To the Hebrides

If you go to Scotland, the best thing to see are the islands. The concession for RORO (Roll On Roll Off) car ferries to the Hebrides is run by Caledonian MacBrayne. They include longer trips to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, as well as a 5-minute sail between Mull and the Sacred Isle of Iona, where the ancient kings of Scotland are buried.

Martine and I have ridden the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries to Mull, Iona, and Islay. In the Middle Ages, the Hebrides were ruled from Islay by the Lord of the Isles, the best known of whom was Somerled (1113-1164). At their height the Lords of the Isles were the greatest landowners and most powerful lords after the Kings of England and Scotland. Today, the Lord of the Isles is Charles, Prince of Wales—though the title is now purely ceremonial.

Above is Kildalton Cross on Islay, where my favorite Scotches are distilled: Laphraoig, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, and Caol Ila. They are known for their peat smoke aroma.

When it is safe to travel again, and if I had the money, I would love to go to Scotland and hop aboard Caledonian MacBrayne, going from island to island.

If you are ever interested in seeing a classic British film set in the Hebrides, I highly recommend Alexander Mackendrick’s Whisky Galore! (1949), based on Compton Mackenzie’s novel of the same name. It’s a classic.

Smoky Nectar of the Gods

Some People Dream of Fine Wines, But Not Me!

Some People Dream of Fine Wines, But Not Me!

I suppose this means I have no right to claim to be sophisticated, or even cosmopolitan. The fact of the matter is that I do not really care that much for wine. I would prefer a fine cognac or a full-bodied dark Jamaican rum—but most of all, I would prefer a fine Islay single malt Scotch.

During Prohibition, one Islay malt called Laphraoig (la-FROIG) was allowed through U.S. customs because it was thought to be a medicine. Oh, it is that to be sure! Like all single malts distilled on the island of Islay (pronounced EYE-lah), it is characterized by a smoky flavor, somewhat like Lapsang Souchong in the world of tea. It owes that smokiness to the peat on the island that is used to in the distilling process. According to Whisky.Com:

The level of smokiness of a whisky is determined by the time the barley grain is exposed to the pungent peat smoke during drying. Damp malt is usually dried for approximately 30 hours. Laphroaig dries its malt over peat fire for about 18 of these 30 hours, while Glengoyne uses only unpeated fire. Thus you get a broad variety ranging from extremely smoky whisky to almost completely smokeless whisky. Malt grains are peculiar in that they lend a hint of smokiness to the whisky even without a peat fire.

By the way, in Scotland, it is always spelled whisky. Only the more inferior products from furriners are referred to as whiskey.

About fifteen years ago, Martine and I spent several days at Bowmore, including a visit to the distillery (pictured above). We had been introduced to Bowmore  (bow-MORE) eight-year-old Scotch by Trader Joe’s stores, which tended to sell it at a steep discount around the holidays. I remember tasting the toasted Bowmore malt and finding it to be so delicious that I thought it would make a great breakfast cereal on its own. We also saw a fantastically aged barrel of the stuff worth thousands of pounds sterling and reserved for H.M. the Queen.

On their website, CBS news has an interesting website about the smoky Scotches of Islay which was started by the late Bob Simon and finished by Steve Kroft. It aired yesterday on “60 Minutes.”

During the early Middle Ages, Islay was the headquarters of the Lords of the Isles, who ruled from a small island on Loch Finlaggan. Their empire stretched across the Hebrides and whatever parts of Ireland and mainland Scotland they could hold. If you are interested in the period, you might try hunting up a copy of Nigel Tranter’s The Lord of the Isles, best enjoyed while sipping a fine Islay single malt whisky.