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The Road to Whisky Island: A Scottish Adventure

Apr. 27th, 2009 | Comments 0 | Make a Comment   
The ferry to Port Ellen is operated by Caledonian MacBrayne and takes more than two hours to chug across the choppy waters beyond the little island of Gigha. From Port Ellen it's a taxi, bus or 40-minute walk to the first distillery. I walked, looking across the broad sound to Kintyre and catching the occasional whiff of peat fires.

I had told them I was coming to stand on my land and collect my rent. Others had told them the same thing and there were malt-lovers from Japan, Sweden, Austria, Wales and Texas.

Laphroaig stands on its own harbour; a small community of white cottages and the old, slab-sided distillery. Across the road is the peat bog that fuels the business end of the distilling process.

We multi-national Friends gathered in the baronial tasting room, reverently waiting to be told the secrets of the whisky trade. Reverence was not necessary - our host Jack Dunford was evidently a graduate of the Billy Connolly school of tour guides and played the whole sequence for laughs.

"Ye'll no tek offence if I have a wee laugh up on the next floor?" he asked. "It's a harmless wee thing but I love to see it."

The harmless wee thing involved dipping your snout into a vat of fermenting barley. One good sniff gives you a brain-numbing shock and your sinuses are cleared for the next 30 days. This is what makes Jack laugh. That and the mice scurrying across the piles of barley - he swears they help give Laphroaig its special flavour of liquid smoke.

He's also a philosopher. As we climb the winding stairs through the rich, smoke-saturated atmosphere, he tells us that if you drink the right amount of single malt you'll live for ever.

"If you die, it means you drank too much or too little."

Then it's back down to the tasting room to get on the outside of some special old drams, before crossing the road and floundering across the moor to find your square foot. It was here that Inger Soderlund became emotionally involved with her piece of Islay.

"I started to drink whisky when I was 15," she confessed, sobbing her Swedish heart out. "Always I have dreamed that I would come here and now it's just too much."

Well, maybe it was the three good belts of 12-year-old malt that were just too much. Anyway, she came over all funny and had to be assisted back across the moor.

Then onwards to Ardbeg, most picturesque of the distilleries on this side of the island. In 1981 the entire plant was mothballed and not a drop was made until 1997, when the Glenmorangie company came to the rescue.

The other distilleries on the whisky isle are on the western coast, or on the Sound of Islay, facing across a narrow channel to the rugged mountains known as the Paps of Jura.

Here, at Port Askaig, is where the ferry docks for the return trip to Islay - a two hour chug with magnificent views of the Hebridean and Argyll mountains. Time enough to work out strategies for Jack Dunford's challenge - how to drink exactly the right amount of single malt and thus live for ever.

By Paul Edwards
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