Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Arriving in Islay and Bunnahabhain

It was still dark when we loaded up the van to get on the ferry to Islay, but I could still see what a beautiful village Tarbert is. We definitely need to come back and spend some time here.

I was very excited about being on the ferry. I’ve never been on a ferry before, and I’ve never stayed on an island before. As we sat in line, waiting to board, the sun was rising and there was a glow to the atmosphere. At that moment, it was a beautiful, clear morning. It didn’t stay that way, but mentioning rain in Scotland in March is a bit redundant. I’m sure it rained a little on us every day, but I didn’t notice.

I did, however, notice the hints of seasickness after we had been on the ferry for awhile. Breakfast seemed to go fine and I had walked around exploring everything, but once we got out to sea and the rain started swirling around us, the waves became a little more fervent and the wind was breathtaking. If you stepped outside and around a corner, the cold wind was so strong that it literally took your breath with it as it blew by. If I stayed in the cafeteria, I felt comfortable talking and laughing. But in the other rooms, people were sleeping. Upstairs was a lounge with couches and a viewing deck. People were sprawled out up there, comfortably napping the 2 ½ hour trip away. One of our group, Mo, said she was checking things out up there and as she talked to one person, and angry little heads started popping up. I imagined it looking like prairie dogs sitting up then returning to their holes. She quickly came back downstairs before she was thrown out. There was another room on the main level that looked like a movie theater without the screen. People were sacked out here, too. The chairs recline and were pretty comfy. And this was a smaller ferry than the one that usually travels these water. The usual ferry was being used by the Isle of Skye (I think).

I began to feel a little queasy a little less than an hour into the trip. It was hard to walk straight and hard to read or knit or do anything that I had to look at one location for any length of time. I was very disappointed in myself because I really didn’t expect to have any reaction. I’ve never had trouble with motion sickness, but twice now in Scotland, it’s happened. Once in the car on those curvy Highland roads and now on the ferry. Eventually, Al went with me and we settled into the comfy chairs and took a wee nap.

By the time we arrived, we were running late. There was little time to admire the scenery as we came into Port Ellen. It’s important, we discovered, that when you’re getting close to the dock, you better be in your car and ready to go when they motion your row. Three rows of cars coming out of a ferry onto a single-lane, narrow road can be a bit of a traffic jam.

So, once again, we were off. (That's looking at Jura in the next picture.)

And I was oh so glad that I went to the bathroom before we left the ferry. To save time, Willie decided to take a back-road way to the first distillery and to drive as quickly as he dared. These aren’t smooth highways. They are curvy, rutted, one-lane country roads that make you glad you’ve got a seatbelt on. Poor Cora got carsick and kept her eyes closed, trying to concentrate on not being carsick.

For the people sitting up front, it was their job to yell out any road obstruction that might have an effect on those of sitting in the back, such as “BUMP!” or “POTHOLE!” They also are in charge of letting us know if there is something blocking the road, and in Islay that’s usually “SHEEP!” There are more sheep than people on Islay. Mostly, the sheep have the run of the land. They have markings so that they can be identified, but there aren’t pastures set off with fences like we see here in the states. There are short rock walls that designate certain areas, but for the most part, the sheep go where they want.

Al said the scenery was beautiful but weather-beaten. I think that describes it pretty well.

We headed to the shoreline, and there was Bunnahabhain on the rocky edge. There were a couple of boats tethered in sight of the pier, and across from the distillery was the Isle of Jura. I had no idea it was so close to Islay. But there it was, with a house in site, alone on the water’s edge. Who lives there? There aren’t many people on Jura, so who has that remote house. I never did find out.

We got to Bunnahabhain a little later than our designated time, which would not be the last time we’d be late for a tour. The production manager, John MacClellan, gave us and 3 other people the tour. It’s always nice to have a manager giving the tour, it’s just more personal. Of course that could also be because the guys on this tour cultivate these relationships so that we get tours like this. They meet up at Whisky Fest, then email, they send thank you cards and photos, and just overall showings of appreciation and respect.

So, we start the tour. The other 3 people on our tour had been patiently waiting for us to get there so the tour could start, which was very nice of them. The couple (L and S) actually became new friends, and we’ve been emailing since I got home. They live outside of Glasgow and have recently gotten into single malts. She’s more of a collector that Al and I are; we’re just drinkers. The third person was a very quiet Asian man. We decided he was a corporate spy.

Back to the tour. I won’t go into all the aspects because I would pretty much be saying the same thing over and over again. One of these days I’ll write about how whisky is made and where in the distillery that is done. But for now, just remember that all the tours were basically the same: Get some history, see the mill for grinding the malted barley, see the Mash Tun, see the Washbacks for fermenting, see the Stills for distillation, see the Still Safe where the spirit is sorted, and see the warehouse for maturation. Then, get a sample or two in the tasting room, which just happens to be very near the gift shop.

One thing to remember, though. Distilleries are working environments. They give tours, but they aren’t set up for tourists’ sensibilities or people with handicaps. There are many stairs, many areas are hot and humid, the floors are open-grate style (so wear flat-soled shoes), there is CO2 escaping from the wash backs and that smell wafts to the still room, there is no place to sit down and not much to lean against, and the warehouses are dark and damp with uneven, dirt floors.

John gave us a great tour. We ended in the warehouse where he gave us tastes from a couple of different casks. I think, but can’t remember for sure, that he gave us a taste from one in a bourbon cask and one in a sherry cask. Personally, I like the sherry cask finish; I think the bourbon is a little more harsh. The bourbon casks come from America after they’ve been used once. Bourbon stays in 6 to 8 years, but whisky stays in 10 years at a minimum. And those casks are used a couple of more times, sometimes 3 times. So, you can see how important good casks are.

Everyone went crazy in the gift shop, of course. Everyone had to get the latest Festival bottling. Islay has a Whisky Festival in May, and they make a special whisky just for that event. It’s a limited run and you can only get it from the distillery.
This was also going to be a theme to the trip: I have to buy it! You can only get it here!

We’re a little overwhelming and John got a little flustered because he doesn’t usually run the gift shop. I bet after he closed the door on us, he gave a big sigh and rested against the door for a moment. But he came to see us at the hotel pub later that night, so we didn’t scare him off.

We stopped at the Bridgend Hotel for a quick lunch of soup and sandwiches. It was tempting to stay there, sitting by the fireplace. But we had an appointment to keep!

Next post, Bruichladdich and the Lochside Hotel.


islayian said...

I will point John to your blog and maybe see you in Duffy's bar!
I must say I enjoyed your writing style

Kell said...

islayian--thanks and welcome! Tell John that he's more than welcome to correct anything I may have gotten wrong. I'm doing all this by memory because I was too exhausted every night to keep a journal. But it was worth it!

islayian said...

Is exhausted a umphamism for something else ;-)

Jay said...

You should submit some of your travel reports to different travel magazines. Really great stuff!

Kell said...

islayian--now, now. It's not that kind of blog :-)

jay--thanks. I appreciate the encouragement.

islayian said...

I was meaning because of the Whisky. What did you think???

Kell said...

Oh...well...of course....whisky of course. Heh.

CarmenSinCity said...

Happy Birthday!