hastily rearranged to Wednesday following the bank holiday declared to mark the funeral of HM The Queen. The Machrie has it’s own screening room, with a 140” screen so this sad but unique day was made all the more immersive for us.
Tuesday Sept 20th
“AM” – KILCHOMAN
Kilchoman is a family run business established by Liveryman Anthony and Kathy Wills in 2005. As the business expanded, they were joined by their three sons, James, George and Peter, also Liverymen. The Wills family remain the driving force behind Kilchoman with Anthony as Managing Director and Master Distiller, Kathy running the Visitor Centre and their three sons managing the distillery’s sales and marketing activities.
It was their philosophy and desire to resurrect the grass roots tradition of farm distilling, the 100% Islay range was the main reason for being. It represents the revival of single malt whisky being cultivated from barley to bottle in a single location. It is a distillery where the responsibility for quality and consistency is not outsourced but completed on-site with skill, care and attention to detail.
An area of 2,300 acres is farmed, around the ruined Kilchoman Church. The most fertile ground, 400 acres of rich soil surrounding the distillery, is reserved for our annual barley crop. Sown each spring, the barley ripens over the summer months before being harvested in early autumn.
Anthony was on hand to welcome us and, after a short briefing gave us a complete tour of the workings of the distillery’s production areas, culminating in a spectacular tasting of the best of what Kilchoman has to offer, all were outstanding, very different and more than met the expectation from the below notes – my personal favourite was the Loch Gorm, perhaps my penchant for sherry allowed me to be swayed. They were all superb whiskies and we felt very fortunate to have been shown such a range.
Sanaig – named after an inlet on Islay’s rugged Atlantic coast, Sanaig is a vatting of both sherry and bourbon casks. The high proportion of Oloroso sherry influence adding a balance of dried fruits and spices to classic Kilchoman citrus sweetness and peat smoke character.
100% Islay – the 100% Islay range is Islay’s only Single Farm Single Malt Scotch Whisky. It represents the revival of traditional farm distilling; growing Kilchoman’s own barley before malting, distilling, maturing and bottling every bottle of the 100% Islay range on site.
Machir Bay, is Kilchoman’s signature peated single malt, a vatting of Kilchoman matured in both bourbon and sherry casks. Named after Islay’s most spectacular beach, the high proportion of bourbon barrels create a distinct balance of classic Islay character and fresh floral complexity.
Loch Gorm – is the name given to our annual sherry matured limited edition. Named after Islay’s largest freshwater lake neighbouring the distillery, the dark murky colour of the loch’s water is reflected in the rich coppery tones of our sherry matured Loch Gorm release.
The Madeira Cask Matured – distilled in May 2016 and matured for 5 years and 3 months in 46 fresh Madeira hogsheads.
Our education complete, our palates fresh with lingering malty smoky peaty residue, we were in need of the lunch which Anthony was kind enough to also provide us with. A nod here to the best Cullen Skink I have ever tasted!
After a quick browse around Kilchoman’s spacious gift shop, complete with essential purchases, we boarded back on to our bus and headed back to the Machrie.
“PM” TUESDAY – ARDNAHOE
“The long-held dream of one Scottish family” declares the opening line of the Ardnahoe website.
I was fortunate enough to share a table at dinner later in the evening with founder and Managing Director, Stewart Laing and within minutes of our conversation starting it became very evident to me that this long held dream had come to fruition. The passion and pride shone through this gentlemen who after 40 years in the Scottish Whisky industry had fulfilled his lifetime ambition in creating Hunter Laing, the company which would build Ardnahoe Distillery, it’s brand and create it’s product.
In 2015 they located the perfect four-acre site. It is truly stunning setting which took my breath away. Ardnahoe Distillery takes its name simply from the location in which it is set, Scottish Gaelic for “Height of the Hollow”. It perfectly describes the beautiful setting in which the distillery lies.
