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Fear and Loathing in Lagavulin Pt. 2

What happened? I blacked out. I think I was meant to post this last week, or last month, or something. Anyway: Islay, part two. I’ve just awoken in a top bunk at the Port Charlotte YHA (Youth Hostel Association; again Rock and F-ing Roll right?), and how in the name of whisky I got into the top bunk is beyond me. I have a hangover so bad I’m pretty sure I can hear light and see through time. I spent last night drinking in the Port Charlotte Hotel courtesy of a legendary barman named Kenny (names have not been changed because no one is innocent). He took myself and my errant pal Dan on a tour of some of the most unique and interesting whiskies the island has to offer – of which I’d love to tell you more, but I can’t remember them. I have, however, just found a scrawled note crumpled in my pocket that says ‘Bruichladdich Cuvée 407 – fucking amazing’. So, you know, check that one out. The last thing I remember is that I was half naked and threatening to go swimming in Loch Indaal. For relevance sake, this is the body of water on which are situated Bruichladdich, Kilchoman and Bowmore Distilleries. And swimming made sense at that time of the morning, despite the scrotum-tightening temperatures.

View from the back of The Port Charlotte Hotel
View from the back of The Port Charlotte Hotel

The Port Charlotte Hotel is a great old building in the typical West-Coast Georgian Style – white rendered walls and a roof tiled with deep, weather-worn grey slates. After eating in the seemingly newly-refurbished dining room at the back (food superlative) we retired to The Public Bar. A quaint little classic bar counter took up one corner of the room, with an impressive array of whiskies taking up every spare inch of shelf space. The whole room was bedecked in wood, the furnishings mostly of dark maroon and deep emerald green. The perfect setting for some serious dramming. Before the doors were closed and the whisky really started flowing, we were treated to a lively traditional music session from some locals (featuring fiddle, banjo and guitar), some admirable – if atrocious – bagpipe playing from a Chinese tourist, and some good craic with a couple of lads touring around the distilleries in more style than us – gracefully zipping around The Island in a Caterham Super 7.

Anyway our barman Kenny was going through a tough time, and Dan and I like to think we helped him a little bit to get through it – by drinking with him for hours after the bar was closed and probably just being a pain in his arse. Anyway, it’s now ten in the morning and we’re heading to Bruichladdich for a tour of the distillery and a bit of a tasting. I feel like death, and Dan looks worse, but we’ve booked it so we’re damned if we’re not going. Fire up the Fiat 500!

Bruichladdich is a beautiful distillery situated right on the shore of Loch Indaal, just north of Port Charlotte – for which their peated range is named. When built (1881), it was considered state of the art. The building was purpose-built to be a highly efficient distillery, as opposed to the less efficient, converted farm buildings that many of the older Islay distilleries used. Since then, it has had a turbulent history even being completely shut down not that long ago (in 1994, for those playing along at home). However now it is thriving, and they really are self-styled ‘Progressive Hebridean Distillers’.

OK, that’s enough history and parentheses. So we’re there, in the shop, having a browse and trying to stave off a hangover. Well there’s only one thing for it. I approach a very nice lady in her late forties behind the counter and ask for a taste of the Botanist Gin (don’t worry tasting notes are coming). The following exchange occurs:

‘We recommend you try the gin on its own first to really get the flavour of the botanicals, and then add tonic if you wish’.

‘I’m actually really familiar with your gin, I just have a raging hangover and need to sort myself out. And I’m not sure I can stomach whisky just now’

Then occurs the beauty that is the in-born nature of the people of West Coast of Scotland.

‘I understand son, this should help’.

Another slug of gin goes in the glass, topped up with tonic.

I down it one, have another and very shortly life is peachy. God bless(ed) the Scots.

So the gin itself:

Ugly Betty – The old Lomond Still used to make The Botanist
Ugly Betty – The old Lomond Still used to make The Botanist

Botanist Gin, for booze nerds out there, is made with 9 classic London Dry style botanicals and 22 foraged from and native to Islay. It is, in a word, amazing. The liquid stands up in everything – G&T, Martini etc. And it makes a stunning Bramble. I could not rave about it enough, but just in case you nod off, I won’t. And if you’re wondering why I’m talking about gin in Scotland, the country is now the biggest producer of gin in the world. Think Tanqueray, Gordon’s, Hendricks etc. The Scots are by no means one trick ponies when it comes to distilling.

Anyway, back to the tour of Bruichladdich. I’m feeling pretty splendid after a couple of breakfast G&Ts; Dan still looks like death might envelope him at any second. We do the tour, which is much as any other distillery tour – those who care about them will have done them, so don’t need to hear about it. For obvious reasons neither do the folk who don’t care about them

And what about the whisky? That’s why we’re all here isn’t it?

Crew Valinch 07

This was a distillery-only bottling (by which I mean there is a cask sitting in the shop and should you want to buy it, you bottle it yourself). It’s 24 years old, having first spent 19 years in an ex bourbon barrel, after which the liquid politely acquiesced to being moved to an ex-Rioja cask for another five. It was truly a masterclass in the effect a cask can have on a distillate. The palate had a sweetened and obviously ex-Bourbon taste on the tip of the tongue; the finish the quintessential dryness of red wine. I had quite a few of them. But you can’t it buy for your booze cabinet, so let’s move on.

The Classic Laddie

As part of the unpeated Bruichladdich range, this is a truly spectacular entry level whisky. It’s got a slight salty tang, to remind you of where it’s from, but it’s very approachable for all but an absolute whisky newcomer. A lot of fruit on the nose, and a slight bit of honey on the finish. For all those scared of Islay whiskies – this might change your mind.

Casks aging at Bruichladdich
Casks aging at Bruichladdich


Now this is going to seem a bit controversial. This is a premium whisky (and priced as such) that is only five years old. It is quantified by a previously little known value called ‘PPM’ (parts per million) which is its ascribed peat content. The measurement of this is disputed; however this is known as the peatiest whisky in the world. Leaving all that aside, it’s a great dram and far more balanced than it’s stronger tasting (yet lower in number as far as ‘PPM’ is concerned) competition from the island. I truly love this whisky, and have done since I had the pleasure of tasting the first edition many years ago. However, I fear there may be a bit of hype around its popularity (cue indignant outrage from peat fiends around the world).

So that was Bruichladdich, and what a joy it was. Great liquid, gin and whisky alike, good people and a hangover cured. I’m away to my bed.

Featured Image – The Fiat 500 Pulls in to Bruichladdich.


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