Feis Ile 2010 – Personal Notes from a Whisky Vacation (Part II of II)
We woke up to a rainy Thursday morning, the first actual Scottish weathered day, and headed up to Kilchoman for their open day with intentions to tour the area of the distillery, if and when the day’s weather would clear up, and with known intentions to pass on the Isle of Jura open day that was held on that day (and on Wednesday) as well. We got to Kilchoman to discover that they had everyone parked on an empty for sale field that was a good few minutes’ walk in rain from the distillery itself, on a wet dirt/stone road. Tucking my camera and myself well inside the all-weather jacket I purchased at Laphroaig (THE purchase of the week), I walked with my father to the distillery and were constantly warned by those returning from there that the only thing there is a very long queue. And sure enough, at the small farm distillery there was a queue that went on from the shop counter all through the length of the store (which is about 20 or so meters), continuing next to the Klichoman café’s counter which is on the other side, and into the adjacent filling store where a small bar was placed. Even to buy something that had nothing to do with whisky (they sell nice things there), meant queuing up for at least an hour. Instead I went to the bar to try Kilchoman whisky for the first time (though I did try it at the whisky nosing contest, and also as a spirit during my 2007 visit to the place). At the bar I met Mark again and he introduced me to Dr. Jim Swan who only after I spoke to, and was amazed by the information he shared with me while chatting about various whiskies, I was explained who he was.
The skies persisted on remaining gloom, and so my father suggested that we might as well go to Jura; why miss that if we cannot tour the Kilchoman area? I asked Mark who was responsible enough not to drink and drive, if he would like to ride with us, and thus after he finished some work on the Kilchoman cast and we managed to grab some coffee and a good conversation with more whisky fans, we drove to Port Askaig to get the five minutes ferry to Jura.
Islay has some really amazing and great views. Jura on the other hand, has some unbelievable view! This wee island with its mere 200 residents and thousands of deer is one of the calmest and prettiest places I’d ever visited. From the ferry to Craighead where the Isle of Jura distillery is located, there is an 8 miles long single track road (the only one on the island), that instead of taking us about 10 or so minutes to complete, took us almost more than double that as we just had to stop several times and take in the views (by now the rain stopped and the sun was just starting to show through the thick coat of grey clouds). It would have probably taken even longer unless we knew Mark was being waited for. Little did we know what an exceptional experience was to come as we arrived with him to the distillery.
On arrival, we were introduced to Whyte & Mackay’s Head of Global PR, Rob Bruce, who took us into the Boutique Barrels master class that was lead by Master Distiller and Brand Ambassador, Willie Tait. For the festival, Isle of Jura did not produce a special Feis bottling, but did however produce three limited edition Boutique Barrels bottling expressions which are the ‘heavy peat’ 1999 55%ABV Bourbon XU cask finish, the 1993 54%ABV Sherry JI cask finish, and the 1995 56.5%ABV Bourbon JO cask finish. Personally, the ‘heavy peat’ 1999 expression just blew me away, one excellent dram, and together with Willie’s voice surrounding and caressing us with explanations and atmosphere in the cooled cooperage we were sitting in, and the presence of the amazing island beyond the walls, I just felt so much at ease and relaxed.
Jura Hotel and Isle of Jura distillery and lodge as seen from the bay
The view as seen few meters to left of the Isle of Jura distillery
After the Boutique Barrels master class Mark and I did a whole photo session of the opposite bay to the distillery. Rob was very kind and waited patiently for us and in the mean my father apparently used the time to pop in the shop and decided to by me a gift. As we were walking with Rob to the event of hands-on selection for the next Jura Boutique Barrel bottling lead by Whyte & Mackay’s Master Blender, Richard Paterson (‘The Nose’), my father gave me the gift – Paterson’s book “Goodness Nose” in which my father wrote me a personal dedication, which was shortly complimented with a dedication by ‘The Nose’ himself. The hands-on selection for the next Jura Boutique Barrel bottling session started outside one of the warehouses, where Richard Paterson, standing on a makeshift tiny stage, spoke with great enthusiasm about Jura, the isle and whisky, about character of whisky and more, all in a great colorful show. If you didn’t ever see Richard lecture about whisky, I strongly suggest you search it on YouTube; he gives one hell of a show.
