Almost reverently, Coughlin ran her fingers over the "jolly noisy" belt-driven wooden malt mill that dates to 1881. She poured grist into my palm, explaining that the mix must be just right. "If you get too much flour, it's going to go goopy like glue," she said. "If you get too much husk, you're not going to get enough sugar for fermentation."
Thomson described Ardbeg, the most heavily peated of Islay's malt whiskies, as "the buzz malt." In 1997, he said, "We were selling 20 cases of 12" annually in the United States. "Now, you're talking about 2,200 cases."
We talked about the hands-on, computerless traditions of the island's distilleries. "Mystique is great in Scotland," Thomson said. "We give you the Loch Ness monster, things like that."
Once home, that mystique mingled in my memory with the aroma of smoking peat, the yeasty tang of fermenting barley and the hospitality of the Ileachs.
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From LAX, Continental has direct flights (stop but no change of plane) to Glasgow, Scotland; connecting service (change of plane) is available on American, Air Canada, US Airways, KLM, Aer Lingus, Continental and British Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $646.
From mainland Scotland to the islands, Caledonian MacBrayne operates frequent car/passenger ferries. Reservations required. 011-44-870-565-0000, http://www.calmac.co.uk .
To call the numbers below, dial 011 (international code), 44 (country code for Scotland) and the local numbers.
WHERE TO STAY:
Harbour Inn, The Square, Bowmore, Scotland; 149-681-0330, http://www.harbour-inn.com . Doubles with full breakfast start at $175.
Port Charlotte Hotel, Main Street, Port Charlotte, Scotland; 149-685-0360, http://www.portcharlottehotel.co.uk . Pretty, antiques-filled guest rooms in family-friendly inn fronting on sandy beach. Doubles with full breakfast, about $190.
WHERE TO EAT:
Harbour Inn, Bowmore (see above), serves excellent meals in a pretty blue and white room overlooking Loch Indaal. Reservations recommended. Dinner entrees, $27-$41.
Lochside Hotel, Shore Street, Bowmore; 149-681-0244, http://www.lochsidehotel.co.uk . Food is OK in this lively bar or in the waterfront dining room. Dinner entrees from about $10.