by Greg Nicoll
It started with an Internet search on malts and ended with an invitation that was too good to be true for any decent Galley Guy not to accept: fly to Scotland, drive peacefully through the Scottish countryside and come to rest at the end of a single-lane road on the Isle of Skye (along side the Cuillin mountain range in the Village of Carbost beside Loch Harport), only to witness a flotilla of eighty yachts which we were joining.
Tobermory on the Isle of Mull is one of the prettiest harbours anywhere.
All of this, and we were right in front of the Talisker Distillery which we would tour the following day. This is not a dream come true, this was the beginning of the second leg of the 15th annual 2008 Classic Malts Selection Cruise sponsored by Diageo’s Classic Malts. Latitude 57 17.9° N, Longitude 6 21.5° W
We were assigned a boat, a 46-foot custom ketch, Sealgair, designed in the style of an Oyster yacht and skippered by a true professional Bob Hunter. He was assisted by Laurie Mill, another fine yachtsman and our galley manager. Joining us onboard the Sailgair were: Miguel, a food and spirits writer from Germany; Sylvia, a travel writer also from Germany; Juliane, a PR specialist from Hamburg; and Lucy, our host and malt expert from Diageo’s office in London, England.
Our first impressions of this makeshift crew was sketchy at best: two crew, two sailors and four novices. This had the makings of trip on the SS Minnow. First item on the agenda was safety. Skipper Bob was very thorough on rules and his expectations. The second was bunk assignments. The third: get dressed for the Ceilidh.
A Ceilidh [pronounced kay-lee] is Gaelic for party or a gathering of souls to share a little malt beverage, hear rousing music, dance, and partake in a wee bit of storytelling. The evening was full of Gay Gordons, reels and a strange waltz called the Canadian barn dance. (Perhaps, next year, we should send over some hockey equipment, as the dance appeared to be very combative.) The highlight of the evening was listening to ocean adventurer Pete Gross present some of his 'Talisker Tales' in aid of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution describing some of their famous and often dangerous rescues.
The next morning got off to a fantastic start with Chef Laurie’s full Scottish breakfast followed by a tour of the Talisker Distillery. The distillery’s director, Willie MacDougal – a truly entertaining and passionate malt man – lead us on our tour, pointing out the unusual design of the of Talisker’s wash still. It has a slender boil-ball, a swelling in the neck that causes vapours to fall in 'reflux' and re-circulate to create a lighter than expected spirit. However, we were informed that stills have lives of their own and do not always deliver what is expected. We were surprised how small the distillery was and amazed an international brand that in 2007 was named 'Best Single Malt Whisky in the World' by a panel of experts at the World of Whiskies Award came from this tiny village.
We put to sea in early afternoon with a 12-16 knot northerly and a moderate sea (about 1.5 metres). We headed south for a rendezvous with some fellow malt cruisers for a 'nosing' on the hook. We passed the Isle of Rum –famous for Kinloch Castle known for it’s music festivals, art galleries and hostel – and took a course for Arisaig to moor for the night. We lay down our anchor and waited listening to the weather report: currently five, going to six, then seven, with gale eight expected this evening! A quick assessment of our anchorage concluded that if there was going to be a variance in the wind direction, we were in for a very rough night. The decision was made; the Galley Guys geared up while the others had dinner and sailed with some building seas downwind for over three hours to the very safe and incredibly beautiful Loch Nevis. We found a mooring and went ashore to the local pub…the Old Forge. Over a welcomed Guinness or two, we paid for the mooring and relived our first great day of sailing.
In the morning, we went for a hike. This huge track – in the Knoydart Penninsula – is part of the nature conservancy, famous for hiking trails. Heading out on the dinghy, Chef Laurie piped us ashore from the bow of Sealgair. Although plenty of paths for both the novice and the well-experienced, we chose a less demanding route following the river up to a spectacular glen. We stopped for lunch surrounded by mountain peaks and watched a herd of deer grazing in a nearby meadow – a picture perfect place for our picnic. When Lucy, our malt expert, brought out a very rare bottle of 30 year old Lagavulin Distiller Edition from her pack, I started to reconnect with my Scottish ancestry.
Our next planned destination was about a 4-5 five-hour reach to Loch Creann Traigh. However, when we arrived at the very narrow and unmarked cut to the loch, we began to have second thoughts. The trailing seas were now two metres high; the opening was surrounded by crashing waves. Skipper and crew wisely chose to make for a more a safer anchorage.
Under two reefs in the main and only a stay sail up, we were making 7-8 knots. Crewmate Miguel was starting to look a little green; we suggested that he take the helm. Although a little apprehensive, we had him assume the role as orchestral leader trading in his baton for the wheel (knowing that he was a very accomplished musician and conductor). Almost instantly, he had all three sections – the wind, the sea and the sails – playing in harmony. If nothing else, we brought a new boater into the fold.
It was past eleven when we came into the harbour of Tobermory. We had to lay down our hook; all the moorings were taken by all the other yachts seeking protection. Tired and hungry, we put away the gear and cleaned up. Out of nowhere and completely unexpected, we were summoned to dinner by the sound of Laurie’s bagpipes as he piped in and ‘addressed the haggis’ (written by Robbie Burns) in a fine brogue.
