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Continued: Follow whiskey trail in Ireland, Scottish isles

  • Article by: PETER MANDEL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 9, 2013 - 2:24 PM

“No, not Taytoland,” corrects the taxi driver I’ve contracted for the trip. “Tayto Park. Potato attractions, you know. Characters shaped like a spud.”

Of course, of course, I say.

Tayto Park’s chief character, Mr. Tayto, sports a necktie and top hat that’s slightly too small for him, and is chased around nearly everywhere by clusters of small children. I tag along, too.

According to my brochure, there’s a factory tour to see how crisps are made, plus “plenty of good grub, adventure, animals and a few surprises.” Among these surprises, at least for me, is the park’s Pow Wow Playground, its Geronimo Thrill Zone and its Native American Village.

Am I in Ireland or Oklahoma? It is high time, I think, to get back on the trail.

Onto Islay

For my Scotch whisky tastings, I head for Islay (pronounced “Eye-lah”), the southernmost island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides and about 25 miles north of the Irish coast. Sometimes called “The Queen of the Hebrides,” Islay is known for its strong peaty flavors. Scotches distilled here tend to be single-malts, as opposed to the blends I’ve mostly encountered in Ireland.

Instead of flying or boarding a ferry, I chip in for a share of a charter boat with some other Americans I’ve met. What we get is something called the Kintyre Express, a rigid, inflatable speedboat. In minutes, we are shooting spray and ricocheting off the tops of whitecaps. This may be the Irish Sea, but in the glinting sunlight, it says Scotland, Scotland, Scotland: It is as blue as a loch.

Out on deck, I talk with first mate Jimmy MacLean of Campbelltown. “Ye see a lo’ of dolphins here,” he tells me. “Puffins, as well.”

As if on cue, MacLean begins a jag of pointing out invisible animals and birds that are supposedly demanding attention on our port side.

Me: “What are we seeing?”

MacLean: “Puffin!”

Me: “Where?”

MacLean: “Gone now. Ye’re too slow.”

Me: “Are puffins black and white?”

MacLean: “No. White an’ black.”

My first Scottish distillery feels more convoluted than what I’ve seen so far. A study in shiny brass and scoured copper, Laphroaig is almost steampunk with its valves and pipes and dials. If Willie Wonka owned a distillery instead of a chocolate factory, this would be it.

My tastes here are on the strong side. I feel like I’m swallowing liquid oysters that have been smoked over an open fire. But the label’s freshly whitewashed buildings and water views make me linger long into the evening, picking my way along pebbly beachfronts before heading to town.

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