After the tour and a generous tasting, I purchased whisky lip balm and a bottle of Triple Wood, aged first in American oak and then in a quarter-size cask before being finished in Oloroso sherry barrels. The whisky is strong and creamy, with just enough sweet fruit and caramel notes to balance the bonfire ash that I’ve come to love so much. This intensely smoky profile may well have been the reason Laphroaig could be sold medicinally in the United States during the long, dry years of Prohibition.
Unfortunately, we had little time, so we quickly left for Lagavulin, down the road. This basic tour was less involved than the one at Laphroaig but more entertaining, as two grumpy old men barraged our sweet but flustered guide with inane questions that mostly involved only whisky. In hindsight, I should have switched my visits around to enjoy Lagavulin’s warehouse demonstration and barrel tasting before immersing myself in one of Laphroaig’s more involved and hands-on tours later in the day. No matter, we were living the dream, up to our elbows in peat, and continued on to Ardbeg for lunch and to check another distillery off our list.
In the early afternoon, it was a race back north to search for the hubcap and to swing by the island’s other distilleries before they closed at the prohibitively early hours of 5 and 6 p.m. The venerable Bowmore was next, but it proved too salty and rough for my taste. Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain are on the other side of the ferry terminal, so we left them for the next day and looped around the bay toward Kilchoman, the newest distillery on Islay and one of the smallest in all of Scotland, and Bruichladdich. Both are among the few distilleries in the country still independently owned, a fact that Bruichladdich is quick to point out.
In the distressed buildings that house the distillery and tasting room, Todd and I chatted with a boisterous woman pouring samples. Like the 50 other employees here, she has an ownership share in this newly relaunched company that’s pushing boundaries. In an age of global conglomerates, Bruichladdich is aiming to use all organic, Scottish-sourced barley that reflects the history and pride of the land, values that Stevenson would surely have applauded.
While making whiskies with a sense of terroir, managing director Mark Reynier and his crew ended up creating a monster, the Octomore 4.2 Comus. Where most Islay whiskies have 40 to 50 parts per million of phenols (the chemical compounds that provide the smoky kick), the Comus has 167, punching up the flavor of the island and making it the peatiest whisky in the world.
What Stevenson would think of it, I’m not sure. But even before the last wisps of smoke had cleared from my palate, I was ready for another.