Nothing quite beats the thrill of visiting a distillery by water. Dominic Roskrow looks at the link between whisky and sailing.
These are tense moments. Sturdy breeze is cutting up the water, choppy waves are rocking our boat Grampus, and we’re edging forward like a hesitant toddler towards two posts as wide as a goal mouth.In front of us are beauty and the beasts: the imposing grandeur of Lagavulin Distillery, and in front of it, ancient and jagged rocks. They’re not the worst of problems: the readings tell us that our hull is scraping the rocky bottom.The poles mark the only access to the little bay in front of the distillery and our skipper Stuart Robertson, a mask of tight-lipped concentration, has gone pale.I’ve only seen him tense once before, and that unfortunately was when he was shouting and swearing at me. Mind you, he did have a point. I was in the process of capsizing Grampus at the time.We edge forward towards sister boat Eda Frandsen, which is already safely moored. The hull groans, the engine protests and we reverse back. The tension is palpable. And then suddenly we’re through and in, alongside Eda Frandsen, whose captain is already pouring a large Lagavulin for our visiblyrelieved skipper.“There’s no better way to get to Lagavulin than by sea,” announces Diageo’s director of malts Nick Morgan. Stewart acts like he hasn’t heard him. But this is the moment when it all makes sense. When the intrinsic link between sailing and whisky is most obviously reinforced. With anchor down, with the sun out and early evening sending shadows across the wonderful distillery in front of us, whisky never tasted so good and malt never had so much meaning.If you haven’t watched a distillery grow larger as your boats cuts through the waves and shards of seawater caress your face, then you should: and if you’ve never toasted your crew mates with a glass of malt made in that very same distillery you’re depriving yourself of one of life’s greatest and simplest pleasures.Stuart Robertson would no doubt disagree, but whisky and sailing works because of moments like these: when a frisson of danger and excitement reminds you that you’re outside your comfort zone, at the mercy of storm and sea, that nature can rise up and take you out. It’s highly unlikely, of course, and on an organised cruise such as the Classic Malts, nobody’s going to take c h a n c e s .But no matter: you can revel in the potential for danger.There are other links between sailing and whisky, too. Both attract people who tend to like to work hard and play hard; the difference between the two camps is they approach work and play from opposite ends. But we meet at the symbolic moment when the anchor goes down and the bottle comes out, and a invisible door shuts the work part of the day away. Whisky never tastes better when you think you’ve earned it, even if your contribution to the day’s sailing has been little more than pulling on a few ropes and hoisting the odd sail.The Classic Malts Cruise started 14 years ago in 1994, the year of Oban Distillery’s bi-centennial. Although the route between Oban, Talisker and Lagavulin was the same then as it is now, little else was.“Although it was called a cruise that was a grandiose description for effectively what was a tour by two or three boats containing senior Diageo management,” says Nick Morgan. “Then one year we took an American and a Canadian journalist and they said that for it to be complete it needed a big event as part of it and that’s where it took the current form.” This year marks the 10th anniversary of the cruise’s expansion. Join the cruise today – and about 100 boats from across the world do so – and you’ll experience one of the most stimulating and exciting two weeks of your life. I exaggerate not.The cruise itself is a loose sail between Oban, Talisker and Lagavulin and at each one a Ceilidh is held. What you do between events is your business though. It’s an unbeatable combination: wonderful sailing, stunning locations, and three of the world’s greatest malt distilleries. Time it right and you might also throw in Caol Ila at the northern end of Islay, and even moonlight off to one of the other Islay distilleries.So are we talking about one alcohol-soaked jolly with a bit of fair-weather sailing thrown in? Not a bit of it. The sailing is taken very seriously indeed.“If a guest chooses to have a drink while sailing that’s fine, but water and whisky really don’t mix,” says the first mate on Grampus this year, Heidi Frith. “Certainly when I’m skippering I have a strict no alcohol rule among crew when sailing and I know most skippers feel the same. It’s rightly frowned upon, but then that’s the whole point – when you’ve finished sailing it’s a different matter entirely.” From a sailing point of view the whisky link has done nothing but good for sailing off Scotland. Stuart Robertson says there has been a change in attitudes among overseas sailors towards the islands in recent years.“I think it’s fair to say that Diageo has quite literally stretched people’s horizons,” he says.“A few years back not that many people sailed much further than Tobermory on Mull.Sailing to Talisker with the cruise has opened people’s eyes to the idea of sailing up to Skye, and that’s got to be good for Scotland.” Nick Morgan agrees.“Alot of these boats from Northern Europe have been put out of their comfort zone and they have been very brave,” he says. “But it’s like anything – when you’ve done it once and realized it’s not so scary you want to do it again and again. And some of these people are coming back at other times and revisiting the distilleries or telling their friends. It’s expanded sailing off the West Coast.” Not that Diageo organizes the event for philanthropic reasons. There is cool and collected logic in the event, too.“In purely financial terms we can measure that the value of publicity from the huge amount of editorial coverage we have had far outweighs the cost of running it,” says Morgan. “It’s massively benefitted Talisker in particular. It’s reached the point now where most serious sailing clubs know about the cruise, and it’s on the wish-list of most sailors.” So much so, in fact, that Diageo is seriously considering the possibility of having a malts cruise in another part of the world, targeting those people who are unable to get to the West Coast of Scotland .Diageo isn’t the only company that has seen the advantage of linking the sea to whisky. Inverhouse owns Old Pulteney, which it markets as the maritime malt, and it has a long link with the sea. Over the last four or five years in particular it has sponsored such as the IRC Scottish Championships and the Little Britain Challenge Cup, and sponsored individual sailors, most recently Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. Over the summer last year more than 6,000 glasses of Old Pulteney were consumed at sailing events.The distillery is at Wick, a town that has given scores of its sons’ lives to the sea and which at one time was one of Europe’s busiest herring ports.“We believe it’s important for Old Pulteney to have close links with its heritage,” says marketing manager Iain Baxter. “Old Pulteney has now fully established itself within the sailing community.” Other distilleries may follow, because the link between coastal distilleries and the sea are pronounced. At Bowmore the inner walls of some warehouses are caked with sea salt, at Bunnahabhain grain was historically delivered by sea. Tobermory nestles at the top of the town’s sweeping beach.And it all makes sense when you stand with a glass of Lagavulin in hand, facing burning from sun and salt as the darkness descends, surrounded by ecstatic fellow sailors, watching images of the flotilla of boats as they are projected on to the distillery walls. The cruise should have ended there, at a point of perfect harmony between whisky and water. In fact it ended one sail later on the mainland at Crinan. I arose at 6am to watch the sun rise on choppy waters and to see Islay fade in to the distance. It was to prove to be our best sailing yet. And then I took the helm.Just a word of warning here. When your boat’s doing over seven knots and the wind is behind you but coming in squalls, concentrate. Hard. My moment came when the wind got particularly fierce and I attempted to steer in to it but the wind pushed the boat back the other way.Skipper Robertson thought I was steering the wrong way and told me to go the other way. But the other way was the wrong way, if you follow me. So the boat veered sideways like a Grand Prix motorcycle taking a fast bend.Our Swedish colleague, who had chosen this very moment to go to the head, was rudely removed from her throne. Brett, our Australian colleague who hadn’t got up yet, was jerked violently awake and then couldn’t get out of his bunk, and the skipper was yelling some pretty strong seaman’s language at me.Suffice to say I was relieved of my duty in shame. Stuart did compose himself enough for my departure and said he’d enjoyed my company but I wasn’t fooled. To be honest, I don’t think he’ll want me back.Pity. I do whisky very well. And one out of two ain’t bad, is it?
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