A Wee Dram

The B&B was a replica of Fawlty Towers—at breakfast, a man with a missing tooth kept telling his three-year-old to say thank-you after every spoonful.

The landlady told me several times she served a Scottish continental breakfast. “We don’t do bacon and eggs,” she repeated, as if previous guests had hounded her on the matter.

She was a harassed and nerve-racked woman, totally devoid of humor. Her husband burnt the toast, and ten minutes later she materialized with odd-shaped materials, describing them as ‘Peter’s homemade bread’. When she mentioned kippers, visions of Basil, a dead fish poking from his waistcoat as he explains things to the doctor, flooded into my mind.

The west coast of Scotland is a very different proposition from Edinburgh, where I spent last week, but you get the same messages about the foolishness of brexit and the public school arrogance of Boris. The Scots aren’t famous for their subtlety, and the word ‘twat’ was much in evidence.

After the twee civility of the capital, I hankered for a different world, where Aberdeen Angus and black-faced sheep ruled the glen. I wound down the road, peering through the rain at the looming hills and the dark lochs, slowly closing the distance to my destination. If I were hunting pokemons, I’d be shit out of luck—the cellphone network had vanished.

But I wasn’t looking for pokemons, I was looking for whisky.

Islay is one of the inner Hebrides, the islands that separate Scotland from Northern Ireland, and at one time it was the seat of government for all the islands and parts of Ireland. At Finlaggan, the Viking longhouse is still visible, as are the ruins of fortifications at the edge of the loch. But five hundred years ago, the English king James IV put paid to the political aspirations of the island.

Maybe that’s what drove them to drink.

Whatever the reason, this one island, with a population of three thousand five hundred, is host to an inordinate amount of distilleries—the Mecca of Scottish wine.

Islay could do a lot more for visitors by broadening its appeal to the ladies. Several traditional crafts, including world-famous weaving, could diversify tourism and draw in families. The Finlaggan interpretation center was closed on Sunday morning—dutiful tourists drove quarter of an hour off the main road and peered, bemused and unwarned, at the closed doors.

An abundance of riches. Two bottles of red wine are clearly visible on the bar, escapees from the tinto lockdown.

An abundance of riches. Two bottles of red wine are clearly visible on the bar, escapees from the tinto lockdown.

The gastronomy needs a critical overhaul.  To escape from the pouring rain, I went for lunch at the Bowmore Hotel, recommended as one of the better places to eat. The waitress was unsure about the red wine.

“Sorry, I’m just filling in here. There’s a wedding.”

“Please tell me what you have. A glass of red wine would be very welcome.”

She stared at me in panic. “I’m just filling in.” She rushed off and presently reported. “I’m sorry, the red wine’s all locked up. There’s a wedding.”

Two bottles of tinto sat on the bar behind me. Beyond that, I spied the greatest panoply of whiskies I’d ever seen. The allure of the grape was rapidly fading.

“Do you have white wine?”

“Yes.” The relief on her face was obvious. “I’m new—”

“Unlocked?”

Perhaps she’s been taking lessons from the B&B on the mainland.

“No bother.”

It’s twenty-five miles to Ireland as the crow flies, and the same expressions prevail. Youse. No bother. Good craic.

It was time to hit the mother lode. Whisky pilgrims are like most others, small groups that share a kind of rapture as they make their way through the chapels of their passion. Like the monks of old, they stop and commune, then proceed on their way imbued with the spirit.

At Laphroaig, you’re given the chance to become a friend of the distillery, complete with a certificate and a rent payment of fifty milliliters of Scotland’s finest. Armed with your national flag and a pair of wellies, you trudge through the sodden peat bog and claim your very own square foot of land.

From Laphroaig to Lagavulin, and then on to Ardbeg, you cover the ground on the southern flank, before striking for pastures greener. Most of the barley is malted at a large complex owned by Diageo—only Kilchoman distillery does it all, from planting the barley to bottling the booze.

It was there that I purchased the jewel in the crown—whisky aged in a Sauternes cask. Customers are only allowed one bottle apiece, and I’m a firm believer in scarcity value.

The approach to Bundahabbain, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The approach to Bunnahabhain, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Globalization has come to Islay, and the Bunnahabhain distillery has recently become part of a South African conglomerate. The distillery is a stone’s throw from the ferry terminal at Askaig, and the new owners are expected to sink seventeen million pounds, or twenty-two million bucks, into the much needed renovations.

Some of the distilleries are betting on innovation—Bruichladdich now produces a world-famous gin. The Botanist features no less than twenty-two herbs, and took the trendy gin market by storm. All distillers share a problem—the need to age their whisky, usually for a good number of years.

Moreover, different casks give different results, even if they’re from the same source, so the tasters are unsure of the outcome—a risky investment. Top barrels are hard to come by, and can cost seven hundred bucks, so some whisky distillers are buying out sherry producers just to get the casks.

Islay produces about three million gallons every year, and production is limited by the casks and space available for storage, so diversifying into gin, which needs no ageing at all, is a smart move.

From Tallinn to Tarbert, there’s something special about ferries. After a Scottish and thoroughly uncontinental ferry fry-up, I watch the dawn light up Jura, the island where Orwell wrote 1984.

I wonder how he would view this mad world thirty-two years later, as Russia bombs Aleppo into oblivion while the Americans look on.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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