Nick Morgan serenaded us with a whimsical rendition of ‘Riders in the storm’. The Paps of Jura broke through wispy clouds across the Sound of Ila. A festival edition of Caol Ila in hand. How extraordinary. Even more impressive was the Australian gentleman in the crowd who had made the pilgrimage every year for the last eight years…such is the pull of Feis Ile.
My first ever Islay whisky festival coincided with the 200th anniversary of Lagavulin. A 3 hour queue for the festival bottling was avoided. I made a promise to myself not to get caught up in the buying frenzy and to instead focus on soaking up the atmosphere of this very special occasion. I loved the cooperage display and speaking to enthusiasts from all over the world. So many good stories and so many happy faces. The drams flowed freely from the distillery but also amongst the whisky geeks. Sample bottles emerged from clunking bags and eyebrows raised with interest at each new arrival.
At Bruichladdich, the locals came out in force. We were treated to a wonderful performance from the pipeband and a dram of ‘Yellow Submarine’. I took an impromptu tour of the distillery and got acquainted with ‘Ugly Betty’, the Lomond still used for The Botanist gin. The highlight of the day was sampling a 23 year old rare malt Port Ellen which appeared out of nowhere from a friend of a friend. Serendipity and the stuff you can’t plan is the part I enjoy the most about these gatherings of the faithful!
Peat smoke kilns
Port Ellen Maltings
With hitch-hiking proving to be the best way around the island, I headed for Port Ellen maltings. A fascinating peek at the inside of drum maltings and the wonderful smell of peat smoke roaring through the kilns. It proved to be a welcome addition to the distillery events and added an element of education to the festival experience.
I wish I could have stayed for the full eight days but a four day trip had to suffice. I have no doubt I will be back as Islay is whisky Mecca and the Feis Ile is whisky Hajj. To all the Ilachs dedicated to organising such a remarkable festival, I raise a dram to you. Lang may yer lum reek Feis Ile!
Each empty bottle reflects the passing of time and the true nature of impermanence. Every one of these green soldiers is gone forever. Each a single cask whisky and each like a snowflake – never to be repeated again. Most casks contain only 200-300 bottles and I am unlikely to acquire another. Like the passing of clouds, lightning and morning dew the only constant is change. I could mourn the loss of each of these marvelous drams, stuck in melancholy and attachment to the past. However, I rejoice in the fact that I was alive when mother nature and humankind combined to produce such exquisite, delectable spirits.
I compare the experience of drinking single cask whisky to the creation of a Mandala. Buddhist monks will spend days carefully painting with sand, producing detailed and intricate geometric shapes, only to wipe them away in an instant upon completion. Art is used as a metaphor to be mindful of the transient nature of life.
Buddhist Monks at work on the Mandala (no sneezing allowed!)
All that work wiped away in an instant
Every cask’s journey started in the fields and rivers. Water and barley subject to the climatic and environmental conditions of the time. Then, differing production techniques take over. Floor maltings, drum maltings, Saladin boxes, still shapes, fermentation times, heating sources, wooden washbacks, stainless steel washbacks to name but a few. Then, selection of the cask – Bourbon, Sherry, Port, Wine, Rum. The number of variables is limitless. Years pass in a changing world and then finally the spirit must pass its final test….. The Tasting Panel. Only then will it be bottled by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and made available to members around the world. What an incredible journey, and what a wonderful privilege to experience malts so unique and rare. Single cask whisky rewards the serendipitous adventurer. The senses await in anticipation as to what organoleptic delights the next ten green bottles might bring!
The 10 whiskies were:
3.226 – Cigar Smoke and Newhaven Fish Boxes – 16 year old Bowmore in a refill butt ex-sherry cask, 1 of 615 bottles, 58.3%
27.105 – Too Cool for School – 13 year old Springbank in a refill hogshead ex-sherry cask, 1 of 288 bottles, 53.9%
29.132 – Hospitals and Japanese Restaurants – 21 year old Laphroaig in a refill butt ex-sherry, 1 of 543 bottles, 56.6%
31.26 – BBQ Smoke by a Rolling Sea – 24 year old Jura in a refill hogshead ex-bourbon, 1 of 262 bottles, 53.6%
36.65 – Apple Flavoured Tobacco in a Hookah – 15 year old Benrinnes in a refill barrel ex-bourbon, 1 of 208 bottles, 58.6%
42.13 – Picnic on a Puffer – 8 year old Tobermory (Ledaig) in a refill hogshead ex-bourbon, 1 of 328 bottles, 61.1%
53.202 – A Bracing Outdoors Loving Character – 17 year old Caol Ila in a refill hogshead ex-bourbon, 1 of 164 bottles, 56.4%
73.58 – Simple and Seductive – 21 year old Aultmore in a refill hogshead ex-bourbon, 1 of 253, 57.0%
121.61 – Maggie Thatcher at the Funfair – 14 year old Isle of Arran in a refill barrel ex-bourbon, 1 of 203 bottles, 54.5%
127.39 – Intensely Tasty – 11 year old Port Charlotte in a refill butt ex-sherry, 1 of 579 bottles, 66.7%
This is my first altitude experiment with whisky. This 12 year old Caol Ila made it to 3,842m at the summit of Aiguille du midi. When I opened the bottle it popped like Champagne. I was lucky that it didn’t explode given the change in pressure. The bottle also filled with eerie mist, like that from an Evil Dead film. Below is the Chamonix valley at an altitude of 1,035m. The Alps stretch into the distance towards the ‘expense’ of Geneva. The serene scene disguises the strong wind and the -28°C wind chill. I had an image in my head of the bottle flying off the ledge and smashing on the cliff face below. My hands froze in seconds while fiddling with the camera. It was difficult to perform simple tasks at that altitude. I felt giddy and incoherent. Thankfully the warm, strengthening spirit corrected my malaise. I theorise that Caol Ila could form part of an altitude sickness survival pack (along with coca leaves and an oxygen tank). Despite my oxygen deprived brain, I could still taste the strong peaty aromas of Islay. A powerful whisky is needed for conditions such as these. My highest Scotch yet was an interesting experience. Scotch and snowboarding are such remarkable companions. I wonder what else I could try……
During a recent trip to Harris to view progress of the new Isle of Harris Distillery, I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather to climb a wee hill overlooking the bay of Luskentyre. With such a clear day, St. Kilda was just visible on the horizon. A 17 year old single cask Caol Ila from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society weighed down the backpack but it was worth the effort upon reaching the summit. One of only 164 bottles, 53.202 ‘A bracing outdoors loving character’ is a great companion for any hike. Notes of Kendal Mint cake, salted crackers and blue cheese combine with a creamy, sweet smokiness. Moments like this are what we live for!
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In December 2013, Leipzig was ranked the most livable city in Germany. So what better way to enjoy the good life, than to drink in the views from the ‘Panorama tower’ with a gorgeous 25 year old Caol Ila. This moment was captured by Mareen, a good friend whom I worked with at Edradour Distillery. She says:
“Caol Ila 25 year old is one of my favourite whiskies. Matured for 25 years in bourbon casks. I love the sweet, smokey and salty taste of Islay. This is a must have! Don’t add water to that whisky 🙂
I took this photo from the “Panorama Tower” in Leipzig. This is my new working place. Every day I have a beautiful view above the city and I love to end up the day on the platform with a glass of whisky.”
No wonder the quality of life is so go if this is your daily routine…
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