Standing by Loch Ardnahoe on the Northeast of the island, with access to the deep loch waters, and looking out over Port Askaig and to the famous Paps across over to the Isle Jura having, the Laing’s purchased the ground and secured planning permission. Islay’s ninth distillery was established in late 2016. The first runs of distillation began in October 2018 with Cask number 001 and filled on the 9th November that year.
Head Distiller, Fraser Hughes, was, along with Stewart Laing, kind enough to give us a tour of the distillery, explaining the process and the excitement of the production of their first Cask number 1.
Ardnahoe use around 70% first fill ex-bourbon barrels and 20% ex-oloroso sherry hogsheads. The bourbon casks come directly from the United States and are made from American White Oak, which imparts flavours of toffee, honey and vanilla to the whisky. Directly from Jerez, the Oloroso sherry casks are made from European Oak and impart rich intense flavours of red fruits, brown sugar and spices.
The realisation of a dream, and the beginning of an exciting journey which, for us at least culminated in a tasting of Cask number 001 in the warehouse shortly before dinner. A huge thank you is due to Stewart, Fraser and to Visitor Centre Manager, Paul Graham and all his team for opening the on-site restaurant in the evening and hosting us for a spectacular dinner. All local produce (I especially loved the local trout!) all in the most splendid company and surroundings.
Wednesday Sept 21st
“AM” – BRUICHLADDICH
I’d known CEO Simon Coughlin for over 40 years, so when planning this trip, having hinted and suggested it many times before finally got around to planning my Court Trip around this oft-discussed idea. The perfect opportunity for me for us to come up to Islay and spend time with the perfect host at the fabulous Bruichladdich Distillery.
Simon and his team effortlessly managed our last minute request to change our visit from Monday to the Wednesday morning, flexibility which was hugely appreciated since when we arrived the gift shop was already busy and business visitors were arriving.
We thought nothing of Simon’s request for a photo in front of the main Distillery building, announcing in bold, branded colour and font that we were indeed in the bosom of Bruichladdich.
Simon personally conducted our tour of the Bruichladdich distillery.
Bruichladdich is Gaelic (Bruchláddich or Bruikladdie) and means corner of the beach or gentle slope of the sea. The distillery was built in the year 1881 by the Brothers Robert, William and John Gourlay Harvey. The Harvey family ran the distillery until William died in 1936. Afterwards the distillery was sold and mothballed many times until Murray McDavid purchased the distillery in the year 2000. They refurbished the distillery in the old Victorian style and started production. In July 2012 the distillery was bought by Rémy Cointreau, who still own the company today.
The distillery now has three brands. The first is the normal Classic Laddie Bruichladdich as we know it. The second is the Port Charlotte (both of which we tried on Sunday night, a welcome ‘digestif’ courtesy of Simon) and the third is the Octomore a very heavily peated Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
We learned that you can find normal standard bottlings such as The Classic Laddie but also a lot of Wine and Sherry finishes – all of which we were lucky enough to get to taste in the warehouse at the end of our tour. Simon, hopping from cask to cask like a kid in a sweet shop, expertly selected just five fabulous whiskies for us to taste. And what a stellar line up it was:
Bruichladdich 2009 (Bourbon cask)
2009 Bruichladdich (Pomerol cask)
Port Charlotte 2014 (Margaux cask)
Bruichladdich Rye 2013
Octomore 2009 (Sauternes cask)
The maturation in the many different casks develops a lot of flavours and aromas in the different bottlings, with all sorts of fruits and spices – the “vintages of Bruichladdich” was a rare and privileged experience for us.
As you know by now, in my year of distillery visits, I have really wanted to want with representatives from the partner Charities, who, via our involvement with Inspiring Scotland, have beneficiaries and work who have received funding from our Youth Action Fund, launched by Distillers Ventures earlier this year. One such Charity is Enable Works, and we were joined by their Schools Contracts Manager, Alix Brewster, to whom I spoke about how our funding is directly helping young people on Islay, Harris and Lewis by creating life-changing opportunities.
