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My Handcrafted Opinions on Whiskies, Distilleries and Other Related Stuff

Ardbeg, Islay, Scotland

This was the distllery I was most looking forward to visiting when we went to Islay in 2010.  Why?  Well Arbeg was the reason I even started drinking Islay's peated whiskies, though I had tried the unpeated Bunnahabhain before, and it was because of an expression called Blasda.   I tasted a sample of Blasda in Oddbins in Cults and thought it was delicious, very sweet and flavorful and with a lighter, more subtle peat taste.  So I bought a bottle and found it was the perfect entry into the world of Islay whisky.  The fact they made a whisky that was so approachable encouraged me to explore Ardbeg more and to look for the subtle, sweet flavors I loved in Blasda in their other expressions and to succesfully "look past the peat".  Before I knew it, I loved peated whisky.  The distillery is really well done with a great cafe, an expansive gift shop and a detailed tour with a knowledgable and passionate tour guide (all for about $3).  However the best part was the tasting as they pulled out the really good stuff.  They offered the standard 10 year old, Blasda (Tammy chose that), Uigeadail and even the amazing 60% abv Supernova.  I ended up buying the Supernova because it was so good.  Other distilleries take note, pouring your premium offerings can help sales, after all I am much more likely to spend $100 on a bottle of whisky if I have actually tried it.... just a suggestion.

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Highland Park, Orkney, Scotland

Highland Park, Orkney, Scotland

After so many distillery visits surely I have seen everything there is to be seen on a distillery tour?  Certainly that is the question I get from the nervous tour guide when they innocently ask the group at the start who has toured a distillery before and I put my hand up and mention I may have been to about 40 or so in last 3 or 4 years.  And yet, as is so often the case, this tour of the iconic Highland Park distillery did include a few things I had not seen before.  Like many of the better tours they start with well-produced video and then take you out into the site. Highland Park famously floor malts about 20% of its barley requirements and while I have seen distilleries with the relatively rare floor malting operations  before (inc. Kilchomen and Bowmore) the day I toured Highland Park they also had a peat fire burning which I had not seen on previous tours.   

I had signed up for the rather expensive ($100+ depending on exchange rate) Magnus Eunson tour, named after the distilleries founder.  The tour itself was actually the same as the regular tour, the difference was the very extensive tasting that followed.  With a knowledgeable guide I was led through a tasting of the entire range from new make spirit and the standard expression 12 year old through to the sublime 40 year old I have previously reviewed and raved about.   A fantastic experience and I was able (via the wonders of smart phone technology) to compare my previous Highland Park tasting notes with the experience of tasting while sitting in the distillery and while doing that something  occurred to me.  I was consistently missing the salty, fresh sea notes I often found in Highland Park.  The guide suggested that because I had been in Orkney for a few days (I had actually visited the oil terminal on Flotta by boat the day before) my nose had become accustomed to the local climate and salty sea air so was not able to pick it out anymore.  Interesting theory, however the fact I had also had a cold for a week or so before the trip may also have been a factor.

A classic distillery and a classic day with a strong focus on the unique features of Highland Park, primarily the use of sherry seasoned wood (both American and European oak) and the unique Orkney peat.  It was worth every penny as it is very unlikely I will ever make it back to Orkney and because I did not want to have any regrets about not taking full advantage of the opportunity, I decided, to use an American sporting expression, to "leave it all on the field" and pay for the full experience.  I left very happy (and mildly intoxicated; I walked back to Kirkwall Hotel) with a bottle of St Magnus Second Edition (which I then gave to my father for his birthday) and a few mini bottles of the more difficult to find expressions including the 16 year old and 25 year old, a nice blue tie and a book.  Can you tell I had been drinking?

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