Monday, April 11, 2016

Benromach 35 delivers more than just history in a dram...

March 24th 1983. Eight men (MacDonald, Anderson, Grime, Watson, McArthur, Cameron, Milne and Ingram) stood and watched as the last cask, #585, was filled and rolled out to the warehouse. Then, like many times before, production stopped and the distillery doors at Benromach were closed. 

Silent, abandoned and rundown it sat until Gordon & MacPhail threw their hat into the whisky making business. In 1998, spirits ran once more and so began the rebirth of the Benromach styles of whisky. It should come as no surprise that the same perfection and dedication has gone into this distillery as their long standing 125 years of experience as 'Spirits Merchants'. For more about either please click here:

I visited Benromach in the spring of 2015 and had the pleasure of trying several of their fantastic whiskies (there honestly has not been one that has disappointed me thus far, ask Eric Lewis - @Eric_B_Lewis). This year as part of my annual trek over to Scotland, I will be privileged to once again be at the distillery on Friday April 29th for the following event (only 4 tickets left): 

Where we will get to experience an intimate evening with the team, manager and friends as we learn more about the 35 year old they've recently released. The interesting history of course, is that this whisky predates the Gordon & MacPhail era and I was fortunate enough to receive a sample of the 35 year old for review. It was distilled sometime in 1980 and has spent its entire life maturing in first fill sherry casks.

Here is what I thought:

Benromach 35 year old, 43% ABV

My grandfather had dozens of these cans
Nose: I spent the better part of 20 minutes just smelling this truly divine whisky. Initially reminded me of my grandfather's old beat up brown leather recliner that he loved to sit in after he had smoked his pipe. The 35 year old is leathery with minute traces of his Sail Dutch tobacco. OMG, what a truly a nostalgic and emotional smell for me as my 'pépère' passed away many years years ago. After I regained my composure and worked my way past those lovely memories, I also detected dates but then that morphed into dried fruits soaked in a rich Caribbean rum which made my mouth water with anticipation. But still, I waited. This lead to zesty aromas that appeared. Fresh orange peel... or maybe Seville marmalade. Gorgeous nose indeed.

Palate: Nose fully tantalized, I was quite surprised by how oily and waxy this was as a mouth feel. Then some really interesting ripe fruit and wood notes I wasn't expecting. It had a hint of spruce tree. I was a bit taken aback by that, I don't recall ever experiencing that on the palate of a whisky before. But again, talk about nostalgic thoughts. Back to my grandfather and when he worked in the woods. 

Finish: Lingering, lovely onslaught of dark ginger molasses cake that we often enjoyed at Christmas. 

Maurice & Rose Aimé Doyle - Circa 1945
There is something to be said about a whisky that can magically transport you back in time. Benromach 35 did just that. It brought me back to where the people I loved as a child still existed. In the synapses of my mind played the old black and white movie of my early childhood moments and memories of pépère "Mossey". 

With every inhale and then sip of whisky came little things I had locked away years ago like how he could make me laugh until I got the hiccups every time. Being awake at 4:00am and sitting on the camp counter with my legs dangling watching him get his lunch ready for his day in the woods. We would whisper so that "we" wouldn't get caught by my mother eating beans/brown bread. Friday evenings at my great uncle Mike's house where family and friends took out their instruments and jammed until the wee hours lulling me to sleep with the sweet melodies and haunting reels. 

Benromach 35 will easily make the top 10 whiskies of 2016 for me. Not only was it a stellar, complex and satisfying whisky it was a dram that gave me back my grandfather if only for an hour that night. 

I found it so difficult to write this post because every time I would get to the part where I remembered laughter and dancing on Friday nights, I couldn't see through the tears. But then again, that's just how powerful your memories can be.

On April 29th as I stand in the Benromach distillery listening to the stillmen's stories, it will be very difficult not to go down this same road from an emotional perspective. Kat Presley will be with me, so that might make the moment a bit easier because after all in essence I'm creating my own memories now. 

I want to thank the people at Benromach for such a touching dram and journey. You have no idea how much that evening meant to me. To the rest of you, I can only hope that some of your drams open the floodgates and make you relive some of your own magical moments. Please feel free to share with me if ever there was a dram like that. Would be lovely to hear.

Cheers for now...

Mossey's grand daughter,


PS -> One of my favourite songs often played in the kitchen...  Please take a quick listen and see if you can make it all the way to the end of the song without tapping your feet or smiling ;)

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Guest post - The Spellers give advice about visiting Islay during Feis Ile

My favourite story about the Spellers is the one I tell about my mother's reaction when I explained in 2014 that we were staying with people in Scotland we had met on the internet. Of course, to my mother's generation meeting individuals on the internet is just as bad as hitchhiking on a freeway and getting in a car with a total stranger. It didn't matter that Graham and I had an online relationship with them for about a year beforehand or that we had skyped a few times over coffee/breakfast routines, etc.. (I didn't even try to explain skype to her!?) But I digress.... ;)

