Monday, October 5, 2015

Fèis íle - Part 3 meh... with a silver lining

They, whoever 'they' is, always say that if you have nothing nice to say you shouldn't say anything at all. So, when I got to part 3 of my Islay trip I thought... do I print or not??? But then I realized it's just as important as the rest so why not share.

After spending a glorious first couple of days on Islay with some great whiskies and a fantastic distillery day (Bruichladdich), it appeared like the rest of the festival was going to be awesome! Well, distillery day 3 and 4 simply didn't stand out and if anything by the time we reached Caol Ila day I was suffering from 'idiot overload'. Let me explain. 

I try not to judge people who choose to do the following however by Sunday I was fed up and ready to punch a few in the head. Why you ask: Simply said I don't like "BFK's". Big Feeling Knobs. What is that you ask: It's the idiot who sits beside you in a tasting and never shuts up. The one who loudly talks incessantly about his HUGE whisky collection or the fact that the only reason he is at the festival is to buy as many of the Fèis ìle Limited Release Bottlings so that he can sell them on E-bay for 5X the price AND he's the guy who cracks the same stupid joke while the assistant pours the next whisky: "Hey sweetheart if you could pour just a little more of that in my glass because I'm drinking for two, snorts and laughs loudly..."  FFS and huge sigh...  

I didn't pay $50 to come to a tasting to listen to you be an asshole. I don't give a rat's ass how many bottles of rare and expensive Japanese whiskies you have in your cucking follection and I certainly don't care how rich or important you think you are in the country of your birth. 

So... back to Caol Ila day... While I sat in on the manager's dram selection tasting I was once again seated next to a BFK! He complained about the seating arrangement, the line up of whiskies, the lack of water, that the drams being offered were sub par and for all I know he could have been complaining about the big stick he had shoved up his arse that seemed to be causing his whisky constipation issues because by then I had completely zoned out and made pretend I was reading something very important in my journal... I tried desperately to salvage what little bit of sanity I had left as I nosed and tasted my way through a very nice line up of whiskies. I especially enjoyed the Caol Ila 25!

But.. like I said with the loudmouth ding dong sitting at my table it really took away from the whole experience so by the time I left the class I was downright grumpy. Outside in the distillery yard the festivities were in full swing: Food, music, drams, and plenty of people to talk to and that's when I started to relax and have fun. Steffen Brauner and the rest of the wonderful #whiskyfabric ended up being my saving grace for the next couple of days on the island. You'll notice that I haven't said anything about Laphroaig day yet and with good reason. It was packed with way too many people, slightly better than disorganized mayhem and honestly for a distillery that was celebrating it's 200th anniversary I expected something special. That was my first mistake: Expectation. The truth of the matter is Bruichladdich Day was so huge, wonderful and well done that, in my opinion it made the next couple of days pale in comparison. As I sat and thought about the things I could have/should have said about the Laphroaig Distillery day, nothing came to mind. Nothing really stood out. Sad isn't it. The crowds got to me, the BFK's were really getting to me. Caol Ila and Laphroaig days were at best mediocre in nature, except for the wonderful company of friends. 

 I did many things while we were on Islay that didn't involve waiting in line for a limited release bottling while listening to a boring BFK and it didn't cost me a fortune: We hiked up to the American monument and drank whisky together as friends. We walked along the seashore and took some breathtaking photos. Ate at little cafés and had fantastic conversations with the locals. (I loved the deep fried haggis balls and hand cut chips). Made plans to meet up with other whisky friends on the island - THANKS for the great night at Bowmore House -> You all know who you are!!! 

The most memorable and thought provoking moment came when we ate lunch in an old church that was converted into a self catering cottage. Steffen's friend John came in he was greeted with warm handshakes and friendship all around. He asked if we wanted a whisky with our pepperoni pizza and of course we all said yes. He went over to a box near the door, popped open a brand new bottle and poured us all a dram.  

