Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Islay and a wee dram or three!

Thankfully we were warned last night how there is a sea mist most mornings - otherwise when I woke in the early morning I might have been disappointed. As we look to the east, the Paps of Jura (normally visible) are shrouded in large white fluffy clouds that peak high above the other cloud layers. The cloud does not look out of place and it is only knowing that there are the highest peaks under them that makes you want to be able to blow them away.

Breakfast is in the restaurant overlooking the bay and we both choose to have the scrambled egg with smoked salmon - a light and fluffy concoction that is a delicious start to our day.

Owners of the Harbour Inn, Neil and Carol give us a copy of a small booklet titled Islay Gems have put together that gives a beautifully written local insight to the island. It is this sort of hospitality that we treasure the most as it can take you places that the 'commercial' tourist will never find. So we are off to explore their world.

Initially we headed for the southern tip of Islay taking in beautiful scenery on a blustery and somewhat overcast day. Not bad, just not bright. The wildlife is amazing and just exists along with the other activities on the island. It lends an air of the surreal to pass massed geese feeding on grasses while the daily chores of life continue.

We almost miss an obscure sign that points down a track to an ancient monument - the Ancient Burial Ground of the Clan Donald. Now we don't have the space on the blog to talk at length of the history of the island, but suffice to say that it was clan based with the leaders of all the clans based here. What was very appealing about this site is that is sits adjacent to the present cemetery and as we ponder the lives of those long gone, council workers were preparing a site for the latest to depart this world. Some things just never change and the inevitable end for us all may be but a moment away. But what a magical spot to finally rest the weary bones - walking alongside the ancients!

We continued around the eastern coast towards Portnahaven and the southern tip of the Isle before turning north to travel along the western coastline. Portnahaven is much like the other settlements on the island with the white-washed houses attached and trims painted different colours, but it is much hiller than the central area where the ports are located and where we are staying. This is a very different landscape that is battered by the best that the Atlantic Ocean and winds can throw at it. The seas are much bigger and the coves much deeper and more eroded. There are not too many beaches here - I guess that they are devoured by the hungry sea around here. We are travelling up the west coast looking for a stone circle and ruins of a medieval church.

Travelling on the 'main' road along the west coast (of the same style and grade of road as Bidwill Road back home), we encounter all sorts of local livestock. Much of this land is not fenced and every once in a while we pass over yet another cattle grid. It is lambing season here and there are lots of ewes with recent babes jumping nervously after them. The adult animals however do not seem at all perturbed by cars and you need to verbally encourage them out of your way from time to time!

We find the church easily enough on the roadside at Kilchiaran and Michael is impressed that the altar and the font are still in place. There are also a number of burial markers inside the chapel.

And now we are on to the real purpose of our visit here - the sinlge malt whisky distilleries! The Bruichladdich Distillery was the first of the island's most famous industries that we spent some time at. Arriving about 1 pm, we were too early for the tour that started at 2:30 pm so we went into the shop to have a look. Greeted by the friendly and lively Karen and Paula (I mean, we are not in Champagne so we had better not refer to them as effervescent!) we were invited to partkae in a wee taste. Thought I had better not be rude and refuse - ha ha ha! Poor Michael had to be content with getting all the information that they were sharing with us, but without the benefit of tasting and comparing.

And you know, when you are having a good time, the time goes so quickly. It wasn't long before 2:30 pm (and the tour) was nearing so we decided to stay. While we were in the shop and tasting area we were introduced to the Master Distiller Jim McKewan who had come in to buy a few cans of a famous Diet drink. When I passed a comment about the sacreligiousness of adding such to a beautiful malt whisky his wry comment was that if he were to drink his own brew to slake his thirst that there might be catastrophic results for that whisky! Had to laugh with him.

We set off with Paula on a tour of the distillery that had been resurrected from a permanent closure in the 1990's when the current directors banded together to fund the re-opening. And what a success it has been. That year, the first bottling of whisky was called 2001 Ressurection. Didn't taste it yesterday but if a certain recipient of a bottle in transit holds a drop till I get back I'll be grateful (hey Dot!).

While we were there, a couple of girls who had been staying at the Stonefield Castle Hotel when we were there, and then travelled to Islay on the same ferry as us walked in. Now, you can only ignore someone for so long (LOL). We chatted and got on like houses on fire. It was so nice to have someone to talk with beyond the 'O, where in Australia do you come from / I went there 20 years ago / I always wanted to go!' type conversations. That is, conversations with a bit more depth! Elaine and Helen are staying at Port Ellen and were commenting that dinner options were very limited. So, we invited them to come dine at the Harbour Inn before we briefly parted company.

