Scotland

SCOTLAND

 

by Aiden FitzGerald

 

ardbeg-distillery

 

ISLAY, SCOTLAND—“You may not like it, but you’ll start to appreciate it,” said thirty year old Edinburgh native David Blackmore, whose passion for single malt whisky is as ardent as his hair is red. He poured a couple of drops of amber colored Ardbeg into his hands, quickly rubbed them together and inhaled. “Aaah,” he said. “Smokey, beautiful, delicious.”

 

Such adjectives are uttered frequently on the island of Islay (pronounced eye-luh), home to the world’s largest concentration of whisky. Seven distilleries within the island’s narrow bounds, just 25 miles long by 20 miles wide at its broadest points, produce the world’s most bold and briny malts. Enthusiasts pilgrimage from far off places for a taste from the source of the peaty mystique of Islay. Ardbeg. Laphroaig. Bowmore. Lagavulin. Bunnahabhain. Bruichladdich. Caol Ila. The names themselves conjure images of an ancient fairyland.

 

This often-overlooked island, with a population of 3,000, holds plenty of allure for teetotalers, too. The pace of life is as slow as aging whisky. Wooly sheep and shaggy Highland cows graze freely. Drivers wave to passersby on winding, one-track roads. Fishermen unload their day’s catch of lobster and crab. Great stones standing since Neolithic times are scattered on granite hills. Storms give way to sunshine. Islay’s weather seems to change in the beat of a bird’s wing.

 

“People come to Islay for mainly one thing—whisky,” said Ian Munro, who, with his wife Mavis, owns the Bowmore Bed and Breakfast. He gestured to the bottle of ten-year old Ardbeg in his hand. “But once they arrive, they enjoy the rest of the island.”

 

In the Muro’s comfortable living room with a view of Lake Indaal, we sipped “wee drams” of the smooth and smokey single malt. “There are many drinks that I enjoy,” Ian said with a smile, “but whisky is my favorite. More so than others, it’s meant to be savored and sipped slowly.”

 

Islay‘s past is never far from its present. Relics and ruins rise from green pastures like cliffs from the sea. On the southeastern coast of the island, at the end of the road past the Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries, stands a place of worship that far precedes the creation of whisky. The Kildalton cross is Scotland’s only surviving complete Celtic high cross. Raised in the 8th century, the cross seems to unite elements of Christianity and more ancient faiths. Monks from Iona carved the nine-foot tall cross from a single slab of local blue stone. Biblical scenes of the Virgin and the child and of David slaying Goliath decorate one side of the cross, while the other is carved with animals and Celtic patterns. Weather worn and unprotected, the cross is in remarkable condition. It rises among chapel ruins in the Kildalton churchyard. Across the single-track road, deer frolic in a field.

 

The only road to the Kildalton cross begins beyond Bowmore, the capital town in the heart of the island. On the return inland, we pass Seal Bay, where seals swim and sunbathe on rocks. A hen and her chicks stop traffic as they cross the road. “It’s like a safari out here,” calls Christine Logan, our guide and driver. Logan has recently started her tourism business, “Queen of the Isle,” a fitting name considering her apparent personal popularity. She knows every islander’s name and story. Turns out, we were Logan’s first clients, her “guinea pigs,” as she said.

 

In Bowmore, a main street leads directly from harbor to hilltop where The Round Church overlooks the town. Made round to ensure that there were no corners in which the devil could hide, it was built in 1767. In medieval times Islay was the center of a kingdom encompassing much of Western Scotland, the Western Isles and parts of Northern Ireland. On the northern part of the island remain fragments of Finlaggen, the home of the Lords of the Isle for almost four hundred years. At its height, during the 12th to 16th centuries, the Lordship governed virtually the entire west coast of Scotland From this tiny island. Surrounded by expansive moorland, a stream brown with peat carves its way to Finlaggen Lake.

 

Islay is the most southerly of Scotland’s western isles, the Inner Hebrides. It is a half an hour flight from Glasgow. On a clear day, you can see the coast of Ireland, just 25 miles south. 

 

Single malt scotch appears to be the most natural spirit. More than any other, the single malts are formed by their environment. Whisky is all about the place from where it comes. Those derived from the rugged, peaty land of Islay, with great exposure to sea-air, are said to be the most smokey single malts. Malted barley is infused with water and fermented with yeast, then distilled in a copper pot-still. It must mature for a minimum of three years in Scotland. Despite being priced on the high end – typically, a bottle of Ardbeg 10 year costs $55; Ardbeg 1965 sells for $4,000— single malts are growing in popularity. The term single malt indicates that the whisky in one bottle came from one source, unblended with other malts.

