A trio of Islay whiskies from Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Port Ellen impress Angus MacRaild.
‘There’s a slow food festival in the Burren next weekend.’ Leslie Williams was giving me the hard sell. ‘You should come…’ The last night of talk at Ballymaloe followed the same pattern as always when gently lubricated friends sit round the table. You don’t want things to end… a few more days are needed to finish conversations and deepen relationships. Time runs away from our plotting and scheming.
His idea was a good one – stopping off at the festival, then hiring a boat and bobbing under the Cliffs of Moher eating the Burren Smokehouse’s wild salmon and sipping whiskey. It might have been the wonderful, and rare, Alicante wine he was dosing me with, but for more than a second I swithered.
Islay was calling though, and I had to get there as quickly as I could, which turned out to be not as quickly as you might imagine. Drive to Cork, train to Dublin, bus to Dublin airport… and a wait. Things did take a turn for the better when I asked for a Bloody Mary at the bar and got two. Maybe it’s the accent – and you can take that whatever way you wish.
In any case, I slept all the way from Dublin to Glasgow. As I sat waiting for FlyBe to consult their Bumper Book of Excuses and choose one to apply to the inevitable delay to the Islay flight, I mused that with a bit more planning I could have grazed my way up the Wild Atlantic Way trail to Ballycastle, then get a RIB across to Islay. Next year.
It would have been appropriate. The sea was the great roadway of the past, carrying wisdom, goods, warfare and the gospel. Islay’s place names are a mix of Norse and Gaelic, evidence of the meeting of sea-faring cultures from the north and south.
Distilling could have nipped across from Ballycastle to Islay with the Macbeathas at the start of the 14th century. Islay is not remote, or isolated, but a crossroads, a fulcrum in terms of geography, politics and knowledge.
When I finally reached Port Ellen, I looked down the street to where the red ‘T’ of the Ardview shone in the gloaming like a blood stain, beckoning me. I like the Ardview: it’s one of those old west coast pubs which seems to be part boat, a place of creaking wood and hidden rooms, its windows battened down, sheltering the drinking crew from the storms of life raging outside. The door to the lounge bar is painted shut as if to say: ‘This is a public place.’
Final destination: The pink-and-blue dawn at a revitalised Port Ellen
Big Margaret’s curry house has been transformed into the very smart SeaSalt Bistro. Soon there was a clattering midden of scallop shells beside me. All for a minuscule price, with free hairdressing advice thrown in.
Men in kilts wander past – a sure sign of overseas visitors. The bar of the Islay Hotel is bouncing with music as drams are drunk and elbows are bent again and again, the fumes of peat wreathing themselves around the room. Port Ellen, after years of decline, is alive once more.
Now it’s morning. The loch is calm, a pink-and-blue dawn as housemartins and jackdaws fuss about the eaves. In a few hours I’ll wander along the road to Laphroaig and then up to Lagavulin, where I’ve been promised some unusual cocktails.
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