We left the Distillery and were taken on the short journey to the Port Charlotte Hotel, where we enjoyed lunch of soup and sandwiches, complemented with a bottle or two of 2020 Pouilly-Fuisse.
Simon generously announced that they would be sponsoring our lunch, kind enough you would think but just as we were thinking there’s no end to this generosity … there wasn’t! For in bounced Simon’s splendid colleague, Becky, with personalised bottles featuring us all on the label, the photo for which we’d so innocently posed earlier in the day.
Only 7 of these were presented which must surely in due course add to the rarity!
An outstanding visit with unbelievably generous hospitality in hosting the Distillers Court Trip.
WEDS “PM” – ARDBEG
Having had a brief turnaround and freshen up (ie read “kip”) at The Machrie, we were soon off to our final visit, our fourth in two days and, my what a way to finish our tour of Islay distilleries.
The panoramic coastal site upon which the Ardbeg Distillery sits, is one of the oldest on Islay.
Records show that whisky has been distilled there since the 18th century, albeit through many changes of ownership and direction over the years. During the 1980s and 1990s, Ardbeg suffered from an uncertain future, but was eventually purchased by The Glenmorangie Company in 1997. Since then, the distillery has gone from strength to strength. Today, Ardbeg is well-established as a niche, cult malt, with a passionate following. The distillery is owned by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (they having acquired Glenmorangie in 2004), and produce a heavily peated Islay whisky using malted barley sourced from the maltings in Port Ellen.
Ardbeg whisky is considered to be among the peatiest in the world, but for fans of peaty style it is the master of it’s class, worshipped around the world and a firmly established global brand. In the past ten years, six different Ardbeg expressions have won prestigious titles including World Whisky of the Year, Scotch Whisky of the Year and World’s Best Single Malt.
We were warmly welcomed by Visitor Centre Manager and Chairman of the Ardbeg Committee, Jackie Thomson. The only thing that was lacking was a red carpet across the grand open space in front of the distillery building – with the all seeing eye of the huge old golden still which sits surveying the daily comings and goings of visitors aplenty.
We felt and were treated like kings and after a quick meet and greet were on arrival swiftly taken down to the pier where we were greeted by a plate piled with oysters and a glass for each of us of Ardbeg 10yo.
Returning to the main bar area, we were treated to the main course – a BBQ of chicken, burgers and fresh lobster – locally caught that very morning. How wonderful it was!
Following a very relaxed dinner, we were taken on a tour of the distillery. It was at this point that we were re-acquainted with our friend and Distillery Manager, Colin Gordon, who had been our guest for dinner at The Machrie a couple of nights before.
It has always struck me how passionate, how knowledgeable and how willing to impart both to visiting guests, from the curious visitor to the most inquisitive student. And so it is with the case of Colin – a man so filled with enthusiasm for whisky and all things Ardbeg that we had to be restrained from hot-footing it to the gift shop even before the tour had finished. He brought the product to life and held our attention throughout – perhaps this was the toughest of all gigs? A party of people, their fourth visit in two days. Just had supper a couple of glasses ..it was 8pm … but Colin managed it, his cheerful style and informed delivery was all we needed by way of after dinner speech.
We then adjourned to the tasting hut, in the far corner of the outside area where Colin talked us through two whiskies:
Both stunning, both very different, the 19 heavily peated and smoked, the 25 softer and mellow, barely requiring, in my view any water, both extraordinary flavours, both perfect.
Colin and Jackie were also kind enough to donate a bottle of the 19yo, which he signed, to include in my Master’s “A Case for the 350” which was so greatly appreciated and hugely generous.
And so, wearily, back to The Machrie – but our hearts and spirits high, very happy that we knew that what we had experienced in these days of our Trip had been educational, inspirational, uplifting and so very very enjoyable.
Our sincere and grateful thanks go to all our hosts and their teams who looked after us so well on this very special Court Trip.
I, for one, shall be back!