Reminiscing Scotland

The summer lasted for a long time this year in The Netherlands, but at last the weather gods have decided it’s time for fall. As the winds batter the house and rain pummels the windows, I find myself reminiscing Scotland and the amazing trip I took there a couple of weeks ago. Not because the weather there was all that terrible (though at times it was), but because the whole country exudes a certain ruggedness that seems to fit the fall season like a glove.

Tumultuous times

The past year had been a tumultuous year for my family, and for my parents in particular. Late last year – after battling Parkinson’s disease for almost 30 years – my dad could no longer remain at home and had to move to a retirement home, where medical staff would be there to look after him 24/7. Beside his struggle with Parkinson’s disease, he was also diagnosed with prostate cancer, for which there will be no cure as his body (weak from the parkinson’s) couldn’t possibly handle the radiation treatment.

As hard as this was on my dad, it also meant a tumultuous change to my mother’s life. Giving up the care that she had given him for the past 30 years was not an easy thing to do and, in a way, the fact that she could no longer care for him herself felt like a failure to her. Thankfully, along the way, she did start seeing it was inevitable. But still, in her life she went from caring for her children to caring for her husband. And now suddenly there was this black hole. In an instant she only had herself to care for.

Let’s go on an adventure!

While growing up my mom had a favourite childhood book, one she could read over and over again. It was called “De Scheepsjongen van Bontekoe”. A book about a dutch boy that stows himself away on a sailing ship and goes for the adventure of a lifetime! As a child I never really liked reading books, but when my mother gifted me this book, I read through it in a heartbeat.

After the most tumultuous period of my dads move to a retirement home had passed, I noticed that my mom was still very much cooped up in her house. She met with friends thankfully and I made sure to check in on a regular basis as well, but she didn’t really do much with her life anymore. Even though she still had her health and, in my opinion, could do with one more adventure.

While working the Hielander Festival I walked past the Tallship Thalassa stand and an idea popped into my head. Wouldn’t my mom like to go on a sailing adventure? Just like “De Scheepsjongen van Bontekoe”, on an old sailing ship. To really get away from it all for a while.

An emphatic yes!

Seeing as I’ve been able to turn whisky from a hobby into a career, the opportunity to combine this sailing trip with a trip to some Scottish distilleries would be perfect for me. And it also made a good argument to convince my mom to go along with my adventurous idea, as I knew she would never do it for herself. But she might be willing to do it for me!

I did expect her to be hesitant and want to think it over for a while, which is exactly what she told me when I suggested the idea to her. To my big surprise she called me the same night though, to give me an emphatic yes! Let’s go on a sailing adventure together.

Oban

A few months passed and we we’re packed and ready to leave for Oban, where we would spend the night before stepping aboard the Thalassa. And as these things always tend to go, we hit a few bricks in the road. Our train stopped driving and we ended up having to take a taxi to the airport. Where the plane turned out to be delayed as well. This made our plans for visiting the SMWS Members Room at Bath Street “fall in the water” as the dutch saying goes. In more common terms, we had to change our plans and travel straight to Oban.

Once there we had a lovely meal at The Lorne though, and afterwards we took a walk through the harbour, where we spotted the Thalassa already waiting for us. What a sight to behold! The next morning, I was determined to take a tour at the Oban Distillery, but unfortunately it was fully booked for that day (and for the next few days as a matter of fact). So instead, we went for a walk to McCaig’s tower and afterwards for a few drams at the distillery bar.

All Aboard!

Later that afternoon we stepped aboard the Thalassa in good spirits (literally and figuratively speaking). And after a quick introduction to the ship, we set sail for Tobermory. We went for anchor right in front of the distillery and looking out on the town across the water proved a scenery meant for a painting. The colours and the reflections of lights on the water were of absolute beauty.

Aboard the ship we were served our first meal and one thing that can’t go amiss in this article is some praise for the meals we were served there. We had a magnificent chef, and it was a challenge at time not to include our fingers in the meal (as the dutch say “om je vingers bij af te likken”). After the meal our “whisky guide” for the trip introduced himself to all of us as Wim Wamelink. A well-known figure in the Dutch Whisky Scene and I knew we would be in for plenty of whisky know-how for the coming week.

The passion with which Wim speaks about whisky is a joy to behold and you can see he truly enjoys sharing his knowledge. A fun fact that shows just that is that there was only supposed to be one tasting aboard the ship during our trip. Wim gave four!

Tobermory & Ardnamurchan

The next morning, after breakfast, we stepped into a dinghy that took us to Tobermory. After a quick walk through the beautiful town, we went for a tour of the Tobermory distillery. For the first time this trip we got to gaze upon mash tuns, washbacks and the beautiful copper pots that create our beloved spirit. And best of all? A warehouse tasting was included at the end of the tour as well! Sipping cask strength whiskies in the early morning was something we still had to get used to, but especially the cask strength Ledaig finished in Rum casks made us all quickly forget about the time of day fast enough. What a gem that was!

