Friendship in Whisky
Do you have many friends? Not Facebook friends who might ‘like’ your occasional foray into the world of artistic photography, or Twitter chums that might be bought and sold on a whim. No, I’m talking about friends who would drop everything and come to your aid if you were in trouble, or travel vast distances to celebrate with you that special moment. Most of us have two or three special friends, who we know we can rely on in any crisis or celebratory moment, to be by our side. But be assured that friendship is also a fickle mistress, often withdrawn as quickly as it is granted, except where that friendship is akin to a familial relationship.
Where am I going with this, would be a fair question? I am trying to lay the ground rules for an event which took place in the Summer and celebrated all that is good about friendship, and more particularly friendship in whisky.
In the middle of 2021 I spoke with someone I considered to be a good friend, Andy Purslow (@ardbaggie on Twitter), who asked me if I would travel to Islay to celebrate his 60th birthday in 2022. I readily agreed, always one for a few days away, especially on Islay, drinking whisky. I know Andy had similar conversations with other friends and I anticipated 8-10 of us would have an excellent few days, drinking and story-telling in mid-August 2022.
Having been seriously ill with COVID-19 in 2021 and suffering family bereavements during that year, caused Andy to rethink his initial plans and expand the trip to include his family - wife Julia, daughter Lily, and mum Pam. With his best friend Den Wiggins (how you convince a lager drinker to come up to Islay for five days of whisky drinking is beyond my powers of reasoning) and his wife Lisa they all stayed at the Seaview Cottage at the Ardbeg Distillery.
Andy insisted at various times during the run up to August 2022 that there were possibly thirty people attending. I chuckled at his rosy tinted spectacles and suggested that if more than ten people arrived on the day I would be surprised. No-one had that many friends. Oh, how wrong I was!
There were two events planned by way of celebration, a tour of Ardbeg, followed by some drams, followed by an afternoon and evening on the lawns to the rear of Seaview Cottage on Monday 15 August, and a Warehouse 9 Tasting at Bunnahabhain with the effervescent David Brodie on the afternoon of the following day.
Everyone set off to Islay on different days, and differing modes of transport, but all roads eventually led to Port Ellen and beyond, along the road to the holy trinity. Jim Jensen flew all the way from Boston Massachusetts, whilst Rolf Isaksen came from Oslo in Norway (and despite my insulting him and suggesting he was Swedish, he remained on Islay for the festivities).
There was three quarters of the infamous Tormore Four in attendance (Jason Julia and Dave Alcock alongside Andy), fortunately only one bottle of Tormore managed to find its way onto Islay. Representatives of the Manchester Whisky Society, Martin Sykes-Jones, Anna Wiza and their captivating daughter Evie made the long journey North, as did members of the London Whisky Club, who have asked for anonymity (but consisted of Jez Bhatti, Keiran Hammond, Mark Severin and Sattu!).
Derek and Fiona Mather, closed the Artisan Restaurant in Wishaw for two days to attend. Despite working 100 hour weeks, and only normally closing on Christmas Day and Feis, neither wanted to miss this opportunity to celebrate 60 years of a close friend.
Amy Seton went one step further and closed the Grain and Glass bar in Birmingham for 10 days so that her, Steve Cook and Renata Malakauskiene could take a well-earned break and raise a glass (or several) in the direction of Andy.
There were six members of the Wet We Whistle Whisky Society together with partners present (Chris and Becky Guy, Matt Whalley, Steve Tromans, Mark Parsons and Anne Maskell, Alex Curtis and Seb Cartwright, not forgetting myself and my much better half Dawn), this being the society that Andy & Mark set up nearly ten years ago in the quiet backwater of Stourbridge.
Ronnie Grant, the King of Fife, took time out from setting up his Del Riata Distillery to join us. Roy Duff, Aquavitae, put up the “back later” sign at the V Pub. The Whisky Novice himself, Simon Burgess was there (quite how someone who has tried 127 different Bimbers is a whisky novice is beyond me). Tony Pancakes (not his real name) also put in appearance. Rachel Macneill of Islay Whisky Academy fame, brought the assembly to its quorum.
Lodgings were scattered far and wide. Many of us were in Port Ellen, some were in Bowmore, others even further afield, but all came together on the early afternoon of Monday 15 August.
Andy had been liaising with the wonderfully helpful Jackie Thomson to set up a tour and tasting at Ardbeg. Most of the assembled guests were present for the tasting, but unfortunately Jackie had to remain on the mainland and we were taken round by the 21st Distillery Manager at Ardbeg, Colin Gordon, who treated us to an entertaining trip around the distillery and a few drams at the end. Thanks to Ardbeg, on a day when they would have been closed and Colin would have had his feet up, they went above and beyond to ensure the day went Supernova.