 

Whisky connoisseurs treat their beverage favorites as saucy and sensuous.

 

“I want to spank it. I want to calm it down,” said one man, who sips his whisky “neat”—without water or ice—the way most Scots do. 

 

“It fires me up,” said another. “This is for troops preparing for battle.” 

          

Islay scotch is a taste that is worth acquiring. Slainte!

 

Aiden FitzGerald is a freelance writer pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction at Emerson College. She loves to travel and mingle with the locals wherever she goes. 

 

She’s also The Cocktail Guru’s Sister-in-Law.

 

I Command You To Bid on Tavern on the Green

As a former employee of the Warner LeRoy empire that was The Russian Tea Room and Tavern on the Green, this tidbit of info hit a bit close to home.  As a frequent visitor to New Orleans and Commander’s Palace, this tidbit of info came even that much closer to the front door of my home.

According to the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, and more recently, the New York Times, Ti Adelaide Martin, the owner of the Brennan’s empire that includes Commander’s Palace in NOLA, is in the running to bid on the former sheep-house on the western side of Central Park.

We know the reputation that Tavern on the Green has, and if you know anything about the cocktail and culinary scene in New Orleans, you know the reputation that precedes the Brennan group of restaurants.  I think this is a match made in heaven: how incredible would it be to sit on the terrace at Tavern, overlooking the well-groomed, manicured animal hedges (inspired by Edward Scissorhands, according to Tavern management), while nibbling on a shrimp po’ boy and sipping a Tavern Sazerac. 

Ms. Adelaide and her team would bring a much needed boost to the food quality at Tavern.  We all know that Tavern is not known for its food, but its mass-processed production and delivery of it for parties that can reach up to 1,000 guests.  According to the NYC Parks Department, Tavern on the Green is one of the highest grossing restaurants in New York, with revenue that topped $35 million dollars last year.

You can read an interesting interview with Ms. Adelaide herself on NOLA.com:

http://blog.nola.com/brettanderson/2009/03/commanders_palace_owner_ti_ade.html

Let’s hope the city parks department keeps their wits about them, and truly chooses the right candidate for this much-prized ownership.  It may be tough to dismiss the highest bid, but the highest bid may not be the right one.  Choose wisely NYC…

What I’m Nursing Right Now: A Burnt Red Face and Grand Ma

What a peculiar title for a blog post, you may be saying to yourselves.  If you could see my face right now, you wouldn’t necessarily be perturbed by the title.  Okay, so I brought sunscreen to Vail just for this very purpose.  Okay, so I forgot to actually apply the sunscreen to my face whilst on the slopes.  The Grand Ma just got to my head…and face, apparently.

Every April, one hundred of the country’s top mixologists join the team behind Grand Marnier and Navan in sunny and snowy Vail, Colorodo, for the Grand Marnier - Navan Mixology Summit.  I had the privelege of returning this year as an alumna, and I can say with certainty that this year was better than last.

Our accomodations were the Vail Cascade Resort, a mountainside establishment with its very own lift (very key), and its very own bar with fireplace (even more key).  Here are some highlights of the quick-form variety.  You can infer your own stories from the incomplete sentences below:

150th anniversary GM flowed like the bubbling water rushing down Eagle creek.

Steve Olson and his team of mixologists – talent, education, and inspiration.

Craps, blackjack, roulette, skiis, and itouches.

Iphone application…look it up at Iphone store.

Spinning out on the slopes.

Good Morning Vail on TV 8.

Pork belly cubes marinated in Navan.

Powder.

Sun.

Altitude.

Hot Tub.

Eucalyptus steam room.

Grand Marnier 150th Anniversary Crusta.

Get more details in my upcoming April Newsletter.  To subscribe, click here.

Summit pics:

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Andy Seymour and Steve Olson, the AKA Wine Geek Crew

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GM 150 Crusta

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The Gala Dinner held at the Vail Cascade.

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Mr. Bartender of the Year John Lermayer mixing up some GM libations.

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Danny Valdez in all his glory.  Way to look down when you’re slammed at the bar, Danny!

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Aisha  Sharpe from Contemporary Cocktails, back again for the 2nd year in a row.

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Grand Marnier makes us happy.  Me, Megan FitzGerald, John Pomeroy (The Hideout), and Lesley Townsend (Manhattan Cocktail Classic)

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The decadent dessert at our Gala dinner.

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Centerpieces at the Gala Dinner.

Ciao!

Want video?  There’s also word of a vlog posting coming up soon.

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