Fèis Ìle

Fèis Ìle

A grand tour on the SS Glen Etive

Travel | 15 Jul 2016 | Issue 137 | By Rupert Parker

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I can't help remembering the film Whisky Galore, which was inspired by a real event in 1941 when a cargo ship sank and its 264,000 bottles of whisky washed up on shore. That was on Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides, but I'm a long way further south on Islay in the Inner Hebrides.

It's Fèis Ìle 2016, the week-long Festival of Malt and Music, and each of the island's eight distilleries take their turn to open up their doors and offer free samples. There are also guided tours, tutored tastings and local folk music. Even better, I'm on a ten day whisky cruise sailing round the islands, putting into a different port each night.

I start in Oban, in the pouring rain, delaying my visit to the distillery there until my return, and board the brand new Glen Etive, pride of the Majestic Line. It's certainly exclusive, with just six cabins, nine passengers, and three crew and this is only its third voyage. An hour's sailing from Oban brings us to our anchorage in Loch Spelve, on the island of Mull, and it's turned into a fine evening. We sit together, round a large rectangular table, and Captain Dave Wheeler briefs us about the cruise. There's no set itinerary, as it all depends on the weather and the state of the seas, but he's confident he'll be able to make it to Islay.

Next day dawns bright and calm, so much so that he decides to brave the whirlpools of the Gulf of Corryvrekan, between the islands of Scarba and Jura. This is a treacherous stretch of water and the combination of tide and wind regularly whips up 15ft waves. Today it's like a millpond and even the whirlpools are less than spectacular. We emerge without mishap and anchor off the village of Scalasaig on the Island of Colonsay. There's no distillery here but it does have its own brewery - a pint of their IPA is most welcome after a long hike to the glorious white sandy beach of Kiloran Bay on the other side of

the island.

My first sight of the Islay distilleries is on our journey through the Sound of Islay, passing Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila but we're not stopping here. Instead we turn north and put into Craighouse on the Isle of Jura. Next day the distillery beckons but I'm off to climb the Paps of Jura, three conical shaped mountains, in the centre of the island. It's a tough walk and the weather's against me, but I get close enough to take in their full majesty as the cloud momentarily lifts. I turn back and have time for a quick tour of the distillery. Of course I can't leave without a dram of their Jura 16 Years Old, salty and seaweedy with a bit of honey, ideal for sending me back to the ship.

Next day we sail to Islay, and the story goes that it was monks from Ireland, only 20 miles away, who introduced the dark arts of distilling. An abundance of barley, peat and dark spring water created the ideal conditions and there are still eight functioning distilleries on the island. We put into Port Ellen, the town dominated by what looks like a functioning distillery. Sadly, they stopped making whisky here in 1983, but they still malt barley for other companies, including Ardbeg. No matter, it's open day at Laphroiag and I set off early, walking a mile east to get there before the crowds arrive.

It's built right next to the sea, like many of the other distilleries, as it was easier to bring raw materials in by boat and get the whisky out again. At the entrance, they're handing out goody bags with tokens for three samples and a special tasting glass. Stalls selling local crafts, seafood and hamburgers entertain the growing crowd while I sip their 10 Years Old, all peat and smoke. From an improvised stage, fiddle and guitar music adds to the festive atmosphere.

I can't linger as I've two more distilleries to visit and the council have obligingly built a footpath, fenced in on either side, just so you don't lose your way. After a mile on this whisky walk I arrive at Lagavulin, sitting in the shadow of the ruined Dunyvaig Castle. The gift shop is doing a roaring trade, with overspill customers from the Laphroiag event, an international mix of German, Dutch and Scandinavians, all snapping up their favourite tipple.

Another mile further on is Ardbeg and even though it's not open day here, they've got a band playing and the restaurant is doing sterling business. A huge copper still, almost a piece of sculpture, overlooks the courtyard and rows of empty casks, their tops still holding water from the rains, sit by the side of the sea. Ardbeg uses the most phenolic malt in the business and the whisky always does well in blind tastings. Their Corryvrekan, named after the whirlpool I passed a few days earlier, belies its name, with swirling aromas and torrents of deep, peaty, peppery taste lurking below the surface.

