WHISKY REVIEWS, NEWS, HISTORY AND FOLKLORE
A Ghostly Visitation
*Photographs of Mull by Stephen Scott
Halloween and whisky have always felt like natural bedfellows to me. They are, after all, both products of the Celtic culture. Halloween, as we know it today, evolved from the Celtic Samhain festival which marked the transition from summer to winter. The Celts believed that such occasions weakened the barriers between worlds and allowed the dead to return to the land of the living. It was a time for stockpiling supplies for the dark months ahead and for feasting, in memory of lost loved ones, perhaps in the hope they might stop by for a visit. The bones of slaughtered animals were burned in a bone-fire (bonfire), as protection against returning spirits with less friendly intentions.
The festival was, of course, Christianised by the church and later marketed into another splurge of rampant consumerism. Nowadays, children (and drunk people on nights out) dress up as evil spirits, or more commonly perhaps, something they saw in a Hollywood movie. Weans go guising (trick-or-treating) and are given sweets if they perform a joke or a song. They too, indulge in a bit of feasting, often putting away several days worth of sugar intake in a single sitting. It’s all part of the fun.
Personally, I’ve always loved Halloween but it has nothing to do with sweets or dressing up. Ever since I was wee, I’ve had a major fascination with spooky stuff. The first books I remember were about Georgie the Ghost or Funnybones and by the time I was 10, I was hooked on Christoper Lee’s Dracula movies. Looking back, it sounds like rather an unhealthy interest for a child but I was never happier than when exploring the macabre.
That love for all things haunted makes it pretty much impossible to get through October without indulging in some ghostly goings on. In fact, in all honesty, the Halloween Whisky Reviews are my absolute favourites to write!
This year, our investigation into the things that go bump in the night takes us to the isle of Mull on Scotland’s western coast. This story was first told to folklorist, Calum Maclean, by one Captain Dugald MacCormick in 1953, but the events it recounts took place sometime earlier, in 1876.
As a youth, Captain MacCormick enjoyed listening to the stories of Old Alasdair, a fisherman that lived in Fionnphort in the southwest of Mull. One day, Alasdair asked the young MacCormick if he believed in ghosts. As the conversation evolved, the old sea dog admitted that he had once had such an encounter himself…
Years before, Alasdair had been at a ceilidh at the house of the local tailor. There were several people in attendance. Music was playing, drams were pouring and the conversation flowed almost as freely as the whisky. Outside it was snowing, as heavily as it had for years. The tailor had a lamp that illuminated his desk and when the door unexpectedly flew open, a gust of wind blew out the lamp and pitched the room into darkness.
When the lamp was got going again, the company were shocked to see a man standing in the open doorway. He had a black beard and his face was as white as the snow that fell outside. Curiously, however, there wasn’t a flake of snow on his person, yet water poured from him in rivers.
The lady of the house approached and with her usual hospitality, bid him enter and encouraged him to dry off by the fire but the stranger didn’t move. He stood exactly where he was, sunken eyes staring straight ahead.
Finally, Alasdair built up the courage to speak, “Why are you not covered in snow?”
In a terrible, gurgling voice, the stranger replied, “There’s no snow where I am. Go to Traigh Geal on Erraid. There you will find me.” With that, he turned and disappeared into the blizzard.
After a pause, the tailor’s wife went to mop the floor but found it completely dry. There was no trace of the water that had run from the clothes of the strange visitor.
Ceilidh well and truly over, each of the company went home startled and confused but the next morning, Alasdair’s curiosity got the better of him and he enlisted the help of his friends, Angus & Coll. Together they sailed to the small island of Erraid and made for Traigh Geal. Sure enough, washed ashore on the beach, was the body of a young man. The same man who gatecrashed the tailor’s ceilidh the night before.
The sailor’s body was taken back to Mull and eventually identified as that of one John MacPherson. He was mate on a ship that had run aground off the north-west of Ireland. Every member of the crew was lost but MacPherson’s body travelled some 200 miles before coming to rest on Erraid. To this day, his remains lie buried in the small cemetery in Fionnphort.
As you probably know, the isle of Mull is home to just one distillery, Tobermory. It spends half of the year making the malt that shares its name and the other half producing a heavily peated version, known as Ledaig. I’ve reviewed this expression before but it’s nice to check back from time to time. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see to what extent core expressions evolve over the years.
Ledaig 10 year old is bottled at 46.3%.
Smell: Sooo briney. A proper maritime malt. Sea shells. Sea weed. Coal fires and oily, diesel fumes. Ash and medicinal peat. Dank, mouldy warehouses. There’s also a lighter side, however. Beyond the coastal smoke is a lightness with grassy malt notes and lemon-scented air fresheners.
Taste: Citrus and honey arrival followed by black pepper, sea salt, new oak and dry, ashy smoke. The smoke arrives as a wisp but grows and leaves as a big, old storm cloud of peat. There’s some oaky spice on the finish – as if some virgin oak casks were used somewhere. The briney, seaweed character is also present and correct.
Thoughts: The perfect dram for this time of year – and for the above story. It feels a bit like sticking your nose in a drowned sailor’s smoking pipe. Ledaig has always been the whisky that most resembles the drams of Islay and for a time, it was being supplied by Port Ellen maltings, so was very likely using Islay peat. With the talk of reduced service and shortages there, however, I don’t know if that’s still the case but for now at least, it very much retains the vibe of an affordable alternative to the Islays whilst adding some unique personality of its own. It’s always interesting to return to a dram I’ve already reviewed. All too often, I expect to find that I didn’t enjoy it as much but if anything, I like this even more now. A great peaty dram.
Price: £45. The Ledaig 10 remains one of the great value for money drams. Especially where peat is concerned.
For more on Tobermory Distillery visit: https://tobermorydistillery.com
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