Right: Richard Paterson; Left: My father, Gideon Fleischmann
Middle: Myself proudly presenting the dedication from Richard
Photograph by Mark Gillespie
As Richard continued speaking, he lead us into the warehouse (each taking long and hard sniffs as he ordered us to smell the warehouse as we go in), where around a large table stood nosing glasses, filled with various colored whiskies, on numbered paper sheets. Each number represented a barrel that could be found with all other barrels just between the table and the content of the warehouse which was stacked up casks of whiskies from floor to ceiling. Richard continued to explain about Scotland’s whisky areas (and made sure to emphasis that Jura is a Highland whisky), how whisky should be held, nosed (‘…if I ever see you holding the glass like this [as you would a water glass. S.G.] and nosing the whisky like so [as you would a flower. S.G.], I would kill you…’), be tasted (‘…give the whisky respect, if it was aged 14 years keep it at least 14 seconds in the mouth…’), and drank (‘…if I ever hear the sound of jingling ice in your whisky, I’ll first toss it away and then kill you.’). He then explained to us what it was that we were to do and that is to go around the table, nose every glass (taste if we want as well, but no one did), then write down our name and favorite cask number on some forms that were on the table and last but not least, sign our name on the cask itself. The most popular casks will be blended and
the distillery will (hopefully soon), bottle 500 limited edition bottles. The last task we had, was to nose and taste a dram of a 1973 filled cask that was poured to the glasses directly from the cask. Oh what a difficult task was it; the need to linger over every sip; oh the pampering J.
Richard Paterson, ‘The Nose’; behind him is Mark Gillespie
As we were the last group to take this event, we were allowed after everyone had their vote, to do a proper tasting with water. Cask 22 was my favorite, and after adding a dash of water it was obvious that #22 can be a single cask bottling (I’m proud to say that this opinion was shared by wiser and more experienced whisky professionals – that’s when I actually realized that I learnt, and was still learning, a great deal during the week).
After enjoying a very nice lunch during which one of the distillery’s younger employees (Neil Gow), gave live acoustic performance (later my father got from him a rock genre CD of his original material that he produced in 2006; he actually popped home to get it), a nice summary of the day’s events was given by Richard Paterson, Willie Tait and Willie Cochrane (Distiller and Brand Ambassador), and the signatures of all three were obtained on the ‘heavy peat’ bottle I’ve purchased, we said our thank you and bid our goodbyes. Mark was spending the night at the Jura Lodge so my father and I continued alone. We still had time before the last ferry to Islay, so we decided to drive on past Craighead and see more of Jura; as I’ve mentioned it is an amazing place. On the way back to the ferry I’ve noticed that we don’t have enough petrol, and we need to fill on Jura before we leave to Islay as the time was close to closing time of the shops on both Islands. Just for the fueling experience on Jura it was worth running low on petrol. Jura has only one fuel pump which is located not too far from the Jura Hotel. In order to use the pump, one must go into the Hotel, ask for the key to the pump and drive to it. Once fueling is complete, you need to lock the pump again (we are talking about a very small regular suitcase lock), memorize the amount of fuel pumped and the due payment, get back to the hotel, return the key and then fill in the ‘fueling book’ all relevant details (the memorized numbers and some more information). Of course paying is also required.
