Scotland: Sourcing the water of life on Islay

By Jim Eagles

If you went to sleep with the window open here you'd probably wake up drunk.

The cottage we're staying in on the fabled Island of Islay is part of the famous Bowmore whisky distillery so the night air is rich with roasting barley, fermenting mash and distilling spirit.

It's one of eight big distilleries on this tiny chunk of land floating off the wild west coast of Scotland, between them producing about a quarter of the world's Scotch, so there's usually plenty of alcohol wafting in the breeze.

In addition, most of the local homes still burn peat in their fireplaces, and the rocky coast is never far away, so you can always smell the Islay's famous combination of peat smoke, seaweed and salt spray.

Put all that together and a visit here is rather like standing in a vat of superb single malt whisky.

Of course there is a lot more to Islay than whisky: fascinating history, intriguing ruins and a whimsical local museum; magnificent wild landscape, marvellous birdlife and good deer shooting; friendly locals, good pubs and excellent restaurants.

But the primary reason for my visit is a pilgrimage to the source of the uisge beatha - water of life - which I adore.

To actually be here, to see where the whisky I enjoy on cold winter nights is created, is a rare experience, one which makes the drams even more enjoyable on the return home, conjuring up glorious images of our visit with every sip.

But then Islay malts have always been distinctive, the taste powerfully evocative of this storm-tossed island, their very names rolling fierily off the tongue.

My favourites are Bowmore, the oldest distillery on the island, and Laphroaig, producing the richest malt of them all, its seaweedy, iodiney flavour not to everyone's taste but very much to mine.

Then there are Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin and the recently opened cottage distillery, Kilchoman, all names which conjure up images of Gaelic warriors celebrating victory with heart-warming drams of the native spirit. And, indeed, the island's rich history provides plenty of backing for such visions.

On Finlaggan loch, near the heart of Islay, the ruins on two tiny islands recall the time in the 12th and 13th centuries when this was the home of the Lords of the Isles, a colourful title for men whose power at times matched that of the Scottish kings.

Today the two islands are administered by a trust and reached by a wooden causeway which, when we visited, was under water thanks to the constant rain. My companions baulked at the thought of getting their feet wet, but we whisky drinkers are made of sterner stuff. So I sloshed across to the larger of the islands and explored the ruins of the rather small great hall, some houses, graves with carved headstones, a chapel and a jetty. Further into the lake was a smaller island, on which I could see the ruins of a small castle, which once provided a secure venue for the lords to meet in council with their advisers.

The other base for the Lords of the Isles was Dunyvaig Castle, at the entrance to Lagavulin Bay, these days home to the Lagavulin distillery.

Those castle ruins are signposted as unsafe to enter but it's easy to see that this was once a mighty fortress, complete with its own seagate so the lords could land in safety, at one time a refuge for Robert the Bruce, the Scottish king who, according to legend, was inspired by a spider to continue his fight to shrug off the English yoke.

Sadly, subsequent kings did not have such a good relationship with the island's lords, and in the end the monarchy won.

But the title Lord of the Isles does live on today and, appropriately, the present holder is that notable Laphroaig-lover Prince Charles.

The ancient lords almost certainly did drink uisge beatha but it would have been a fiery alcoholic spirit bearing little relationship to the sophisticated whiskies Islay produces today.

The modern whisky industry on the island had its beginnings in 1766 when one David Simpson, merchant, postmaster, sailor and whisky distiller, arrived in the village of Bowmore and started a distillery there.Officially it dates from 1779 - giving the title of the oldest distillery in Scotland to Glenturret, in Speyside, which was licensed in 1775 - but our Islay guide, Eddie MacAffer, isn't too sure about that.

"I think maybe we got our dates wrong, and Bowmore actually started a few years earlier, which would make us the first," he says, "but we're certainly the oldest on the island."

Like the other distilleries, Bowmore occupies a magnificent seafront site - essential for a business whose raw materials mainly arrive by sea and whose product leaves the same way - with picturesque white-washed buildings, topped by the distinctive shape of the malting towers and surrounded by a cluster of cottages, once occupied by workers but now mainly used as tourist accommodation.

But unlike most of the others, Bowmore still performs most of the whisky-making process on-site, which makes it the perfect place to find out how the spirit is made, and MacAffer, who has worked at the distillery for more than 40 years, is the ideal guide.

You don't need to be a whisky enthusiast to enjoy a tour of the distillery, with its intriguing mix of rich smells and tastes, traditional techniques and computerised controls, gleaming copper stills and dark stone cellars, proud history and ultra-modern tasting room, but I felt like a kid let loose in a sweet shop.

