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I’ve been running this site for more than two years now and in that time I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy some fantastic experiences in my pursuit of great whisky. One such instance came during my recent visit to the Isle of Islay when I had a sneak peek at the site of the island’s ninth distillery.
In 2016, Glasgow based independent bottler Hunter Laing confirmed that they were to build a brand new distillery on Islay, the first on the island since Kilchoman appeared in 2005. Following some confusion over their involvement in the distillery project at Gartbreck, south of Bowmore, it was announced that Laing’s new distillery was to be situated instead near Loch Ardnahoe, on the islands north-east coast.
Thus it came to pass on one breezy September morning, I found myself arriving at a building site, somewhere between Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain. Anyone who has visited the latter of these two island distilleries will be aware that the access road leaves quite a lot to be desired. Fortunately though, the drive to Ardnahoe is less than that of its neighbour and the stunning views across the sound of Islay to Jura make the journey more than worthwhile.
During my visit, the site was little more than a foundation, although we were informed by our welcoming and passionate host Bryony, that the concrete under our feet would eventually form the floor of the distillery itself, after it had been subjected to a little spit and polish. I confess to being more than a little chuffed with myself as I stood on the spot upon which the Stills would come to rest; on the very floor where a brand new chapter of Islay’s story will come into being. Already a little giddy, the icing was firmly put on the cake when I stepped into the future and, with the aid of a Virtual Reality kit, toured the distillery as though it had been completed. I suspect anyone’s first experience of VR would leave a lasting impression and it was certainly the case for me as I wandered between the washbacks and the stills, then lurched into a state of panic and disorientation as I somehow found myself atop a cask some 12 feet above the warehouse floor… As impressive as the technology was however, it remained firmly in the shadow of that staggeringly beautiful view that will bewitch distillery visitors for many years and decades to come.
These are exciting times on Islay and while Ardnahoe’s product may remain a mystery for some time yet (the distillery is due to open in 2018 but spirit must be aged three years before it can be called whisky) the early signs suggest that we can look forward with enthusiasm. For one thing, the decision to tempt the legendary figure of Jim McEwan out of retirement will surely prove to be a masterstroke, given the man’s success in shaping the rebirth of Bruichladdich.
In any case, a distillery built by an independent bottler has a significant advantage over similar projects due to their stocks of aged whisky that can be sold while waiting for their new product. Hunter Laing also made the very astute decision to open a shop in Islay House Square, giving them a presence on the island and the means with which to show whisky lovers what they can offer. For my part, I was intrigued by this 8 year old Jura, bottled under the Hepburn’s Choice range… Jura is a dram that often disappoints when I taste official bottlings but I was quite keen to try out this variation which had been bottled at 46% abv, without chill filtering and without the use of colouring.
Smell: Lemon and Vanilla, Biscuit & Pastry, Peanuts, Custard and Grass with Wood and a slight Earthiness.
Taste: Light bodied with Lemon, Apple, Honey and Vanilla Cream, Cereal, Sponge Cake and a touch of Spicy Oak.
Value for Money: A subtle yet enjoyable single malt that comes with an age statement, a higher bottling strength and a natural presentation… the kind of value for money that you only tend to find with independent bottlers.
It’s not often these days that I enjoy a dram of Jura, all too regularly the experience falls just a little short of satisfying my palate. This Hepburn’s Choice however is something a little different, while very soft in the mouth, there is character and flavour here that would no doubt have been lost through chill filtration or further dilution to 40%. Not a bold dram by any means but soft, creamy and ultimately rather satisfying.