I was waiting for a flight to Bruges when the 'phone rang. My trip had been funded by Belgium's leading men's fashion magazine, 'Ercules, for whom I had been working for some time on a fascinating project, linking and matching the flavour and character of malt whiskies to fabrics. Three free blazers (all first-class highlands), a pair of slacks (a disappointing polyester Fettercairn) and a rather dodgy continental tweed suit (originally thought to be from Scotland, but it turned out to be from Arras, with all the body of an obscure vatted Glen brand) seemed inadequate reward for my labours. But here was the prize; a week in Belgium leading my new Weave and Whisky (tm) tastings for the country's leading whisky writers and top designers. Moreover, a promised lifelong commission on all sales of a new 'Haute Haydock' (tm) Laphroaig-infused lycra distillery workwear range was not to be sniffed at by a hack on my meagre earnings.It was Rupert, bastion of the whisky industry's few remaining late-lunchers. "John, are you on Islay yet?" I began to explain that this year's Islay visa had expired some time ago and that I was on other business, but Rupert would have none of it. "Listen mate," he said, exasperated, "it's Seachdain nan deur [the week of the tears] but worse than that, there's something going off out there. Something bloody strange. Bloody find out what, bloody asap. The plane's waiting for you, so bloody get on it!" 'Farewell 'Ercules' I mused, as I trudged through Heathrow to board Rupert's corporate jet to Islay International.
Coincidentally, I'd travelled on a 747 last time I was on the island for the Crying Festival, those seven days when the real men of the whisky industry flooded the island with tears (briny perhaps, with hints of Pear's soap drops). Shed in secluded spots of solitary beauty, where the feminine side of the hard-boiled whisky hacks could seep out undisturbed, these tears flowed like new-make spirit from a still (except with a higher alcohol content, naturally).Driving past Port Ellen maltings I passed the Big Man, quietly sobbing on the back seat of his Mini-Cooper S, resplendent as ever with three wheels and a jack. "John, you freeloading f****r," he greeted me warmly, "the island's gone mad - it's marketing arseholes gone AWOL. Every f*****g dickhead in the industry is trying to get in on this new cask-finish, and if they're not careful they'll take the f*****g island with them." The Big Man doesn't usually speak so eloquently … Puzzled, I drove on, motoring through waves of water and roadside lochans to Laphroaig.No Iain Henderson. "Aye, they've shipped him out to the Denny Tank in Dumbarton. Christ, he's filled it three times and its only Tuesday." Lagavulin, the water lapping above the much-photographed post-box at the entrance, was deserted save for Donald Renwick, blubbing like Alice from the top of his pagodas. Tearfully he explained that Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain had been washed away by a freak tidal wave of tears from Billy Stitchell and John MacLennan. For insurance purposes they were trying to blame this unusual product of industry co-operation on a rogue Dreadnought marauding through the Sound, but no one was having it. Ardbeg hadn't been seen for two days, and in fact had been named Arberg after the warehouse roof that was just about visible above the brine. Bowmore was nomore, and it was feared that all but its rightly famous heavily-chested mermaids must have perished in Ian MacPherson's tears.Michael Jackson, Charlie MacLean, Dave Broom, Martine Nouet et al were having a specially commissioned Whisky Magazine Weep Out (tickets reasonable, and still available for coach parties and school trips I was informed) in the Port Charlotte lighthouse. And Jim McEwan had been carried halfway to the USA on an ebb tide of tears, where he was planning to carry out a nationwide tear tasting. Even the normally-subdued Richard Paterson was caught in the act with an uncharacteristically flamboyant tear-blending demonstration, during which he definitively clarified why he's never seen without his red pocket handkerchief.But why, you may ask dear reader, all this lachrymose lunacy? Like the Scramble for Africa nothing more than an unseemly, greed inspired rush by manipulative marketeers to produce the first 'Islay Distillery Manager's tear-finished whisky,' guaranteed to be the next big thing in the world of make-believe malts. When I told Rupert he almost wept, and I have to admit that I laughed so much that I cried. But when my tongue caught the tears as they rolled down my cheek I did start to see the point. Some salt, hints of Old Spice, a suggestion of breakfast and yesterday's dinner, perhaps old ashtrays? In essence, all you needed to turn an indifferent immature spirit of limited character into a masquerade of mediocre malt, finished of course with a poignant pathos of peat.