Bowmore – An Inside Look at the Legendary Islay Distillery

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Bowmore distillery on the island of Islay.

1966 was a pivotal year in history:  The first episodes of Star Trek and Batman aired on U.S. television, the Beatles played their last concert at Candlestick Park, and the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds. The first pictures from the moon were transmitted back to earth, and a certain wonkish cocktail aficionado was born in Fort Worth, Texas. And on a tiny island in the North Atlantic, eighteen-year-old Eddie MacAffer worked his first shift at the Bowmore distillery after having no luck finding other work during a seaman’s strike.

Quite literally starting at the bottom of the ranks, performing backbreaking work such as moving 500-pound barrels in the warehouse and turning over ton after ton of wet malt with a wooden shovel, Eddie worked his way up the ranks at Bowmore. Along the way he’s performed nearly every job at the distillery, so it’s only fitting that after all those years he became the distillery manager. These days he’s claiming he’ll retire soon, so we were extra lucky to have Eddie entirely to ourselves during a two-plus hour tour of Bowmore.

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Laphroaig – An Inside Look at the Canonical Islay Whisky Distillery

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Laphroaig distillery on the island of Islay.

Near the very beginning of a visit to the Laphroaig distillery, you come across a roomful of wellies, aka rain boots, neatly arranged in cubby holes. On a nearby wall, a box hold post-it note sized flags of various countries, a veritable United Nations of whisky loving countries. This is a sight not seen on any other distillery tour you’ve ever taken–what on earth is going on here?

Wellies at Laphroaig distillery
Wellies at Laphroaig distillery
Find your plot at Laphroaig distillery
Find your plot at Laphroaig distillery

The boots and flags are reserved for members of a special club. Friends of Laphroaig members have the rights to one square foot of land on Islay–land that protects Laphroaig’s access to the water source flowing from central Islay towards the distillery on the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. Members who journey to Islay and to Laphroaig have the unique opportunity to visit their assigned plot of land and mark it with the flag of their homeland. The plots lay in an often muddy field near the distillery, thus the wellies. Becoming a Friends of Laphroaig member is as simple as purchasing a bottle and entering the unique six digit code accompanying it into Laphroaig’s online registry. Marketing gimmick? Sure. But is it a great story? Absolutely!

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Lagavulin – An Inside Look

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Lagavulin distillery on the island of Islay.

You’d like to think that on the one and only occasion of your fiftieth birthday, you’d have the luxury of waking up and lolling around in bed until you’re damn well ready start the day. Alas, on the occasion of my fiftieth, I faced the incessant chiming of my iPhone, willing me to action at 7:30 AM after all too short a slumber. In any other circumstance I’d hit the proverbial snooze button. But on this day, I was instantly on full alert: Time to get up, race downstairs, enjoy a hearty traditional Scottish breakfast by the fireside at our charming wee hotel, and be off. For today is the day I’ve anticipated for years – a visit to the powerhouses of peated single malt whisky: Lagavulin, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig, situated in an erstwhile row along the southern shores of Islay. Lagavulin will be our first stop.

Lagavulin has been around for 200 years—let that sink in a moment. The distillery gives its starting date as 1816, just a few years prior to the Excise Act of 1823 that touched off the modern era of Scotch whisky distilleries. However, it’s quite likely that “unsanctioned distillation” was going on at the Lagavulin site prior to 1816. Today it operates as one of the flagship brands of UK-based Diageo, the world’s largest spirit company. Lagavulin’s flagship expression is their 16 year, although there’s also the recently released 8 year (200th anniversary),  a 12 year and various special releases.

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Planning your Scotch Whisky Distillery Pilgrimage

If you’re a fan of Scotch single malt whisky, and really, why wouldn’t you be, a visit to the distilleries of Scotland increases your appreciation by an order of magnitude. Having recently completed a ten day trek through Speyside in the Scottish highlands, as well as the island of Islay, Mrs. Wonk and I agree it was the trip of a lifetime. While writing my earlier Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit article, I realized I had a ton of distillery visit planning trips to share, so I wrote this post to focus on those topics. A special bonus is that Mrs. Wonk joined me in writing this. She always handles the high level logistics of our trips (planes, hotels, etc…), and she’s a top notch writer with even more experience than I. You can find her insights in the second half of this post.

