Morton is a burly chap whose arms are covered with conversation-starting Scottish pride tattoos — a Celtic knot, Gaelic dragons. We chatted amid the echo-y mechanical hiss of the still house, which has a soaring ceiling and four squat yet grand copper stills. They aren’t polished to a shine like the stills everywhere else, giving the space an antique ambience.
He started at Bunnahabhain in 1978, when the 36 distillery workers all lived in the quaint, chimneyed houses clustered around the distillery. Today, only one of the houses is occupied and there are plans to raze many of them and renovate the rest as the distillery launches a refurbishment project over the next three years.
Morton spends much of his day at a computer screen, which, he’s quick to point out, only monitors the stills’ activity, not controls it. So to heat the stills, he walks over to the steam wheel and cranks it. Nonetheless, that monitor does make things a little easier: When he started, he had to measure the flow rate of the spirit with a wood stick. Now he reads the measurements from the glowing screen.
As far as Scottish island distilleries go, Bowmore is practically urban. Built in 1779 in Islay’s capital village of the same name, it’s a collection of whitewashed buildings on four seaside acres, just off the main thoroughfare, which is lined with a bustling grocery, a hardware store, gift shops and a bank.
In the cement-floored malt barn, a single beam of light streaming through a small window gave the large, stark room the luminosity of a Vermeer painting. A man was pulling a rake-like instrument across a barley-strewn floor, making furrows so air could circulate through the germinating grains. Bowmore is one of the few distilleries in Scotland to use the old-fashioned floor-malting method. Today this part of the malting process is typically done in industrial-size drums at giant plants.
Heather, my genial guide who wore stylish glasses and her hair in a loose pony tail, scooped up a fistful of barley and instructed me to crush a single soft sprouted granule between my fingers — the “maltster’s rub.” It was silky and chalky, moist enough to absorb the peat smoke that ultimately gives whisky its characteristic flavor.
“That’ll be going into the kiln at six tonight,” she said, leading me to a steel door at the top of a few metal-grate steps. She removed a sturdy lock and unleashed a blast of heat and plume of smoke. Phenolic, savory aromas knocked me like a right hook. She motioned me into the haze. I sank into a knee-high bed of 21 tons of malted barley in the tennis-court-length kiln, where grain sits for 60 hours, absorbing smoky, savory essences from a peat-fueled fire burning underneath.
She suggested I lie down and make a “grain angel,” as one would do in fresh snow. I imagined Barnard would have let his stiff upper lip get in the way of such tomfoolery, so I laid down in the pillowy, fragrant barley and dedicated my angel to his guiding spirit.
After wandering through the still house and the cold, dark warehouse known as the No. 1 Vaults, which has been used to age whisky since Bowmore was founded in 1779, making it reportedly one of the oldest maturing warehouses in the world, my friend and I kicked back in the modern but cozy tasting room, which has expansive floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the sea. I sipped the 12-year-old single malt, the youngest sample in the tasting flight of four — a softly peated drink that smelled of sea spray and grain.
During Barnard’s visit here, he wrote, “The Distillers say the proximity to the sea favours the various processes of malting, brewing and distilling.” As I watched the mist fly off the swirling “white horses,” local parlance for the waves of the cobalt Atlantic as they crest and slam against the shore, I appreciated one of Islay’s whiskies’ most crucial ingredients: the local air.
As we approached Ardbeg, a cluster of buildings with pagoda roofs that appears like an oasis of civilization amid expanses of green hills, Barnard’s description rang clear: “a lonely spot on the very verge of the sea, and its isolation tends to heighten the romantic sense of its position.”
We walked across a courtyard to the visitors’ center, located in a high-ceilinged former malt barn, one of the original buildings. Barley was delivered here when the distillery opened in 1815. It’s been retrofitted with a bustling airy eatery and book-lined gift shop. At the stone-floored restaurant, the Old Kiln Café, locals can be found amid tourists, socializing over fish pies, plates of smoked salmon or scones and cappuccinos.
We were greeted by the distillery manager, Michael Heads, a casual avuncular fellow with white hair who introduced himself as Mickey. He brought us to a neighboring building and led us through a long, sepia-hued chamber with deep empty wood vessels on either side of a narrow planked floor. The smell of peat from barley stored here in Victorian times still lingered in the air. An echo resounded when my pen dropped to the floor. There was an ethereal, old-world aura to the space.
After being led through a few more equipment rooms, we emerged into a sunlit room with a pitched churchlike ceiling. In front of us were six huge washbacks, vessels in which yeast feasts on sugary solution, generating bubbly activity on the golden liquid surface as it turns starch into alcohol.
Through a small window, far past those low cresting “white horses,” I could make out Northern Ireland’s hills of Antrim. Long before trucks existed, the narrow pier right outside was the primary access to the rest of the world: Barley and yeast came off boats, whisky was sent out. It was easy to envision the ships in gridlock on the now bare waters.
This distillery’s whitewashed buildings with turquoise-framed windows surround a small courtyard with an entrance just off the main road that runs along the shoreline. Observing the scene from the mash house, Barnard described it as “one of the finest and most healthy spots on the island.”
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