Awards & Events

On Islay every day's a festival

The Islay festival starts on May 27th. We decided to host a pre-festival dinner on the island and invited all the distilleries. Dominic Roskrow reports
By Dominic Roskrow
On the face of it spending March 17th – St Patrick’s Day – on the Scottish island of Islay isn’t the most obvious thing to do. But there is some method in such madness. For while the Emerald isle is no doubt downing the Jameson’s in honour of its national saint and adopted Englishman, Islay has its own Irish link to celebrate.Just today the first international vatted whisky – a mix of Irish and product from local distillery Bunnababhain – has gone on sale, building a whisky bridge across the nine miles between the two countries. Ireland and west Scotland share much in the way of language and culture. And later this year the pillaging malts cruise – that madcap charity event when the island’s rowers brave the currents and tides to circumvent the island collecting whisky – will make a detour to visit Bushmill’s across the water.In fact never have the two islands been so close, and judging by the bar at Glasgow Airport, where bottles of Black Bush are being passed around and some early afternoon singing is breaking out, getting closer by the minute.If being on Islay is one of life’s great pleasures, the anticipation as you travel to it takes some beating, too. The ferry journey, sweet relief after the tedious hours spent on the roads down to Tarbert, can bring the visitor in past the three great southern distilleries of Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg. The plane journey is a hop and a skip from Glasgow and on a clear day you can marvel at the mass of peat, scarred by digging. Trouble is, you rarely get a clear day. And while the journey takes minutes, your wait in Glasgow is often an anxious one, as the west coast’s unpredictable weather threatens to play havoc with your plans.So when Bowmore’s Iseabail MacTaggart appears in Glasgow some hours before the afternoon flight the alarm bells ring straightaway. And sure enough, she reports that the morning flight had been turned away from the island. Even if we get in this evening, it seems, we might not get out again tomorrow.So then – either Islay for the weekend or no Islay at all. Acase if ever there was one, of all or nothing.Iseabail’s with a storyteller and singer who is appearing at the Machrie this evening but is now on standby. And there is a knock-on effect to our plans because Jim McEwan has also missed the morning flight and because he’s 10tth on the standby list, he’s given up and won’t make dinner tonight.Not that we’re necessarily going to, either. And even when we’re on the plane nothing’s guaranteed: a technical fault means that the flight is cancelled and we’re back in the terminus and anxiously awaiting confirmation that we can fit on the Campbeltown flight, which will fly on to Islay. Thankfully we can.So I’m to spend less than 16 hours on the island having travelled about 10 each way to get there. Is it worth it?I have my answer within all of five seconds of entering the terminus on what has to be one of the world’s craziest aiports. Do they make Ileachs turn up at the airport in rotation just to greet visitors? And is Bowmore’s Christine Logan on hand to meet every flight? Hawaii’s got nothing on this sort of welcome. Now if they just handed out a dram to match the Honolulu garland, well you’d never want to leave.Glenmorangie’s Hamish Torrie is also in the airport. Plans for a quick detour to the Ardbeg Distillery (naughty I know, but I couldn’t resist it) have had to be shelved due to our tardy arrival. But as Stuart and Jackie Thomson can’t make tonight’s dinner, Hamish says he’ll drive me up to the Port Charlotte Hotel while we talk on the way.And boy, does he have something to talk about.It seems mix ups are all the rage right now. The pillaging malts crew are throwing an Irish whiskey in to the mix, and Bunnahabhain has been paired with a whiskey from the Emerald isle. Now it seems Ardbeg is in to the mixing game too, though Hamish swears that it has done so by accident.The product in question is Serendipity, and it is a marriage between some very old Ardbeg and a lesser amount of 12 Year Old Glen Moray from Speyside. According to Hamish, the two met by mistake.