We got back to Port Askaig and set our direction to Portnahaven, where a Ceilidh was scheduled for a bit later that evening. On our arrival to the little village, which is just about on the far edge of Islay, we discovered a pictorial quiet village. Streets with rows of white housed lead down to a small bay (two on one side and one on the other side of the bay), where seals where taking time off resting in the water, fishing boats docked ready to leave on the next coming tide and gulls were buzzing around in the air. Everything was so pastoral and calm. We parked at the start of the village and walked slowly down to the bay, looking out to sea and around at the sunset bathing houses. When we reached the bottom (to the bay) we went to the pub we saw just around the corner to get something to eat, and met there some German friends we recently made around the distilleries. After a nice meal, we went to the local hall for the Ceilidh. A Ceilidh is basically a Scottish traditional dance where a Scottish folk band is playing, a raffle is drawn, drinks and foods served and basically a place to have some good traditional Scottish time. My dad had a blast; I enjoyed as well, but kept going in and out of the hall to take photos of the village and surrounding area, there is a limit to the amount of accordion with fiddle music I can absorb.
During the Bruichladdich open day on Sunday (yes going back a bit), I followed my father into the still room at some point, and somehow we started to converse with the still man on shift. I was photographing all through our chat, and this resulted with the still man whose name I fail to remember and who told me I should come at night and see the stills then, arranged with another still man (Dave), who was just giving a tour and got in the room, that I will come on the Thursday night shift to take night shots of the still room.
Bruichladdich is not very far from Portnahaven and is in fact on the way back to Port Ellen from Portnahaven, so after the Ceilidh, at eleven thirty at night we went into the Bruichladdich’s still room. Dave was waiting for us and actually thought we are not going to show up as it was so late. The copper of the stills was glowing in a yellow-red shine and I started my photo session, moving my father and Dave around as they “got in the way”. Dave was generous and also took me into the mash tun room, opened up “Ugly Betty” and some wash backs so I can take photos of them as well, and pampered me with a glass of warm new spirit direct from the spirit safe. If I was slightly tired, that woke me right up; that was very strong stuff. I spent about an hour or so with Dave, and then joined my sleeping father in the car and drove to Port Ellen. As I was driving I suddenly saw in the car’s high beam white spots ahead and started to slow not knowing what is expecting me. In the middle of the road, sheep were scattered around sleeping absorbing the heat from the asphalt, and as they wouldn’t budge I had to slalom between them. We got to Port Ellen, and after dropping my father at the house, I went on to do some night shots of the bay. Returning from the beach to the car I ran into this totally drunk twenty year old, who kept asking where I showed up from. He was on his mobile and explained that “this guy just popped out of nowhere”. He was quite funny and I told him he should go to sleep only to be answered with “alright pa”; pa?! damn it, I’m not THAT old!
Bruichladdich’s still room at night
Port Ellen bay view at night
I woke up late on Friday. To be frank, my father actually had to wake me up as we were going
to the Bunnahabhian open day and he wanted to stop at Port Askaig to buy something first (this is past Bunnahabhain). Got up, got organized and off we were. Instead of going to Port Askaig, we found just off the road, hiding between bushes and on a stream the Islay Woollen Mill, and my father actually found what he was looking for there. Just in brief, the mill makes all kind of clothes and tartans from scarves to full tweed suites, using old fashion machinery once powered on water, now on electricity, and designs and produces outfits for many blockbusters such as Braveheart, Rob Roy and Forest Gump.
As we turned into the road leading to Bunnahabhain distillery, we saw Mark who got back from Jura and was about to walk the four mile road. Together with him we arrived at the distillery, which was already packed with people, and started to look around the open day’s event. Arts and crafts and food stands that we’ve met earlier during the week, made an appearance here as well; food stands with requested local distillery twist – cooking with Bunnahabhain 12yo (scallops with Bunnahabhain 12yo mustard were just great). On the green opposite the Bunnahabhain cottages one could try his strength at the mini highland games of Wellies tossing, bow and arrows, pole throwing and golf (I was rubbish in most of them, I can blame it on the amount of drams I had before trying, but that just wouldn’t be true). In the distillery courtyard the Black Bottle VW van was parked and used as a Black Bottle bar where drams were freely poured and miniatures were given away, and opposite to that, Skerryvore gave three awesome shows throughout the day and got the crowd all worked up, dancing and happy with their amazing Celtic rock style. Later that night, Skerryvore gave a really amazing, more intimate show at Duffie’s bar (located in the Lochside Hotel, Bowmore) which was a real treat.
