|Map of Islay in Bowmore town square|
|Wish I had a beer shelf like this|
While waiting in the queue for the ferry I began to reflect on my trip here. Everywhere I had gone I had been met with a warm welcome, a smile, and happy, relaxed people who were genuine in their enthusiasm for whisky and for Islay. I think you can get distillery fatigue after quite a few visits but every tour I did here offered something different to see or experience, or inspiration for a new idea. Every road I drove down, every hill I climbed, every place I rested my head or stopped to eat, every one provided a story to tell and a happy memory.
I also reflected on the variety of whisky styles across and between the south coast distilleries, and those to the west and also the east. I love smoky and peaty aromas in my whisky, with a taste of the sea’s influence in the glass as well, but the sweeter notes also available in many Islay whiskies are growing on me as my tasting becomes more informed. When someone says “I do/don’t like Islay style whiskies” we know what they mean by that but the reality is that the range of Islay whiskies available often defies that very description.
|Malt drying in peat smoke|
A relatively high phenol count is still a significant marker of this island’s whisky though, a tradition now continued by Kilchoman, and with Port Charlotte due to be rebuilt in the years ahead it will surely have a peaty house style with those PC releases already being matured there. More than that, with these new distilleries there is hope and perhaps even optimism that Islay’s whisky industry has a long proud future ahead, to match the heritage that echoes down and through the ages.
|Port Ellen from ferry|
I managed to avoid the curry and chips this time (it’s just wrong!) with the haddock winning me over, and over coffee after dinner I continued to reflect on my experiences over the last week. I considered what it would be like to live on Islay, distant in every sense from my home city of Edinburgh. I had already picked out Portnahaven as a place to live in timeless serenity and I have my notional plot of land at Laphroaig where I had planted my flag. My short stays at the Youth Hostel and the Bridgend Hotel left me with fond memories of those hospitable locations as well. I felt a spiritual connection, as if a little part of me remained beyond the rainbow, a magnet to draw me back.
|My own small piece of Islay|
I am only a third of the way into my journey and I can imagine that the other islands, the mountains and glens of the highlands and the rolling hills of the lowlands still ahead will all whisper their own secrets and provide further inspiration, clamouring for my attention and bidding me to return to each of them too. That’s all for the future, but I certainly hope to revisit Islay later this year, perhaps in May for the festival week, Fèis Ìle, when the whole island is vibrant with ‘music and malt’.
For now, well we have reached the bottom of the Islay glass, the last of the gentle smoky aroma lifting through the senses to spark memories of what went before. More than anything else whisky is designed for sharing and I am grateful to everyone on Islay for sharing their enchanting spirit with me. Whether from the cask or from the heart, the spirit of Islay draws you in and opens your senses to another world, crossing those liminal points where time slows down and relaxes your very soul. My thanks once more to everyone I met who showed me great kindness and gave me inspiration for the story.
We docked at Kennacraig in good time and I began the now familiar but never dull four hour drive back to Edinburgh. The weather was a bit mixed but better than the last time I drove back from Islay when we hit a blizzard over the Rest and Be Thankful and then an even bigger one all the way along the M8! A text received half way home beckoned me onward to meet friends later that evening. Not quite the pole star that guided me to my bed that first night on Islay but still a light on the distant horizon to draw me home.
My next journey had to be put on hold for a while and then that winter blast hit hard to keep me in shackles for a while longer; nice to have proper seasons back again though, and a welcome dram by an open fire to get through it. It’s warmer now and the days are lengthening so the history of the west coast distilleries are the next stories to tell. Seven in total, including two more islands, we begin again soon at Glendarroch in Ardrishaig and finish that leg of the journey in another remote distillery surrounded by rugged mountains that just make you go WOW!, and if they don't then I can thoroughly recommend a trip to Islay as a cure for your malaise. Slàinte!
There’s an island in the sea
I can feel it calling me
It’s sometimes far, sometimes near
Sometimes the weather makes it disappear.
From Islands, by Robin Laing