“It shouldn’t have happened and we were going to pass it away in blends, but then we thought why not bottle the result and sell it to our 32,000 committee members as something different?”Just imagine the emotional roller coaster of the bloke who mixed the two in the first place and went from zero to hero on the whim of a marketing person with an interesting idea.Not that the matter ends there. Under the rules of the committee – effectively Ardbeg fans worldwide who have signed up to the brand’s ‘fan club’ – Ardbeg should not be mixed with anything. So cue an impressive marketing campaign.“We have written to all members begging for their forgiveness for breaking the rules,” smiles Hamish. “And offering the chance to try the whisky.”If such flippancy from Ardbeg has you raising an eyebrow or two, Hamish isn’t finished. For this year’s festival, he says, the island will be plastered with Che Guevara-style Cuban posters.You have to go with the logic, here. For the festival there will be the chance to try two aged Ardbegs, one from a fino sherry cask the other from oloroso. That got them thinking about Spain and tapas food at the distillery. From there they made a leap to the fact that Islay is an island and so is Cuba. Fidel Castro enjoys his Ardbeg. And there’s a rebel heart to both parts of the world.Logically, then, Ardbeg staff will be dressed up in khaki green and wearing berets, posters featuring people in Che outfits will urge people to join the party, and a good time will be had by all.The dinner at the Port Charlotte is a delight, not least because I’m in happy company. Guest of honour is Malcolm Rennie, who represents the newest addition to the Islay fold, Kilchoman.Malcolm is still working his notice at Ardbeg.The full story of its development is told fully elsewhere in this issue. The first spirit will be distilled for the festival.“It is exciting being in at the start,” he says. “It presented me with an opportunity to move forward without leaving Islay. There has been tremendous support for the distillery and I think there will be a lot of interest from visitors at the festival. It keeps things moving forward.”That sentiment is shared by Bunnahabhain’s distillery manager John MacLellan. For a long time the distillery took a backseat while Islay became the darling of the whisky world. But the purchase by Burn Stewart has changed all that and Bunnahabhain is making up ground fast. The interest is set to grow from the strange alliance with Cooley’s of Ireland in the new version of Jon, Mark and Robbo’s ‘Smooth Sweeter One’, the first international vatting of malt whiskies. John is ambivalent about the mix.“We sell a great deal of Bunnahabhain through that company,” he says, “and as long as people are drinking our whisky then that’s good. “With this bottling people are talking about it, and you see the name in the papers. That in itself has to be good for us.”Visitors to the festival could do worse than reacquaint themselves with a spirit that is not only on the comeback trail in terms of image and marketing, but in quality of spirit, too.Jim McEwan didn’t make it, but Bruichladdich is represented by Ella Edgar, who is referrred to by the other managers as ‘Jim’s boss.’ She’s upbeat about Islay, too, and although it has been a testing year for Bruichladdich – there have been a number of personnel changes in recent months – this year’s distillery day on the first Sunday, May 29th, looks set to be a lively one.“The day will start with the Bridgend to Bruichladdich run and once the runners arrive the activites start,” she says.“In addition to tours and a masterclass by Jim and distillery tours there will be arts and crafts stalls, pipe bands, an open stage celidh with Highland dancers, Jura musicians, drummer Brian Palmer and singer Norma Munro. We’re looking forward to a great festival.”You can’t visit Islay and not spend some time on the wall at Bowmore, watching the wind dance with the currents of Loch Indaal, so that’s where I am at 7am the next morning. The weather’s held off and there will be no problems leaving the island today, but it’s gloomy all the same and there is no sun to play on the waves as they flitter offshore. But it’s still a vital, uplifting and all embracing experience, made complete when distillery manager Percy McPherson opens the warehouses, bids the angels good morning, and pours us breakfast samples from casks up to 40 years old.We leave on the morning flight, having said a brief hello to Jim McEwan and Donald Renwick from Lagavulin who are on their way back in.It’s been an exhilarating few hours. And the weirdest St Patrick’s Day I can remember. But one I wouldn’t have missed for the world.