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Destination: Scotland

The true spirit of the islands

For devotees of single-malt whiskey, Islay, Jura and Arran off the western coast are paradise found. Concentrated there are nine distilleries.

September 19, 2004|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Isle of Islay, Scotland — Leaning into a huge wooden fermentation tank, I inhaled the yeasty aroma of its contents. "Don't sniff too heavily," Ardbeg Distillery Manager Stuart Thomson told me. "It'll take your breath away."

High levels of carbon dioxide can kill, he said, adding, "If you fell in, you'd be dead in 12 seconds."

Ardbeg is on Islay (eye-la), southernmost of the Inner Hebrides, off western Scotland. For devotees of single-malt whiskey -- people who utter brand names such as Laphroaig reverently -- Islay and neighboring islands Jura and Arran are paradise found. Among them, they have nine distilleries, one of Scotland's major concentrations. These single-malt labels are not as familiar to most Americans as those of blended Scotches, but their whiskies go into such blends as Johnnie Walker, Teacher's, Cutty Sark, Cluny and Ballantine's.

Although the more intensely flavored single malts are made only from malted barley, the blends are made from barley, malted barley and other cereals.

In mid-July, I bypassed the more frequently visited mainland whiskey trails of Scotland and distillery-hopped on the three islands. Each, I found, had its own personality. Arran, with its miles of rugged coastline and lush interiors, is the prettiest and the most visitor-oriented. Islay is flatter, has acres of peat and is synonymous with its seven distilleries. Jura is rural and sparsely populated.

My trip began in Glasgow, where I picked up a rental car and drove two hours west to Ardrossan to catch the Caledonian MacBrayne car ferry for the short crossing to Arran. The ferry is pricey, but I saved about $85 by buying a "hopscotch ticket" to Arran, the Kintyre Peninsula, Islay and back for about $358.

Near Lochranza on Arran's coast, I visited Scotland's newest distillery, Isle of Arran. It opened in 1995, 160 years after Arran's last distillery fell victim to high taxes and poor transportation.

Older island distilleries sit seaside -- as was vital when all cargo was carried by ship -- but Isle of Arran occupies a bucolic site in the shadow of the Hill of the Eagle's Nest.

Visitors have included Queen Elizabeth II, who dropped by in 1997 on the last voyage of the royal yacht Britannia. The inviting visitor center has a restaurant serving such specialties as cullen skink (smoked haddock and potato soup) and chicken breast stuffed with haggis -- yes, haggis -- mousse.

I passed on the mousse and had some soup before joining a tour led by Terry, a jolly fellow in plaid pants. He immediately clarified one of his distillery's claims to fame: Isle of Arran is the island's first legal distillery in 160 years; illegal stills thrived for years.

The tour was my introduction to the language of whiskey-making. I heard, as I would often in the next few days, that good water makes good whiskey. Isle of Arran's water comes pure from a stream in nearby hills.

Terry poured samples and cautioned visitors, "Wee sips; no big gulps." He needn't have said it to me. Dead sober, I was terrified of Arran's narrow, twisting roads where locals drive less on the left than smack in the middle.

At tour's end, I caught up with white-haired, rosy-cheeked Gordon Mitchell, whose baseball cap identified him as the Arran malt master. He has been a whiskey maker for 40 of his 60-plus years, "starting with cleaning the floor and working my way up."

By now, he says, he can tell a good whiskey by sniffing, a talent known as "nosing."

"A bad one might smell like sweaty socks," he said.

Although he takes his whiskey "neat, with a little water after"-- and only on weekends, mind you -- he didn't recoil at my mention of ice, but was emphatic about soda, as in "no soda." Other whiskey makers would tell me that while they may consider ice or soda a travesty, they're not fuddy-duddies about it.

Soon, I was off by ferry from Lochranza to the Kintyre Peninsula for an overnight before catching another ferry to Islay (population 3,300). Map in hand, I set out from Bowmore, the island capital, toward Port Askaig, soon spotting the turnoff to Caol Ila (cul-lil-a). After a white-knuckle mile on a "single track" road -- a narrow, twisting single-lane with two-way traffic -- I spotted the distillery at shore's edge.

It was "silent season" at Caol Ila -- the six weeks when the plant shuts down for maintenance -- but Neil Ferguson, an Islay native (or Ileach, as the people of Islay call themselves) was happy to show me around.

"I learned whiskey-making the old way," said Ferguson, who has worked at the distillery for 35 years. A still house had floor-to-ceiling windows affording a stunning view of the sound; in front of them stood six onion-shaped copper stills, almost two stories high. That still shape affects a whiskey's taste, Ferguson told me. "All the single malts are unique," he said. "The recipe may be similar, but everybody has their way of going about it."

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