Back to Andy’s gaff, about 75 metres away, for the afternoon’s entertainment, where other guests arrived to complete the rogues’ gallery (oh if the devil could have cast his net this afternoon!).
Such is Andy’s generosity, that he put on seafood platters and a barbecue. Alcohol was consumed, hunger set in and with the platters not due to arrive until 4:00pm, a suggestion was made that we light the barbecue early, which was ignored by Chef Matt. Hunger won in the end and a rebellious Den set light to the coals around 3:00, much to the Chef’s mock consternation.
During the course of the late afternoon, I and others were treated to a masterclass by Matt on how to remove around one calories’ worth of meat from the leg of a lobster. I am not sure with the limited time I have left on the planet that I will be taking up his thoughtful advice.
Andy treated us to drams from the Renaissance Series at Ardbeg, along with the Alligator and Nam Beist, an expensive delight to the gathering. Others brought their own offerings, a 1968 Family Silver 40 Year old Bunna, 1960’s Aberlour, a 1962 North British, a 1970’s Tomatin, an early Daftmill, a 1999 Glengoyne, a number of Caol Ila’s of various vintages, 18 year old Hazelburn plus many others and even delights from as far afield as Australia and Norway.
Andy’s birthday was shared with his daughter Lil. We had music from the 60’s and late 90’s and quickly found that the combined tastes of 30 guests was much in favour of the 90’s over the tedious early sixties! Some were forced to seek refuge in a dark cove, for a bit of peace and quiet.
The afternoon meandered into a hazy evening, the weather stayed fair, with a few black clouds overhead and the participants became steadily louder and happier. Small groups formed, stories were exchanged and laughter invaded the air. Most of the assembly would have been happy to stay in perpetuim.
Dave Alcock (@whiskyrepublic) was guilty of two wanton acts of vandalism during the course of the garden party, firstly on an unsuspecting chair, followed some hours later by a tag team effort on a wooden bench in the porch of the cottage.
The gathering started to wind down at around 9:00 and we left on our three mile trudge back to Port Ellen, with a light heart and a heavy head. Others left around the same time or shortly thereafter and I am pleased to say that no-one was found in a prostrate position on the lawn the following morning.
The following day, we had time on our hands in the morning, and everyone did their own thing. We reassembled most of the crew at Bunnahabhain, inside the atmospheric Warehouse 9, in the company of the wonderfully entertaining David Brodie.
Substantial drams were poured from four casks, where the Moine Rum cask was declared the best, by one person at least. All were terrific examples of the distillers art, and were set to the background commentary from our host for the afternoon
Andy wondered why he was getting very quickly drunk in Warehouse 9 and assumed this was from the substantial initial pours. What he didn’t notice was Simon (@thewhiskynovice) regularly topping up his glass.
From the cool depths of Warehouse 9 we retired to the glorious new visitor centre overlooking the Sound of Islay and the magnificent Paps of Jura. What a location to complete our afternoon at Bunnahabhain. David Brodie regaled us with further stories and a couple of songs whilst strumming his guitar including “Westering Home” and we had two more exceptional Bunna drams to complete the day.
The floor was opened for a few of the guests to say some words/stories about Andy. Dave Alcock was rudely interrupted, 20 minutes into a ‘short’ speech, extolling the wonderful character traits of our host and referencing the word “legend”. Apart from that the remainder of the afternoon went without a hitch. Many thanks to our friends at Bunnahabhain and especially David Brodie on his day off for providing a fitting end to a wonderful couple of days.
Andy exited the Visitor Centre in late afternoon, sat in the oversize deck chair for the inevitable photograph, got into Den’s car, messaged Julia to say they would meet up for some food at Bridgend, but forgot to tell Den, so they went back to Ardbeg, where Andy went to bed and can’t remember very much at all about the afternoon’s entertainment. That effectively means we now have a blank canvas to continuously remind him of all the things that did (or didn’t) happen on the outing to Bunna.
Most headed home the following day, although some stayed for the remainder of the week. What a wonderful few days, in great company and paying homage to a man who is clearly Lord of the Isles. Friendship, I mentioned at the start of this piece, is something which develops over time, mainly through the character of the individual concerned. Andy has nurtured this friendship with all of those who made the effort and attended his gathering. That makes him, as far as I am concerned a unique individual and one that I (and I imagine all those that gathered on Islay) am proud to call a friend.
Chairman of the Society