Searching Scotland for the Ultimate Barrel of Whisky
Standing inside a warehouse on the Scottish island of Islay, distiller Jim McEwan has popped the bung—the wood cork—on one of his most prized barrels of Bruichladdich whisky. His siphon goes in, and out comes a liquid the color of a late-summer sunset; he pours some into stout tumblers. “This is a real cracker of a specimen,” he says—a top-notch single malt. “It’s aged in bourbon barrels for 18 years and then for four years in barrels from Château d’Yquem.”
He passes the glasses around, saying, “I actually created this one as a tribute to Lady Diana, God rest her soul.” McEwan has a puckish wit, but it’s clear from the look on his face that he’s not joking. “She was gorgeous, misunderstood. She inspired me, and I am paying tribute the only way I know how, with whisky that has elegance and grace.” He pauses, takes a sip, and then, almost on cue, his eyes well up. “You shouldn’t talk and drink. This is a whisky that you need to think about.”
McEwan’s audience has traveled halfway around the world to be here. The Canlis brothers—Matt, Mark and Brian, all in their thirties—are on day four of a breakneck whisky-tasting journey. They will traverse Scotland, stopping at one of its largest and most historic single malt distilleries (The Macallan) and one of its newest and smallest (Kilchoman). It’s a dream trip to a half-dozen of the best distilleries in Scotland—and thus, the universe.
Mark and Brian are third-generation Seattle restaurateurs. Their grandfather Peter founded Canlis in 1950, and it instantly became the city’s top restaurant. Their parents, Chris and Alice, shepherded the place through Seattle’s tech boom. In 2005, Mark and Brian took over with an ambitious mission: to modernize the institution without losing its soul. Since then, the pair have made big changes, restoring Canlis’s Rat Pack-era glamour while hiring Jason Franey, an F&W Best New Chef 2011, to create a new, adventurous menu.
The eldest Canlis brother, Matt, isn’t in the family business. He’s a minister in the Church of Scotland. Soon after Matt moved to Scotland in 2000, the brothers have convened for a yearly whisky-tasting road trip in search of “the impossible dram.” (Matt’s business card says “Chaplain and Whisky Consultant.”) After years of bringing back whisky in their suitcases, Mark and Brian have turned Canlis into a world-class whisky destination; it’s one of the few places in the world where you can buy a pour of Ardbeg Provenance, a 38-year-old spirit that sells for around $1,500 a bottle.
This year, they are after something even more ambitious: “the impossible barrel.” The barrel, which will cost close to $20,000, is going to be installed on a platform in Canlis’s wine cellar. The idea is to bring guests down to the cellar, pour them a dram straight from the cask and share an intimate moment with them. “We won’t make a profit on it,” says Mark. “The goal is to connect with people and tell them the story behind the whisky.”
The Canlis brothers, like most whisky geeks, are only interested in single malt whiskies. These are distilled from malted barley at one distillery and then aged in oak casks for at least three years. (Blended whiskies, on the other hand, mix single malts with less expensive grain whisky made from corn, wheat or rye.) There are more than 100 single malt distilleries in Scotland, and because of minute variations in the process, each single malt is distinct. Where to start the hunt? “We want a whisky that is approachable but complex,” says Mark. “Basically, it needs to have some smoke and peat—but not so much that it’ll scare people away.” The smokiness prized in many single malts comes from barley that’s dried over a peat fire, and many of the best of these whiskies come from Scotland’s peat-rich southwest: Campbeltown and Islay. There are eight distilleries on Islay alone, so the brothers refined their hunt even more, trying to find a whisky maker whose story—and whisky—have a meaning deeper than flavor.
“We’re searching for a story in Scotland that matches what we’re trying to do at Canlis,” says Mark. “We’re a small, family-run business in an industry filled with bigger competitors; we’re trying to hold on to tradition without becoming a museum. We’re ambitious, but we don’t want to sell out.”
