It is not often you hear our very own Joe Clark saying, ‘It really doesn’t get any better than this’. Normally we would be concerned. With 9 full days on Islay during the ‘Fèis’, he could have been talking about Jim McEwan’s masterclass at Bruichladdich, Ardbeg Day, Warehouse tastings at Lagavulin and Caol Ila or event the inaugural TWL Machir Bay Sprint

However, in this case, we have to say that we would be in full agreement. What actually could be better than sailing from Port Ellen aboard a 110-Year-Old wooden Ketch (tall ship to us land-lubbers), with 30 other whisky-lovers, drinking south-coast Feis bottlings whilst soaking in the sun? How about throwing Colin Dunn of Diageo into the mix?

All of this came about during our preparations for our first full week of entertaining customers at the (in)famous Fèis Ìle (Islay Festival of Music and Whisky). We were contacted by the good crew of the Bessie Ellen – the ship in question – as to whether we would be interested in running some events in conjunction with them. A cursory look at their website and pictures and then comms with the delightful Nikki and the deal was done.

Bessie Ellen landscape

The only questions were, how many trips and where. These came together pretty quickly, thanks to an eagerness to make this happen from both sides.

Our first trip was to take place on the North-East of the island, boarding at Port Askaig and then sailing through the Sound of Islay, past Caol Ila as well as Bunnahabhain distilleries. This came on the Monday (Caol Ila’s open day, no less), just a few days into the festival.

Now those who have been to Islay will understand that the weather on the island is not always reliable, to say the least. Even during the ‘summer months’ it is possible to see every climate in a day there, due to the tropical influences meeting the Atlantic systems. So, when you are due to sail and effectively rely quite heavily on the climate, it doesn’t do much good for your nervous system when it has rained on and off the day before.

Thankfully, we were blessed with one of the best days so far and barring a few trepidatious steps onto the ship from those not normally associated with sea-faring (err, that was all of us), we all managed to embark with no real incident.

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The next thing we know, we are off! And not only that but our hosts are actually asking us to do stuff! To see the faces of the likes of Billy Abbot, Tim Forbes and Jason Standing (not to mention my own) when we are suddenly told we needed to help hoist sails and get involved must have been a picture. To say some were more excited and willing than others is a mass understatement. However it got done and before we knew it, the engine was cut and we were underway using nowt but wind power.

Okay, I hear you say, this is all very nice, but what about the whisky? Well here’s about the whisky.

It was all about Caol Ila. Therefore we made it all about Caol Ila.

Moch, 12yo Unpeated, 14yo Unpeated, Billy Stitchell Reserve, 25 Year Old and the mightily packaged and independently bottled ‘Frisky Whisky’ 1983 vintage.

If you want a full review of these whiskies there are plenty of them out there, but here are some one word reviews of each:

Moch – Perky

12yo Unpeated – Ethereal

14yo Unpeated – Creamy

Billy Stitchell Reserve – Understated

25yo – Superb

Frisky Whisky 1983 – Also (not a city in Finland, Colin…:-)

 

The line-up was fantastic, and thanks must go to Colin Dunn (who couldn’t make this voyage) for sourcing most of them for us. By the end of the trip and disembarking the Bessie, everyone was quite happy.

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 How could we possibly follow this trip? We didn’t think it could be done!

However, on a slightly more windswept and overcast Wednesday morning, we assembled a crack-tream of tasters, geeks and enthusiasts at the port of Port Ellen. There we were met by Colonel Dunn, in the flesh this time, and we waited, and waited, and waited for the ship to come in. Nikki called to say they were running a little late – after all, you can’t legislate for the currents and winds the Bessie is subject to.

At around 12.10pm we spotted her carving a path through the calmer waters within the harbour and eventually mooring at the port itself. We all hopped aboard and we were quickly underway.

Unbelievably the weather broke and we were soon bathed in the most glorious sunshine once more. After 15 minutes or so of ‘assisting’ with the sails – not sure how helpful we were to be honest – but we were ready for a dram.

And what a line-up we had in store for everyone. It seemed more than appropriate, as we were to be sailing a path around the south coast of the island, that we taste whiskies from this side of the island…

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Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength Batch 4 – Punchy

Laphroaig Cardeas Fèis 2014 Bottling – Svelte

Ardbog (Fèis 2013 bottling) – Spicy

Ardbeg Auriverdes (Fèis 2104) – Toasty

Lagavulin DE PX Double Matured – Oily

Lagavulin Fèis 2014 1995 Vintage – Balanced

Joe presented the ‘Phroaigs as were rounding the bay and suddenly overlooking the distillery – what a coincidence! The 10yo was as you expect from this iconic and oft overlooked bottling, but the Cairdeas 2014, wow, this was revelatory. After last years ‘Rosé’ whisky, which was fun but not serious, this 2014 is a cracker – seek it out! It was during this whisky, I believe, that Joe became quite emotional and had to be substituted before he did something silly.

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I therefore stepped in to present the Ardbegs. I remember last year many folk were not impressed with the Ardbog so it was very interesting to see the reaction to it one year later. It was extremely well-received and was in fact the favourite of a few, including Nikki, the ship’s captain. The Auriverdes has again caused ructions in the wider whisky community, with many not ‘getting it’. However, whilst on the ship and tasting it whilst overlooking the distillery (admittedly from a fair distance), it tasted pretty damn fine. We’re bloody spoilt is the problem!

Then it was Colin’s turn and the Laga’s. As always, Colin was on top form, absolutely loving the environment and moving at the rate of 100 quips per minute. ‘Just when you thought’ it was safe to come aboard…

The PX was up to its usual high standard – perhaps even a bit better balanced than the last time I tasted it. But for me – and for most – it was all about the Fèis 2014 bottling. Last years was such a triumph (my favourite of the Fèis bottlings) that surely this could not live up to it. Surely not. Not a chance. Except it did. Absolutely bloody marvellous. Even better to be tasting it as we rounded Laga bay and were almost upon the distillery!

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All of this sun, sea and whisky was truly intoxicating but all to soon it was time to bid adieu to the Bessie. However, we had one more surprise up our sleeve…

Due to the time and the small matter of the hazardous inlet into Lagavulin distillery, we could not get the Bessie too close. Therefore we had to send people – 7 at a time – on a dinghy to alight at the pier! What an end to the trip!

What a fantastic couple of days that topped off what was a superb week on the island. Thanks to all who sailed with us, Colin, Nikki, Pete and crew on the Bessie Ellen, the distilleries for producing those amazing whiskies and the people and place of Islay. We’ll see you soon!

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