If you were going to visit just one Hebridean island to taste whisky, it would have to be Islay. The place is choc-a-bloc with distilleries, all with distinctive, individual flavors. They’re tucked into hillsides and clandestinely hidden in small bays as befits their former status as once-illegal stills.
Sailing up the Sound of Islay near the ruins of Dunyvaig castle, we spot the pagodas of Lagavulin Distillery. Some people say that just as St. Andrews is the spiritual home of golf, Lagavulin is the spiritual home of whisky. Just beyond that is Ardbeg, which like all the distilleries along the coast here, has whitewashed walls, a black roof, and its name in enormous letters painted in black on a seaward wall.
But we are bound for Caol Ila (Kull-EE-la), a modern distillery with ancient roots that teeters on the hilly shore like a colossal white rock on the brink of spilling into the sea. Ashore, my legs wobble, my body rocks as several of us follow the manager, Billy Stitchell, into the distillery where four massive coppery stills stand bubbling away in front of ocean-facing windows that look towards the Paps of Jura across the sound.
Billy pours several of us a dram of crystal clear New Make, which is what whisky is called after it’s distilled but before its aged in oak casks. At 70% alcohol by volume, it shrivels my tongue and clears my sinuses but still shows off that unmistakable Caol Ila toffee caramel taste.
That evening I have my first shower in three days in the worker’s locker room inside the distillery. I shave at a sink by the window. The sea is calm, the sky a bruised purple, and just below me, on rocks by the distillery pier, is an otter cracking open mussels for his supper.
Perhaps it’s just a wash and a change of clothes, or maybe it’s the fine whisky I’ve enjoyed all afternoon, but a subtle change has come over me this evening: I feel content for no particular reason. Happy in the stillness of my moody surroundings. Perhaps, I muse to myself, I should come back to this island at the end of my cruise and explore it further with a car and driver.
I wonder if my Glaswegian driver, Michael, would be available?