ISLAY: SMELLS LIKE NEW SPIRIT
It is not everyday that one gets to go on a trip to Islay in the company of two of the best known characters in the spirit business.
It is also not everyday when you get the chance to spend a week working at the first distillery to open on an island for nearly 100 years.
John Glaser, the founder of boutique blenders Compass Box Whisky, was the very first person I met when I began the trip which became EAT MY GLOBE. Mind you, it was not much of a trip as his offices are in Chiswick. It may not have been a huge journey, but I certainly learned a great deal and made up my mind that a trip to visit the source of the, er sauce, was definitely going to be part of my itinerary.
My personal preference is for those peaty, soapy monsters that come from Islay with the tang of seaweed and iodine which compliments sharp, blue cheese or salty bowls of nuts so very well.
So, John suggested I call Kilchoman, a newly opened distillery which had produced its first spirit in 2005 and will not plan to release their first “Whisky” until 2011. A quick call had me enrolled on their course for December and another quick call had the same Mr Glaser himself deciding to join me.
Once Nick “Hawksmoor” Strangeway, the Godfather of London cocktail making, got wind of the trip, our numbers were soon increased by one.
What a week and, when I have time to write it up properly, you can see it on the EAT MY GLOBE blog. But, suffice to say that, because of the presence of my two well known (in this industry, at least) chums, we were able to bypass the usual tour guides and get access behind the scenes at all but one of the eight distilleries on the island.
What surprised me most is how different the final product from each distillery was. I am not quite sure why I was so surprised as, despite the volumes produced, these are still crafted products where the nose of the distiller is all important and produces the unmistakeable characteristics that make Islay whiskies, arguably the best of all.
And we got tastes of course. Lots of tastes. The archetypal peat bombs of Laphroig and Lagavulin, the fruit filled elegance of Caol Isla and roundness of a Bruichladdich 12 year old which had been finished in large Oloroso butts to give a deep amber colour and a subtle nose. People were the very definition of kindness and all sorts of special bottles suddenly appeared as we sat in comfortable “dram’ rooms to do our tastings or, as in the case of Bowmore, were shown into the dark recesses of the cask room to sample what John described as two "primo" whiskies.
Kilchoman still has a way to go as they cannot even call their spirit “ whisky” until it has spent a minimum three years in the bourbon barrels they have sourced from Buffalo Trace. But, we tried the new spirit which shows promising signs of things to come and we helped mash and still a few thousand litres too with some backbreaking shovelling on the malting floor and time spent patiently observing in the still room under the watchful eye of experienced distillers, Malcolm and Gavin
If the spirit was sublime, the food, I am afraid to say, was really pretty dire.
Much like my time spent in Ireland way back in April, so much of the wonderful produce of the island, in this case, spectacular seafood, beef and lamb, is shipped off to mainland Scotland and then to England or Europe leaving the locals to enjoy the offerings of the local Co-op supermarket.
While breakfasts in the B&B were pretty good in the “a fry up is always good” kind of way, meals out were pretty risible.
Menus that could have offered lobster and crab, pies and puddings offered up Thai Green Curries and Lasagne. Things that, in the right context, are all well and good, but which, on a rainy windswept evening in a place of such extravagant abundance, were really pretty shameful.
When we did see some evidence of local sourcing, the main ingredients had been hidden under “swirls” and “jus” so that they may as well have been from the local Co-op.
In a bit of distilling downtime, we did take the opportunity to visit Dunlossit Estate which is becoming a depository for the UK’s rare breed pigs and to head to Islay Oysters which produces, according to many, the very best in the world.
I love oysters but, like so many people and things, they don’t like me at all. I was persuaded to have one by Nick Strangeway who was busy downing a half dozen himself. It was a stupid thing to do and, although the one I sampled tasted great, the evening ended with the inevitable result of me violently bringing up the contents of my stomach followed by a visit to the tiny Islay A&E ward for medical treatment.
As we left the B&B yesterday morning to head out to catch our tiny plane back to the mainland, the owner handed me a small oyster shell as a humorous reminder of my trip. I suspect the three bottles of single malts I had in my luggage will be a much better memento of a week which, if hardly memorable for the food, proved to be one of the very best of the trip so far.
Not least, thanks to my companions Mr Glaser and Mr Strangeway.