When they re-opened the distillery they found a few casks from the 1960s and one from 1970 that had not been bottled and they managed to bottle about 900 bottles. Gosh, how I would have loved to buy just one bottle, but at £398 per bottle thought I needed to give it a miss! For £1225 you can buy your own cask and have access to the distillery staff for a period of ten years for discussion re progress and when to bottle etc. An additional approximate £2800 will see it bottled and sent to you (although that would not include the duty into Australia). Now, that would give you about 350 - 400 bottles of your own whisky - named and labelled to your specifications! As much as I love the stuff, it would be too much for me. If anyone wants to set up a whisky club and get a cask with me - email me. So on with the tour we went.

Jim (my latest bestest buddy) came across us (10 in the group) and invited us to visit the warehouse with him. Paula was a bit excited as this happens very rarely. So into the gloom of a darkened longhouse smelling the complex flavours that are cooking in the barrels that lie in orderly rows in front of us. Jim is working with some students (you can do a 4 day course!) and invites us down to talk about the importance of the cask and the maturation processes and how different casks give very different characteristics to the amber liquid.

He takes us to a small cask, knocks out the cork and proceeds to pour samples into plastic nip glasses for us to sample, spilling generous amounts into the rubble at his feet in the process - gosh how I wanted to lie under that barrel so that none would be wasted! Now, this was 86% alcohol. He started firstly by baptising us from the whisky we hold in our glass. Then his instructions to us were to take half of the sample, hold it in our mouths for 4 seconds and then down it - it was like drinking fire! He then says to sip the remainder. By holding the first drop, your palate 'comes up to temperature' with the alcohol, better allowing you to taste the flavours with the sipping - and it works! That drop was like liquid gold. This is the current vintage and has just started the maturation process - watch this space, I will eventually buy just one bottle to try in years to come. Casking can be anywhere from 3 to 30 years - and it is Jim who decides when it is ready to bottle. So much fun in the company of some really genuine and passionate people - thanks guys - we had a ball and it would be a privilege to welcome you back home sometime!
Now, we always bag the banks - now don't we! Today we had a fantastic example of which bank (?) giving great customer service. I had purchased a couple of bottles of the golden amber and arranged to have it sent home. Duly processed and paid for with a promise that Paula and Karen would try to get Jim to sign them for me. We are sitting chatting with Elaine and Helen about 10 minutes later and the mobile rings. It is the Commonwealth Bank in Australia asking whether we have made a $2,600 purchase on our debit mastercard! A few more questions trying to work out what it could possibly be, and the call centre operator told me that the purchase had just been transacted. And the penny dropped. We had been overcharged for the whisky I had just purchased. Now, easy mistake and my fault as much as anyones as I had not picked it up when I signed for it. A sticky '5' digit on the keypad had led to the purchase being recorded as £1,255.20 instead of £125.20. Luckily, it was an easy thing to do to refund the first amount and then re-charge the correct figure - which we all checked very carefully. So there you have it - the bank fees we all pay can win out for you sometimes. Good on you, Commonwealth Bank, service well rendered!

Back at the hotel, we decide to have a quick cuppa before dinner and so to the conservatory to partake in the late afternoon view. There we bump into another of the guests here (Mark) and strike up a conversation. Gosh, it was so nice to talk talk talk today - DON'T ANY OF YOU DARE TO LAUGH - you have no idea how I am missing the opportunites to just chat.

It isn't long before Helen and Elaine arrive and we all 5 have a drink while we decide on our menu choices. Seafood chowder to start for 4 of us and Elaine has the Venison entree. Most of us decide to have the Prime Islay Fillet Steak (on a duxelle of wild mushrooms with caramalised eschallots and a single malt whisky sauce) for the mains. We kind of share desserts at the end of the night. Good company and good food are always a recipe for a great time and we truly enjoy tonight. Elaine and Helen have to drive back to Port Ellen and although it is not far - about 11 miles, just remember that they are driving on a twisting Bidwill Road. They leave after dinner about 9:30 pm and Michael and I and Mark adjourn to the conservatory for coffee, whisky, cider and then some! Oh yes, and we solved the mysteries of human nature while we were at it.

And finally a couple more photos from the west of the Isle of
Islay that I just had to share. The top one shows a pure water loch in a basin on the cliffside while behind it is the Atlantic Ocean that can also be seen in the background of the second photo. And finally, geese just pecking away. About 25,000 geese land on the island each and every day!

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