If you live in a city in Australia, you’re probably used to the hustle and bustle of daily life, so when the opportunity arises that you’re able to get a couple of hours out of the city into the country, everything changes so quickly. That brisk air, that relaxed atmosphere, that country air. There was a striking similarity to my first arrival into Campbeltown.
But we have to rewind a bit to get some context as to why I was there!
Each year the SMWS hosts the international branches for some team building, some planning, and some exciting pre-announcements of things in the works! It also coincides with the whisky festivals usually held around Scotland, so why not kill two birds with one stone! As part of this trip, I was asked to host both a virtual tasting live from Campbeltown with our Global Ambassador, John McCheyne, and two in-person tastings live from Islay House for their festival day.
The day I needed to be in Campbeltown was a rush to pack the car to make our first appearance at the back room of the Ardshiel Hotel on Kilkerran St. Helen Stewart from the UK team loaded my boot up with all the Campbeltown casks and I rolled out of the Vaults apartment around 8am to make sure I was there by 12pm for the opening. Now remember this is a four hour drive, non-stop, and I’m an Australian driving in a foreign country on unknown roads with a task of delivering the whisky and presentation. What could possibly go wrong?!
Upon arriving in Campbeltown, finally meeting John McCheyne, and taking a moment to appreciate where I was, everything felt right. There’s a certain breeze, a certain aroma, a certain hard-working, hard-living charm to the area straight away. Heritage workers’ cottages, an old bakery, a shipping dock, and a couple of distilleries dotted about. There’s an exciting industrial funk in the air I’ve never experienced before. Upon meeting the team at the Ardshiel Hotel bar and a quick bit of lunch with a cleansing ale, it was time to find our lodging. An old two story house with the creakiest staircase known to man, half the SMWS team bunked for the night before the livestream the following day.
The next morning was a long walk and a mission to find coffee and some breakfast before setting up for our live stream from the Campbeltown Malts Festival. Sitting in front of broadcast cameras, tasting whisky, next to John and surrounded by the SMWS team has to be a proper pinch-myself moment in my whisky journey. Then being surrounded by Society members from around the world next door back at the Ardshiel made for a truly exciting atmosphere for all. That certain buzz around the whisky festivals is far more than just the tasty whisky in your glass; it’s the community, the people making whisky, sharing whisky, the music, the food, the sights, and the experiences you’ll keep forever. Whether those experiences be online or in-person, they’ll be treasured forever.
Next step was to get to Islay, which means taking the ferry. I have to say, I’ve never been more terrified to drive up a hydraulic ramp in a little Opel, with a boot full of whisky, than I have then, but we made it. The terrific views out the side of the ferry as you approach Islay are a moment you’ll also want to savour as you approach Port Askaig. Our cottage, located perfectly out the back of Bruichladdich distillery, was the perfect location for some rest before starting all over again with Feis Ile! Feis, or the Islay Festival, sees the population of Islay quadruple with visitors, and it’s truly a party the whole time. We kicked off with a bit of lunch at Ardbeg (highly recommended for a lunch spot), found our cottage, and prepared for Feis!
The following day at Islay House was a marathon, not a sprint. A van full of whisky, a Society tent, archery, axe throwing, whisky tastings, and two Islay masterclasses in 3 hours. The first tasting was a collection of whiskies from around Scotland for newcomers to the idea of single cask whisky, and the second session was the considerably ‘Old & Rare’ Islay tasting like no other. Being tasked to open and share around some of the rarer stock from the Society’s history of Islay casks was truly humbling and a masterclass I’ll never forget hosting.
After a few days on Islay soaking up all the festival had to offer including a truly raucous party at Bruichladdich for their open day which ended at the Lochindaal Hotel down the road, it was time to hit the road and head back to the mainland. A chance encounter with fellow whisky ambassador Ross Blainey from The Balvenie meant some road tripping across to Alexadria, Loch Lomond distillery tour, tasting some new makes and barrel samples, and then back to Edinburgh and then London to the member rooms.
All in all an adventure of a lifetime meeting people and tasting whisky with a community like no other. Here’s to 2021!