I take the bus back to the boat and our course is now south and west. The weather is so clear that the coast of Northern Ireland is clearly visible as we round the bottom tip of the island. Another hour's sailing, brings us into Loch Indaal, with Bruichladdich and Bowmore distilleries on opposite banks. Bowmore is the first recorded distillery on Islay, founded in 1779 and one of the oldest in Scotland. I've timed my arrival for their open day and next morning there's a long queue of people lining up to buy one of only 1,500 bottles of their exclusive Fèis Ìle Special Release.

They're also offering free drams, although not before 11am as local licensing laws forbid it. I take the opportunity to wander round the distillery and see the germinating barley laid out in their malt barns - Bowmore is one of only a handful of distilleries still producing its own floor malted barley. Outside a band is playing 60s covers, and Tamla Motown blasts out as I sip my dram of Bowmore Small Batch, all sea air and peat smoke, with a touch of honeycomb and cinnamon.

All too soon we're on our way back to the mainland, calling at the Isle of Gigha, exploring Loch Sween and landing at the Slate Isles. There are no more distilleries to visit on our voyage but the ship is well stocked with an excellent range of malts.

Finally, before I catch the train back to Glasgow, I pop into the Oban Distillery, right in the centre of town. It's one the oldest, but also the smallest with just two pot stills. My farewell dram is their 14 Years Old, with much citrus and only a hint of peaty smoke and salt. It's good but a little too tame for me - I'm already missing those wild men of Islay.

The next Whisky Cruise, run by the Majestic Line, leaves Oban on the 27 August, 2016 for ten days, and costs £4,050 per person.


Tasting Notes

Jura Origin 10 Years Old 40% ABV

Nose: Fresh with notes of damp hay and soft, malty cereal notes. A touch of peat with gentle oak and arak with blossom tones.

Palate: Thick and full with more cereal, this time a barley fudge sweetness creeps in with creamy smoothness and a touch of aniseed.

Finish: Long with pepper winter spice.

Laphroaig 10 Years Old 40% ABV

Nose: Assertive and smoky. Crab shells next to dried seaweed. In time there's a Germoline note and some tar. Sweet as well, while a vanilla undertow adds interest. Water gives a marine lift.

Palate: Burnt. Roast/charred red peppers. Clean sweet oak. Good length and the tarry smoke gathers in intensity.

Finish: Smoke.

Lagavulin 16 Years Old 43% ABV

Nose: Lapsang Souchong and fruity sherry.

Palate: The dryness is at first offset by the sweetness of the sherry character. As the palate develops, oily, grassy and in particular salty notes emerge in a long, sustained, aggressive, attack.

Finish: A huge, powerful, bear hug of peat.

Ardbeg Uigeadail 54.2% ABV

Nose: Intensely smoky. Dry, clean, tangy smoke. Like standing downwind of the barbecue while steaks are chargrilled on the beach.

Palate: Firm, very smooth, then explodes on the tongue.

Finish: Hot. Alcoholic. Shock to the system.

Bowmore 12 Years Old 40% ABV

Nose: Emphatic burnt grass. Peaty.

Soft smokiness.

Palate: Fragrant smokiness seems to waft against an oily, earthy, background. Some seaweed. Some sherry.

Finish: Not only is the smokiness sustained all the way through, it surges in the finish. Lots of salt, too.

Oban Distillers Edition 1993 Montilla Fino 43% ABV

Nose: Still that orange note, but its less zest/oils and more marmalade. Picks up new dimensions without losing character; some scented notes.

Palate: Fuller and more bulked up. Slightly chewier to begin with but the freshness of Oban hasn't been lost. Sightly more grip and general ripeness of character.

Finish: Nutmeg, lemon pepper. Substantial and good balance.
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