Thursday, July 10, 2014

immersion, continued

Eddie MacAffer was born on the second floor of a stone building just down the block from my Guest House on Shore Street. Right before this first house.


It would be, from here, a two minute walk to the front gate of the Bowmore Distillery. You could say that his life never strayed from that gate: by 1966 he was working in the Bowmore warehouses and by 2006 he earned the title of Distillery Manager. He stayed that until last year when he was upped to a position new to the Distillery -- that of Master Distiller. He accepted graciously and then asked -- what's that?

I stay up a good part of the night reading up on Islay whisky and island distilleries, because this morning, I have a date to spend a day with Eddie MacAffer. I am not going to waste his time asking questions I may, myself research on the internet!

That I should be this lucky is again the work of my hosts here, at Bowmore Guest House. There is always the possibility of an arranged encounter at the distillery with Eddie. Time permitting, he will spend endless moments talking about Bowmore and whisky, indeed talking about anything at all relating to Islay -- including where the slabs of slate that I found on the beach may come from. (Answer: Islay rocks north of the beach.) But, until Andrew, my host, assured me that it would be okay, I hadn't thought of inserting myself into Eddie's schedule. Why would he want to escort a Scotch novice through the process of Scotch whisky making? Sort of like taking someone to the head of a Champagne house and having that visitor innocently ask if the champagne is a mix of wine and bubbly water.

Once the date was set, I studied. And Andrew has helped me sample a number of Scotches through the morning program of immersion (including a very fine 17 year Bowmore White Sands this morning at breakfast -- goes well with your smoked mackerel on a crumpet -- he tells me). So I'm more or less prepared.

(fish for breakfast)

But it was a busy night. Or rather a busy early morning. I was up to capture the sunrise for you. Out my water view window...


...and too, looking out to the Bowmore Distillery where, miraculously, I see another Islay rainbow. A good omen, I should think.


I'm at the Bowmore Distillery promptly at 10. I was in a great tizzy as to what to wear. It has to be better than a t-shirt, but then, we are to go out into the field. So something rugged. Except that we're to have a sit down lunch at the restaurant now owned by the Distillery. So back to special. In my spin, I forgot to put on my hiking shoes. But it hardly mattered. Eddie's first words when I met him were to a staff person -- get her some wellies and rubber pants. And to me: we'll be on wet ground and there are midges and ticks. Awful amount of them this year.

Terrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, I nodded my head and commented some absurdity about the mosquitoes in Wisconsin.

It took one car ride for me to relax. I was to learn a lot about whisky today, but even more about hard work for someone who did not see himself initially as being a whisky man. To tell you the truth, Eddie tells me, almost in a clandestine fashion -- I don't like the stuff myself for social drinking. I'd much prefer a glass of wine.

I have endless questions, of course, but Eddie rolls me back a bit: I want to take you to where it all begins: the water source.

You'd think this would be an indifferent fragment of the Bowmore story. So the whisky has water. Ho hum. But it's not: Bowmore is Islay's oldest distillery -- the first production took place in 1779.  
And really, they built it in the wrong place, Eddie says. Whereas the other distilleries are close to lakes that provide a good water source, Bowmore is far from it. Fine for small whisky distilling. A problem when they expanded beyond quenching the whisky thirst of a handful.

He parks the car and we walk through an old gate (it's been here since I was a lad), across fields, past a ghost of a house, toward the river.


Where we're standing now is at the place where water is directed from this river, through a pipe, to a 7.5 mile canal that was dug several hundred years ago by hand to bring the water to the distillery.

He pours me a 12 year dram right there at the river source. It's one of many that he wants me to taste at the right moment, in a manner that will bring the drink home to me.



The river is very low. It's one reason why, as of tomorrow, Bowmore is stopping production for about a month. This is the time for their annual maintenance. But they cannot resume until the rains bring in the needed water. They are dependent on it: 1.5 million liters every single day! (They are efficient: spent heated water is used to run the community swimming pool next door.)

Eddie lifts the box through which the water must flow to reach the pipe and eventually the canal.  
This needs to be swept every day. In the past, the shepherd who lived there did it in exchange for a bottle of whisky every Christmas. Now we send out someone from the distillery. See the broom -- it's over there in the wild rhubarb.


