Today we travelled as far north as most ever venture on Islay. In this issue of Tales From The Isle I’ll be telling you why we’ve made this arduous journey as well as sharing the tale (tail?) of the giant fire-breathing lizard of Islay. That’s right, the isle was supposedly once home to a formidable and terrifying dragon! Fear not though, as in Game of Thrones, they say all the dragons have now been dead for centuries…
Herein we’ll also be taking a look at Bunnhabhain’s two Fèis Ìle bottlings and events as they unfolded throughout the day. The reason we were at this particular distillery though was the same reason as all those who take the long road north. We were there to take the black…
The Black. How do you take yours?
We’ve mentioned a few bottlings this week that can be considered a little on the dark side, for one reason or another, but only one distillery on Islay clads its core bottling in a black uniform. Oh yes, we were here to take the black alright, and we’d booked onto the Taste of Home Masterclass with Kirstie McCallum to do so.
What we’re here for.
Kirstie led us through a tasting of four Bunnahabhain expressions, each paired with a little sweet treat made by Iain Burnett, The Highland Chocolatier. These fresh chocolates, that only have a shelf life of 4 weeks, really were exquisite. The excellent Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old was paired with lemon grass and lime praline, the 18 Year Old with a dark chocolate, clove and orange truffle, the 25 Year Old with a dark chocolate, pistachio and almond Florentine and finally the partly-peated Toiteach was paired with a gorgeous raspberry and black pepper truffle.
The taste of home.
We were also introduced to one of the new festival releases (the Dràm an Stiùreadair, also paired with the raspberry truffle) whilst photos from their Helmsman’s Trail competition flashed up on the big screen behind Kirstie. You know, that’s the competition where they hid bottles around the island and you had to guess where they were. Now that almost sounds familiar…
Judging by his t-shirt, this guy probably knows.
Distilled in November 1996, Westering Home was placed in a Cognac cask in October 2007 before being finally moved into a Sauternes wine cask in December 2013. The label was designed by Mathilda Holmqvist (supporting the Fisherman’s Mission charitable cause) and 301 bottles were produced.
Tasting Note for Bunnahabhain 17 Year Old Westering Home (Fèis Ìle 2014)
Nose: Luxurious, sweet and creamy. Nuttiness soon emerges – whole almonds, nougat and sweet malt. Light caramel and a little Haribo develop. Gregg Wallace would like this.
Palate: Sweet and nutty with complex spices including plenty of nutmeg.
Finish: A little smoke and some fruitiness in the form of kiwi and starfruit.
Overall: Nutty dessert whisky. This premium festival bottling is rich enough to stand up to the sweetness too.
Dràm an Stiùreadair (pronounced ‘Draam an Yoù-radar’ or ‘Dram on your radar’, which is both probably close enough and fairly apt) is a heavily peated Bunnahabhain matured in Bourbon casks for 9 years before spending a final year in a Marsala wine cask. 632 bottles have been produced.
Tasting Note for Bunnahabhain 10 Year Old Dràm an Stiùreadair (Fèis Ìle 2014)
Nose: Black pepper, sweet peat, a touch of pear and cream soda. Crème de mûre, sweet nut and sea spray develop.
Palate: More berries alongside pepper berries (not often I use that twice in a week), this accompanied the raspberry and pepper truffle so, so well. (Despite the chocolate having originally been made to pair with the Toiteach!)
Finish: Biscuity peat.
Overall: Not often you get a fully peated Bunnah, or even a wine finished Bunnah (yeah, I know there’s one just above) – something more than a little interesting especially for the festival. As Kirstie explained, although this is heavily peated, the distillery’s tall stills mean that something quite different to what you’d find on the south coast is still produced.
Now, Dràm an Stiùreadair is the Gaelic for ‘the Helmsman’s dram’, and as well as The Helmsman’s Trail, this year’s festivities also included The Helmsman’s Homecoming! You know the Helmsman, he’s the jolly looking chap on the front of the Bunnahabhabain bottles with the white beard that makes whisky fans around the world happy each year. And we were going to see him! All those people who said he wasn’t real must be feeling pretty silly right about now.
It’s him! He’s really here!
Our suspicions were raised when he made a pass at poor old Mathilda Holmqvist in front of 400 people (making some excuse about how he’d been at sea for a while or something), but we still made sure we were at the very front of the queue once he’d retired to his grotto lodge.
“Hello, this year I’d like a lego tower big enough to reach the ceiling and… You are really Santa, right?”
Ah, now I promised you a brief story about dragons didn’t I? This is Tales From The Isle after all! First thing to say is that this isn’t about some sea ‘dragon’ (the sort of thing that the mythological Fingal fought near Bowmore that has apparently also been spotted at Bunnahabhain, although even Kirstie is happy to concede that the chap who saw it had probably just been sampling quite a few casks in the warehouse). No, I’m talking about an actual, proper dragon – think Charizard rather than Gyarados*.
It’s said that back in the 11th century Islay suffered from such a beast residing on the island, and it wasn’t until Godred Crovan bravely confronted it that the place was able to thrive once more, eventually becoming the peaceful isle we all know and love today. Crovan, which it’s thought translates as ‘white hand’, was a real guy who can be found in the ol’ history books. In the Chronicles of Mann (Crovan would become the King of Man and is known over there as ‘King Orry’) we’re told that he was the son of Harald the Black of Ysland (usually believed to mean ‘of Islay’) and a survivor of the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 just before the Norman conquest.
It’s said that Crovan rode from Bowmore to Ballygrant, where the dragon’s lair was located, leaving a fresh horse each mile along the route. Approaching the beast’s hiding place, he successfully lured it out before riding as hard as he could to the next horse. By swapping horse each mile he was able to stay ahead of the dragon, who in turn ate each horse that was left behind. It followed Crovan all the way to the shore, by which time it was becoming full and sluggish. Crovan then dashed across a series of barrels in order to reach his ship, but as the dragon attempted to do the same they gave way under his weight revealing the spikes Crovan had hidden within them! Some may say he didn’t fight with honour, but his results are hard to argue with.
Godred Crovan: The Hand who defeated the Dragon.
Back at Bunnahabhain Day, we were about ready for some food as well as the raspberry slushes they always serve that we’d been looking forward to all week. That’s when the bad thing happened.
The barbecue at Bunnahabhain was as good as ever…
…but, no Slushes?!
Who are they taking their orders from? The talking walnut?!
This was too much. It was time to find the necessary electrical appliance on Islay to make our own! This was no mean feat mind, but we finally located the only blender on sale on the entire island, blew the dust off of it, and raced back home.
“It’s Fèis Ìle and the kid’s gettin’ his fuckin’ slushie.”
Also in shot, a stuffed elephant we happily discovered at our new house.
Bunnahabhain slushes (or ‘Jon Snow Cones’ as we’re calling them this year) – just completely awesome. We were now a long way from the distillery though, so if anybody’s reading this who’s in a position to fix this travesty next time around, please do! You know what comes before next summer though? That’s right. Winter is coming…
“…I hope the wall is high enough.”
At least this tower seems to be.
* Another Pokémon reference especially for Sam Smith. Thinking of you buddy – we’ll be home soon!