malt whisky consists of three principal ingredients, though fortunately, two of them have no tangible place in the thousands of casks sitting in the many warehouses around the island. constituent number one is water, but we'll come back to that later; the others are barley and yeast. though there are deposits of peat at various locations across islay's topography, the bulk of it exists between port ellen and bowmore, accessible via either the high road or the low road (we're a sophisticated people as you can likely tell). after the barley has been germinated to produce the necessary enzymes, placing it above a peat fire will add phenols, providing each distillery with its distinctive flavour. on islay, ardbeg is the peatiest whisky, while bunnahabhain is generally reckoned to be the least.
no matter the fancy stories that marketing would have you believe are at the root of each particular brand, basically the whisky is filled into wooden casks which have either been previously used for bourbon or sherry, and responsible for imparting the rather distinctive amber glow that varies depending on the whisky under consideration. these are then stacked in warehouses to mature. wooden casks tend to breathe as they lie in wait for several years, and that which evaporates is known as the angels' share. it accounts for much of the aroma you experience when traipsing round the warehouses (assuming anyone will let you do so in the first place).
this is the last week of may, and thus home to the islay whisky festival. in true islay fashion, linked to our undubitable hospitality, the weather this week has been crap. aside from storm force winds at the beginning of the week, the wind hasn't let up much during the ensuing days, and the principal constituent of the single malt has been positively persisting down. at this time last year, a friend of mine who is employed as an engineer at one of the distilleries had serious concerns that there may not be anywhere near enough water to continue for much longer. this year there's been enough to keep two islands in production.
the principal of the whisky festival is simple; each distillery hosts an open day and attracts hundreds if not thousands of visitors into spending at least a portion of that day with special tours, masterclasses and tastings. festival bottlings costing a heck of a lot for a concoction of the previously mentioned ingredients, bearing a unique label and individually numbered, are also on offer. bowmore distillery produced 100 bottles only, of a selected expression (as is the popular marketing term nowadays), on sale at £350 each. they sold out in a matter of ten minutes.
as has been my habit, in a professional capacity for the last eleven years, i cycle to most of these open days to take some rather poor photographs of people enjoying their obsession. these are for possible use in the local newspaper. today's open event was held at bunnahabhain, the most northerly of islay's distilleries, featuring a particularly scenic pedal along the sound of islay; or at least, it would have been scenic if the weather had played its part. rain might be great for the future of islay's single malts, but it's a bit of a pain in the ass for a cyclist. add to that the fact that the return journey, despite favouring a total of four different trajectories, benefitted from a headwind in each and every one.
not so much character building as a possible source of rust (and i don't mean the bike).
those living in america's pacific northwest will identify with the rainy part of the above. though islay's annual rainfall beats that of portland by around 300mm, to be honest, who's counting? both locations are well used to getting wet. while islay is famous for its single malts, as far as the rest of us are concerned, portland is famous for its cycling. (actually it's famous for a lot more than that, but in context, the comparison will do for now). and in portland, shaun deller makes cycle caps, and darned good ones at that. on the european side of things, we're more used to our cycle caps bearing the name of a sponsor or manufacturer, often writ large on both sides of the peak to impress all and sundry even when wearing a helmet, and whether you're a peak up or peak down sort of cyclist.
deller's caps are formed and hand-sewn from recycled materials which he purchases from a local thrift store, basing his choices on how fabulous a selection of materials can be found during a concentrated rummaging session. not only are no man-made fabrics harmed in this process, shaun doesn't own a car, so all is transported from source to shop by bicycle. obviously that doesn't apply to those that make their way to this side of the pond, but there are limits to how far a bicycle and trailer can go in deep water. categorised as recyclist apparel, the caps are pretty unique based on their method of construction; they fit beautifully and fulfil every function you'd expect a cycle cap to fulfil.
i'd dearly love to tell you that they also have a calming influence on all those rays of sun beating down upon the head, but this particular week, that's a weather feature that has been conspicuous by its absence. the peak, however, made a darned good job of allowing only minimal precipitation access to the spectacles positioned upon my nose. dressed in civilian cycling attire for the purposes of blending in ('scuse the pun), my brown and cream example was particularly apt. if embarking upon a course of sartorial excellence on the bicycle, this would seem not only to give you a head start (sorry about these puns), but the ideal way to go about your business as an ostensibly normal person with a bicycle.
a selection of shaun deller's hand-made caps is available in the uk from urban hunter at a cost of £22.95. if you're in the usa, you can contact shaun via his website.
posted friday 27 may 2011