The means of transport for this mission is Teacup: Matt’s 12-year-old VW van with 182,000 miles on the odometer. The brothers fill it with camping gear, tasting glasses and a tin of shortbread (made by Matt’s neighbor, Granny Wallace), then set out on the 275-mile drive from Matt’s home in the northeast down to Campbeltown, in the far southwest.
Chris and Alice Canlis were prolific road-trippers, visiting most of the lower 48 with their sons in a station wagon. “They’d load us in the car in the middle of the night, and we’d wake up in Oregon,” remembers Mark. To keep the boys engaged, they would read books out loud: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste. At day’s end, there was a pop quiz on the readings: If you got a question right, you received a treat from a grab bag.
On this Scotland trip, the brothers stop only to play Frisbee golf among ancient stone obelisks, race to the top of a 16th-century castle and have rock-throwing contests on a crystalline loch. Though the siblings are simpatico in a way that seems to exist only in 1950s sitcoms, they have distinct roles. Matt, with a deep, sermon-trained voice and ramrod posture, is the quintessential oldest son. He drives, organizes the itinerary, packs the van, leads grace before meals and conducts impromptu discussions of teachings from Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Mark, lanky and shaggy, is more practical and business-minded, with deep-set eyes that seem to be worried about how the restaurant is faring when the owners are half a world away. Brian, the youngest, has a dry sense of humor that masks intense determination—he’s the one most focused on scoring rare whiskies to stock Canlis’s prodigious bar.
When they roll into Campbeltown, it’s just after 7 p.m. This area was once Scotland’s commercial whisky center, with over 30 distilleries. Now there are three; the most famous is Springbank, down a small lane across from a Chinese takeout spot.
The brothers are 40 minutes late for their appointment—blame a lost Frisbee—and the distillery’s production director, Frank McHardy, an eagle-nosed man with a ring of white hair, is waiting impatiently in front. “So, what do you want to see?” he asks, arms folded. Apologies are made and McHardy softens, taking the trio inside the 184-year-old family-owned distillery, which hasn’t updated its core technology since Winston Churchill was in power. “We’re a living museum,” says McHardy, showing them a 67-year-old barley mill that’s a Rube Goldbergian mess of wheels, belts and pulleys. “We employ 42 people here,” says sales manager Ranald Watson. “If we modernized the distillery, we could make the same amount of whisky with six employees. But that’s not the Springbank way.”
The brothers are enthralled with the visceral intensity of Springbank—its smoke-belching kilns and pot stills fueled by leaping flames. In the heat and roar of the still room, McHardy pulls out the top of the Springbank line, an 18-year-old single malt. “Maturation is often a happy accident,” he says. “You often don’t know if a whisky’s going to come out right until the very end, when you nose it”—whisky slang for smelling—“and taste it.” The brothers sniff, sip and fall silent. The single malt is delicious, a bit salty, like the misty air outside, with an unusual coconut flavor that Springbank is known for but no one can quite explain.
“I love everything about this place,” says Matt. “It feels pure, and you can taste that in the whisky.” Barrels, however, are not for sale. “We can’t even keep up with our own demand,” McHardy says.
After dinner at the Ardshiel Hotel, the brothers take out their frustration on their credit cards, buying out the bar’s entire stock of a limited-edition Springbank. “AOC at 7:15 in the morning to catch the ferry to Islay,” says Mark before heading up to his room. “That’s Ass On Curb.”
Islay attracts the most intense whisky pilgrims: fanboys who search for rare bottles with the same intensity that Bob Dylan obsessives hunt for 1970s bootlegs. There’s a direct connection between the intensity of Islay aficionados and the intensity of Islay whiskies: salty, smoky, earthy and seaweedy. One of the strongest, Laphroaig, was actually allowed to be sold during Prohibition in the US, as medicine.
That night on Islay, the brothers camp on a ridge overlooking Machir Bay. There’s a race to set up tents and then a race to get down to the beach, which requires a leap over an electrified fence, then a stumble down a steep 100-foot-high hill of sand and sea grass. The sand is soft, the wind is strong, the water is cold, and it feels like the edge of the world.
