The Road to Whisky Island: A Scottish Adventure

on May 01 2009 3:40 PM

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

Lomond.

The

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

Northern Ireland.

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 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.

More News from IBT MEDIA