Sail to the whisky on the Hebrides
The Water of Life
Sail around the rugged Scottish Isles and the mysterious coast of Northern Ireland and combine it with a discovery tour of the secrets of the Irish and Scottish whiskies. Barkentine Thalassa offers sailing and whisky enthusiasts the trip of a lifetime. “Make mine a 21 year old Bruichladdich, please.”
Thalassa’s slender lines cut through the Islay Sound at eleven knots and the waves whip against the figurehead’s breasts. Full sails are proudly set against the green coastline of Jura, the island opposite Islay. The peaks of the Paps of Jura mountain range lurk menacingly from the heights down to the sea. On the coast of Islay, in Carraig Fhada near Port Ellen, the bright white lighthouse looks out and sees that all is good.
No less than eleven knots. Five knots downstream with all the water that flows between Jura and Islay pushing it through, and six on the sail. The people on board don’t mind where the speed is coming from as Thalassa leans hard on one side, and water gushes onto the deck. Sailing just like sailing should be, really experiencing it, just the way Captain Jacob Jan Dam likes it.
Anchoring off the coast of Islay, pronounced: “Eila” – is a bit difficult. The bottom is covered with huge seaweed forests, and the anchor just won’t take. We’re in a bay by Bunnahabhain, one of the nine whisky distilleries in Islay. This is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, the Scottish archipelago in between Scotland and Ireland.
Islay’s nickname is Banrìgh nan Eilean, “Queen of the Hebrides”. The name fits. The peat-covered hills are a deep lush green. This island is the fifth in size in Scotland and the sixth in British waters. The three thousand inhabitants earn their living distilling whisky and thank the tourists who come here whisky tasting and watching birds, such as the rare alpine chough or the hen harrier.
Islay’s Gaelic name is Banrìgh nan Eilean: “Queen of the Hebrides”
The climate on the nearly 620 square kilometre island is mild thanks to the Gulf Stream. Snow and freezing temperatures are very rare. You might think it’s a paradise, but still, winters are no fun when brutal storms from the Atlantic Ocean pound the island. In winter at The Ardview Inn, in the Port Ellen harbour, the main subject of discussion is whether the ferry service to mainland Scotland can sail that day or not.
Incidentally, the raw force of the Atlantic winds was also the reason for the world’s first commercial wave power station to be built here, on Islay’s coast near Portnahaven, The Islay LIMPET, as the generator is called, provides half a megawatt of power for the island.
With her sixteen sails, a total area of more than eight hundred square meters combined, the barkentine Thalassa makes an impressive appearance. Captain Jacob is proud of the ship: “When we participate in competitions, I always try to get the most out of the Thalassa. I know that I often cannot win, but fifth place can be achievable and I go for it. Under ideal conditions the ship can reach a speed of thirteen knots. Not bad for a converted fishing cutter.
Fishing cutter? Jacob laughs: “Yes, that was the original goal that the builders of the hull had in mind when it was first launched in 1980. Thanks to its slim line and streamlined hull, the ship always arrived at the fishing grounds first.”
“Thanks to its slim line and streamlined hull, the ship always arrived at the fishing grounds first”
The beautiful lines also make her very suitable as a sailing ship. She was a fishing cutter for four years, then Thalassa, probably out of frustration, hit a wreck and sank. Once salvaged, in 1994 the owners Arnold Hylkema and Jacob Jan Dam got her and converted her into a tall ship.
The name Thalassa alongside the background story of the ship couldn’t be more appropriate. Thalassa was one of the ancient Greek gods, known as “the fish mother “, or the mother of all life in the seas. Thalassa is also sometimes known as the mother of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, born out of the foam of the sea. Originally a fishing cutter or not, the Thalassa is a jewel of a ship.
When we got on board this unique sailing ship, a barquentine for connoisseurs, I knew nothing about sailing. Now, on the third day I’m slowly getting it. On Jacob’s command, the crew put up the sails. Sailor Alex shouts, “Would you like to help with the storm jib?” I haven’t a clue what he means, so I just follow him to the bowsprit. Balancing in the net, above Lady Thalassa, the figurehead, we unfurl the sails as I watch the passing waves through the netting below. Sailing is heavy hoisting work; the ropes are an inch thick and we need three people to pull up the heavy canvas. Alex has been doing this for a long time and makes it look effortless. Sam climbs to the highest yardage and performs major trapeze work while we get ready to set up the topsails. One mast is up, two more to go. Half an hour later, all sixteen sails are up and we’re cutting through the sea at twelve knots. The wind is picking up and the deck is slanted. Sam comes down with a big grin on his face, he’s a competitive sailor in heart and soul and as long as we’re sailing he’s happy. My arms feel like lead and my biceps burn after this morning’s workout, but it’s the price you pay for real adventure. Incidentally, the crew can manage perfectly fine by themselves, but when I’m on a sailing trip I also have to join in.
The Corryvreckan whirlpool is known as the Scottish Bermuda triangle. Many ships have perished here, to be never found again
Photographer Frits wants to outdo us all and climbs up the mast with Sam. Sam goes the loosen the sails and Frits doesn’t let the opportunity slip to take photos looking downwards from the top. As he gets higher, the rope ladder gets narrower and also the movements of the ship can be felt more extremely. What is a gentle swell below, creates swing from left to right at a great height… or rather from port to starboard. From the highest yardage he suddenly sees an enormous eddy looming. He hurries down fast and just in time, because we are in the “Corryvreckan whirlpool”, better known as the Scottish variant of the Bermuda triangle. Many ships have perished here to never be found again. During the tidal change an enormous mass of water is forced through the narrow passage between the islands. Under the protection of Lady Thalassa, the ship navigates, like a mad bull, through the wild, whirling water.
