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Whisky, Wind, Water

If the Classic Malts Cruise through Scotland's Inner Hebrides doesn't stir your soul, you may not have one.

May 21, 2010
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Whisky, Wind, Water

Pull your chair up to the fire, lasses and laddies—it’s still a might damp and cold for late spring, isn’t it? Let me pour you a wee dram, just to take the chill off. I’m having one myself—for professional reasons only, of course—just to keep my whistle wet while I tell you the story of a sea voyage aboard the gaff-rigged cutter Eda Frandsen.

It all began back in 1994—the year the Classic Malts Cruise first came to be, on the 200th anniversary of Scotland’s Oban Distillery. The Classic Malts people had an idea: They’d approach the local Clyde Cruising Club, and together start a rally celebrating that most natural of partnerships—water and whisky. Well, they must have been on to something, because they began with 25, mostly Scottish, boats and now they’re up to 200. More than half the sailors who now cruise the west coast of Scotland, touring distilleries and sampling single malts, are non-Scots. Nowadays, the Classic Malts Cruise is such a popular event that the World Cruising Club runs it, and it’s become the second largest non-competitive sailing event in all of Europe.

So, ’twas fitting that we started our own journey, the third leg of the Classic Malts Cruise, from the west coast seaport of Oban. It’s a pretty town that marketeers have labeled the Seafood Capital of Scotland. It’s true it’s a fishing town, but before there was Oban the town, there was Oban the Distillery. I suppose it wasn’t long before townsfolk noticed they had plenty to drink but needed to throw some fish in the pot.

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The Oban distillery sits on the hillside, just above the bay, and on the sunny day we arrived for our adventure, there was a nice breeze and the smell of peat in the air. We toured the facility, sampling the Oban 14 and the Distillers Edition. Two stills produce 700,000 liters of the stuff per year. It’s not half bad, I have to say. I’m particularly fond of the Distillers Edition. By the way, shall I just top that off for you, before we continue?

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The Eda Frandsen awaited us at the pier. A 60-year-old gaff cutter, she’s a gorgeous vessel— 73 feet LOA, with a 50-foot mast hewn of Douglas fir and a traditional rig with handmade blocks, tackles, and belaying pins. A tan bark, four-cornered mainsail flies on her gaff. The Eda Frandsen is pretty, all right, but if you took her dancing, you wouldn’t want her to step on your toes—you know what I mean? She’s a big girl, as salty and solid as they come.

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Her skipper, Jamie Robinson, looked made to order. He’s a bearded, barrel-shaped man whose no-nonsense manner is softened— but only a little bit—by the laugh lines around his eyes. I never once saw him take off his sea boots and fully expected a phlegmy Arrrrrgghhhh to erupt from his mouth when he introduced himself. Jamie and his crew of two could handle the Eda Frandsen just fine, but he expected all of us to chip in because it would make it a hell of a lot easier. So, every morning we rolled out of our berths, and after a cup of tea or coffee and a bit of breakfast, we put our backs into it, and hoisted the mainsail. It felt good.

Once that was done, we were off, cruising along one of the most beautiful seaboards in the world—past the Firth of Lorn and into the Sound of Jura, where we anchored for the night in a spot so pretty it would make even a sober Irishman cry. The Paps of Jura loomed in the distance and a run of emerald-green fields spilled down to the gray sea, which was as still as a bath where we anchored. I’ll tell you, to stick your head above deck in the morning, before the sun rose, and witness the majesty of nature, the morning mist hovering on the hillside, with nary a sign of man in sight…we all lingered a long time over our teacups that morning.

But soon enough, it was off to Caol Ila distillery, on the northeastern shore of Islay.

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Hold on a second, let me just freshen that up for you before we begin our distillery tour. There, that’s better.

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Caol Ila overlooks the strait between Islay and Jura and the approach from the water is impressive. The main building features floor-to-ceiling windows and, even from the deck of a boat, you can see the giant copper stills, hard at work. In addition to their own 12-, 18-, and 25-year-old bottlings, Caol Ila is a major supplier of whisky to premium blenders like Johnny Walker.

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But we’re on the famed isle of Islay now, and Caol Ila is only the beginning. If you’re a whisky lover, my friends, going to Islay is like going to church. On the southeastern shore of this small island are some of the most hallowed names in single malt, including our next stop: Lagavulin.

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Sailing into Lagavulin on a sunny day as a fair breeze chased the shadows of the clouds across the green hills…well, I half expected to hear a heavenly choir. The whiskies from this side of the island (Ardbeg and Laphroaig, for instance) are known for their very richly smoky characteristics. I’ll never have a sip of this stuff again without picturing the serene port, a couple of boats bobbing at anchor, as some lucky sheep grazed the heatherspeckled hills above. Here, have another wee dram, and see if you can taste it, too.

We made a side trip to Port Ellen Maltings, which is just around the point, past Laphroaig. Port Ellen used to produce a very coveted single malt, but a downturn in the whisky business in the ’80s almost forced the closure of the distillery. Today, they supply the maltings, or peat-fired barley, to the other Islay and Jura distillers, as a result of the 1987 Concordat of Islay Distillers: the eight distillers of the area agreed buy their maltings from Port Ellen to keep the distillery alive. In return, Port Ellen produced maltings that were customized to the needs of their Islay and Jura whisky customers. Each batch of barley is custom peat-fired to produce the specific smokiness that suits each distiller’s flavor signature. Though this brilliant agreement expired some time ago, it is still honored by Lagavulin and Caol Ila.

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When we returned to Lagavulin from Port Ellen, our hearts were full but heavy. Tonight was the last night of our Classic Malts Cruise, and though Lagavulin was bustling with the setup for a big send-off party, it was hard not to feel wistful.

Cruisers arrived throughout the day, the bagpipes tuned up, and long tables were heaped with local seafood. There was dancing. There was laughter. And oh yes indeed, there was most certainly some fine whisky had by all.

Classic Malts Cruise, World Cruising Club, +44 (0) 1983 296060; ****_www.worldcruising.com/classicmaltscruise_**__ **

Oban Distillers Edition This limited edition single malt is double matured in Montillo Fino casks, adding a succulent sweetness to its briny backbone. ($100)

Caol Isla Distillers Edition Finished for six months in European sweet dessert wine casks, the Caol Ila Distillers Edition is lightly sweet with a hint of cinnamon and clove and a puff of strong, peat-fl avored smoke. ($80)

Lagavulin 12 Year Old A rare edition of one of the world’s favorites, the Lagavulin 12 Year Old is intensely smoky, with an underlayer of lightly briny kelp and a touch of hot tar. ($75)|

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