Islay: It's a small world
Sometimes making plans regarding which casks we should bottle and when can be a little tricky. We see new casks come and go on a weekly basis in our never-ending search for the next special-something, so ‘the schedule’ is always subject to change.
This year Brendan and I were determined to make the trip to Islay for the annual Fèis Ile. The week-long malt and music festival is one of Scotch whisky’s biggest events, in which each distillery on the island takes a day to celebrate another year of hard work with live bands, great food, special tastings and exclusive releases.
Of course we couldn’t turn up without a couple of interesting Islay bottlings of our own to show off a bit, so plans were laid down some time ago to ensure we could make the crossing with a few aces up our sleeves...
Islay is a special place to many of us, its legacy so distinct that it is still considered a unique region of whisky production in its own right. Certainly one reason for this is the number of big names that call the island home, such as Laphroaig, now a hugely popular single malt around the world, Caol Ila which features in a myriad of different blends, or the ever-innovative Bruichladdich. There are also new stories to follow; the team at Kilchoman are seriously hitting their stride, while another new distillery is up and running in the form of Ardnahoe.
Beyond the surprising scale of whisky production on the island, I would argue that the joy of visiting Islay is in being welcomed into a community that lives and breathes Scotch whisky and its heritage. Managers and operators in competing distilleries grew up on the island, went to school together and now work alongside one another. Surrounding fields grow barley specifically for the production of local whisky, while all along the roadsides are stacks of peat drying in the remarkably persistent sunshine.
The result is an experience in whisky that is greater than the sum of its parts; at no time is this more evident than during the festival. Yes, we drank some very nice whiskies and got to be among the first to form an opinion on this year’s festival bottlings, but it was all amidst a setting that immediately begins to feel like a home away from home. There are really only a few roads on Islay; a small number of pubs, restaurants and hotels, and of course a handful of distilleries. In the course of a week you start running into the same familiar faces. There’s a sense of shared experience.
To give an example, I’d like to briefly flaunt some of our own recent work and mention the latest ex-sherry cask of Bruichladdich to be included in our range: matured for fourteen years, this whisky was so dark it immediately grabbed attention. Brendan selected the cask when he was working with the Laddie team last year, so it only seemed fitting that we’d be able to bring this one back for the festival (fortunately it turned out to be an absolute cracker).
When Brendan first journeyed to Islay it was somewhat of a pilgrimage, finally finding himself on the ferry with a group of friends after having travelled all the way from Singapore. By sheer coincidence, sitting not more that a few seats away was well-known industry expert Jim McEwan, who was at the time working to breathe new life into Bruichladdich distillery. Before long drams & stories were being shared and Brendan along with his companions were invited to join Jim in trying some special whiskies at Laddie’s warehouse later in the week. Sure enough this remains Brendan’s favourite distillery to this day, and many whisky lovers around the world have a similar story. Whisky is a passion that goes beyond the mere quality of the liquid, not just for those who make it but also for anyone who enjoys it. We forge connections with places, people and occasions.
Islay itself, home to some of the world’s most distinct whiskies, remains a close-knit community in which these kinds of coincidences happen all the time. A the end of our week we caught time to relax in the excellent Port Bar at Port Askaig, admiring their collection over a beer before our ferry back to the mainland. We got chatting to the barman, Sandy; as it turned out, Sandy’s wife is a cousin of Jim McEwan and Sandy himself, with his experience in mechanical engineering, had worked with Jim on refurbishing Bruichladdich’s old equipment.
So just like that everything seemed to come full circle as we discussed Bruichladdich's revival, our most recent trip to Islay ending in much the same way as Brendan’s first began. This sort of experience is precisely why we recommend making the trip to enjoy the festival one year, and it is why so many people go back time after time. No doubt some of us will be there again next year and we look forward to many more coincidences and reunions.