Friends & adopted family!
The Spellers quickly became friends. We've been through some interesting trips with them and we've survived the fantastic, the bad and the ugly together. I consider Ansgar a sister of sorts and Thomas makes me laugh until my ribs hurt. They are not just 'virtual' friends anymore, they are family to me and for as long as I live I will ensure that we get to hang out at every opportunity. This year marks my 3rd road trip with them and I couldn't be prouder to have them featured on my blog. The Spellers travel, blog and experience their entire whisky journey together - always. That's pretty cool I think and gives a perspective that is different than most as it forces them to constantly work as a team, evaluate options together and in the end their choices often make for the best #whiskyfabric opportunities. I asked them to answer my questionnaire about Feis Ile as they were 'pros' having been there more often then the rest of us. I couldn't have imagined being on Islay without them, they truly made the experience magical for all of us in the house we rented together. 

Without further ado... The Spellers 

"Johanne asked us to share our opinions about the Feis Ile 2015 festival, the island and the people. She knows us a little so it may explain why she gave us questions to answer instead of letting us babble on about details that were not related to the point she was hoping to make, like did you know that Graham and Johanne were married by Jim McEwan during the trip to Feis Ile, peanuts aren’t really nuts at all and milk comes from cows? (Some of these facts are untrue.) Here we go...

The most enjoyed and appreciated things about visiting Islay?

Easy, Islay is awesome. People living there are living on Islay time; if things do not turn out as expected today, they might tomorrow. If there has been a storm, chances are half the island is without water or electricity, and common sense dictates you roll up your sleeves and help your neighbours, loved ones, or the people you do not know.

Besides that, the nature and wildlife are superb. You might not know it as a whisky enthusiast, but besides its whisky, Islay is well known for the (rare) bird population, and attracts many birdwatchers year round. Put on a rucksack and your hiking shoes and you can do many days without seeing any lifeform save the many sheep and deer (even more so when you are to include the neighbouring island of Jura), enjoying the raw and untouched nature.

The best kept secret of the island?

The mythical 'steering wheel wave'. It is impossible not to join in after fifteen minutes in your car. ;)

Should every whisky geek attend Feis Ile at least once? Or maybe every year?

Short answer: yes, and then no. Longer answer: yes, we think every whisky geek should at least once to do this pilgrimage and enjoy the festivities the distilleries pull out of their top hats. There are eight distilleries in a relatively small area, nine if you include Jura again, which also has their own festivities during Feis Ile too. In one long and enduring week, every day has its own distillery theme, and next to these events, there are many more organized by the locals. Should a whisky geek do this every year? No. At least not for us. We have been to Islay three times, two of which during the festival, and we find the magic of the island is quite different without the whisky minded people. Better? We don’t know, but (even) more relaxed? Most definitely. We have already said we are taking a break from Feis Iles to come, and will be returning to Islay off-season at some point. At another point we will most likely be there again during a festival week though, even if it would be only for the many #whiskyfabric meetings.

Best options for accommodations during the festival?

If you are on a budget, the obvious choice is to stay in one of the camping areas, or, with more certainty of dry feet, the Hostel in Port Charlotte. If you manage to book on time, the best options are the luxury cottages in Bowmore, at Octomore Farm or at the Ardbeg distillery, but you will burn a big part of your whisky budget there. For us, the best option was to rent/share a self- catering cottage.

Bringing our own car made it easier to pick a location just outside the larger towns. It allowed us to save a few dollars, enjoy nature as well as the peace and quiet the island offers. This site helped us a lot in our search, but be aware of spots that are pointed out as “romantic, nostalgic or with old features” can also indicate the utilities may be somewhat... ehm... primitive. You have to be aware and prepared that on the island a storm can be cut off by a storm or that the water supply to the cottage comes from a burn up the hill and if it has not rained for a bit, the water simply runs out.

If you are not bringing your own car you will have to depend on public transport so we recommend staying in Port Ellen or Bowmore where access to the bus is easiest. If you consider renting a bicycle be very aware the hills are steeper then they seem and the wind so much stronger then you might think. It also rains on Islay, but unlike other places we have visited, it does so horizontally (not kidding). It is much easier to plough through the torrential weather and stampedes of cows/ sheep crossings in the safety of a car.

Ok, so you are at Feis Ile. What distillery day is than the first or last on the list to visit?

Where to go for sure? Easy -> Bruichladdich and Ardbeg. They are the biggest parties during the festival and are a guarantee for a lot of fun. Bunnahabhain gets a mention on the go-to list. Good people there, throwing together a great atmosphere. 

What day to skip? We would say on the current experiences we had that would be Caol Ila. It was fun but we could not feel the passion and fun flowing around the courtyard as we did during the other distillery day festivities and we also skipped Bowmore day because, well, we are just not big Bowmore fans.

What to recommend if you only have the 3 first days, or just 1, to spend during Feis Ile?