First stopping place is the vast wooden malting floors, three of them stacked on top of each other, where 40 tonnes of barley at a time is spread out and sprayed with water to trick the grain into thinking it is spring, starting the germination process which transforms starch into sugar.

"When I started here," recalls MacAffer, "we shifted this by hand with wooden shovels but now it's mainly done by machine."

Next are the giant kilns, fuelled by locally dug peat, where the germinating barley is heated, partly to stop the germination in mid-cycle, but also so the peat smoke can provide its distinctive flavour. "You've got to get the moisture content exactly right," says our guide. "We've got a moisture meter to use these days but I can tell when it's ready by walking through it."

Next door are the huge grinders, where the dried barley is ground into a fine grist, and the lovely wood and copper mash tuns, where 8 tonnes of grist at a time are mixed with water and yeast and left to ferment into a sort of beer. MacAffer, whose title these days is brewer, loves the smell of the fermenting mash which he describes as "rich and tasty ... like your granny's porridge."

The fermented liquid from these is drained off into the magnificent shining copper stills - two wash stills for the first stage of distillation, and two spirit stills for the second stage - to extract the alcohol. The resultant spirit, called new-make, is 69 per cent proof and MacAffer recalls that in the old days it was a custom for workers to swig a mug of it each day.

"That was stopped years ago," he says - and tells a few hilarious tales which may explain why - but nevertheless offers me a glass. I drink it a little nervously but actually, it's very pleasant, quite sweet and fresh, but with a definite savoury peat flavour.

Finally there are the huge, dark cellars - "the oldest part of the distillery" - where the new-make is matured for anything up to 50 years in barrels previously used to store bourbon or sherry.

The smell is marvellous but there's better to follow. With a skilled thump of a wooden mallet MacAffer pops the bung from a bourbon barrel and uses a giant copper pipette - called a valinche in the whisky business - to extract a hearty dram of spirit that's been maturing there for seven years. It's much smoother than the new-make, has a lovely golden colour and to me it has a lovely nutty vanilla taste with a nice peaty tang.

My palate must have passed the taste test because we now move to MacAffer's cellar favourite, a sherry barrel where the whisky has been maturing for 12 years, a glass of which is produced almost with reverence.

The other whisky was nice but this is a revelation. It's dark brown in colour and has marvellous fruity, woody flavours, with a quite mild undertone of peat. I've never tasted anything like it.

Maybe I went on just a little about how marvellous it was because later MacAffer presented me with a bottle of Bowmore Darkest which, he said, was the nearest they had to what I'd tasted.

I haven't opened it yet but come winter, when the nights are dark and cool, I'll pour myself a dram, sit back and dream of Islay and ...

* The magnificent thousand-year-old Kildalton High Cross, in the lonely graveyard of the ruined Kildalton Chapel, the only complete Celtic high cross in Scotland.

* The ancient mossy forests where a headless horseman and a blue lady are said to roam at night.

* The hospitality of Duffie's Bar, in Bowmore, a fine place on a cold night.

* The wonderful fishing villages, like Portnahaven, where neat little cottages cluster round a bay where seals bask in the sun.

* The rugged coasts where many a wrecked ship lies beneath the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

* The Island of Orsay, home to the ruins of an ancient chapel said to have been founded by St Columba, and to the Rinns of Islay lighthouse.

* The mysterious watchtower - or is it actually a folly - standing above a purple pool near the village of Bridgend.

* The unique Round Church of Bowmore, built in 1767, supposedly so there would be no corners for the devil to hide in.

* The Islay Woollen Mills, on a riverside site where a mill has stood since the 15th century, and Gordon Covell produces tartans and tweeds for Queen Elizabeth, Princess Anne, films like Braveheart and Rob Roy, and passing visitors.

* The amazing taste of the whisky Eddie MacAffer extracted from that barrel in the cellars at Bowmore.

That's not bad value to get from a wee dram of malt.

* Jim Eagles visited Islay as guest of Visit Britain, Emirates and Morrison Bowmore Distillers.

GETTING THERE
Every day Emirates has three flights from Auckland and one from Christchurch to Dubai, and flies from Dubai to several British airports including Glasgow. See www.emirates.com or call 0508 364 728.

British Airways has daily flights to Islay (except Sundays) from Glasgow Airport.

Caledonian MacBrayne runs a daily car ferry to Islay from Kennacraig, on the Kintyre Peninsula, a two-and-a-half hour drive from Glasgow. See www.calmac.co.uk

Glasgow's CityLink bus service runs a service to Kennacraig.

FURTHER INFORMATION
You can find information about Britain on www.visitbritain.com and on Scotland in particular at www.visitscotland.com.

Tourist information about Islay is at islayinfo.com.

You can find out about Bowmore at - NZ Herald

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