by D’Arcy Kavanagh
It was a bonny evening in Port Ellen, mild with a slight mist that perfumed the air with the scent of sea. We were standing in line to enter the community hall for a special “Malt whiskey testing” as part of the week-long celebration of malt whiskey that each year is held on the island of Islay off southwest Scotland. The celebration features the products of such distillers as Lagavulin, Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Ardbeg and Laphraoig. As lovers of peaty whiskies, we awaited alongside like-minded aficionados from England, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Japan, and the United States.
It was the fourth day and we’d be doing a “nosing” in which we’d sample only the aromas of various whiskies disguised in dark blue glasses. From there, we’d guess which whiskey belonged to which distillery. Following the nosing, there’d be a ceilidh.
It was all so civilized even if the Germans, Danes and Japanese sported team T-shirts proclaiming – in English – their affection for whiskey. One white T-shirt was emblazoned with “Whiskey gives meaning to life” in scarlet red letters on the chest. Another said whiskey was better than sex.
We laughed and swapped whiskey opinions as our numbers grew to 200. Was the Lagavulin the best of the 16-year-olds? Did Bowmore make more brands than the other distilleries? Was the ultra-peaty Laphroaig best sipped with water?
Then the midges attacked.
We hadn’t bumped into any members of this Scottish insect species during our week on the island. Maybe they’d been resting during the sunny days – they supposedly don’t like sunshine – or maybe they’d just been working on building up some bad attitude. But they were on us now, swarming and biting, regrouping and then coming at us again. Conversation stopped except for curse words as we flailed in vain against their onslaught.
Some folks might argue that a midge is little more than a gnat or a small mosquito. Those people have never been prey to Islay midges. The coastal ceratopogonidae, or biting midges, are a cross between a buzzsaw and a hornet with a nasty hangover. They never stop and they hurt.
The weak-willed among us fled. Those who understood the value of great malt whiskies stayed and bled for their devotion. My wife and I covered as much skin as possible, but it was useless; any decent midge can burrow through standard protection.
After five minutes of chaos, the doors to the hall opens and out came two organizers who immediately noticed the twitching, cursing bunch before them. “My goodness,” said one, a nice, grandmotherly type. “They’re nasty tonight. Oh well, we’ll only be another five minutes.”
And then they were gone, the door slamming shut behind them.
For five more minutes, we fought and lost. Then the doors re-opened and the 100 survivors or so rushed forward.
Later that night, we visited with a gregarious German who said he thought his whiskey team needed new T-shirts for next year. On the front, the new wording would be: “Whiskey and midges – I survived the Islay festival.”
It made perfect sense to us.