The sea is like a sheet of glass. No sound as the prow cuts though the water. Jura is a fuzz on the starboard side and where Islay should be ... nothing. We’re sailing into a patch of brilliant sunlight to a mysterious island. Only two drivers wave at us as we make our way from Port Askaig to Port Charlotte, evidence of lots of tourists. I wonder if part of taking your driving test on Islay involves being able to wave and steer at the same time. I meet Iain MacLellan and get the keys to our cottage which is next door to the Lochindaal Hotel (which he also owns). “There might be a bit of noise tonight, we’ve got a few musicians coming in,” he says. At 11.30pm a piper starts up outside our window. We go to the bar to find a wall of accordionists, a mandolin player, a guitarist, drummer ... and the piper. They rage through a selection of crowd-pleasers. Everyone who enters is grabbed and asked if they play or sing. Drams
are flying. The bar’s run out of Bruichladdich. Overheard conversation: “We make pickles.” “Looks like you’ve done a good job on yourself. Have a dram.”Day 2, Sunday 27th May 2001
I drive out from my base to see the recently reopened White Hart in Port Ellen. There’s a kitschy display in the corner, all fisherman’s nets, diver’s helmets and a realistic-looking dummy of an old salt. I’m wondering why they’ve let a mannequin take up valuable space when it suddenly moves and staggers to the door – spending three minutes trying to work out how to get out. From there I buy fresh herbs from Claire at Gruinart House. The sound of Loch Lomond hangs over the scented garden as her husband Robert practises for Tuesday evening’s festivities. Rooks and children’s shouts act as a backing chorus.Day 3, Monday 28th May 2001
It’s off to Port Ellen Maltings and a chance to glimpse into a forgotten world. Whisky making on Islay doesn’t start at a distillery but here and the guys, led by Manager John Thompson, are setting the record straight. “You can’t make whisky with poor malt” is the message throughout a detailed, but easily understandable tour during which volunteers are roped in to shovel peat onto the massive fires and fed roe deer burgers (peat smoked naturally). In the control room there are samples of malt, water, new make and mature whisky from each distillery. What’s the top FAQ? I ask John. “Where do you get your t-shirts?” he replies. There’s two free drams of any Islay malt for everyone at the end. The most popular? Bruichladdich and Caol Ila.Day 4, Tuesday 29th May 2001
The day of Bruichladdich’s opening is sunny and warm and 1,200 people turn out to be serenaded by pipers, watch four ex-employees cut the tape and cheer as the newly painted gates are pushed open. Somehow, in the space of three months, a run-down shell has been turned into a smart, vibrant, working distillery. People throng the courtyard: there’s music, free drams, tours, a BBQ and a sensation of happy chaos. There’s a plane doing aerobatics 90 feet above our heads. Everyone is walking around with silly grins, embracing, laughing, drinking in the atmosphere.I end up on a Richard Joynson (Loch Fyne Whiskies) tour during which little-known facts about the plant were revealed: hamsters with cheeks full of barley inside the mill, hot air balloons carrying the grist and parachutists taking it into the mash tun. It’s insights like these which make whisky such a fascinating subject. Somehow I’m roped into taking two tours. I apologise sincerely to anyone unfortunate enough to have taken one of my tours and learnt how to accidently reach the boiler house from a variety of differing distillery locations. I come away, head spinning and feeling deep satisfaction. For almost as long as I’ve known Jim McEwan he’s been talking about his plans for a whisky academy, of making a hand-crafted whisky the old way. He’s found kindred spirits in Murray McDavid. The impossible dream has been achieved, Bruichladdich is awake again and Islay’s spirits are high. I get driven by the ever-patient Jo to a rainy Lagavulin for a grand tour, with Iain MacArthur in fine form giving people a taste of 27-year-old Lagavulin then pouring it on their heads. I spot a very damp Jim Beveridge patiently explaining the intricacies of maturation and defending himself against midges and hostile questions about caramel. While eating scallops in the smirr with pipe music drifting in from the walls of Dunyvaig Castle it strikes me that whisky lovers are hardy creatures impervious to the elements. It’s back to the ‘Laddie in the evening for a ceilidh. I inadvertently create a new cocktail: Irn-Bruichladdich, before a spectacular firework display gives a new meaning to the lights of Lochindaal. There’s oysters, cigars and dancing. For some reason I end up with what looks like a half-pint of whisky and I soon feel even more happy than I did before. The party decants to the Port Charlotte Hotel and the pipes keep going until 3am.Day 5, Wednesday 30th May 2001
The island wakes up with the loudest collective groan it’s known since the Millennium and starts all over again: this time with Bowmore.
