Feis or Flight

Maybe Islay is like a fragile, exotic, flower that lies dormant for most of the year, nestled away from the sleet and the wind, only to bloom for a few sunny days.

Hmm. Too many crags.  More like, Islay is a fierce dragon that grudgingly lurks in his cave, lunging from his hideout once a year to torch everything in sight unless the villagers sacrifice their most beautiful maid.

The dragon emerges every year at Festival time.  In May, Feis Ile brings flocks of whisky worshipers—from the hesitant, earnest newbies to the worthy investors to the shameless scoundrels in dire need of a peat fix.  It’s good old-fashioned fun, in a bit of a brutal pagan spirit.

My last week at Bruichladdich wasn’t mashing, running the stills, or learning the skills of a master blender;  I was helping the team get ready for Feis.  The distilleries around festival time are a bit like boys getting scrubbed and polished for church:  their rough, squeaky, rusty, moldy parts are smoothed out till they shine.  We cleaned up the barrel yard, white washed buildings, painted hand railings, rearranged barrels, polished the stills, and even the gift shop got a make over.

The slight monotony of painting white atop white was broken up by the occasional mishap—er, adventure. One morning, Duncan and I were taking the spent barrels in front of warehouse 5 over to Port Charlotte to be stored for future pick up.  These were French wine casks and sherry butts, so they were a bit larger in size.  After we loaded up the lorry with just shy of 70 casks we set off up the road—but as we turned off the main street to head up to the old Port Charlotte warehouse we heard some of the barrels knocking about.  And as we pulled up the last hill a barrel smashed against the door and knocked it right open.  Shit!  You could see the barrel in the side mirror jumping down the road, and I jumped out and set chase.  The barrel–too large and too fast to stop– was heading right towards a house.  I’m running after it with no clue what I’m gonna do if I can actually catch up, thinking any attempt to get in front of the thing is a surefire visit to the hospital, thinking did I latch the doors, thinking who’s in that house? Thinking is there even a hospital on Islay?

At just that moment, one of Duncan’s buddies turned the corner.  He had seen us on our way up, and even though he barely saw it coming he managed to stop the speeding barrel.  Not sure how he did it without getting completely bowled over, but I guess you’ve gotta have that talent if you work around these things.  Duncan and I returned the barrel to the truck, double-checking the latch.

As we unloaded the barrels at the warehouse yard we built quite a pyramid of Haut Brion, Chateau Yquem, Amarone, Syrah, and hogsheads, but I could tell that Duncan was alarmed.  Then, bit by bit, it dawned on me: the work he does—the work all of these men do– requires a firm, unyieldingly watchful eye.  In some industries, a quarter of an inch is just a little to the left or the right, but if we fail to shift a latch just so, tighten a bolt just right, or make sure a platform is level, there’s more at stake.  It’s a physical kind of precision that’s needed, and it’s that clean, precise perfection that is celebrated each year as the distilleries polish themselves until they are just spotless for visitors.

Of course, then the dragon arrives.

http://www.theislayfestival.co.uk/distilleries/bruichladdich.html

Published in: on May 31, 2011 at 5:38 am  Leave a Comment  

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