Thursday, November 5, 2009

Daddy's Dram

Anyone who has been following this blog knows that my favourite reason for drinking a good whisky is a special occasion. Instead of popping open a bottle of champagne I prefer to crack open a bottle of whisky, often one that has been staring at me for some time from the shelf in my home. This also means that special bottles will have been purchased in advance of significant occasions, and these will often be more expensive or rare bottles that add to the fun and memory of the moment. Given that taste and smell are strongly associated with memory, a distinctive dram of a fine whisky not only adds something to that occasion in the present, but can conjure back memories of those special times by tasting that particular whisky again in the future.

The birth of my daughter, Melody, in August of this year has trumped any other special occasion since my wedding back in 2007. So which bottle did your blogger choose to celebrate her entry into the world? This is the story of that special bottle...

A trip to Scotland back in the summer of 2004 with a close friend (also a whisky fan) allowed me to participate in nine different distillery tours. We also visited three others but were not able to take tours. Our original plans didn’t include so many distillery tours, but whisky is such an integral part of Scottish culture that they can be hard to avoid (even if one were …ahem, really trying). I’d be lying if I said that our three day stay on Islay wasn’t planned with whisky in mind, but it was a wonderful surprise to experience how those distilleries infuse the distinct culture of the island and the sense of pride they instill in the Isleachs.

Of the nine distillery tours that we took, two allowed us to bottle our own whisky straight from the cask: Aberlour and Bruichladdich. I think that more distilleries have since introduced this practice into their tours, but at the time it seemed very novel and special. Given the limits on alcohol volume allowed duty-free back into Canada (1.14L), and the fact that we were backpacking, the bottles to be brought home were chosen with great care.

Bruichladdich was the second distillery we visited in Scotland (after Oban), and the first on Islay. I have been a huge fan of their whiskies ever since participating in a tasting event earlier in 2004 hosted by their CEO, Mr. Mark Reynier, at a wine and spirits festival in Montreal. He was both charming and engaging in conversation, guiding us through the myriad pleasures of Bruichladdich whiskies and encouraging us all to visit the distillery should we ever find ourselves on Islay. Never being one to turn down a personal invitation from the director of a distillery, I resolved from that day to visit Bruichladdich.

After settling into our B&B accommodations in Port Ellen, my friend and I made our way west across Islay, past the town of Bowmore to the Bruichladdich distillery, avoiding the odd sheep that make their way onto the roads. It was a beautiful, scenic drive with the coasts of Laggan Bay and then Loch Indaal on our left and huge grassy fields with their precious peat hidden underneath on our right. After arriving at the distillery, we spent some time admiring the coast of Loch Indaal (right across the street) before entering the visitor’s centre. Bruichladdich is a beautiful old distillery that has stayed true to its roots. It is one of the few remaining distilleries in Scotland that still has its own bottling facility on-site. It also does specially selected bottlings of other malts for its Murray McDavid Independent Bottling division.

We were given a dram of the Bruichladdich 10-y-o while waiting for the distillery tour. This gave us the chance to peruse the visitor’s centre and see the various Bruichladdich whiskies and related merchandise for sale. Your blogger used the opportunity to pick up a pewter flask. The tour itself was a truly international experience, as our group of 10 visitors included Germans, Japanese, Americans, British and Canadians. Touring a smaller distillery like Bruichladdich is a great way to learn how Scotch whisky is made, as you really get to observe each step in the process and how everything is done in-house. It is readily apparent that they are not interested in expansion at the cost of tradition and authenticity.

After the tour, it was back to the visitor’s centre. Time to bottle that cask of whisky! The whisky used in these tourist bottlings is chosen by the Master Distiller, Mr. Jim McEwan and these special “Valinch” expressions all have their own story. They are not for sale outside of the distillery, and thus available only to visitors on these tours. That day, they were finishing a cask of the “Flora McBabe”, a sherry-finished Bruichladdich whisky celebrating the life of a very prolific Isleach pig. Watching them empty out the last spirit from that cask, filtering out the large, dark wood bits with a cheesecloth, all while drinking drams of that whisky with my best friend and other big whisky fans from around the world was pure magic.

It would be 5 years later, almost to the day, that I would taste Flora McBabe again, sharing a dram with my beautiful and exhausted wife and toasting the birth of our baby girl. Tired as we both were, the taste of Flora instantly whisked my mind back to that day at Bruichladdich; the salty tang of an Islay breeze mixing indelibly with the tears of joy we shed welcoming Melody Emma to the world.