Bunnahabhain as seen from its pier
After having something to eat, seeing the shows and playing the games, my father and I went into the Black Bottle blending game master class I booked for us in advance. The blending game was a tutorial to the whisky blending art and the whisky blender’s work. In the distillery’s filling store, on each table stood a small construction made of square bottles each containing different blend whiskies representing the whisky areas and which are the ingredients used in Black Bottle. These were grain whisky, Highland whisky, Speyside whisky, Islay peated whisky and Islay non-peated whisky which is Bunnahabhian. In front of each of us there were seven glasses, five of which to nose and taste the different ingredients we were to use, one to try the blend we were to create and the last one to have in the real Black Bottle for comparison. We each also had a nosing wheel sheet, a small empty bottle to fill in and take home our personal blend and a graduated cylinder to do the actual blending in. We were also provided with pens and small notepads so we can write down nosing comments and blend recipe.
Bunnahabhain’ still room
The blending game was done in two parts. In the first part, the different whiskies were introduced, their characters explained and each was nosed and tasted. This was followed by explanation of what the ratio between the whiskies should be for an ‘agreeable to all’ blend, such as Black Bottle, and a blending demo. In the second part, after we had a brake, each of us needed to create his own blend, following the guidelines we were given (basically, not too peaty and let the grain whisky refine the rest, or basically, use more of it). A twist was added to this in the form of a competition between the tables (due to the amount of people) as each table had to bring forward the best and worst blends created by the people at it. My father and I sat with an American couple, and all of us (except my father), agreed unanimously that my father’s blend was the worst ever (heavily peated). For the best blend there was a tie between my own and the American guy’s, so we asked one of Bunnahabhain’s representative to decide and he chose mine.
After the ‘judge’, who was the guy leading the master class, tasted all he announced the winners. The best blend chosen was of a German guy and he won a Black Bottle. The worst blend chosen, after much tension as at the beginning the ‘judge’ said how this Dutch guy’s blend was the worst thing he ever tasted but then came a last minute entry, was my father’s. He won the honor of being announced creating the worst blend ever, a miniature Black Bottle and a request from a Taiwanese TV crew that was present, to be photographed with them. Later at Duffie’s, after the Skerryvore show and on our way out, we met the judge again, and my father in good spirit, was kind to offer making a blend for him…
The Skerryvore show at Duffie’s
Saturday was Ardbeg’s turn to have an open day. Sadly enough, the last open day that closed the Feis. Ardbeg people had setup a Victorian style funfair including prize winning game stalls with funny names such as Test Your Strength (use a big hammer and try to ring the bell), Lord of The Rings (try to get rubber rings on Aardbeg bottles), Get Stuck into a Toffee Apple (try to fish out prizes out of peat filled casks) and Sortie Shooter Galleries (take down the empty Ardbeg boxes using tennis balls). There was also a lighthouse helter skelter slide. To play the stalls, one had to use tokens that were bought ten for five pounds at the distillery entrance (initially with an Ardbeg Rollercoaster Feis Ile 2010 glass), or were sent to you if you were a listed Ardbeg committee member (mind you, they had a lot of problems with the listing, so if you are a committee member, verify your details are correct). There was also a committee stall where Ardbeg Rollercoaster baseball caps and Ardbeg “Rocks” (hard green and black candy) were given and a whisky tasting bar where for two tokens one could have a dram out of several Ardbeg expressions.
