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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Stalking the TTB:  Upcoming U.S. rum releases from Plantation, Hamilton, Samaroli, El Dorado, Rational Spirits and more!  May and June 2016

Continuing my episodic pillaging of the TTB site for new releases, the list at the end of this post contains my curated picks for new rums which should be appearing on U.S. shelves and in your local watering holes later in 2016. I’ve previously written about searching the TTB site for recent label approvals; if you’re not familiar with the TTB and/or the label approval process, that post is a good place to start before diving in here.

To construct the list below, I query the TTB database, constraining the results to the past two months. I then exercise editorial prerogative to cherry-pick label approvals likely most interesting (in my opinion) to the rum community. The original list I harvested from the TTB for May and June was huge – almost two hundred approvals– and I’ve made sweeping cuts to bring the list down to the fifty or so here. Unfortunately, this meant eliminating all but one domestically produced rum. Not that there aren’t some good ones made here in the good old U. S. of A.,  but finding the worthwhile rums can be a needle in the haystack situation. Also, smaller distilleries may put out lots of rum, but they often have limited distribution. If you’re after domestically produced rums, it’s easy enough to construct a search on the TTB site, as I demonstrated in the aforementioned post. I also eliminated a few imported rums of dubious heritage and interest – typically silver or gold rums at 40 percent ABV from no-name brands, with no source given other than “West Indies” and without meaningful age statements.

Before getting to the highlights of the new rums, here are the standard disclaimers for my TTB lists:

Reader beware:  There’s no clear way to determine from a TTB label approval if it’s a new product or simply a small change to an existing product’s label. In some cases, producers submit labels for products that may not ever make it to the shelves for various reasons. In other cases, a release is very limited in nature, maybe only a few hundred bottles, and destined for a particular store or bar.

I make a best effort to filter out existing products with minor label changes, but I may miss a rum that’s already available. Please let me know if an offering on the list below is already on the shelves. Also, there is often a significant length of time between label approval and bottles appearing for sale. In short, just because you see it on the list below, it’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to purchase it.

New Rum Highlights

Plantation, the French producer, makes a splash on the vintage rum front with releases from Jamaica, Reunion Island, Belize, Guyana, Barbados, Panama, and Haiti. As usual, they’ve each spent the majority of their time aging in their source countries before being shipped to France for more aging in Cognac (and possibly other) casks. Of particular note is the Guyana (1999, fifteen years in bourbon, two years in “Ferrand” casks), that comes in at 56.3 percent, quite a bit higher in proof than most Plantation vintage releases.

Tiki fans will rejoice over a new addition to the Hamilton “Ministry of Rum” line: A 114 proof blend of Jamaican and demerara rum from Guyana, unsurprisingly dubbed “Navy Strength.”  Will it be the house rum of Seattle’s forthcoming Navy Strength bar? One can only hope! Also new from Hamilton, although not included in the list below, is a Pimento Dram liqueur that will go head to head with St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram.

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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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