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Sunday, 26 September 2010

Islay Jazz Festival 2010: Day One

Once again I find myself on the platform at Hammersmith, waiting for a tube train to Heathrow Terminal 5. As I mentioned in a previous post about Islay, Bowmore-on-Thames, I’m not the greatest flyer in the world. The idea that you have to go to somewhere entitled “terminal” before you get up in to the air just about sums up the whole experience for me. However, the pay off for the hour long flight to Glasgow and then the tiny turbo-prop to Islay Airport is more than obvious- 3 days on the whisky island to attend the Lagavulin Jazz Festival.

As the Feis Ile Festival of Malt and Music becomes an ever more established event in the whisky calendar, it seems the importance of malt has overtaken the desire for music to feature in any big way (I should think the always excellent Skerryvore must make more money out of the Feis Ile than The Old Kiln Cafe at Ardbeg does!) so a dedicated Jazz festival seems like the perfect opportunity to keep the artistry of the musician firmly alive on the island.

Jazz and whisky also seem like comfortable bed fellows. Sometimes jazz is very good, with fantastic subtlety, depth and interesting complexity. Sometimes it’s very bad; over complicated, confused and unstructured. Both being accusations we could level at certain whiskies we have had in the past...

Day One of the trip began early for the travel portion in which, I’m pleased to report, none of us lost luggage, missed flight or indeed died. Very much a result in my book! In fact, the whole affair was smooth and our plane actually landed early at Islay Airport. Something that is pretty much unheard of.

First stop of the day for our party was the Port Ellen Maltings. As a self confessed whisky geek, it is always fascinating to spend time looking at the minutiae of certain sections of the process and malting is something that has passed me by a little in the past. However, this time I learnt a great deal about malting and peating of barley; I even got to stoke a peat fire (dressed in a fetching high-viz jacket and hard hat. I’m assured this is exactly how it was done over 200 years ago in the Scottish Highlands. Those ‘elf and safety execs get everywhere...).

Afterwards we even had time to pillage some stones from the beach at the front of the distillery which, having been thoroughly washed, are now cooling in my freezer, ready to be dropped in to a dram when I feel the need to chill but not add water. You should all try this at home.

After visiting the legendary ex-distillery, it was time to meet a familiar face and all round whisky legend. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you... Iain McArthur.

Having just completed his 40th year in the business, all on Islay, Iain took us across to some of the peat bogs opposite the airport where we *tried* to cut our own stock of peat. The traditional Scottish weather made the process even more authentic and Alex Huskinson from The Whisky Exchange was totally fooled by the right handed nature of the tools used. I’m not sure there has ever been a left handed peat cutter on Islay...

Thoroughly windswept, peaty and moist it was time to make our way to the first concert of the trip, Jesse Davis, a fantastic saxophonist from NYC & Paul Harrison, a British jazz pianist. The old Malt Mill Distillery at Lagavulin was being used as a venue and the room worked perfectly; excellent acoustics, relaxed atmosphere and a free glass of 16 Year Old on entry. What’s not to like?

Lagavulin – 16 Year Old – 43% vol

Nose: The peat in this dram is up front, yet soft with freshly turned earth, carbolic soap, cereals, rich dark brown sugar and a surprising hint of Play-Doh. This current release also has hints of the “old bowmore style” exotic fruits, 5alive and pinapple juice. A timelessly classic.

Palate: The smoke and peat manifest themselves as fresh wholemeal bread. Whisps of burnt brown sugar, some green herbs and dark chocolate covered Turkish delight. Some crème brulee notes.

Finish: This current edition has a creamy finish which brings salty and chopped chillies through, but still all wrapped up in that delicate peat smoke. Fudge lingers.

Overall: Is this the finest whisky in the sub-£40 bracket? Answers on post card please...

The gig was a fantastic but the highlight of the day for me was the second show, also at Lagavulin. The bill listed Graeme Stephen Quartet, an artist I’d never heard of until I saw the festival brochure and I’ve certainly found a favourite new band. 4 lads doing a mix of In Rainbow’s era Radiohead, Mogwai and Deus. Not something I would have ever pegged as jazz, but this acts eclectic, electric show proves the rich lexicon of the jazz language.

The band finished at around 9.30pm and by 10pm we were in Duffy’s bar with a couple of pints of Islay Ale and some selected drams.

Ahhh... two more days of Islay bliss before getting back to the big smoke.