It's Whisky Week on Islay just now - the distilleries have been celebrating in style - read our exclusive report from world renowned whisky blogger Greg Dillon.
Whisky month on Islay
The Islay Festival 2015 confirmed one thing to me; whisky wants to be labelled. The age of a dram defines both the discipline of distilling, and the artistry which teases this discipline from its boundaries.
There is no way to evade the past on Islay; even if you inevitably wander through distillery tours peppered with iPads, futuristic pop-up bars and catchy Twitter handles. The bewitching coast and cliffs stand proudly above the milling crowds, a firm skeleton supporting the whisky trade, and consequently a reminder that they hold its heart.
The festival itself is, although one which will continue into its antique years, relatively youthful. But although Feis Ile began in 1986, its ethic is one of uniting the people and traditions of Islay which have resonated over thousands of years. My favourite part of the festival, dare I say it, is perhaps not even the amber nectar itself, but the people who come together to drink it. Without purporting to be a member of a cult, the whisky community is one of unrivalled magnetism.
In no other discipline is age worn so explicitly, boldly and proudly. Drinking the 1972 Ardbeg in the warehouse was a 43rdbirthday party like no other. However, it hurts me to admit that my number 1 highlight was in fact sipping on the 25 year old Laphroaig; a mad whisky which successfully seduced me in seconds.
Arbeg didn’t miss a trick at all, come to think of it. The distillery’s pop-up bar from the past paid homage to the smugglers and warring clans of the land it calls home. I’m sure Islay’s playful ghosts won’t disrupt any renewal of Ardbeg’s lease.
Arriving to the Lagavulin Distillery in a speedboat, I admit, reminded me that modernity has its humble appeals. But as soon as I was back chatting to David at Laphroaig, a man who has worked there for over 30 years and has a tale to tell for every one of those, I realised that the story-telling power of history holds far more water for me.
History is of course, what links Islay with the inscrutable Oban. Such a fiery, peaty malt as Oban earns the land a sphinxlike reputation, yet back in 1799 it was Islay which caused an unlawful stir. The owners of the Oban Brewery Company, Hugh and John Stevenson, complained that there was unfair competition from Islay smugglers. Oban is known as a place where the Highlands meet the islands, but it appears it is also the realm in which rogues were challenged with rule.
The small lantern-shaped copper pot stills, lashings of peat and heather and the wooden worm tubs which sit on Oban’s rooftops, are all elements preserved from another era. The craftsmanship of Oban’s fruity malt was born centuries ago, and suggests no intention to cave to modern mechanics.
Oban is a maritime spirit which a Georgian sailor could sip today, and remain unsuspicious of any time having passed. This hardy history is entwined with Islay’s; but although Oban pitched a successful argument against the island’s smugglers, Islay continues to excel in rebellion, by throwing a damn good party every year.
Look out for special reports on the Oban Distillery and brand coming to GreatDrams.com this summer.
Written by Greg Dillon, an award-winning whisky blogger, authors and brand consultant. You can find out what is going on in the world of whisky over at his dedicated site GreatDrams.com.
Greg will also be visiting Oban Distillery later this year as the Oban 14 Year Old Malt is on his 'bucket list'.