When planning a Scotland journey, the time of year when you visit matters a great deal. Summer may be ideal in terms of weather, but many distilleries aren’t distilling in the summer months—so there is less activity to see. During the spring and fall seasons, the most popular time to take on distillery visits, popular locations are often overwhelmed by visitors, yielding less than optimal conditions to linger a bit, meet the still operators, or maybe get a peek at something not on the usual tour.

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Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit

In January 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I crossed the pond to spend eight days the Islay and Speyside regions of Scotland, visiting as many whisky distilleries as possible during an all-too-brief visit. We battled snow, hail, fierce winds, flooded railway tracks, comically narrow roads, and tire-killing curbs. In the end, it was the trip of a lifetime, visiting thirteen distilleries and experiencing profound moments several times per day. Over the next dozen or so posts, I’ll share the stories of each distillery through words and photos.

On Islay:

In Speyside:

We also made appearances at Ardbeg and Aberlour, but circumstances prevented a full tour.

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Worthy Park: A Jamaican Rum Distillery for the 21st Century

In early 2016, I toured a number of Jamaican rum distilleries as part of a tour organized by WIRSPA and their Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) program. What follows is my take on one of the distilleries we visited–in this case, Worthy Park.

Martin Cate is about to be crushed by sugar cane. For someone so passionate about rum, it would be an entirely fitting way to check out. Luckily, Gordon Clarke, Worthy Park’s Co-Managing Director, is watching out for our group, obliviously snapping photos, and yells for us to move out of the way. Loosely held by a giant claw, SUV-sized clumps of cane stalks are traveling rapidly overhead, the occasional stalk tumbling to the ground below.

We’re witnessing firsthand what cane-to-glass really means here at Worthy Park. It’s the fourth and final day of our ACR group’s jaunt over the hilly Jamaican countryside, visiting six distillery sites all told. Each one vividly presents a different angle on the complex, 275-year history of the Jamaican rum industry. Some, like Appleton, have operated continuously from their inception have and become international marquee brands. Others, like Innswood, couldn’t compete as viable distilleries, so live on as mere husks of their former selves.

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An exclusive visit to Jamaica’s historic Long Pond Rum Distillery

In early 2016, I toured a number of Jamaican rum distilleries as part of a tour organized by WIRSPA and their Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) program. What follows is my take on one of the distilleries we visited–in this case, Long Pond.

Ruel, our intrepid bus driver, has been through a lot. On a normal day, he ferries busloads of people to hotels, resorts, and tourist sites. However, our five-day visit to Jamaican distilleries has been–quite literally –off the beaten path for him. He’s handled an ever-increasing set of oddball circumstances so far, not the least of which was locating a building with no apparent address in the middle of a sugar cane field. But today goes beyond even that. We are idling at the entrance of what may be the Holy Grail of Jamaican distillery visits.  The mood on the bus is tense as Ruel negotiates with a gate guard. Beyond the chain link fence is what looks to be an abandoned factory, surrounded by sugar cane fields. The guard is completely flummoxed–she’s heard nothing about letting in a busload full of tropical shirt wearing rum junkies.

A garbage truck rumbles up to next us. We on the bus take note of the (non-driving) garbage workers taking swigs from bottles of overproof Jamaican rum. They’re let through the gate. More time passes. Ruel makes a phone call. The guard makes a phone call. Neil Morris, our ACR ambassador, makes a phone call. More waiting. We’re tantalizingly close to the Long Pond distillery, which wasn’t on our scheduled list of distillery visits. However, thanks to yesterday’s successful visit to Clarendon, Long Pond’s sister facility, Neil had managed to pull strings and get permission to poke our nose through Long Pond’s door and peek at the stills. After what seems like an eternity, the guard opens the gate. Victory! We’re in—and have literally no idea what to expect. After all, it really does appear deserted.

