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.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Fèis íle, the arrival - Part 1...

Islay is much more than an island off the main coast of Scotland. It is place unlike many people today have experienced because most of us live in large faceless cities where the word community has been lost or forgotten. Ileachs rely on each other for their survival. It's where a neighbour leaves a note that they took a few tomatoes but left a dozen stalks of rhubarb as payment or hundreds of people show up to help mend a blown down fence. It's where the weather dictates what you may or may not be doing for an entire weekend and if you check to make sure some of the more remote homes still have power and food. And, it's an island where it's a must to raise a few fingers to every car that passes yours on your travels. 

Be warned: When you land on Islay, you are officially on 'Islay time'.

Islay has been on my list to visit since 2009. I was super excited to finally make it happen in 2015 thanks to Ansgar and Thomas Speller. Two very good friends that invited us along for their adventure. The planning stages started in 2014 after we had spent a magical two weeks in the Speyside area of Scotland. Knowing how well the four of us got along made it an easy choice and we signed up for two weeks of a self catering cottage near Bruichladdich immediately. 

Of course to the rest of the whisky geeks in the world, we all know what Islay means: PEAT HEADS UNITE!!!  It's the ultimate pilgrimage to where gigantic fields of bogs are ageing as quietly and slowly as some of the whiskies and it's where Fèis íle happens every year in May. The island swells to capacity to the point where all the banking machines run out of money and some of the shelves at the small grocery stores are left almost bare. Where the staff at restaurants do their best to seat, serve and feed the loads of visitors that didn't make reservations with a smile and many apologies for being so full. Where you might not get on or off the island because the ferries are weather landlocked. But hey, you are on Islay time... so you roll with the punches, get to know your neighbour and share your happiness and whiskies with friends.

Friday May 22th we arrived at the ferry terminal to reunite with the Spellers... With tears of joy in my eyes and lots of "little girl" shrieking I hugged them tightly with excitement and true happiness. We all boarded the ferry and made our way to the lounge for breakfast and a quick catch up. As we got closer to the island we all decided to go outside to look around. But as luck or maybe Islay time would dictate we were enveloped in a mist of heavy thick fog with only small glimpse of sky or ground from time to time and then on cue, it seemed, we were approaching the ferry terminal and the fog had lifted just enough that we could see the outline of some of the distilleries. One by one, they came to life and were no longer just photos I had seen. We were finally "here"...

A quick lunch at Ardbeg (HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT), then a drive to the grocery store for provisions and off to the cottage to unload, relax and make supper together (we all love to cook and eat!) We had a few roommates we were anxious to see that would be arriving a little later in the evening: Jo Lawson (@alpacajo) and Crystal Coverdale (@EdgyLassie), both of which I consider very good friends of mine. Our cottage was spectacular! Lots of space, nice rooms, a fireplace, a great kitchen, within walking distance to Port Charlotte, Bruichladdich and with a stunning view of Bowmore across Loch Indaal. Supper cooked, eaten and off to our very first adventure:

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society was marking their first visit to Fèis íle with the release of a commemorative bottling as well as a full day of activities at Islay House. We all chose to meet up at the Evening of Live Jazz event. Cost 10£. A four hour event where great jazz was played and sung while we experienced some of the latest SMWS releases, ate ice cream that paired smashingly well (I must admit) and had plenty of space to sit, stand or congregate on the grounds.

One by one, our beloved #whiskyfabric friends arrived and we cheered, toasted and drank with every new participant joining the group. The music was lovely, the company divine and the setting perfect. 

I was feeling like the evening was exactly as it should be: Spent with friends, sharing drams and looking forward to glorious times and memories about to be made together. We came back to the cottage and spent the rest of the night laughing and talking into the wee hours, as most of us were quickly acclimatizing and loving Islay time. 

This was the first time SMWS was partaking in Fèis íle so I do hope they do it again in the future because it was a great way to start the festival and the price tag was fantastic! Well organized, great venue, excellent value for $$. I would highly recommend this as a "must attend" event.

First whisky purchased SMWS 3.243 Dark, Smouldering Flamenco Gypsy

Available as a limited release for Fèis íle. This is a Bowmore 17 year old, bottled at 57.1% ABV, one of 594 bottles. Price paid 80£

I think many people will agree with me when I say that Bowmores can be a lovely triumph or a huge disappointment if you don't like the lavender soap sometimes found in older bottlings.  I mostly tend to find this on the palate of the 80's distillations.  I was glad to see this made in the late 90's.

Nose: A delicious smoked meat sandwich with rich sherry overtones. Quite beautiful on the nose.

Palate: Sweet peat!! Roasted coffee beans and bits and pieces of roasted almonds. Rich and full mouth feel!

Finish: Long, lingering with smoky anise seed. Very pleasant and tasty.

Well as our first purchase, I really felt like we got ourselves a bargain. My one regret: Didn't get two bottles!

So that I suppose is one of the things you learn about being on Islay... Take it easy, don't regret too much and simply be in the moment of Islay time.  Until next week...  


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

And back... A month of Feis Ile reviews, reports and stories!

Hello lovely readers!  

It's been a fantastic summer where I live and breathe and the fact that I haven't posted anything in awhile is testament to that. We returned from our annual pilgrimage to Scotland on Saturday June 6th and low and behold, less then a week later we purchased a sailboat. That pretty much dictated what I would be doing for the rest of the summer, weather permitting. So, I figured June - September, there were going to be some rainy writing days somewhere, right!? Wrong... 

We have had the best summer in the history of summers here on the east coast of Canada and I have spent almost every waking moment on our lovely boat.

It's really hard to stay focused on writing or for that matter drinking whisky when it's simply hot, windy and gorgeous outside. (Sorry to all my UK friends who had a really crappy summer)...

But... it's September and the days may still be warm however the winds of change are upon us as the sun sets earlier and earlier. So, in the darkness of the nights to come I will be writing about my experience on Islay during Feis Ile 2015. I have some great recommendations and... some not so fabulous reviews. 

If you are curious or have Feis Ile on your list of "to do" festivals, these might provide you with some insight, ideas or at the very least advice on what to see, do and possibly avoid. You may think it's a bid odd to post these now during the months of September/October... 

However, the one piece of advice I will give immediately is that if you are planning on attending Feis Ile 2016 -> GET YOUR ACCOMMODATIONS in order now!  Islay has a limited amount of hotels, b&b's or self catering cottages. At least have that reserved before the end of 2015 otherwise you may find yourself sleeping in a tent next to the ocean... Which might sound romantic but trust me - it's not!

So that's what coming...  First review will be of Bruichladdich Day. It was a humdinger, if I do say so myself, right Steffen?!

Stay tuned!