Afterwards there wasn’t much time to linger in town, as that afternoon we would set sail to Ardnamurchan and visit the homonymous distillery there. Sailing into the bay there was like stepping (or sailing in fact) into paradise. We went from a picturesque town into a stunning display of nature. At the distillery we took another tour, and this proved an absolute treat for a whisky geek like me, as we got to see the distillery from top to bottom and we talked about everything from specialty casks (see the picture) to distilling temperatures.

Waking up at Bunnahabhain

The next stop on our little sailing trip was supposed to be Staffa, to see the stunning displays of nature there (and perhaps to give our livers a wee break from whisky). But because of rough seas the plans had to be altered at the last moment, and we sailed through the night instead to wake up with a stunning view of the Bunnahabhain distillery.

After breakfast we went ashore for a visit of the distillery and to go for one of the most famous warehousetastings of them all: the Warehouse 9 tasting! Boy had I been looking forward to this and it surely did not disappoint. It also housed my favourite distillery shop off all the ones I visited on this trip. Because unlike most it wasn’t (only) filled with memorabilia and full-sized bottles. There were rows and rows of warehouse and festival samples to choose from as well!

An ambitious plan and a bit of disappointment

I really wanted to visit the Kilchoman Distillery, but the group was going to Caol Ila. So, I decided to venture out on my own. I put on my walking shoes and with a steady pace I walked towards the bus stop. I did stop for some pictures of a truly magnificent tree and highland coo… and perhaps I should have walked on. Because I missed the bus by a hair, and the next one out would arrive three hours later. Which meant I would never make it back in time to the ship.

A visit to Caol Ila Distillery it was after all. But the tours were all fully booked and the visitors centre reminded me more of a fancy furniture store than a distillery. The drams there were very expensive as well, which truly showed after I walked down to Port Askaig and ordered the Caol Ila 25 there. Twice the pour size, for half the price!

My mom wants to visit a town.

The next day we arrived in the afternoon in Port Ellen and that afternoon I had my heart set on trying once more for either Kilchoman or Bruichladdich (depending on how much time we’d have). The group, however, went to Bowmore. Which the tour guides told us was a lovely little town. My mom, eager for something that had nothing to do with whisky, jumped on the chance to visit a town instead. So, we decided to go to Bowmore.

Neither of us really understood the gravity of the word “little” when the guides told us it was a “lovely little town”. As all of Islay has less inhabitants than the quiet little town we are from, you might imagine its main city is still small by comparison. So, after a quick walk around we decided there was nothing much to do and we went back to whisky after all. With a visit to the Bowmore distillery. Here we shared a flight of the Aston Martin airport releases (10-, 15- & 18-year-old), where it was once again confirmed that my mom loves peated whiskies!

The Big Three

The next day it was time for the absolute highlight of the trip, visiting the big smoky three! My mom decided to sit this one out and instead read a book. Which left me free to go for a bit of belter. I started early in the morning with a warehouse tasting at Ardbeg, followed by another warehouse tasting at Lagavulin and an Old & Rare tasting at Laphroaig.

Ardbeg

The group took the bus to Ardbeg together, where Wim arranged a quick tour and dram for us. After which everyone left for a warehousetasting at Lagavulin. I however, had booked a warehouse tasting at Ardbeg first and this was undoubtedly one of my best calls this trip (especially after the Kilchoman/Caol Ila disaster). Though still a bit early for cask strength whiskies we got to try no less than six! And I had the pleasure of using the thief to pull a cask sample myself.

Lagavulin

In very good spirit indeed I walked on to the Lagavulin distillery, where I hoped for the chance to have a bite to eat as I was in dire need of a meal (or as the dutch say “een bodempje leggen”). Unfortunately, there was no such option. I was still a bit too much “in good spirits” to truly enjoy the five cask samples Ian was going to pull for us. So, when the question came if there were any designated drivers who’d like the drams as samples instead… I quickly put up my hand as well.

Laphroaig

At Laphroaig the same option was available, and I gratefully accepted that as well, though I did enjoy a complimentary of last year’s Càirdeas release there. And thus, I managed to climb back aboard the ship somewhat sober again with a few more samples in my backpack to try at home. Which was a good thing because there was another tasting planned for that night!

One last distillery

The next day we had time for some sailing and a trip to one last distillery. The Jura distillery on (you’ve guessed it) the Isle of Jura. Sadly enough, it wasn’t allowed to take any camera’s or phones inside. Pictures inside the distillery are strictly prohibited. The tour was nice though and the smell inside the warehouse was absolutely stunning (and not something I could have captured on camera anyway). The drams at the end of the tour were classic Jura (and thus not really my cup of tea) except the last dram they poured, a heavily peated cask sample. Now that’s Jura whisky I’d love to explore further! A damned good dram.

We sailed on for the night and went for anchor in front of George Orwell’s old house, before sailing through the famous Corryvreckan the next morning. The skipper put us right in the middle and turned off the engine, to see where the current would take us. Now that was an experiment I could get behind! In the evening we arrived back at Oban, and with a last tasting aboard the ship that night the holiday came to an end. This sailing trip had been the stuff of dreams, though it also left me with a hunger to explore more of Scotland’s distilleries on my own. One thing is for sure though, we had an absolute blast and I’m a hundred percent sure that more whisky adventures await!

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