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Issue 14 - Whisky and water: a perfect mix

Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Whisky and water: a perfect mix

There are worse ways to explore Scotland's west coast than by travelling in a flotilla. Richard Jones went on the classic malts cruise

It was a Talisker moment. Standing on the summit of a fern-strewn hill, almost embarrassingly modest in stature by local standards, with one of Scotland’s finest single malt whiskies in our hands.

The murky weather that had spoilt the morning was beginning to clear, revealing a spellbinding panorama featuring all the raw, natural beauty of the West Coast of Scotland.

In the foreground the Sound of Jura, liberally dotted with mini islands of various shapes and sizes; behind it the sprawling, largely uninhabited island of Jura itself; to the south-west the incredible island of Islay, the Irish Sea and, ultimately, Ireland; and in the centre of the piece, a group of strangely silent and, frankly, awe-struck journalists, here to experience one of the self-styled most important events in the Scottish sailing calendar, the Classic Malts Cruise.

If a bar stocks a decent selection of single malt whiskies, in whatever part of the world it happens to be, chances are you’ll find the Classic Malts of Scotland.

The range consists of six distilleries - Cragganmore (Speyside), Dalwhinnie (Highland), Glenkinchie (Lowland), Lagavulin (Islay), Oban (Coastal) and Talisker (Island) – each specially selected to represent one of the classic whisky regions.

The Classic Malts Cruise began back in 1994 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Oban Distillery. Now firmly established as a regular sailing fixture, the event takes place over two weeks in late July and centres around the three coastal distilleries in Western Scotland – Oban, Talisker and Lagavulin.

Entrance is limited to around 110 boats (places fill up within hours of release, by all accounts) and participants come from across the world: in 2003 more than one-third of guests were from outside the United Kingdom.

The cruise kicks off with an opening ceremony and barbecue at Oban, then heads north for a ceilidh at Talisker a week later, before turning back south for a farewell buffet and another ceilidh at Lagavulin on Islay.

Each distillery lays on free tours and events, along with ample opportunities for a few drams, meeting staff and the odd spot of self-promotion. In between, boats are pretty much free to do as they wish, exploring the challenging waters of the Inner Hebrides, taking detours where necessary, and perhaps stopping over at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull along the way.

I had arrived in the bustling port town of Oban the previous afternoon. Myself and a motley crew of assorted press were joining proceedings mid-steam; the cruise had departed the distillery here over a week ago, and we were scheduled to catch up for the final event at Lagavulin.

After a brief tour of the distillery (seriously small-scale as befits an operation that can barely breathe for all the shops, hotels and restaurants in the centre of Oban) and a welcoming dram, we made our acquaintance with the vessel that we would call home for the next few days, the Chantilly.

Sailing ships were virgin territory for me, but this one seemed modern and capable enough (I’m told it was a brand new Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 43, if anyone’s interested) although the hand-pump toilet facilities and shared coffin-like cabins were a concern.

I decided to make full use of the free bar at that evening’s distillery reception to facilitate a decent night’s sleep.

Big mistake. I returned to the harbour in the early hours of the morning after a couple of ‘wee’ drams, only to find that the tide, as it has an unfortunate habit of doing, had decided to go out for the evening. The Chantilly, which when I left was only a couple of yards below the level of the harbour steps, had plummeted to terrifying depths below.

There I was, in a somewhat inebriated condition, faced with a finely polished and treacherously moist ladder, and a descent that was well into the realms of abseiling. Not that I recognised the danger at the time, of course.

Fuelled with the bravado that comes from a few hours in the company of Oban 32 year old and its classic friends, I casually began my descent. Almost immediately I lost my footing, closely followed by my grip; then an instinctive hug of the ladder, poles and rungs all, saw me slide/tumble in true Keystone Cops fashion onto the deck of the waiting boat below.

The next day we set sail or, more precisely turned on the engine and motored, our way south towards Islay. The weather was grey and enveloping, with adverse winds forcing us to run on diesel power.

Our spirits were revived by the extraordinary cooking of Topi Morris, the ship’s ‘mate’ who throughout the cruise did a sterling job of expanding our waistlines from the Chantilly’s rudimentary kitchen.

Faced with a continuingly pessimistic weather prognosis, it was Graham Moss, our terminally laid-back skipper, who came up with the inspired idea of depositing us on dry land for a spot of hiking. With a bottle of Talisker 20 year old duly secured, we pulled over and set out on foot to the anonymous hill described earlier.

After eventually tearing ourselves away from the overwhelmingly spectacular view, we descended down the other side and set off for Loch Sheen, where the Chantilly was currently headed to meet us for the night.

If the first day was memorable for hiking, the next belonged to sailing. Clear blue skies, a decent following breeze and jaw dropping scenery were the principal ingredients as we headed towards Lagavulin Bay on the south side of Islay.

To the right of us (or should I say starboard) lay Jura, our sedentary pace seeming to exaggerate its elongated length, a vast, unspoilt natural environment interrupted only by the occasional farmhouse or ruin.

Then it was all open seas as we left the Sound of Jura behind us, perfect peace on the deck of the Chantilly, with a bountiful lunch served in
a quiet, reflective atmosphere.

There can be few finer sights for lovers of single malt whisky than the approach by sea to Lagavulin Distillery. The immaculate, whitewashed walls of this mighty Islay dram are pretty special by themselves, but the view also incorporates its nearest and dearest neighbours, the equally famous Ardbeg and Laphroaig. Three of the most famous names in the world of whisky, renowned for their powerful, peaty single malts, situated in a tranquil setting and all within half a mile or so of each other.

After an extremely challenging entrance into Lagavulin Bay (the ocean floor is made of rock and has a number of unpleasant surprises, apparently) and a thoroughly rewarding day’s sailing, both crew and passengers of the Chantilly were in high spirits.

That night we enjoyed a memorable feast and karaoke competition, culminating in a midnight rendition of Tom Jones’ Delilah for the ‘enjoyment’ of other Classic Malt cruisers, gathered for tomorrow’s Lagavulin festivities, moored in the bay.

Ah, the feast of Lagavulin. My stomach still looks back on it with fond memories, the belt around my trousers less so.

The day was taken up with a double distillery tour.

First, the criminally under-appreciated Caol Ila (pronounced something like ‘Cull Eela’), the largest distillery on Islay with a disappointedly modern exterior, but with a view from the still house to die for, looking out across the Sound of Islay and the Paps of Jura.

Next Lagavulin itself, ordered and pretty from the outside and surprisingly tiny for an operation with such an international reputation. But all this was a precursor to the main event, the farewell buffet and ceilidh in the distillery grounds.

Never before have I witnessed such a fine array of local produce: pure, fresh oysters with a dangerously addictive taste, smoked wild salmon, venison from Jura, succulent roast beef, I could go on.

This was the first time we’d joined the other crews of the cruise, and the atmosphere and camaraderie was infectious. As we danced, drank and ate the night away, I glanced at the hundreds of different people chatting animatedly around me.

Here we all were, in the surroundings of a world class distillery in an absolutely idyllic location, enjoying first class hospitality and wonderful company.

This is the achievement of the Classic Malts Cruise; bringing a diverse group of people together from around the globe, united by a mutual love of sailing, of whisky.

And, above all else, of Scotland.