Awakened the next morning by the moo of cows, the Canlis brothers start a fire for their traditional campground breakfast: cheese omelets along with rashers (bacon made from the pig’s loin) cooked in butter, whisky and sugar—a salty, smoky and sweet hangover cure. A few bottles are pulled from Teacup and, for the second time in three days, the brothers are drinking whisky by 9 a.m.
On the way back to the main road, Teacup pulls into Kilchoman, built in 2005 and Islay’s first new distillery in 124 years. The second the brothers step out of the van, the smell hits them: horses, grass, hay and manure. Kilchoman is a farm distillery, where the whisky’s entire life cycle—from the barley fields to the bottling line—happens on-site.
The man running the show is a curt Englishman in wire-rimmed glasses named Anthony Wills. “Starting a distillery from scratch is not for the fainthearted,” he says. “It’s a £5 million investment, and you don’t see any money for at least three years.” In the visitors’ center, Wills passes out samples of his oldest spirit, a pale-straw whisky. Even though it’s been in barrels for only five years, it’s wonderful—the mix of elegant butterscotch and vanilla flavors with some of that famed Islay smoke is like wearing a tuxedo to a campfire.
In theory, the Canlis brothers should be swooning over this independently owned “micro-farm bespoke distillery,” as Wills calls it. But his MBA-speak of “protecting the brand” doesn’t resonate with them. “I love the flavor of the whisky and that they are doing it the old-school way,” says Mark. “But I didn’t connect with him.”
There’s one more appointment on Islay, with a legend. Jim McEwan was born on Islay and has been working in the whisky business since he was 15. In 2000, he joined a group of investors to buy the mothballed Bruichladdich distillery, a cluster of white-painted buildings right on Islay’s rocky coastline.
McEwan has a showman’s eye for drama and the crafty mind of a master marketer. He hops up on towering stacks of barrels in dress shoes (“There’s no good hospital on Islay, so catch me if I fall”), tells gruesome stories about warehouse workers beheaded by falling barrels, and boasts of his ACE program—Additional Cask Evolution, in which Bruichladdich’s whisky is aged in blue-chip spirits and wine barrels like Château Haut-Brion, Sassicaia and Château d’Yquem (thus catering to two equally deep-pocketed audiences: wine freaks and whisky geeks). “Most people call it ‘finishing’ the whisky,” he says. “That makes it sounds like it’s dying. I’m giving it new life.”
Bruichladdich’s spirit closely dovetails with Canlis’s: tradition meets innovation, with a side of passion and feel-good sincerity. “McEwan’s rooted in tradition, but he’s not resting in tradition,” says Brian. “That’s our story, too.”
McEwan has been charming Islay visitors for years, but it’s clear that the Canlis brothers—whom he insists on calling the Brothers Grimm—have charmed him, too. “I like your story, and I think we could work something out,” he says. “I will pick you something special—a real cracker of a barrel.” Business cards are exchanged, some hugs, too, and the brothers walk out into the sunshine, stepping lighter with every stride.
Three weeks later, the Canlis brothers are back in Seattle, and they still haven’t decided which barrel they want to buy. While they wish they could purchase one from Springbank—which most captivated them in taste, soul and spirit—the brothers can’t convince the distillery to part with one. The men did return with what they wanted most: stories to tell and real-life relationships with the people who make the whisky they obsess over. “It’s not like we failed,” says Mark. “I mean, if we went to Tibet for a few days, would we have found inner peace?”
Single Malt Scotland Tour
The distilleries the Canlis brothers visited all offer tours and recommend advance booking.
An iconic producer in the northeast Speyside region, famed for its smooth whisky. The visitors’ center features multimedia exhibits on every step of the distilling process. themacallan.com.
The huge still room has a stunning view of the strait between Islay and Jura. It produces a good entry-level Islay bottle that’s relatively light on smoke and peat. discovering-distilleries.com.
The tiny Islay distillery is in a beautiful setting down a single-lane road. kilchomandistillery.com.