According to Confucius the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This one begins with a single malt.
There is a square foot of peat bog in the windswept western isles of
Scotland that has my name on it, figuratively speaking. I have seen it,
stood on it and collected my rent - a dram of the doings.
That square foot overlooks the road running along the east
coast of Islay (pron. Eye-La), the whisky island that sits in the
sullen sea beyond Scotland. To the north is the rugged outline of Jura,
south is Ireland, east is the long neck of Kintyre and west is the icy
coast of Canada.
Follow the road and you'll reach the distilleries of
Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. Elsewhere dotted around Islay you'll
find whisky being made at Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila and
Bunnahabhainn. This is a highly alcoholic little island and maybe
that's why they have funny names.
My own pilgrimage to the altar of fine whisky began when
somebody gave me a bottle of Laphroaig. There should be more people
like that around. Thirsting for more knowledge I visited the company's
web site and found that for the sake of an email I could become a
Friend and thus be granted free title to a square foot of land so long
as I might live.
Land for nothing appealed, as did the deal - I was to receive
a free dram of the stuff each year by way of rent. Only problem - a
minor one - was that I had to stand on the plot to drink it.
The thousand-mile journey - give or take a few miles - began
with a hire car in London and started to get interesting once I had
left Glasgow behind. Here the road to the isles runs through some of
the finest scenery in Scotland - the bonny banks and braes of Loch
switch from the sprawling outskirts of Glasgow to the highland
wilderness is sudden and startling. One minute you're in the grey
suburbs of Clydebank; the next you're alongside a broad and beautiful
lake, studded with 38 islands and sheltered from the northerlies by the
symmetrical bulk of Ben Lomond.
The Scots like to say Loch Lomond is the largest expanse of
fresh water in Britain, but although it's certainly quite big, it is
dwarfed in surface area by the admittedly shallower Lough Neagh in
Still, the shoreline is 154 kilometres and to drive around it
takes more than two hours. It also takes you a long way off course if
you're heading for Islay.
The road to Laphroaig follows the west bank of Loch Lomond as
far as Tarbet, not to be confused with Tarbert, another important point
on the route. You touch the top of Loch Long, skirt under Ben Ime,
climb Rest and Be Thankful hill and drop down to the top of Loch Fyne -
a sea loch famous for kippers and oysters.
Lochgilphead is where much of the delectable sea food
emanates; a long white single street curling around the head of its own
loch. You're in the heart of Argyll here, a land of crags and coast
with more red deer than people. Unless they're looking for Paul
McCartney on his Mull O' Kintyre there's a fair chance most visitors
are heading for the isle of spirits.
Loch Fyne glistened on my left as I drove the next stage to Tarbert, my
resting place for the night. It is not the centre of the world, but the
closest thing to it in these parts. Mrs Hamilton's B&B was
alongside the little fishing wharf; an aromatic little spot hinting at
kippers and oysters.
The ferry to Islay casts off at 7.15 most mornings from
Kennacraig, a bleak harbour 15 minutes from Tarbert. This means there's
no time for the classic British breakfast of fried fat with extra
cholesterol, but Mrs. H. does a mean takeaway of scrambled eggs and
fruit.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 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.