Thursday, June 11, 2009


[I wrote this entry on 2 June.]

First, make sure you know what peat is. This entry will probably make a lot more sense.

A pretty low-key day (did I say that about yesterday?). It's a good thing I'm blogging all this. There is no way I would remember everything. In fact I'm not remembering things from one day to the next. Did we go here? Yes? Was it by car or on foot?

So, yesterday I phoned Kilchoman Distillery just around closing time to arrange for a tour today. We got going this morning a bit later than planned (surprised?) so we arrived just about on the minute for our 11am tour. Strangely, not much seemed to be going on at the visitor centre shop (which for being a good way down a single track road was pretty extensive).

Kilchoman has been something of a mystery to us. It is often not included in the list of Islay distilleries (for those of you playing at home, these are: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig). And we didn't know why that was. After a couple minutes in the shop, Robin wandered over to me and whispered, "I think I see why they're not always on the list; they don't have any whisky yet." In order to be a whisky, you need to have matured for at least three years. And indeed, when I read the labels on the bottles on the shelf they all said "spirit." Uh-oh, we thought, are we wasting our time here?

But no. After wandering around for a few minutes I caught the eye of an employee who had just come out of the office. When I told her we were there for a tour she seemed surprised. Oh, you must've talked to Mr. Wills, she said. He's the owner. Hmmm, small operation. I booked the tour with the owner of the distillery? She shook off the surprise and promptly took our money and started us on our tour herself. At the other two distilleries we've visited there have been about 15 people on each tour. To be the only two seemed like an extravagance.

The name of the distillery is pronounced kil-HOME-an, not KILK-o-man as we'd been saying it. Another complete surprise. I didn't even understand what she said at first when she asked if we'd ever visited the place before.

Like Bowmore, Kilchoman malts their own barley. This involves wetting and draining the barley 3 or 4 times in a large vat, then laying it out on a concrete floor to germinate, but only slightly. After germinating (this has to do with releasing sugars from the starch in the grain) the barley is dried in a kiln. Being Islay, the barley is dried in a peat-fired kiln. Kilchoman is a small operation on a farm; the owner started the distillery because it was something he always wanted to do. Consequently their malting floor is very small (compared with 3 levels of large floors at Bowmore). Distillation is done in an interesting still with a funny bulge in the middle:

Our guide gave us the sense of the collaborative relationship between the different distilleries on Islay. It is not a competition. In fact, Kilchoman borrows warehouse space from Bruichladdich. At the end of the tour we had a dram of the two-year old spirit; this was quite tasty and rather peaty. The spent mash (what's left of the grain after it is dried and then put in "mash tuns" with water to extract the sugars) is fed to cattle (this is done island-wide), and apparently (our guide tells us this is often asked) it does NOT make their meat taste peaty (???).

We bought the "Connoisseur's Collection" in the shop: small bottles of the 2-year, 1-year, and 1-month bottlings. Kilchoman's first batch of proper whisky will be ready in September. Robin has already reserved and paid for his bottle (and says he probably won't open it; Kilchoman has already created a very good reputation for itself; the first bottling could be a significant collector's item).

Port Charlotte was nearby so we stopped in to do some more blogging, and had some soup and scones. Again, we were very lucky with the weather and sat outside, but the mist on the horizon in the distance told us that the rumours are true about a cold front coming in. The weatherman on the BBC confirmed this tonight, and was almost defensive about it, just in case we'd all suddenly come under the mistaken impression that we're actually living in the Mediterranean. He told us it's going to seem colder, but really these are normal temperatures for this time of year. He should have had a subtitle reading "Don't Blame ME!" Really, it must be a terrible job being a British weather forecaster. The news is hardly ever good. And we've had such a run of nice days that I suspect no one wants to be the one to tell the nation that Shangri-La is coming to an end.

We'd been up late last night poring through our hundreds of pictures, trying to find the best to post here. With less sleep than I wanted and a dram at noon I wasn't sure I was up for much more without a nap first. So instead of going to another distillery we decided to have a look in at the Islay Ales Brewery. They're a small operation (as many things seem to be around here) run by two salty guys from England. Yesterday we bought a pint of their Bruichladdich Ale at the eponymous distillery. Islay Ales takes Bruichladdich's (what, mash?) and turns it into beer. When we arrived we started straight off with a couple half-pints for tasting (as you can imagine, just what I needed to really drive me into the ground) and enjoyed chatting with one of the brewmasters before heading out with a selection of six bottles.

Next we went a short way up the road to the Islay Woolen Mill. Yesterday I bought a wool throw at Bruichladdich in their own tartan that was woven at the Mill. I thought this might be a fun place to see lots of fabrics and maybe find some more tartan. Unfortunately the shop was stocked with mostly knitted garments (they don't do spinning or knitting at the mill) and an odd selection of "gifts" (knick-knacks and other things one doesn't really need). There were a few samples of tartan, but they seemed to have been on the shelf for years. And some tartan hats and jackets, but nothing well-suited to either of us. The owner/operator of the mill appeared (another rather salty fellow) and showed us the room where the very noisy looms were running and told us that his fabrics are sold to Chanel and to Savile Row in London. Near the till in the shop was a newspaper page with a photograph of Princess Anne wearing clothing made from tartan made at the Mill. He (rightly so, I guess) is quite pleased with himself for these achievements.

Apparently cashmere comes from China (I guess I remember that, but only vaguely). I learned this for good because he gave me a good scoff when I asked if he used wool from Scotland to make his fabric. Oh no, 90% of the wool produced in Scotland is shipped out of Scotland, and 90% of the wool used is Scotland is imported from outside the country. (He obviously mostly uses cashmere.)

He asked where we were staying on the island and when I told him Eallabus Cottage (using my self-fashioned pronunciation, EALL-a-bus) he immediately corrected me. It is ey-al-A-bus. Those women at Islay Estates are too polite to correct my pronunciation, but I'm feeling a bit silly now. However, we did learn that the owner of Eallabus is also the owner of about "one-third of the island" and is one of the richest men in Britain. Sounds like someone worth getting to know!

We headed back home at around 3pm and I went straight outside for an almost hour's nap in the warm sun. When it was time for dinner we knew we were hungry but didn't know what to eat. I had roasted a chicken a couple nights ago and had saved some juices for making gravy. Hmmm, but we don't have any flour for thickening the gravy. Oh, but we do have that oatmeal that's been pretty finely ground, let's sift out the finer stuff and try that. Worked a charm! But oh, it's a little too thick, we need some liquid. Let's add some beer! So we opened our Bruichladdich Ale (it's peated beer; a bit strange) and added that to the mix. Okay! Now for the chicken: just to make it (more) interesting, let's cut it up into smallish pieces, toss it in some beaten egg and more oatmeal and fry it up. Okay, it sounds strange, but it really tasted quite good. I think the influences of these master distillers and brewmasters are wearing off on us: be creative, use your instincts. And how much more Scottish can you get than having oats in your chicken?

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