A stock of Scottish jewels also comes on board with us; single malt whiskies. Ah, whisky. Besides sailing, it’s the reason for this trip. After all, we’re at the epicentre of what’s called “salty whisky”. Every day Thalassa moors close to a distillery and we learn all about the particular type of whisky and last but not least, we get to taste it. The trip is a treat for those who not only love sailing, but also can enjoy a nice flavoursome glass.
We are in the Hebrides at the epicentre of what’s sometimes called “salty whisky”
Illegal distilleries were once commonplace in these parts. Not surprisingly, because there was an extremely high tax on spirits. Excise men, tax inspectors, and illegal distillers played an almost romantic cat-and-mouse game with a deadly serious undertone. Until 1823 King George IV visited Edinburgh and fell under the spell of the taste of that weird alcoholic drink called Usquebaugh ; Gaelic for water of life. Phonetically it became usky which again corrupted into whisky. King George liked this whisky so much that he promptly halved the tax on it, making many illegal distilleries crawl out from under their stones and apply for permits, beginning the blossoming of the famous Scotch whisky trade.
To make whisky you need a number of basic ingredients. First, a grain which can develop starch, most Scotch whiskies use barley. The barley must first be malted, a layer of barley of about ten centimeters thick is moistened so that the grain will germinate, which increases the amount of starch in the granules. To then stop the germination the malt is dried over large fires; the so-called “kilning”.
The fuel with which the malt is dried is quite decisive for the taste. Traditionally the distillers used fuel that was readily available in the area. A wooded area? Then they used wood. Was there a coal mine nearby? Then coal was used. Was there peat in the ground? Then it went up in flames.
Too stingy to buy new barrels, the Scots bought second-hand casks in which sherry or port had been kept
Also important was the presence of a relentless source of pure water. Hence that most distilleries have a spring or river nearby. The water goes with the ground malt into the mash tun, converting the starch into sugar. Yeast ensures that those sugars are converted into alcohol. The resulting brew is called “wort”, which is actually a kind of coarse original beer, with an alcohol content of five to seven.
Now the distillation begins. The wort is placed in a copper pot still heated above the boiling point of alcohol. The evaporated alcohol is collected and added to a new amount of wort, little by little increasing the alcohol percentage. The distillate that eventually arises, is called new spirit; a heavy alcoholic substance of about 65 percent.
New spirit has little to do with the famously smooth flavour of whisky. The specific taste is created during the ageing in oak barrels. Legend has it that the avarice of the Scots has made whisky exist at all as we know it. Too stingy to buy new barrels, the Scots bought second-hand casks in which sherry or port had been kept.
The wood and liquor that was in the cask for the new spirit are of enormous importance to the flavour and colour of the final whisky. A barrel that previously contained a dark, sweet sherry like Oloroso will give a very different whisky than a cask for Fino, a dry and light sherry. Actually, every barrel is different. It’s the art of the distillery to combine the different flavours to make one consistent single malt.
The minimum allowed maturation time of the alcoholic substance, before it can be called a “whisky” is three years and one day. However, many whiskies are stored for much longer in wooden casks. The maturation process of whiskey only stops when it is bottled.
Islay has the most distilleries in the Scottish Islands: nine. Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavullin are three well-known distilleries on the south side of the island. They are known to have a strong, smoky and peaty flavour. The smoky flavour comes from the peat fire above which the malt is dried. Some like to say Islay whiskies are medicinal, because the peat smoke leaves an almost iodine-like odour.
In the north of Islay are Caol Ila, Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain. These whiskies are a little less pronouncedly smoky. The proximity to the sea was of course perfect for the transport of the whisky in the old days. In addition, the Hebrides lay on the way to America. Many sailing ships visited a distillery before the great crossing to replace the stones they used as ballast with whisky barrels; a nice side-trade for the captains. Many houses and walls on the island are built with the stones that these old sailing ships carried as ballast. The location on the coast makes a large number of the distilleries also exceptionally suitable to visit by ship.
The Thalassa is steadily sailing across the Muir Éireann, the Irish Sea, towards Northern Ireland. From Islay it’s only 25 miles to the Irish mainland. The sea is connected to the Atlantic Ocean through the St George channel between Ireland and Wales and the North channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland. We sail to Ballycastle to see Ireland’s largest distillery, Bushmills. Incidentally, it may no longer be called “whisky” here. The Irish call their water of life “whiskey”, which is a no less tasty stuff.
There is an age-old battle going on about who is the inventor of this drink, that according to experts is a medicine against everything. The Irish claim that Saint Patrick discovered it, the Scots say they were the first. Neither of them was, at least the inventors of distillation. That honour belongs to the Babylonians in Mesopotamia, in current day Iraq. They distilled as far back as the second century BC. Distilling probably reached Irish missionaries through the Moors in the sixth or seventh century. Distillates were initially mainly used for medicinal purposes, for example to combat cholera and smallpox. But whoever it was that forgot the first maturing oak barrel, remains a great mystery.
The Irish claim that Saint Patrick discovered it, the Scots say they were the first
Sail to the Whisky
with tall ship Thalassa
Thalassa sails along the different Scottish islands for the real whisky and sailing fanatics and visits the various distilleries. Which particular islands they visit, depends on the elements. And that is what makes it so exciting.