A Wee Peaty Dram for Burns Day By Margaret Swaine
On January 25th lovers of scotch and Scotland around the globe hold Burns Day festivities to celebrate the birthday of Scotland’s most famous poet Rabbie Burns. Whether the party goes whole hog or should I say sheep with the Address to a Haggis and pipers a piping or everyone just raises a few drams to their lips it’s all seeped in good spirit thanks to the lovely amber whiskies of Scotland. I think peaty scotches go best with haggis and strong Scottish dishes like blood pudding. Here are some ideas of where and what to toast in spirit or in reality.
Nicknamed the “whiskey coast”, Scotland’s west coast is tailor made for a malt whisky adventure tour. History is everywhere on this windswept, isolated part of the UK with castles dotted about and sheep grazing some of the oldest golf courses in the world. There are several misty islands where scotch is distilled here but Islay (which means Island in Gaelic) boasts the most distilleries and the peat-smokiest drams of the lot. It’s a two and a half hour boat ride from the mainland on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry that’s most comfortable with a cafeteria and spirit bar well stocked with scotch.
All of Islay’s eight distilleries offer tours and several such as Bowmore have a premium tour option. The charming little seaside town of Bowmore is the capital of this small island with the sweet historic Harbour Inn and Bowmore Distillery Cottages for accommodation. With a resident population of only 3,600, Islay can be sleepy quiet at times. The Machrie, its classic links golf course circa 1891, stays open year round thanks to the warming golf stream but the distilleries don’t see much action from late fall until the last week of May. That’s when the Fèis Ile Festival of malt and music happens. For a week the distilleries hold open houses with special activities while ceilidhs, dances, recitals and children’s workshops are held elsewhere on the island.
Laphroaig has been making whisky for over 200 years – illegally at first and then legally. They offer a “Friends of Laphroaig” program where people can own a square foot of the nearby land. Just put on the size 12 wellingtons available in the visitor’s centre, walk out to the Friends field and stake your claim with a flag. Prince Charles owns plot number one. Sean Connery is another fan and friends member. Vintages offers four versions of this peaty, smoky, briny malt: Ten-Year-Old, 18-Year-Old and 25-Year-Old as well as a bargain priced Quarter Cask for $69.95.
Ardbeg Distillery serves tasty traditional Scottish dishes such as leek and potato soup and smoked mackerel at their attractive Old Kiln Café and some of the smokiest, most peaty scotch in Scotland. Ardbeg 10-Year Old ($99.95) delivers that omnipresent peat with a vanilla, butterscotch edge. Bruichladdich Distillery is special for the fact that it is Scottish owned (most are owned by large multinationals) and employee owned. They have a whole range of interesting scotches aged in former French wine barrels (Petrus $99.95, Latour 16-Year-Old $114.95 and Latour 16-Year-Old $114.45 available in Ontario) and the Octomore which takes your breath away with its peat levels – the highest in the world.
The Bowmore Craftsman’s Tour which was lead by head distiller David Turner when I visited is an unforgettable experience. Bowmore, established in 1779 is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries. Turner let me touch and taste everything in the place. I stood on the malt floor my feet deep in germinating barley and turned the grain with wood shovels used since the birth of scotch. I smelled the sweet scent of the malt as it underwent the conversion of starch in the grain to sugar. I walked about the kiln room, ankle deep in malted barley that was being smoked by a peat fire below and tasted the crunchy nutty smoked taste of the grain. I stoked the fire with chunks of dried peat.
Then Turner took me outside to taste the cold soft fresh water from the River Laggan that passes through seven miles of peaty, mossy ground on its way to supply Bowmore with water for whisky. I sipped the sugary juice that’s hot water and crushed barley called wort and sipped again after it had fermented into a beer-like beverage around 8 per cent alcohol called wash. After it had been distilled into “new make” spirit I sniffed that rubbing it into my hands as Turner showed me to get the malty sweet aromas. Finally I sampled a selection of aged Bowmore scotches in the tasting room including an awe inspiring 25-Year-Old ($395 in Ontario). Bowmore’s full bodied, smooth and peaty 12 –Year-Old is available until January 29th for $48.55 (Limited Time Offer). The complex, rich, toffee and brine 18-Year-Old ($116.35) is being discontinued so buy up now. If you have lots of dough and like old drams, there’s still a bottle or two of Bowmore 40-Year-Old for $14,895. Cheers! Or in Scottish Gaelic “Slàinte Mhath!” (good health).