What I really did on my summer holiday

Wednesday 30 August 2006

All through July, London had been persistently hot and sunny, which becomes dispiriting after a few days, and was not the England I had come looking for. Bright sunlight and brown grass are not a flattering look for this city. Besides, hot weather makes day to day life here very unpleasant.
So I escaped to Islay, a two hour ferry ride west of Kintyre (no, I didn’t make a detour to see the statue of Linda McCartney cuddling a baa-lamb), and spent a week gladdening my heart with an old-fashioned Scottish summer filled with clouds, rain, mist and fog. Islay is one of those rustic backwaters of the type you see eulogised in feel-good movies, where cows and sheep placidly wander over the highway; a place where my mobile phone couldn’t get a signal, saving me the trouble of turning it off. Despite my aversion to fresh air, it was an ideal location for indulging in my favourite pastime of doing absolutely nothing.
To encourage my indolence, I stayed at a bed and breakfast overlooking the sound and the neighbouring island of Jura. I could easily have sat there all day, drinking tea and watching the fog roll in and out over the valley and around the Paps, or the Jura ferry crossing over every hour or two. In fact, I almost had to sit there all day, the wife of the house having stuffed me to the point of immobility with a breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, haggis, mushrooms, pikelets, toast and fruit pudding. Presumably she liked cooking for someone who appreciated her food; the other people staying there were a quintissentially English couple, who whinged and muttered an ineffably English complaint about having to eat a cooked breakfast every morning.

I didn’t get around to taking a ride on the ferry to Jura. I considered going there to visit George Orwell’s house, but it turns out it’s up the other end of the island, a 25-mile drive up a one lane road, followed by a three mile hike to a house which is closed to the public. He wasn’t kidding about wanting isolation to finish writing 1984. I’m not crazy enough about Orwell to put myself to that sort of trouble; not while there are people willingly plying me with tea and toast.

Besides, I’d be kidding noone but myself if I didn’t say that the real reason I went to Islay was because it has eight distilleries on it. Under the surface, the island is one huge peat bog, and it produces the heaviest, smokiest, richest malt whiskies: the likes of Laphroiag, Ardbeg, and Lagavulin. Anyone visiting the island will probably end up visiting at least one distillery, especially if the weather is “changeable”, and it’s worth taking the guided tours of at least two places, if you have time. I went to Ardbeg, whose café is one of the best places to eat on the island, and Bruichladdich, one of the smaller, lesser-known distilleries in the north of Islay.
There are several benefits to doing the tour of more than one place. Firstly, you get to meet different cross-sections of the groups of Germans, Japanese, and Swedes making their pilgrimage to the venerated malt of their choice. Secondly, the two tours I went on emphasised different aspects of the process. At Ardbeg our guide gave us more details about fermenting and distilling, while at Bruichladdich we got into a long discussion about the part that different casks can play in affecting the type of whisky produced.

Thirdly, they will get you drunk. There is of course the complimentary dram at the end of the tour but at Bruichladdich, where there’s only a few people around, if you show genuine enthusiasm for their product they will start showing off the different whiskies they make. I wondered why I felt a bit woozy after leaving the distillery, until counting back on my fingers I realised I’d had at least a taste of seven different whiskies, from a shot from their Cotes du Rhône cask containing a whisky turned red and sweet as liqueur, to a sample of an almost drinkable three-year old spirit, which you can buy futures in and then wait for another seven years until it’s ready.
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” whispered the Dutch guy, on a working holiday at the distillery, who had been showing us around. “I don’t much like the stuff they make here.” It’s one of the lighter, less peated malts on the island, and he preferred the smokier stuff. When I concurred he led me over to an old bourbon cask with one of their heavier malts maturing inside, where I helped myself to a half-litre Valinch – after another taste, of course – as a souvenir of my visit.
That last sentence or two made me sound like a wanky whisky writer, but after a few glasses of brown spirit I end up pontificating as though I were wearing a cravat, so it’s an accurate reflection of my state of mind.
The whisky is a pretty big deal all over the island. It’s a pretty special feeling to walk into a small, country pub and find the rack of bottle dispensers behind the bar habitually filled with top shelf malts. It’s also a pretty special feeling to hang around the Port Askaig Hotel on Friday nights and get matey with yacht owners sailing over from County Antrim until they start shouting you drinks. Of the few pubs on the island, most of them are geared toward the ageing, middle-class posh types, but Port Askaig welcomes in the less fashion conscious to play folk music at night, and aren’t afraid to follow it up with The Modern Lovers on the stereo.
Don’t get the wrong idea: I didn’t go to Islay just to get drunk. Remember, there was also the long breakfasts and the sitting around in majectic scenery, doing nothing.