Tobermory, located on the northeast corner on Isle of Mull (whose twin town is Tobermory, Ontario) is nothing short of picturesque. The next morning, when the sun rose, all the shops, chandleries, buildings circling the harbour shone brightly in their pastel radiance with one lone exception. The Mishnish, a very Scottish pub and a favourite stopover for boaters stood out as a strong statement in black. It was decided by the group that this would be a layday and we set out exploring and the village and down the shoreline.
For Galley Guy John, there was a special bonus. Sitting in a Queen Ann’s chair and joined by third generation owner of the Mishnish, he was watching the final round of the British Open and listening to the Scottish ooo’s and ahhhs of the local patrons reminding us of the stand up routine by comedian Robin Williams describing how the Scots invented the game of golf.
Scottish seafood is among the best in the world’s and the very popular and savoury pairing of island malts such as the Talisker 10 Year with smoked salmon is quite common. Chef Laurie’s brilliant dinner of fresh scallops made for some tough choices, many at the table chose the whisky Clynelish, I opted for the gentler Glenkinchie, with a pale gold profile and soft sweety aromatic nose and a finish that surprises with a dry smokiness. Scallops to remember!
The evening 'nosing' was held aboard the 43-foot Jeanneau, Chantilly, and hosted by Maureen Robinson – the lead taster for Diageo’s Classic Malts: Talisker, Oban, Lagavulin, Cragganmore, Glenkinchie and Dalwhinnie. The evening’s theme was focused on pairing individual whiskies with certain foods. Chunks of crystallized ginger with a 10-year-old Oban. Blue cheese with the double-matured Talisker Distiller’s Edition. My favourite: chilled Dalwhinnie with dark chocolate. We discovered the importance of keeping the food simple in order to achieve the most harmonious pairings of individual malts. Apparently, the most common menus consist of entrees from regional or national provenance. Although malt whiskies are complex and can work well with the sophisticated cuisines of Asia, they are better suited to the distinctive tastes found in cheeses and small smoky dishes.
The final morning, we set sail for the town of Oban down the Sound of Mull. This was also the first time that we were able to fly both our Canadian Yachting flag from the forestay. We noticed many heads turning with smiles and waves as we made our way south. We were asked how long it took us to get to Scotland and not to disappoint our fellow boaters we just smiled and said not that long. The scenery was breathtaking and both our Skipper Bob and mate Laurie regaled us in tales of the vast history of the region and how many of the castles, some abandoned and a few still inhabited had played prominent roles in battles and land disputes in days of yore. Easy to re-enact on one’s mind.
The sea voyage of our expedition ended at the docks in the Oban, regarded as the capital of the Western Highlands and the gateway to the Isles. This beautiful seaside town, dating back to the 17th century, also has a history that dates back to the Mesolithic caves dwellers before 5000 BC, later by the Celts, the Picts and the Vikings. Centred in the town is the surprisingly small Oban distillery – the spiritual heart and soul of the town that naturally grew up around the distillery. The town bustled with tourists shopping and dining and, of course, the inevitable distillery tour.
Our Oban 'nosing' was made particularly special as it was hosted by the gregarious Kenny Gray, the Manager of the Oban distillery and a true malt expert. Where to begin?
The new and limited Oban 18-year-old boasted a full amber gold colour and a whiff of the sea. This fine malt has a touch of fresh peat and maltiness that may be looked down upon from the hearty peak fans such as Lagavulin. It is deceptively delicate at first taste and then becomes smoky and dry on the palate. The Oban Distiller’s Edition was a very fine whisky, aged in oak sherry casts and offering a tinge of sweetness. The evening was capped off with a spectacular dinner right hosted by the distillery for the participants of this year’s Classic Malts Cruise. Leg 2 completed.
On the drive back to Glasgow, we were already scheming about how to come back and do Leg 1 (and join in the parade) and Leg 3. There is so much to see and do on the west coast of Scotland. The Isle of Islay and the Lagavulin distillery beckoned and the great cruising grounds definitely need further exploration. Next year, the Great Malt Cruise takes place July 11-24.
I did come home with one bottle of whisky, the Talisker 57* North. Aged in specially selected American Oak casks, chosen to express – with absolute purity – the natural combination of sweetness and power of the Talisker tradition. It has a clean and intense, sweet orientation yet also smoky and complex in its finish. But more important, Talisker 57* is not available in North America. Now I have something my single malt drinking friends can be envious of. How did the Talisker 57* get its name…apparently only the Galley Guys know for sure.
When You Go
Take a complete set of foul weather gear. Even in the middle of the summer, the seas get rough.
Sailing boots are a must too! Rough seas mean water everywhere.
Study the history of the Hebrides ahead of time. You’ll appreciate where you are even more.
Pack a pair of hiking boots and a collapsible walking stick. The hills and glens are fantastic for exploring.
The Diageo Classic Malt Cruise takes place annually in June. You can take your own boat or join someone else’s crew. You can do one leg or two or all three. To learn more:
The Diageo Classic Malt Cruise (www.classicmaltscruise.com)
Chartering: www.wildernessscotland.com and www.asyc.co.uk/charterer
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