November 28 2011
As the festive season approaches, the Gannet’s thoughts inevitably turn to the true meaning of Christmas: sprawling in a leather armchair by a roaring fire, belly full, belt discreetly slackened a notch or two, The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York on the stereo, and a glass of something amber in hand.
What to drink, though? Crackling, smouldering logs always suggest a smoky whisky, but, while my choice of soundtrack might suggest an Irish whiskey, the Irish prefer a smooth, sweet style of spirit from which the evocative rasp of smoke is invariably absent. My favourite winter whiskies are distilled on an island a mere 25 miles or so from the Antrim coast, but they are indisputably Scotch.
The island of Islay is, in fact, the most likely staging post on whiskey’s historic journey from Ireland to the Scottish mainland – a passage for which that hackneyed phrase “the mists of time” seems peculiarly appropriate.
That the distiller’s art has found such a happy home on Islay is partly because of something it has in abundance, as any casual inspection of the rather bleak terrain will show: peat. Peat fuels the kilns that roast the malted barley, wreathing the grain in iodine-rich aromas of seaweed and TCP. The finished whisky reeks of it, especially the three great examples from the south of the island: Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin.
Islay is not, it must be said, a centre of gastronomy. To eat well here, you should either be handy with a fishing rod (brown trout are particularly prolific, although not quite as prolific as the midges in summer) or take a picnic; sustenance on the island comes most happily in a glass, not on a plate.
The Port Charlotte Hotel has good local produce, if you can persuade the kitchen not to mess about with it, and the hotel bar – open to all – has (as befits a former Good Pub Guide Whisky Pub of the Year) a superb selection of malt whiskies, as well as a couple of cask beers from Islay Ales, the only brewery on the island. Generally, though, you should breakfast well, then visit a distillery or two.
Lagavulin is a particularly picturesque one, its whitewashed stone walls and towering red-brick chimney seated squarely by the sea, between Laphroaig and Ardbeg, a couple of miles east of Port Ellen. The distillery burn tumbles turbulently through the site, on its way to the mash tuns, the washbacks and the two huge copper-pot stills; then, the spirit sits quietly in wood for at least 16 years, until the fierce blast of raw peat has been softened by time and venerable oak into a complex, spicy masterpiece of a malt.
Yes, a Lagavulin, 16 years old, will do nicely in front of the fire on Christmas Eve. And I may be charitable enough to leave a wee dram for any white-bearded, red-nosed chap who might climb down the chimney. It is Christmas, after all.