That's sort of a nice break -- I'm thinking out loud here -- to come out to this pretty spot for a bit...
Aye, you know, in my day, we'd be sent out to clear the river bed -- that's a three week job from start to finish, but we'd take seven weeks, with breaks for football in the fields and sunning and such. The older men would shake their heads, but we'd give them pilfered whisky drams in exchange for their silence. Times have changed. Now, of course, drinking on the job is a sackable offense. In any case, most of the young men who work for us prefer beer.

I smile at that. The younger generation! I have daughters who often will pick a craft beer over a carefully selected by mom wine. Gotta love their own take on life!

Eddie thinks back to the days when he was just that -- a young lad, not wanting to go seek work on the mainland like the rest. A handful of men (every single worker in production is male) started at the Distillery with him, but he outlasted the whole band of them. And of course, he is the one who rose to the position of Distillery Manager. Excuse me -- even more exalted: Master Distiller.

Not surprisingly, there's little turnover at the Distillery. The crew is small: it used to stand at 30, but with mechanization, they're down to 15 in production (there's a whole other world of people who take the finished product and present it to the world). But what a 15 it is! They produce 65 thousand liters of whisky every week!

We drive off again and this time Eddie parks at the side of a forest.  
We'll look at the canal in a minute, but it's time for a bacon roll.


He takes out two sandwiches wrapped in aluminum foil: a white bun over thick slabs of bacon.
We all eat these at the distillery. The company provides it. Sometimes it's a fried egg roll or a sausage roll. He bites into it appreciatively and pours for me another dram -- this time from their 17 year bottle.  
Do you taste it? Vanilla, fruits, toffee, he prompts.
It goes well with the bacon roll. (I can't believe I ate the whole thing!)

We watch a bird circle overhead. Eddie tells me there are eagle nests in the forests, but he thinks this may be a hawk. The eagles swoop down and pick up lambs! I think about the hawks back home and wonder how the cheepers are faring.

We walk along the canal. It's damp here: moss grows on the old oak trunks, ferns are abundant.


(footbridge over the narrow canal)

This is the best place to come to. In spring, it's so quiet and the hill is covered with blue bells! No midges, just the simple quiet of the forest...

We stand now and listen and for a while and I don't care that there are horse flies and other flies buzzing overhead. I am transported to a different time, a different season and I stand in Eddie's wellies and breathe the air that gently moves between the twisted oak branches.


We come back to his van.  
We'll go to a peat bog next, he tells me. A silly song keeps running through my head -- and what is peat made of, dear Liza, dear Liza and what is peat made of dear Liza, my dear? Except that I know the answer to my own ditty: peat is all the vegetation that grows in the wet bogs, dried over hundreds of years, rotted and compressed. You cut it, dry it, burn it. Grasses, moss, heather -- yes, lots of heather...


It used to be that islanders would resort to peat to heat their homes. Now, only about 10% still use it domestically. When Eddie was young, he and his brothers would be cutting and drying peat in the month of May -- enough to last for the whole year ahead.

Hard work!  -- I comment, finding it especially difficult to cut through the first layer of grasses. But I keep at it. It takes me a few minutes. It takes Eddie a few seconds.


Not so bad when you're doing it for your own home -- gives you a bit of satisfaction that you've accomplished something for yourself.

As I sink my wellie into the wet bog, I get that kid pleasure of squishing down a boot on muddy ground. I ask if using peat for the distillery -- an important step in the process of giving Islay whisky its distinct peaty smoky flavor -- depletes the island peat bogs.
There are so many layers of it! We don't make a dent!
Will you someday run low ? -- I persist.
When Islay is out of peat, there will be a big hole in the island and the island will sink! -- he laughs.

My bog pal picks off the leaves of a low growing plant. He crushes them and rubs them in his hands. Here, smell! I do. It's so aromatic!  
Bog myrtle, he tells me. People grow it these days for medicinal purposes. He says this with a bit of amusement I think. As in -- what will they discover next...


