Friday, June 12, 2009

Shifting Focus

[Written 4 June]

I think we've arrived at the point in the trip when our minds are starting to drift back to home. Today is Thursday; tomorrow will be our last full day on Islay. It will be sad to go. I'll miss sitting in the sun on the bench outside, the blue skies that we've been so lucky to have while we've been here, the people who wave from their steering wheel as we pass each other on the road. We've been joking all week about what sort of enterprise we could start up here so that we could sustain ourselves. Today I hooked on the Islay Cat Sanctuary and Astronomical Observatory (ICSAO). What fun to combine those two loves into something I could do full time. I always thought I might want to spend my sunset years as director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket. Starting a new venture of my own here would be far better.

Our energy was pretty low today. Maybe because we've been keeping our days pretty full and we needed a break and/or maybe because we're starting to feel the pull of home and it's getting us a little down. We talked at dinner tonight about how work feels like it's another world away. Robin can't believe he's thought of it so little.

We didn't get out of the cottage today until about 2pm. We started by going north few miles to Port Askaig. This is a ferry port that serves Jura and the mainland. We want to go to Jura tomorrow (it's only a 5-minute crossing, and there is a distillery there) and we wanted to look into booking. But there is no ticket office. It turns out that getting to Jura works in much the same way as I found when I was traveling through the islands of Shetland: show up at the dock and drive on when the boat comes in. I suspect we'll also have the guy coming round to the car windows with his mobile till to collect payment. Have I said this before? I love how simple life here can be.

We booked ourselves for a 15.15 tour at Bunnahabhain Distillery. Since we didn't have much to do in Port Askaig we had some time on our hands once we got to Bunnahabhain. The day was clear and bright, but quite a bit cooler today, especially on the water where we were. After a few minutes outside we moved to the "office" where people are meant to wait for their tour. There was surprisingly little to be seen going on while we were waiting. Only a few workers were around (which probably means they don't have many -- this actually wouldn't be unusual; it takes surprisingly few people to run a distillery). We thought we might be able to spend some time looking around in the shop before our tour, but when we actually found the shop (it wasn't easy!) the woman there suggested we come back with the rest of our tour when it was over. Not a very warm welcome to Bunnahabhain (pronunciation: boon-a-hav-an; remember, in Gaelic bh=v).

Our guide on the tour couldn't have been more than a few weeks outside his 18th birthday and mentioned that he thought at first Robin and I might be "part of the Opposition from down south"; that is to say: English. This remark came after the other tour-goers reported that they'd been to Caol Ila (cul-eela) Distillery earlier in the day and our lad said "may be a nice shop, but not a nice whisky." This brusque arrogance contravened the good naturedness we'd seen in all of the other distilleries we've visited so far, to say nothing of the good will they have all shown towards the other distilleries on Islay. I had half a mind to walk out at this point, but decided not to make a scene, so we carried on.

There's not much to see at Bunnahabhain. They get their malt from Port Ellen, and they sell much of their whisky for blends. So they have no malting floor, and very little aging is done on the premises.

We saw their mill, the mash tun, the wash backs, and the stills. None of the few workers we saw around the place seemed in a particularly good mood (this was definitely out of character from what we'd seen at other places). Many distilleries (including Bunnahabhain) are cutting down on production due to the recession; perhaps this is hitting them harder than the others. Also, it is a shlep to get to them; they're many miles down a single-track road. It seems like they may be at the end of their golden days. Perhaps it won't be long before they're absorbed by a corporate giant.

Bunnahabhain takes pride in the fact that their whisky is only lightly-peated. I don't see how this can be much of a selling point on Islay where most people come for Laphroaig, the most peated whisky around. It seems that Islay visitors are looking for the peatiest whisky they can find; the peatier the better. Although they do bottle a single malt, Bunnahabhain's claim to fame is their "Black Bottle": a blend of the seven whiskies on Islay (Kilchoman is set to be added at some point in the future). This seems like something of a gimmick, though the whisky does have a good taste and it does have a hint of peat to it, so you're not going to mistake it for a Speyside (north east mainland Scotland) whisky. The blend uses mostly Bunnahabhain (again because of its lack of peaty character).

Some photos from Bunnahabhain. View of the distillery from the pier:

View of the Paps of Jura from the Bunnahabhain pier:

Empty casks getting sprayed with water outside one of the warehouses:

Me, enjoying the view and the sun, while waiting for the tour to start:

After we left Bunnahabhain we made a stop at the historic site Finlaggan apparently a medieval seat for the Lord of the Isles (who ruled the islands and part of the west of Scotland). It's a somewhat interesting collection of ruined buildings, more so because it's on island reached by a causeway. While Robin took pictures, I (you can probably spot a trend here) sat down and enjoyed the sun. Unfortunately I did this out of Robin's sight, and when he called to me I couldn't hear him for the wind over the water. After awhile realized that it had been awhile since I saw him and I stood up to see him walking back towards the visitor centre, clearly perplexed that I'd gone missing. Thankfully he wasn't angry, just "glad that you're still alive."

A few views of Finlaggan. The ruins of the Great Hall:

Two views of the ruin of the main house of the complex:

We've decided that we won't make it to all of the distilleries. We will probably go to the Jura distillery tomorrow, but we will likely miss Caol Ila and Lagavulin. These are both run by the large conglomerate Diageo and we have read some very scathing criticism of the company in the local paper we picked up The Ileach. Both Laphroaig and Ardbeg (the distilleries we visited yesterday) are owned by large bourbon distillers (I can't remember who owns whom; this is a useful partnership though -- bourbon casks can only be used once and Scotch whisky loves to mature in bourbon casks. When you're owned by a bourbon company it's a lot easier to get the casks). Feeling this local animosity toward Diageo has cooled our interest in visiting these distilleries, even though they make a damn fine product (and, as Robin points out, what is being bottled now was produced before Diageo took over).

Ah, and for once, I'm done writing before midnight.

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