As I have mentioned Islay is many things; beautiful, enchanting, bewitching, enthralling and intoxicating to barely scratch the surface. Indeed, the last one serves a double purpose. As much as I find myself figuratively intoxicated by the splendour of the scenery, flora, fauna and wildlife, I inevitably find myself literally (albeit responsibly and moderately) intoxicated on the sweet amber nectar that is the famed produce of the island. Given that the Caol Ila Distillery was around a 25-minute drive from The Black House this posed a problem. Tempted though we might have been, we didn't bully anyone into driving and instead got online in search of cabs. For a small island, they really are well serviced in this department, most offering whisky day tours where the driver will ferry you from pillar to post and, presumably, listen to the more nonsensical ramblings that multiple distillery tours in one day are bound to elicit. This will definitely be my plan for the next visit - all the distilleries in one day? Challenge accepted! Who is with me?
The first thing you notice about Caol Ila is the stunning surroundings and picturesque view of Jura. It is only when you visit you can get a feel for the impact the landscape has had on production here. Whereas now lorries, trucks and vans have made transport much easier, there was a time when everything had to be brought in and out of the distillery by boat given the remote location and uncompromising terrain (for more on this, see my review of the Hepburn's Choice bottling of Caol Ila.) We even have it on reasonable authority from the very friendly folks in the Distillery shop that on a good day you can see some intrepid deer attempting to swim the short distance across the Sound of Islay. As an aside, it is interesting to note that the name 'Caol Ila' is simply the Gaelic for "Sound of Islay.' I say interesting: I find it interesting and hope you share my passion for minutiae.
Now, our arrival was not without controversy. I had put the tasting in my calendar for 11:30, a sensible enough thing to given that the email I had received informed me that this was the time we were required. Through some miscommunication between website and Distillery scheduling, the tour was actually due to start at 11:15. Apart from the pages of this blog, few of you know enough about me to know how much I detest being late. Suffice it to say, I sincerely don’t like it. However, it is a testament to the calming pace of this Island that I was immediately put at ease when we arrived. Rather than refusing us entry, starting without us or even giving us a judgemental glare the guide had taken our tasting companions who were on time for a wander about the still house to await our arrival. Long story short, we arrived and were ushered to the tasting room by Nigel, our learned guide, along with our forgiving co-tasters.
The group of gentlemen who were also on the tasting were on the best work field trip ever. They were geologists undertaking study in Islay who had arrived a few days early to sample the, shall we say, culture. Where we were fortunate enough to locate Andy of Briuichladdich taxis, they had in fact managed to convince one of their number to drive. Through the entire time we were there not a drop passed his lips and at the end he dutifully decanted the remains into small pots that he reliably informed us would not see the light of the next day. This type of will power surely makes him a god among men.
The tasting we had chosen was a whisky and chocolate pairing. I have no doubt that there are some who read those words as anathema but I have been convinced by various pairings that it can be a very enjoyable way to find out a lot more about a particular dram as long as you get the pairing right. Nigel got this pairing very right! Each whisky was paired with a chocolate truffle made by Iain Burnett. I receive nothing for writing this but if you like chocolate you simply have to try these. Whether with or without whisky, these were some of the finest chocolates I have tasted. Had I not been on Islay, where I see little use in coffee through the day, I would be tempted to say they would be equally delightful with a steaming mug and a Copita. The alcohol bite of the higher proof drams was tempered by the creamy cacao. My particular favourite was the Distillery Exclusive Edition which was paired with a passionfruit truffle. The resulting flavour was so transcendently stunning that I brought a bottle home. Now just to order the chocolates...
Our own Debutante, this being his first foray into the peaty underbelly of Scotch, did remarkably well. The little that was left in his glasses at the end were potted and brought, which was a positive and heartening sign that the rest of the trip was not going to be his own personal hell on earth.
Caol Ila is not a bottle immediately familiar to everyone which seems surprising given that they have a considerable output each year. It would also come as a surprise that a considerable number of whisky drinkers will have had it at some time without knowing. This is because the majority of their run is used in blends, lending its smoky intensity to some of the most famous including Johnnie Walker. It really is a shame that it is not more widely available as a whisky in its own right, because they really do make a damned good dram!
After our thoroughly enjoyable time at Caol Ila it was time to get our cab back to Bruichladdich. The Sportsman was starting to twitch with anticipation of the rugby that would be starting sometime during our next tour and we had promised to make every effort to find a bar to watch it. However, with their customary grace and generosity, there were drams poured in the gift shop for those who wanted them (it will come as no surprise that I partook). On a previous trip to the Distillery I had been told that the Moch, one of the whiskies in the tasting line-up, was a good breakfast whisky. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I could get on board with that logic. Given that we had scarcely passed midday and had sampled five drams it was the kind of reasoning that was to prevail for the rest of the trip.
To be continued.
Part 3 available here