I had been on a mission to lose my irksome Islay virginity for years. But why this obsession with getting up close and personal with a bleak island populated by approximately 3,000 humans, a few cows, the odd handsome horse and an occasional cluster of nomadic sheep?
The journey begins as it should, with a bottle of whisky. Once upon a time I could not understand how anyone could love whisky. It tasted like petrol. My first whisky memory is of drinking a cheap blend from a plastic bottle in a Miami hotel room, fuelling a long, late night conversation. My second is of a Christmas morning in Atlanta, licking my wounds after the painful demise of a troubled relationship. My host reckoned that offering me Johnnie Walker Red Label for breakfast would numb the pain. On both occasions inebriation was swift and pleasant, though the taste reminded me of mouth-syphoning fuel in my go-kart racing days. My third encounter was with a girlfriend who encouraged me to pour myself something from a distinctive green bottle called Glenfiddich Single Malt, which she said was “top quality whisky”. Intended as a lubricant for our amorous liaisons, it was effective in that respect, but it still tasted like petrol to me.
My epiphany came in the summer of 1998. I was visiting the home of a friend who was throwing a party, and he urged me to play a few songs. I was reticent, so as an incentive he pointed to an unopened litre of Glenfiddich.
Naturally I recognised the bottle, but was not persuaded, so he pointed to a second bottle and said he’d throw that one in too. There was something about the look of it that changed my mind. Tall and dark, it exuded mystique and majesty. It sported an exclusive looking red and white paper “seal” over the cork, a small label under the neck, and a main label in a distinctive off white, with the brand name printed elegantly on it: Lagavulin. Its age, 16, was underneath, in a striking red. The name rang a bell that had never chimed before. My host got his songs, and I got something that would set me on a new path.
The bottle sat unopened for weeks. Now and again I would pick it up to examine the tiny text on the label. It spoke of the “Strange Horse of Suinabhal” and how the whisky “takes out the fire, but leaves in the warmth”. It described it as being as “fine as new milk”. How could this be? It sounded like nonsense. Yet the bottle’s dignified elegance of told another story. I was intrigued. Late one evening, curiosity got the better of me, and I released the cork.
The aromas that arose were full of mystery. Ancient, earthy, maritime vapours tickled my olfactories and roused their memory banks. They evoked this thought: if you could distil a 16th century bible, it would smell like this.
Not that I knew what “olfactories” were back then. This revelation would come from Lagavulin brand ambassador Colin Dunn during one of his tastings. His simple scientific spin explained a phenomenon I had stumbled upon – that a combination of mood, aroma and flavour can trigger an inner contemplation: a closed-eyes imaginative journey.
Later, I splashed out on an exceptional 23-year old Bowmore, from a cask that yielded a mere 288 bottles. I cannot bring myself to finish it. I love to meditate on its nose of smoky heather, beach stone, parma violets and toffee-apples, which translate perfectly onto the palate with the late addition of coffee grinds. It takes me on a trip through fields that stretch to the sea, where beams of setting sun emerge from grey and purple clouds. I breathe in sea air, rock pools, and hot chocolate…and all from a liquid that once smelt and tasted like petrol!
This Bowmore has another, special significance. It took pride of place at the last tasting I ever had with my father, the late Edward Hain de Lara Shipwright, aka Pop, the Patron Saint of my whisky collection.
Shortly after opening the Lagavulin, I had called him and told him of my discovery. “Good heavens,” he said. “Have you tried Bowmore? It’s my favourite.” I sought one out – it was the old 12-year old, with the label printed on the bottle itself, depicting boats and seagulls.
But it was the Lagavulin that became our most treasured and talked about dram, the one to which all others would be compared.
Pop would have loved Islay – the whiskies, the earthy friendliness of the Ileachs and the silence to be savoured over much of the landscape. By the time of his departure at the age of 92, he had developed a Buddhist-like acceptance and appreciation of all that is good in life. It is forever in Pop’s honour that I raise my glass. It is his memory that I evoke with every dram. It is because of him that I made my pilgrimage to Islay.
My previously planned trip to the Islay Festival in 2011 was thwarted by Pop’s death in March of that year. His memorial took place during that week, so I was in no position to go. Besides, an Icelandic volcano was misbehaving, filling the atmosphere with volcanic dust that made air travel impossible. It so happened that Pop’s other great passion in life was volcanoes. Just as I would communicate finding a new whisky, so he would call me whenever a volcano came to life anywhere on the planet. To me therefore, this eruption seemed more than coincidental. During my tribute to the friends gathered to celebrate his life, I opened a bottle of the same Lagavulin 16 that began our story, and toasted him appropriately.
Tim Hain is a singer and songwriter who performs whisky-soaked blues with his band, The Lagavulins