Helter skelter at ARdbeg distillery open day
Ardbeg limited edition bottle was on sale for only one hour, between 10am to 11am, but the queue for that started the night before and continued way past after the deadline. Inside the distillery’s shop, café and restaurant (The Old Kiln) building, a caricaturist was doing funny sketches of the happy visitors, and a video quiz, for true Ardbeg lovers only, was taking place.
Out of all the potential master classes and guided tastings, my father and I managed only to go on the distillery tour (festively named Merry Go Round the Distillery), but that was quite enough as at the end of the tour, in the still room, a table waited for us with Scottish tablets, crackers, glasses and a chance to try Ardbeg’s Ten YO, Supernova, Rollercoaster, Blasda, Still Young, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan. Like with Lagavulin, I have only had a chance to try one expression of Ardbeg before, the Ten YO (yes even though I’ve been to the Distillery at 2007… to have lunch…), and I jumped the opportunity to try everything, some even twice. The catch was that our tour guide couldn’t stay too long with us (the five who remained out of the forty something people who took the tour – apparently the most crowded tour ever), and so in the time window of 15 or 20 minutes I found myself having nine or eleven, or twelve drams. I honestly don’t recall, and could remember even then when I vacated myself from the still room with a very big smile smeared on my face.
We had our go at the funfair stalls, and unlike an English guy who won a 4.5 liters Ardbeg Ten YO bottle, we won nothing. My father was even brave enough to stick his hand in the peat casks to try his luck, but only came out with a smoky scented hand. Mark who also had a go at the peat casks (and actually used all of his tokens there), honored us with an interview for the final Feis podcast allowing us to summarize and share with the world our Feis’ experiences.
Ardbeg committee members’ tokens
The weather did not clear during the day and as we were hungry (and I was a bit tipsy), we went to have something to eat and get some rest at the distillery’s Old Kiln café. We met there our Germen friends, and sharing a table with them had a nice late lunch. Late lunch in two aspects – it was late in the day, and the kitchen forgot about us for a while, but our waitress Christie, who ‘tattooed’ her eye with an Ardbeg ‘A’ logo (talk about loyalty to the job), compensated us with Ardbeg miniatures. One of our Germen friends, who had enough tokens left, decided to buy all of us Uigeadail drams, and all in all we had a nice afternoon that closed the Feis for us.
Loyalty to the job; the Ardbeg logo on the face
From Ardbeg we decided to go and see a bit more of Islay, and in particular the Kildalton Cross, a 2.65 meters stone Celtic cross from around the 8th century, and according to the amount of coins left on it, an icon for good luck or divine providence or something like so. As we were to leave the following day, we returned early enough so we can pack our luggage and rest.
On Sunday, we woke up, had breakfast and finished packing. After getting the luggage into the car and bidding the Morris family goodbye, we drove to Laphroaig where I had a photography date with the distillery. Before even coming to Islay, I kind of begged Vicky from Laphroaig to try and find a time when she can walk around the distillery with me so I can take long exposure photographs. Well, during The Gathering we set the date and time, and I also spoke to Allan, one of the still men, whom I’ve met and photographed three years earlier and made sure he’ll be there as well. The photo session was great fun and resulted with some great photos.
David of Laphroaig demonstrating how the malting floors is worked
Allan, Laphroaig’s still man, by his stills
Laphroaig distillery bay view
We left Islay on the 15:30 ferry from Port Askaig, together with several dozen athletes who participated in the Jura Fell Race the day before, and together with other Feis visitors and whisky enthusiasts (in the Subaru parking in front of us on the ferry, there was a whole cask in the booth). We said our farewell to Islay and I promised her and mainly to myself, that I shall return with a song in the air, light in the eye and again it will be goodbye to cares, as the song “Westering Home” say.
In total we were In Scotland for twelve days (including the fly-in/fly-out days), out of which eight days we spent on Islay. Speaking for myself, I can say I had a wonderful time and experience during Feis Ile 2010. I