A Quick Look at my Week at The Islay Whisky Academy 2019
I’ll be the first to admit I live a charmed life. Fortunate. Blessed. Lucky. I’m thankful for my supportive and loving husband, dear family, sweet dogs, crazy friends, a fulfilling job, and safe and comfortable home.
But I also believe we make our own luck. To do that, one must take a chance or calculated risk, often against heavy odds. When I submitted my essay for a competition to win a week at The Islay Whisky Academy, I didn’t get my hopes up, especially after finding out there were 80 other applicants. But by at least trying – taking the risk, I had a shot.
After my second sip of coffee in the early morning of June 4th, I checked my email for an update on this “pie in the sky” opportunity. And there was my answer. I didn’t believe it at first and had to reread it again, and again.
Dear Lee Ann,
I am delighted to inform you that your entry to The Islay Whisky Academy 2019 Competition has been picked by The First Minister of Scotland as the WINNER!
I Won! What?! I was going to Islay in October to be a part of the Islay Whisky Academy’s Five-Day Diploma Course for 2019!
This spectacular opportunity was made possible by the generosity of Rachel MacNeill, owner of The Islay Whisky Academy. The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, took time from her massively busy schedule to review the final entrants and choose a winner. I’m honored and beyond humbled for this award. You can read my submission here on the Academy’s site.
My Islay Adventure
The summer sped by fast with October finally arriving. Time for adventure. After a few days in Glasgow playing tourist and beating jet lag, I made my way to Islay with a general idea of what would happen, but it was so much more. The entire trip served as a reminder of the energy I get from travelling, to experience a different environment with colorful personalities, and view the world beyond the myopic lens of everyday life.
Since my return home, I’ve tried to write this post countless times. It’s taken me a while to digest everything and put into words to share with you all. There is no way to summarize the experience in one blog post so here is a glance at my week on Islay. I’ll take a deep dive into each of the experiences in future posts so you can get a true view of the Academy and the gems of Islay.
Whisky Class is Fun
Each of the five days held a treasure trove of whisky experience, insights and exposure to people and processes that create the elixir we all appreciate. My classmates and I began each morning at the Gaelic College for classroom lectures and field trips.
We started off learning about the geology of Islay and the pH level of local island waters with geologist David Webster. I came home with his book on the subject.
Professor Graeme Walker from the University of Abertay Dundee presented fascinating information on the importance of yeast in whisky production.
These lectures helped us understand the science behind the effects of water and yeast on the spirit. Even the chemical equations were fascinating and never brought on a panic as they did in high school.
With Islay barley farmer, James Brown, leading the way, we trekked down to the Octomore Spring on his farm of the same name. The glorious spring is the source of water Bruichladdich uses in its bottling process.
And in the heart of Islay we trudged through the peat bogs with Kevin and Iain to try our hand at cutting our own log of the earthen material that flavors our favorite Islay whiskies.
Creators, Pioneers and Legends
Time and again we witnessed a genuine passion for new distilling endeavors from the Isle of Raasay, Lussa Gin and Ardnahoe. Through innovation and pure gumption, these creative folks are hell bent on making their dream a reality. It was easy to see the incredible potential in their work.
There were whisky experts at every turn including some who just happen to be women: – Amy Seton created a whisky club and festival in Birmingham (England, not Alabama ? ) – Karen and Fiona produce some of the finest spirits of Islay.
Kristofer Watson – ScotchCooper – demonstrated with great pride, how he uses the tools of his cooper trade to breathe life into a cask. He skillfully uses the tools with respect and reverence, while acknowledging those who taught him the nuances of creating and caring for the vessel that holds and matures such precious cargo of our future drams.
The week was capped by true legends in the industry. John McCheyne, Global Master Ambassador of Scotch Malt Whisky Society and a Keeper of the Quaich presented five expressions during a fabulous Scottish dinner. Another evening was spent hanging on every word spoken by Jim McEwan – The Boss – The Cask Whisperer. We were served a dram from barely farmer Hunter Jackson whose name, along with James Brown, is ON the bottle of Bruichladdich 100% Islay Malt! Mind blown.
Each afternoon was filled with an extensive distillery tour. We were guided by either the distillery manager, senior leadership or the owner – not a high school student. They understood we were a different type of tour group. There were no rudimentary explanations of the distillation process. Our class wanted to know the strain of yeast used and duration of mash fermentation. We asked about the source and pH of their water, and where they sourced their casks. Each distillery was beyond accommodating, gracious and fascinating.
- Kilchoman owner, Anthony Wills is the Frank Sinatra of Islay – doing it “His Way” with innovation and a passion for farm-to-bottle distilling.
- Bruichladdich’s head distiller, Adam Hannett led us on an extraordinary tour with seven new make samples, a rye (yes, a rye) and a 27-year expression that left us all speechless.
- Ardnahoe, the newest distillery on Islay, is a design gem and has the best still house view in the world. Distillery Manager Fraser Hughes shared some new make with us that has stellar potential for a future dram.
- Laphroaig’s distillery manager, John Campbell, walked us around from the malting floor to the tasting room and shared his passion for making whisky the “Laphroaig Way.”
- Ardbeg rolled out the red carpet to present the most delicious treasure hunt for hidden bottles discovered all over the grounds and even in a crab trap hauled out of the water!
Lagniappe – The Gift of Lifelong Whisky Friends
We gathered for three formal dinners during the week that featured fine drams. Each night found us at a local pub for a few rounds of drams, cider or beer. Then the after-party started when a few of us gathered where some were staying to visit and share more drams. Each day was non-stop with little down time, but no one wanted the day to end. We were on freaking Islay, for heaven’s sake! Why sleep when we had whisky to taste and friends to make.
And these classmates… they are now my friends. As I told Rachel, the education and experiences were phenomenal and impossible for me to create and arrange for myself. But the Lagniappe – the little something extra – was that I would go home having new friends with whom I would keep in touch. And we have – even though we live in Louisiana, Texas, New York, Canada, Greece, Scotland, Germany and Norway.
A Virtual Powerball Whisky Experience
My whisky buddy, Christine, made this comment, “If someone tried to imagine the best whisky vacation, I’m not sure they could come close to everything you experienced on that trip.” So. Freaking. True.
It all started by taking a chance – on a whim. Making my own luck that provided fuel for my yearning to learn more about this beautiful uisge-beatha and the people who make it available to us.
And while I didn’t pay for my spot at the Academy – and more importantly by winning, was not expected to endorse it – I will say that it was an exceptional value and look forward to returning some day on my own dime. Those who know me understand I don’t say anything I don’t mean. Rachel MacNeill is the Queen of Islay and puts on a first-class experience.
And for that, I’m nothing short of thankful.
Special thanks to Rachel for the use of some of the incredible photos take by photographer Ben Shakespeare.