I'd like to take a moment to mention that John didn't really know any of us all that well other than Steffen (which again speaks volume about the fabric). Lots of laughing, stories ensued and we all enjoyed the whisky immensely. I think it was Brian who asked to see the bottle and that's when my mouth dropped. You see, John owns quite a collection of whisky and the one he chose to open for us to share over pizza was this one:

So there I was eating a store bought $5.99 pepperoni pizza paired with a 1982 Port Ellen. The lesson in all that: John, like many of us, enjoys his whiskies. He doesn't spend an hour sitting beside you bragging about his collection. He, like many of us, chooses to open and share them with like minded people. And he, like many of us didn't bat an eye to open something wonderful to enjoy with a slice of pizza. That my friend is the epitome of the #whiskyfabric I keep talking about. The ability to look past the snobbery, the pomp, the hooplah and the stupidity that surrounds us sometimes and simply say: "You know what, it's just whisky"...

Later that day, we all piled into a couple of cars and went on another hiking trip where I experienced a little bit of Scottish history at the Kildalton High Cross site. It was a lovely moment spent reflecting, learning and remembering all those who came before us.

 Piling back into the cars we continued our afternoon of exploring and ended up finding a beach that could have easily been mistaken for the Caribbean. Again, just a bunch of friends taking their shoes off (errr, one took off his pants) and wading through crystal clear azure coloured waters. Whisky samples and Glencairns came out yet again, and we toasted and drank with a lust for the life and moments we were experiencing. What did we drink? Doesn't matter. It was good and it came from the heart of the people who shared it from their personal collections (Thanks Steffen and Brian).

I had expectations before i left for Islay that it was going to be 8 days of whisky, whisky and even more serious whisky! And to some extent it was. But taking it way too seriously is another thing altogether. So, by day 4 I had come to realize that some of the distillery days would be... meh... but the memories, and the time away from the distilleries spent with friends proved to be much more valuable and precious to me. The amount of times that bottles were popped, shared and truly discussed amongst friends happened way more often when we were not at a distillery day and the best part: No BFK's! 

I want to thank every single one of you (way too many to mention them all) who thought nothing of sharing a Port Ellen, Laphroaig 30 or your 1976 Ardbeg. The point that was important was that you shared, willingly, proudly and because... it's not about huge collections of unopened bottles, bragging rights or price tags. 

So if you plan on getting to Islay for Fèis ìle for the entire festival be prepared for a few ups and downs, some great and not so great distillery days. Word of advice: Make friends, do some sight seeing, take the time to talk to the locals and remember: Sometimes it's not even about the whisky. 



Friday, September 18, 2015

Fèis íle - Part 2, Bruichladdich throws down a proper hoedown!!!

I must have heard it a hundred times: "You are going to Fèis ìle! Oh you can't miss Bruichladdich day!I would look at the festival's schedule and honestly Bruichladdich Day didn't seem all that different than the other distillery days listed? Music, tastings, food, tours and special distillery bottling over the course of one day. Ok? So what was the big deal...

People started to warn me about getting tickets the minute they went on sale. There would be a tasting in the warehouse with Jim McEwan for 400 people. Ok, surely there would be tickets available for that? Seriously... how popular could that one day be over the rest. Turns out... PLENTY!

I was still skeptical and apparently didn't really understand what we were getting ourselves into. I started asking a few 'veterans' what exactly was so special about Bruichladdich day? The answer was as plain as the nose on my face it seemed? It's one of the first days of the festival, most of the locals attend (they don't attend many of the other days apparently) AND it's the best day of the festival. Again, in the back of my mind I was thinking 'really... the best?' So once more, skepticism in hand I asked my friend Martine who lives there: "Which distillery open day should I ensure I don't miss?" and without hesitation she answered Bruichladdich. That sealed it (I'm a bit stubborn it seems... ;)

By February 2015 the online banter was growing to a fever pitch and I found myself caught up in it as well. Discussions were taking place in Facebook groups, private forums and between many whisky enthusiasts worldwide. I... was ready! Tickets ordered and day planned, I blew across my credit card like it was a smoking gun! Smug I was, but impatient because the trip was still 3 full months away. I've already discussed day one of my arrival to Islay:  Part 1

So I'm going to skip over day 2 as a few things will be mentioned in a later post about it and go straight to day 3 - BRUICHLADDICH DAY. We woke up that morning and already there was 'a six kids waiting to open their Christmas presents atmosphere' in the cottage. So excited were some of us that we could barely sit long enough to even have breakfast. Showered, dressed and ready at the door at 9:00am with our backpacks, cameras, tickets and flags (yes our country's flag). As mentioned in part 1, we were within stumbling, errr I mean walking distance of Bruichladdich. The Spellers left first and the four of us followed shortly thereafter. 