We drive back to the Distillery. I chat with him about general things that have been on my mind. Island life, for example. And I am not at all surprised when he says that when he retires in a couple of years, he and his wife will likely move to the mainland. Just south of Glasgow.
Funny, you're the first one who doesn't think that's crazy, he tells me.
Of course it makes sense. He has been here all his life. There is nothing left for him to discover. And the mainland is hard to reach -- for medical emergencies, that, of course, but also for things that cannot be found on a remote island off the coast of Scotland.
When we went  for a while to the mainland, there were museums, shows, golf -- we don't have any of that here. I know this island inside out, I don't need to spend my free years here. After we're dead, yes. Not until then.

I think about people who come to Islay with new ideas, switching venues, raising children, building dreams, feeling safe and secure here -- how long do you need that? When does that safe and secure feeling translate into restlessness or boredom?

And now comes lunch. We eat at the Harbor Inn -- that great eating venue that I have been avoiding because of the expense.  But this meal is part of my day with Eddie MacAffer! I sink into the comfortable chair and talk the kind of talk you would have with an old friend, speculating whether the waitress is an islander or a newcommer and whether the lobster fisherman outside sells his lobsters here or abroad.

David Kinnes is the new chef at the restaurant and I have to say, his three course lunch is impressive! Garden vegetable salad from the organic community gardens just north of Bowmore.


Roast free range chicken with tempura drumstick and citrus cous cous.

And an absolutely sublime raspberry cranachan with a touch of 12 year old whisky.


And of course, each dish is paired with drams of whisky: the Gold Reef, followed by the Bowmore White Sands 17, followed by the Bowmore 25 year, by which time I would hardly have noticed if it was 125 years, even as I was drinking a lot of water to compensate!

I'd been with Eddie for four hours now and I surely thought my time was running out, but no, not so. He takes me on an ambling stroll through the Distillery. Now, I have to remind you that they're on the last day of production and so I can see none of the sprouting barley, or of the fermenting mash, or even of the distillation. But I listen to the stories and I inspect the machines, the spirit stills -- singularly sleek and beautiful here...


...and earlier in the process, the pine tubs called washbacks...

(Smells like beer now...)

....and I peer into one and exclaim how deep it is -- a great place for a murder mystery!

Funny you should mention that... In another distillery, an assistant manager went missing one day and they found him in the washbacks. Did he jump? Fall? Never found out. They had to throw out the whole batch of whisky. He shakes his head in recalling the waste of it all.

As I take a photo, inhale the vapors and generally behave like a person who is a tourist rather than a lover of the finest Scotches, Eddie leans out the window and looks at the clear skies reflected in the gently lapping waters of the bay.


Not a bad place to work, aye? he says quietly.

And I am nearing the finale now. And this is an important part, because really, all that work I've seen thus far -- all it does is produce a clear whisky with a high alcohol content and a taste that will certainly knock your socks of. There is hidden potential, but at this point, it's very well hidden.

We enter the great legendary No.1 Vaults -- the only ones on the island that are partly below the level of the sea. This is where the whisky is stored -- in American bourbon or Spanish sherry casks.


Eddie pours me a 2 hour old whisky that hasn't been stored anywhere. 69% alcohol. I almost spit it out. In my mind it's undrinkable.

He then reaches into a bourbon barrel from the year 2000.

Ah, now it's bronze and full of flavor. Tropical fruits and zest. It's as if the oak and the bourbon allowed the essence to finally come through.

And he reaches into a 1997 sherry first fill and I try that very deeply bronze whisky: dried fruits, plums, dates... he hints. Yes, he is right.

And now I'll tell you a trick I learned just recently: have a sip of the sherry barrel whisky, swish it around and immediately after, take a sip of the bourbon one and swish and swallow. What do you think? A bit of a pow in your mouth, no?

I smile. Yep, there's a pow. Followed by a tingle. This is potent stuff, after all. He lines the shamefully unfinished glasses for me to take photos. I tell him-- they're standing a little tipsy.


Tipsy! That's the name of my dog, he laughs.


I'm ready to retire for the day, despite the blueness of the sky and the beautiful sunshine that is streaming down on us right now in the early evening.


I'll see Eddie MacAffer again on Monday because I am to receive a bottle of a hand fill (that's one of those clubby things distillers do for a small number) which should have been ready today but wont be, due to some label issues. For now, we bid each other good bye, as if friends for life which, maybe at some level we are, bound by this day, talking about whisky, but really about life and the whimsy and care and toil and quiet joy that move each day forward.