If you can’t make it to Feis Ile for the whole festival but only the first days then make sure to have a little dance and some drams with Pinky at Lagavulin, eat some fresh fish at the Seafood Shack, do a tour at the Port Ellen maltings (only available during the festival) and end with an ‘Artisan Octomore’ burger and dram at Bruichladdich. Don’t go if you only have one day to spare for the island during Feis Ile because you will only end up changing the rest of your plans and calling in sick so you can stay the whole week to do more. The island is not that big, but it does take time to get from the one side to the other and you will want to stop to roll around in the peat bogs to make peat angels or chill at one of the beautiful white beaches. In both cases you will start banging your head against a wall in regret when you are only there for a quick visit. Quick anything and Islay do not match.

Kilchoman. Visit, yes or no?

After doing this a few times we would not recommend doing so during the festival. That is based on our own experience due to:


You see, first there is the small fucking road with all the potholes and when you think those are done you find more potholes as well as walls, corners you can’t look around, sheep, idiots with humongous camper vans and don’t even think of spaces to try and pass. Yes… We went there, but for us, not ever again during the festival. There are simply too many idiots that think they are on the German Autobahn so, we will pass and recommend the same for anyone thinking of going.

The best distillery tour received on Islay?

The best ever distillery tour on Islay we received was also the one we sort of gave at Laphroaig during their Feis Ile 2015 day. Sharing the #whiskyfabric passion and love and showing our friend Jo Lawson around her favourite Islay distillery was amazing. We started backwards (starting at the stills, ending not making malt angels on the malt floor), just having lots of fun and laughs. Those are the lasting memories that make our Feis Ile experiences a success. Where to wander off to for some other great tours? Go to Bruichladdich for a warm welcome, or to Ardbeg, Lagavulin or Bunnahabhain. All with their own charm, history and wonderful tour guides.

Of the people we were fortunate enough to meet on Islay, _____ stands out the most because...

The island may be called the Queen of the Hebrides, but she houses some wonderful kings and queens. We were fortunate enough to have met "La Reine de L’Alambic" (the queen of the stills) Martine Nouet before, and were invited to her house where we met Norma Munro with her golden voice. The lady with the shop besides Islay Ales sold us some amazing marmalade, and the woman in the tiny soap store in Bowmore explained in detail how we could easiest go to the young lady running Outback Arts, beyond the road to Kilchoman. We were welcomed at (almost) all of the distilleries as if we were family, were driven around the island by Bruichladdich’s own Carl Reavey and had one or two drams with our Canadian, English and Dutch friends at the house we shared with them, and last but not least, with many of the Austrian, Danish, German, Japanese, Israeli, Belgian, American, and too many other nationalities to mention #whiskyfabric friends.

Most valuable piece of advice? And something about budget…?

It sounds crazy when you know what we said so far about Islay and planning, but plan ahead as much as possible on accommodations during the festival. One year in advance is not crazy, especially when you may be coming over with a group. Keep in touch with distilleries and monitor social media about Islay and the festival program(s), and make sure you book the ferry well in advance. Don’t wait until the last minute to make arrangements and most of all: don’t try to do too many events. Take some time to breathe in the Islay air. This Islay website is not always the quickest to be up to date but gives good feedback on how and what is there.

Budget wise? Well, set a budget because you will be tempted to buy all the distillery festival bottlings, especially when you are driving your own car (trust us, we know). Set yourself a reasonable budget in advance, keep track of your purchases and stop when you reach your limit. Most important: when you buy a bottle, open it and share it, either during the festival, or back home with your friends that could not make it to come with you. Please do not sell the bottles for a quick buck, and give the wrong example.

The most surprising thing about Feis Ile and/or Islay?

Winds - 80km/h - not kidding!?
Not Feis Ile per se, but Islay - like the rest of Scotland, has some surprises up her sleeves. When you do not like the current weather or location, drive another five minutes and your surroundings will most likely have changed from the rough seashore to an (almost) Caribbean beach, including weather type. Once you have seen the colour of the Bruichladdich bottle in Loch Indaal, or the beautiful village of Portnahaven with waters dancing with shimmering sun or the forests beyond Ardbeg distillery you might know what we mean. Locals pouring you a generous dram (often at 11 in the morning), handing you a dry towel (weather permitting) or as we mentioned before experiencing the magic of the steering wheel wave, these are only things you experience when on Islay. 

Go there. As so many before us and many more to come... Make that pilgrimage, you won't regret it!

Bruichladdich Day crowd madness ;)

With love,
Thomas and Ansgar Speller

*not just Germans, tourists in general, including ourselves.

And so I saved the best of the guest blogs about Islay/Feis Ile for last. I think Ansgar and Thomas provided the most complete list of what to do, expect and possibly experiencing if you do decide to go. But.. if you've been following along, you'll note we have all pretty much said the same thing:

1. Don't wait until the last minute to book anything (especially accommodations).

2. Expect the island to be brimming with idiots, friends, whisky and delays...  LOTS of delays.

3. Plan your days carefully as there is so much to do, see and share.

I do hope these guests blogs as well as my own musings give a better indication of what to expect when on Islay during Feis Ile. It's a magical place where anything can happen, including meeting some of your biggest whisky heroes as well new ones!