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Ground Zero of Jamaican Funk: Going Deep at Hampden Estate

In early 2016, I toured a number of Jamaican rum distilleries as part of a group organized by WIRSPA and their Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) program. What follows is my take on one of the distilleries we visited–in this case, Hampden Estate.

Terroir. When we hear it used, we picture the soil of a vineyard in France, the salty sea air of Islay where whisky barrels mature, or locally foraged gin botanicals in the Pacific Northwest. It’s the unique air, water, soil, and scents of a region that make a spirit special – something nearly impossible to replicate somewhere else. Terroir evokes the romance of a particular place and is frequently used by marketers to tell a tale about why their spirit couldn’t be made anywhere else. However the most unmistakably vivid example of terroir influencing a spirit’s character that I’ve yet to witness is at Hampden Estate in Jamaica–and I guarantee you’ll never find it cited in any marketing copy.

Hampden is an old-line Jamaican rum distillery, and by far the most unchanged from how it looked and operated hundreds of years ago. It produces the funkiest, highest ester rum of any Jamaican distillery, the direct result of a fermentation process that can only be described as downright frightening – a dim, hot, damp building where dirt, fungus, cobwebs and who knows what else covers every square inch of stone walls, wooden beams, and old plank floors. Brick-lined pits set into the ground swirl with opaque brown mystery fluid. Nearby, wooden vats hold thousands of gallons of spent rum wash, covered with a thick layer of organic scum. The concentration of fungal spores in the air is off the charts. During Hampden’s several-weeks long, natural fermentation process, it’s exactly these conditions that ultimately result in their instantly identifiable fruity, funky, high-hogo Jamaican rum. This is terroir in the extreme– the ambient conditions contributing to one of the most beloved and unique combination of flavors in the world of spirits. Lest you be seriously worried at this point, the distillation process does an amazing job of separating the good from the bad, leaving you with only tasty, perfectly safe Jamaican rum.

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Inside Jamaica’s Clarendon Distillery: Home to Monymusk Rum and a Certain Captain

In early 2016, I toured a number of Jamaican rum distilleries as part of a tour organized by WIRSPA and their Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) program. What follows is my take on one of the distilleries we visited–in this case, Clarendon, part of National Rums of Jamaica.

Rum isn’t always pretty. Awash with images of tropical islands, sugar cane glistening in the morning sun, majestic pot stills, and silent warehouses full of angels taking their share, most people rarely encounter the mass scale and industrial process side of things: Stainless steel fermentation tanks holding 50,000 gallons of molasses. House-sized heat exchanger units. Towering multi-story column stills that look they wandered off from an oil refinery.

Much as we might imagine that all rums are made in picturesque distilleries like St. Nicholas Abbey in Barbados, with barrels resting a few yards away, the reality is that the vast majority of rums–even highly regarded ones–are produced in almost unimaginable bulk and shipped around in tanker trucks. Nary an aging warehouse in sight.  This is the side of the rum world we got to see at Clarendon Distillers Limited (CDL) in Jamaica.

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Innswood: The Jamaican Rum Distillery that Time Forgot

In early 2016, I toured a number of Jamaican rum distilleries as part of a tour organized by WIRSPA and their Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) program. What follows is my take on one of the distilleries we visited–in this case, Innswood, part of National Rums of Jamaica.

Ruel is very lost. He’s driven back and forth on a flat stretch of highway flanked by sugarcane fields, looking fruitlessly for our destination. The only two signs in this four-mile stretch appear to have been created during the Kennedy administration and aren’t much help. In the back of his mini-bus are ten rum-obsessed explorers anxiously checking Google maps and scanning the horizon for anything resembling a rum distillery. Ruel makes a phone call. He drives a bit further, stops, pulls over, and makes another phone call. Mind you, this isn’t his fault. He’s already proven himself a highly competent driver: The previous day he bombed through the narrow, twisty roads of Cockpit Country to deliver us to Appleton Estate with nary a missed turn. But today he has the Herculean task of finding Innswood Distillery, which clearly wants to remain undiscovered.

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