As we turned on to the main road we were greeted or should I say we greeted friends like Klaus Doblmann (@MaltKlaus), and his brother Johannes (@johndoblmann) and walked to the distillery in step. It may sound odd to people who are not enthusiasts but starting the day with a whisky tasting in a warehouse is like telling a chocoholic they get 3 hours in the world's most best chocolate shop... But I digress! We arrived at the distillery and made our way up the hill by following the stream of people doing the same thing. 

There were flags from all fours corners of the earth as we all marched in to the sounds of country music blaring over the speakers. I saw people from Japan, New Zealand, USA, Germany and Australia. Truly a worldwide representation of people attending this event. Bruichladdich staff decked out in their finest cowboy gear and the warehouse was decorated to the very top of the walls. Banners, photos, stage set up, camera crews and wall to wall people! I had never seen anything like it?!  It took about an hour but eventually all 400 of us were seated and the morning began. I think Graham summed it up best when he said: "Jim McEwan came in and was greeted like he was a southern baptist minister". People were on their feet waving their hands, clapping, singing, whistling and hundreds of cameras were taking photos. The place was on fire like a true barn burner! (My apology to you "city folk" who don't know what that is?!)

What followed was a full 3 hours of stories, whiskies, songs and a fantastic way to start off Bruichladdich day. My favourite pick of the six whiskies we were fortunate enough to try: Bruichladdich 1984, Ex-bourbon cask. 51.5% ABV. (My daughter's birth year as well)

Nose: Rich tropical fruit salad. Hints of coconut with a subtle honeyed vanilla in the backdrop. On the palate: Powerful, bold an quite punchy! Lovely oily mouth feel, smooth and sweet. The finish had a lemon meringue pie quality that lingered. Really a lovely dram and great way to start the tasting (that's right we started with the oldest whisky first)

Like all good things, it was over before we knew it and it was time to head down to the rest of the festivities. 

The courtyard was set up with a large stage/sitting area, there were tents filled with drams to try, food trucks were parked on the other side waiting to feed the hungry masses, music was in the air, people were mingling and the lineup to get into the shop was long but moving quickly. After a three hour session one must eat... and eat I did. I started with langoustines, fresh crab legs and when that didn't satisfy the belly, I moved on to meat on a bun smothered in hot sauce. Fully fueled, we continued to walk around the grounds to meet people, enjoy the day and drink plenty of whisky. Somewhere in the festivities, some of us were called up on stage and introduced as #whiskyfabric women and we were most fortunate to have our photo taken with Mr. McEwan. And as you can see from the photo, the courtyard was packed! 

The rest of the day was spent wandering around, dancing, meeting people, sharing drams and having a fantastic time. 

Now... for the important lessons I learned that day. 

One: I will always, forever, exude my #whiskyfabric motto. What does that mean? Well in the event you live under a rock... ;) I am part of a larger fabric of people from all walks of life that exists in a passionate brother/sister hood of all things whisky.

Several times during the course of that day I enjoyed greeting, meeting, hugging, embracing, sharing moments in one capacity or the other.

Case in point: While at the warehouse whisky tasting, a young man was sitting next to Graham. He was fairly quiet but we noticed he was wearing a jacket with the name of the tall ship (Thalassa) that was tied up at the wharf in front of the distillery so of course we struck up a conversation with him (sailors/whisky, woot woot!!) He was very happy to be there but mentioned his dad (skipper) would have loved to have been there as well. So, I pulled out a few sample bottles and said: "I'm not drinking some of these so if you want to bring a few to your dad, we can fill them up".  So, between the three of us we filled 3 sample bottles for the skipper.  He thanked us and we didn't see him later around the grounds.

