"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Farewell Islay, until the next time

The Isle of Jura Distillery was the last one to visit on this leg of my journey and I left Jura the same way I came, although really I had no choice as there is only one road on the island and I didn’t fancy swimming across the sound.  I headed first for Bowmore for a quick stop for the answer to the last question I had left, promising that I was leaving on a ferry that afternoon so wouldn’t be around to pester them any more.  The main square in Bowmore had just been redeveloped with a map of the island laid in the middle, an outline and names of towns and villages that now feel very familiar to me.

Map of Islay in Bowmore town square
I also stopped by Islay Ales to pick up a couple of cases to meet some orders I had brought from friends in Edinburgh who are fans of their beer.  Islay Ales have a tag line ‘Ales from the Isle of Malts’, which could shorten to AftIoM, which is almost like ‘axiom’ (self evident, generally accepted) and I think that Axiom would be a great name for their next beer – Axiom Ale, you heard it here first!  I also predicted that Kilchoman would plant vineyards at the farm to produce their own wine and provide finishing barrels for their whisky.  If either idea comes true then I will suspect that the fairies are up to mischief again.

Wish I had a beer shelf like this
I made one further stop before arriving at Port Ellen for the ferry, a detour via the old high road out of Bowmore.  I passed by where a farm distillery was worked at Tallant for 31 years in the early 19th century and I then arrived at Laggan Bridge, where the old High Road crosses the River Laggan, not realising that I had crossed over the Bowmore Distillery Lade on the way.  The road has been straightened slightly and the remains of the old Laggan Bridge stand overgrown beside the new one, but the largest river on Islay was running swiftly so hopefully no more water shortages for Bowmore this year.

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
Roll it back to Barnard’s time and most of the whisky in Scotland would have smoky and peaty notes, from “the celebrated Orkney peats” used at Highland Park, through a Glenlivet “fired principally with peat” to the Bladnoch kilns that were “heated with peats…supplied from a handsome peat shed”.  Yup, all true!  Bourbon barrels (first introduced by Laphroaig in the 1920s) and wine finishes were unheard of in a time when industrial scale production was also the exception.

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
Once on board the ferry I wandered up to the deck for a last look at the port.  The Tall Ship I had seen at Bunnahabhain the day before had made it here safely and was berthed across from the Tall Silo that receives barley from the vessels that unload here to supply the nearby maltings.  The very beginnings of whisky on my left and the enjoyment of the final product on my right, those few yards belying the years of craft and care that lie between the two.

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
A few people on Islay made the same suggestion independently - if I come to write a book of my journey at the end of all this then I have to come to Islay to write it.  Perhaps by listening to the stills at the dead of night, breathing in the sea air, walking with the ghosts of our ancestors at Finlaggan and being enchanted by the majestic wildlife that happily calls Islay home, I could somehow hope to infuse each page with the spirit(s) of this magical isle.

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