Comfort and joy

Comfort and joy

Whisky pilgrims , tourists, locals- this summer's Islay Festival attracted fans from around the globe. Michael Jackson reports on a time to remember, while Marcin Miller travels east to catch up on the festivities in Speyside.

Awards & Events | 16 Sep 2000 | Issue 11 | By Michael Jackson

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Do young people enjoy whisky? 13-year-old Joe Byrne certainly does. Nosing but not tasting, he identified four out of eight local malts in a competition at the Islay Festival of Whisky and Music. His prize was a bottle of Laphroaig. Joe was there with a his nine-year-old brother Alexander and their parents. The Byrnes seem to be quite a family: they run a successful wine merchant’s, with a good selection of malts, in the small and economically depressed northern English town of Clitheroe.The only people who did better than Joe in the nosing (all with five correct) were his father Andrew; my professional colleague Martine Nouet, from Paris; and Bert Hellige, of the Inner Circle Whisky Club, Berlin. Possibly the loudest applause was for the highest-scoring local nose: Isabel McAllister, who until her retirement worked in the Port Ellen post office. Like Joe, she correctly identified four of the malts. Another competition, in peat-digging, was coached by a professional, Norman Campbell. The contest, in lightly blustery conditions, was won by England, but it was a disputed result. Any international tension was dissipated by generous drams round a peat bonfire.The sea, the wind and the peat are ever-present aromas on Islay, making it easy for visitors to understand these key elements in Scotch whisky. The extent of Islay’s dependence on malting and distilling, and the close nature of an island community added to the intensity of the experience. As a veteran of distillery tours, I have never seen so much first-hand knowledge imparted with such enthusiasm. The visitors responded with equal energy, whether they were locals, casual holidaymakers or whisky pilgrims:
shovelling malt, sampling wash, bunging casks, even rolling them, guessing the ages of malts – and, of course, drinking them.The talented taster, Mrs McAllister, told me her husband had worked in a warehouse at Lagavulin, but she had never visited a distillery. After taking the tour of Lagavulin, she decided she was going to visit the rest throughout the week. Laphroaig offered three tours in a day, and was still sold out. French honeymooners cycled from one distillery to the next, and were offered a huge platter of Islay oysters at Bowmore. Visitors from Japan, Australia, Canada, Sweden, The Netherlands and Belgium danced with locals in a ceilidh featuring songs in Gaelic and the curiously-gabbled mouth-music. American, English and Scottish stereotypes were aired with period style in a rare screening of ‘The Maggie’, an Ealing comedy shot on Islay. The screening was introduced, with behind-the-scenes anecdotes, by Rex Hipple, who worked on the crew. He was making a sentimental journey to the island after 47 years. Every glimpse of 1950s Islay drew ripples of recognition from older members of the audience. Islay today still has few hotels or restaurants, and even that seemed to work to the advantage of the festival. On the ferry, I met a visitor from Minneapolis who was delighted to be staying in a distillery cottage at Bunnahabhain. One of the best meals I had consisted of Islay scallops at Lagavulin. Not every establishment has a kitchen, but the Port Ellen maltings barbecued venison sausage in the fireboxes beneath the kilns. Nor could I ever visit Islay without eating a clootie dumpling at Ardbeg.An early morning walk on a deserted beach, and a dram à deux in the dunes is an even more sinful pleasure. Back in Bowmore, on my last night, the moon silhouetted the pagoda, and a piper was playing Going Home. The 28th April until the 8th May saw the second Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival taking place throughout the heart of whisky production, Speyside. This was a much more ambitious project than the long weekend of last year. Once again, all aspects of the whisky community were involved, from producers to retailers, coopers to artists, and Whisky Magazine was present throughout the week. The programme had something to interest everyone, from the whisky neophyte to the seasoned connoisseur. From a smuggler’s tour of Glenlivet, via comedian Phil Kay, to Robin Laing, Scotland’s premier singer/songwriter, there was something to cater for every taste.Such was the extent of the programme, we couldn’t be everywhere at once, and so didn’t manage to witness every event that was on. It was great, however, to bump into some old friends and to make a lot of new ones.Festival highlights included
Charlie MacLean’s series of tutored tastings at The Craigellachie Hotel, including The Theory and Practice of Whisky Tasting.Michael Jackson hosted a fantastic breakfast at Glenfarclas; although 8.30am seemed a trifle early for many of the guests to actively enjoy the piper. But the splendid setting of the Ships Room was perfect for an extended breakfast. Clearly, the highlight was pouring a dram of Glenfarclas 105 onto the porridge. This was rocket fuel for the soul.A series of talks by newly-appointed administrator, David Stirk at The Whisky Shop in Dufftown.The on-going Speyside food festival at Baxters; an opportunity to sample delicious haggis, sausages, black puddings, white puddings, shortbread, soup and, of course, whisky.Our very special thanks go to;
Caroline Mitchell and her industrious team at The Glenlivet, Libby Lafferty and the William Grant & Sons team at Glenfiddich, Yvonne Thackeray at Strathisla, Rebecca Richardson at Glenfarclas, Edwin Dodds and Pauline Donald at Glen Moray, Stephen Duncan at Baxters, Duncan Elphick and the staff of The Craigellachie Hotel. Finally, congratulations to all at the Aberdeen & Grampian Tourist Board for staging the event.We look forward to seeing everyone at the Festival in 2001.
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