BUT... when we left at the end of the day, I said to Graham: "Do you want to go down to the wharf and see Thalassa up close"...  Duhhhhh!  So away we went, walking down to the water's edge to admire the beautiful tall ship. It's a privately owned/operated vessel so we simply watched from the dock and took a few pictures when low and behold the same young man recognized us and motioned for us to come forward. We talked for a few minutes, I gave him a few more whisky samples and he took a quick look around and said: "Would you like to come on board for a few minutes and get a quick tour"...  Graham's eyes lit up like a little kid at Christmas and the next thing I knew we were touring the entire ship. We entered the wheelhouse and were introduced to the skipper who thanked us profusely for the whisky samples (he doesn't get to go onshore much because of his job/responsibility to the chartered guests). Then the schedule clock ticked down and they had to leave. We disembarked, thanked the young man yet again for his kindness to which he replied: "Simply paying back the kindness you bestowed upon me". 

So, don't ever underestimate the kindness that you pass along as a #whiskyfabric weaver!

Lesson Number Two: After spending an entire day of being enveloped in the kindness and whisky spirit at Bruichladdich, we decided to go to supper with the Spellers at the Bridgend Hotel: As mentioned in part 1, everything is full to capacity during Fèis ìle so we knew we were taking a chance going without a reservation. We arrived and the hostess advised they didn't have anything available at the moment but seated us in the lounge and we ordered drinks. 

We proceeded to blather on about the day and how perfect it was. Then for some reason (I can't remember now) Graham went online to look something up when an email popped up. Now, fair to say, my partner isn't the type to get emotional or overreact so when he gasped out loud, went white as a sheet and was speechless I knew something horrible had happened. All he could do was pass me the phone and I read the devastating news. A founding member of our local whisky society and very good friend has passed away. The very difficult part was that he had recently been given the all clear after a two year battle with bowel cancer. 

Robert had gone back to work and was healthy as a horse when we left on May 15th... Eight very short days later he was gone. 

I sat half a world away, crippled in shock and sadness thinking of his wife Daphne, our friends, our society members. Robert Rae was the first member to pass away in the 5 years that we have existed as a society. 

Graham and I regained our composure and I can't speak for him but the rest of that night was spent hanging on every word that Ansgar said to me. I watched as Thomas devoured his meal with gusto and noticed how his eyes lit up when he and Graham dove into the plate of oysters. The art in the room seemed bold and even more beautiful. It was as though all of my senses suddenly seemed heightened. I was entranced in the fact that I had lost someone that was very dear to us but yet at the same time drinking in every aspect of the evening with two very good friends. Right down to how orange the carrots seemed in Graham's plate. Might sound silly, but that's how it truly felt...

We thanked our lovely hostess for sneaking us in that night. If ever you go to Islay, I highly recommend you go to Bridgend for at least one meal (we loved it so much we went for two... ;) The service there is absolutely stupendous and the food was utterly delightful and delicious.

Back at the cottage, Graham pulled out some Ardbeg and the four or us toasted Bob (it was his favourite whisky) as we sat in silence for a moment in the remembrance of friends, whisky and memories made. 

So please, remember to appreciate every day of your life as some will never have had the greatest gift of growing old...
Dr. Robert E. Rae (1953-2015) 

I will always remember Bruichladdich day as the best of Fèis ìle for several reasons. The distillery day left me wanting for nothing: Great whisky, a sense of community commitment, friends, kindness, exuberance of being alive and appreciation for every single moment may it be fantastic or devastatingly sad.

A toast to Jim, may you actually stay retired this time. A toast to those who have gone before us, may we remember how they touched our lives for as long as we live and lift your glasses this evening and toast repeatedly the friends that surround us now and make us the people we are...  

These people crack me up.... and I love them very much for it!!!

Thank you Bruichladdich for giving me exactly what everyone had said I would get: A huge Islay welcome and one of the most unforgettable days spent on our trip.