Awards & Events

Not altogether plain sailing

The Classic Malts Cruise is an annual event held by Diageo, formerly Guinness-UDV. For one person on it, it was a case of sailing with the enemy. But for Gillian Bell, the adventure was to change her perspective entirely
By Gillian Bell
Given personal history and perceptions, I should have avoided the Classic Malts Cruise like the plague. A two week booze cruise with the heid yens of UDV, formally Guinness, and now Diageo.It was 18 years ago that Ernest Saunders’ Guinness sent in the heavies to kneecap my father, Arthur Bell. He was marketing a fine whisky with his own signature on the label.But as Lord Clyde pronounced, “A man has an inalienable right to trade under his own name,” a triumph for small business, David and Goliath repeated. And Arthur lived to trade another day.Unfortunately the kneecapping came later from a very different source, but that’s not my story to tell.So why then should the daughter of a ‘whisky rebel’, who’s a professional in marketing, take a job cooking on a corporate yacht charter? Having a somewhat cynical view of the corporate culture, I’d never heard of the Classic Malts Cruise, never cooked on a boat, done only a little sailing, and only talked with my new employer on the phone.But fate has a mysterious way of weaving her web, and this web stretches around the world and has changed my own opinions.I fell out with Scotland a couple of years back, for a number of personal, family and business reasons. So I packed my bags and fled its shores with a view to finding a new home somewhere in the world.Throughout Canada, the States and even Samoa (resting place of Robert Louis Stevenson), I met a number of disillusioned expats and enjoyed (on occasion) the odd dram while reminiscing about our Caledonian motherland and why we’d felt forced away.On my travels I discovered New Zealand. Paradise; Scotland without the history and a much better climate.In my second week in the country I landed a job with American Express (I’m not scared of corporatism). The Louis Vuitton Challenge (America’s Cup) was about to kick off, and amongst my responsibilities was developing communications for the Team New Zealand credit cards. A new interest in sailing was emerging.I met some fascinating characters in NZ from all walks of life.Amongst them was Dubliner Sanna Fowler, who’d recently received a PhD in Immunology from Oxford.She’d sailed the Classic Malts Cruise in 2002, cooking on the yacht Grampus, with Skipper Stewart Robertson.He had persuaded her to get out to New Zealand and get involved in the sailing.The lucky white heather that sailed around Ardnamurchan Point last year obliviously worked. She scored a job with Alinghi in Auckland during the Cup and is now based in Lausanne co-ordinating their marketing and sponsorship.So there’s the first link. It was Sanna who sold me this Scottish Malts Cruise and gave me Stewart’s number.We set off from Oban with around 100 other boats in July.I have a great passion for food, growing up in the small business environment of the Scottish Gourmet. It gave me a solid grounding and understanding in the flavours of Scotland.I’d recently returned from NZ for a family wedding and had yet to find paid employment; I love to cook, which is why I took the job.Scotland produces some of the best quality food in the world, yet we seem to export the majority of it to the continent and what’s left is over priced, under marketed, and under appreciated.Let me give you an example; I’ve discovered a new recipe. I love to experiment and relish a challenge – the galley on Grampus was two feet square! But we took two of Scotland’s premier products and combined them – langoustine and whisky.These shellfish were possibly the finest I’d ever seen, purchased from a fishermen in Muck and delivered in a sheep feed bag to our boat, moored in Canna.If you tried to buy them in Glasgow, Edinburgh or London you’d be paying well over £100, and you’d be very hard pushed to find the freshness and quality.Having just discovered a new appreciation for the amber nectar, we tried an experiment; I simply steamed the fish with garlic and whisky in three different batches, starting with a 10 year old East Lothian Glenkinchie, moving to the peatier 10 year old Talisker and finishing on a very
fine cask strength Caol Ila from Islay.The difference the peat in the malts made to the fish was staggering.The first was just lightly infused and quite delicate, Skye’s Talisker made the shellfish much more salty. But the favourite by far was the Caol Ila, perhaps because our palates had been introduced to the peat in a graded way.Our Swiss guests that evening – I think I can safely say – were blown away, and it had nothing to do with the force eight gale that was ‘blowing old boots’ around us. They both had a real love of whisky – but had not done much sailing and had never tasted langoustine.After an exhilarating day out on the water in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, they were treated to some of the best and freshest Scotland has to offer.Sailing is something I’d never much associated with Scotland. Which is inexcusable given our rich maritime history that stretches back over thousands of years.With more than 100 boats sailing on the cruise, many from Norway, Sweden and France, Diageo had also brought together a collection of international journalists and photographers, food and travel writers and many whisky aficionados to sail with them. Each boat takes its own course over the two weeks but meets up for set events at the Classic Malt distilleries at Oban, Talisker on Skye and finally in Lagavulin on Islay, for a ceilidh and seafood extravaganza.Our route took us from Oban to Caol Ila through the boiling Corrievrechan, to Talisker via Iona, Staffa and Canna, to Skavaig and Soay, on to Knoydart, Tobermory for a curry, back to Oban, past Jura, Gigha and the Sound of Islay to Lagavulin Bay.The majestic Swan Grampus on which we sailed is a 44ft classic, a beautiful boat indeed skippered by Stewart.We were accompanied on the journey by a ‘grand old lady’; Eda Frandsen, a wooden schooner; the faster more modern yacht Chantilly; and escorted throughout by the rib Chaser.The boats were rafted together in the evenings to allow for tastings, socialising and genial conversation.We experienced the best sailing I’d ever done and visited some of the most magical places on earth.Each boat had a fascinating collection of characters on board, hosts, guests and crew.We tasted, touched and smelled the West Coast’s abundance of beauty, history, culture and music, fishing, farming and wildlife. To be able to see minke whales, otters, puffins and the Northern Lights all on the same day is difficult to beat anywhere in the world.We discovered some fabulous local flavour combinations, such as haunch of venison drizzled with a 25 year old Lagavulin and cooked on the bone with garlic and juniper being a personal favourite, but freshly chucked Islay oysters come in a close second.Nosing and sampling some very fine malts, dancing in some stunning distilleries, we were treated to an education by a number of very passionate people. They all had intelligence, loyalty and integrity with a strong understanding of how to sustain the balance between the
needs of local communities, corporate economics and environmentalism.I’ve fallen in love with Scotland again. Developed a passion for sailing, been introduced to the Waterboys new album; in particular the Iona track, started an education in whisky, discovered a new side of community and corporatism that I never knew existed and made some very fine new friends along the way.If you have the chance to sail on the Classic Malts Cruise in July, grab it with both hands.I know I’ll be there.