There’s 120 people on the morning super tours before a few brave souls head to meet Norrie Campbell: peat cutter and Islay’s answer to Fatboy Slim. He’s giving a masterclass on how to cut peat, which ain’t as easy as it looks – as most people discover when they try to follow his example and slice through the oozing mass.Day 6, Thursday 31st May 2001
I whizz across to Jura House and its surreally beautiful gardens which thrive in what you’d think would be a hostile climate. A quick few mouthfuls of haddock and back to the ferry in plenty of time to make it to Laphroaig for Iain Henderson’s 3pm tour. Trouble is, the ferrymen seem to be having an extended lunch – necessitating a mad dash across Islay. I and my fellow ferry passengers arrive at Laphroaig seven minutes late to find Iain stalling for time in order for “some bloody writer” to arrive.It’s worth the rush. Two and a half hours of wit and wisdom from the man who has become the personification of Laphroaig. His talk takes in the history of the distillery, Gaelic and in-depth technical information – did you know that the malt kilned at the distillery has a different phenolic profile to that made for Laphroaig at Port Ellen? He blows apart the myth of water being important, talks of the importance of the first distillation, his preference for American barrels and rails against the absurd ‘rain tax’. “If this is imposed Islay’s not going to have one museum, it will have eight.” A masterly performance.The deteriorating weather means we’ll miss the Laphroaig ceilidh, so I arrive at Martine Nouet’s house with three women in tow. Martine’s having a feast for a few friends including Norma Munro who has the purest, most haunting singing voice in the world. A bucket is produced to catch the tears. Michael (Jackson) shows a previously unknown love of Lassie Wi The Yellow Coatie and I wipe away a tear over The Fields of Athenry. When Helen starts up On Ilkley Moor it’s clearly time to go.Day 7, Friday 1st June 2001
It’s 8.30am and we’re heading back to Jura and it’s raining. There’s a bunch (hoggie?) of Feis-ites suitably clad in anoraks shivering at the quay as their bus gets loaded onto the ferry. We head to Jura’s new visitor centre where we’re met by Manager Mickey Heads, his right-hand man Willie Cochrane and Richard Paterson who I suspect must be behind the natty new work shirts which give the crew the look of safari tour guides, though the only members of Jura’s wildlife present today are its ferocious midges.Willie takes us round showing us his big balls (used for bonging the wash still) before handing the Feis-ites to Richard who gives them the big picture of whisky, filled with passion, dates, theories and wild digressions. By the time we get to Islay he’s in full flow. “If you want to know about Bruichladdich, don’t ask Jim McEwan, ask me,” he says. Your bosses shouldn’t have closed it and sold it then, Richard!It’s followed by a blending competition (first prize a 33-year-old Jura) a lunch of venison casserole and then back to the ferry where, despite the steadily falling rain, a madman from Minnesota decides to stand on deck and play his pipes.
It was impossible to do full justice to Jura, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain on the one day so, sadly, the Caol Ila visit is dropped. At Bunna’, Manager John MacLellan is in fine form, obviously delighted that the plant is about to start working flat out again and (deservedly) over the moon with his 1965 bottling.It’s home to change and straight back to Bunnahabhain for the Manager’s evening. Due to Percy MacPherson (Bowmore) being unwell and Mickey Heads having a leak in his condenser (ouch!), Michael and I are suddenly thrust on stage to fight for the north in ‘A Question of Spirit’ or as scorer Richard Joynson calls it: ‘Do They Think They’re All Sober?’With Jim McEwan as chairman, we’ve to answer home or away questions, or tell a story for more points. Instantly, everything deteriorates into chaos, with John MacLellan and Jim leading the barrage of abuse against the aged, (allegedly) be-wigged engineer Iain Henderson “a man who learned all he knows about whisky while sailing up and down the Forth & Clyde canal”. Richard was beginning to resemble the demented figure perched on top of his Living Cask, John Thompson revealed a previously hidden scatological side with his tales of toilet-loving gaugers, Stuart Thomson (Ardbeg) topped that with a (unprintable) story to do with leaks and tiny medical cameras, Jim gave us the story about the snowball, Donald Renwick (Lagavulin) wore his Lagavulin strip, John kept my glass full and fed me constant one-liners. There was heckling from the audience and 50 empty bottles by the end.These people had been to school together, have worked together, respect each other utterly (“we might give Iain abuse, but he’s the first guy I’d turn to if there was a problem in the plant,” said one Manager to me during the break). Whisky is about more than technical details, it’s about enjoying life and revelling in other people’s company. By the way, the north won!Day 8, Saturday 2nd June 2001A stiff breeze propels us to Ardbeg. For some reason the visitor centre reminds me of a smart winery in Margaret River. Perhaps it’s the airiness of the old kiln, the great food, the up-to-date and relevant merchandise, or the laid-back atmosphere. One day all visitor centres will be like this.Jackie Thomson is beetling about serving up a delicious whisky lunch while husband Stuart is hosting each tour, mysteriously returning at the end of each one looking happier than he had the previous time. The reason was to be found in one of the old warehouses where he was pouring the new (and wonderful) 1977 vintage: which helped the time fly a wee bit too fast and it was back to PA for the ferry.It’s never easy leaving Islay. A little bit more of your heart seems to stay there each time you visit. This time was harder than most. We’ve all been touched by its friendliness, the camaraderie, the generosity of spirit and the sense of community. We’ve learned about the differences between the malts, but also the sense of community. We sit at the stern and watch as the island slowly disappears. All pictures courtesy of Richard Joynson at Loch Fyne Whiskies. For more pictures and his take on the Islay Whisky Festival 2001, log on to: www.lfw.co.uk/swr