Traditionally-rigged tall ships are pretty cool. Ships like the Bessie Ellen, for example, Britain’s last wooden coasting ketch still under sail. These days it's a regular sight at Fèis Ìle, making berth at Caol Ila distillery, having originally transported cargo (including peat) around the UK as early as 1906. Happily, it also shares part of its name with both a Laphroaig distillery manager of note and a nearby port town with a rather well-known closed distillery. Plus it has the added bonus of making us feel more than a little pirate-y too. Arr!
In this issue of Tales From The Isle we'll be taking a look at Caol Ila's festival bottling as well as reliving a terrifying tale of piracy from the seas surrounding Islay that's guaranteed to shiver yer timbers!
So, onto those featured spirits...
"Yer best start believin' in ghost stories..."
Hold on, not that kind of spirits! I meant the whisky! Caol Ila's Fèis Ìle bottling was selected by new distillery manager David Wood (an excellent name for anybody in a position to choose casks) who carries on Billy Stitchell's great work. It's been matured in refill American oak hogsheads since 2002 and 1,500 bottles have been released.
Caol Ila 2002 Feis Ile 2014 – 55.5%
Tasting Note for Caol Ila 2002 Feis Ile 2014
Nose: A little peanut brittle gives way to a smokier version of the Islay sea food van including a touch of oil from the engine. (I've just confirmed that it was the whisky as I was actually stood next to the van when we first opened the bottle!) Lemon slices, plenty of very sweet seaweed, moving into hints of menthol then 'lemon and lavender'.
Palate: Initially substantial, but you soon realise this is a velvety whisky, not one with loads of oomph. Creamy vanilla and sort of 'fizzy' coastal oak with a little smoke.
Finish: Sweet Caol Ila smoke.
Overall: I do love a Caol Ila and this one is pretty yummy, if a little sweet for me. That said, I'm looking forward to trying it again when I'm feeling a little less tender than I do after Bruichladdich day!
Bessie Ellen and the Paps - we're going aboard for a tasting on Wednesday!
Ben and I guess the ages of some samples drawn from their casks that morning, and yes, I remembered to wear my Caol Ila appropriate t-shirt again.
The Black Pearl, of course, is not the only ship on the seven seas capable of chilling the blood in even the bravest man's veins. This tale is of an infamous and widely-feared pirate known as Paul Jones who was born a couple of decades after the so-called ‘golden age of piracy’ - exactly around the time Pirates of the Caribbean* is set, in fact. (For further context, “Rule, Britannia!” was set to music just a few years earlier.) This formidable man of the sea would go on to keep “the coasts of the United Kingdom in a constant state of alarm for a considerable time”, having earned a reputation for cruelty from the age of 21.
Paul Jones the Pirate
Jones (no relation to Davey as far as we know), became renowned after daring captures of hitherto untouchable British ships in British waters (including the 50-gun HMS Serapis), an attempt to raze Whitehaven harbour, the attempted kidnapping of the Earl of Selkirk from his home (plundering the family silver in the process) and even for boldly entering the Firth of Forth, with the intention of raiding Leith harbour on Edinburgh's doorstep, only to be defeated by a gale (but not before threatening to fire into the town of Kirkcaldy). Less well known is that in 1778 he flew his dreaded flag in the Sound of Islay…
"I may sink, but I'll be damned if I strike!" - Jones captures the Serapis
It was at Campbeltown that the alarm was first raised. Jones' ship, The Ranger, had been spotted heading their way from the direction of Ailsa Craig - news that sent men, woman and children all running indoors, bolting the doors behind them, before hiding in cellars or else leading them to quickly flee the town altogether! Thankfully for the folk of Campbeltown Paul Jones stopped just off the shore before continuing his journey around the Mull and out of sight.
The following day, with The Ranger having seemingly disappeared, the Islay packet departed from Talbert. Amongst its passengers that day was one Major Campbell who was returning to Islay after fighting in India. He had his young wife and an enormous personal fortune in jewels and gold along with him. Having passed the northern tip of the Isle of Gigha, they headed for their final destination, the final short part of the Ileach Campbell's long journey half way around the world to reach his home. With the isle in plain sight, a fast moving dot appeared on the horizon, getting larger and larger. Before long their worst fears were realised as the flag of the dreaded Paul Jones could be made out above a ship that was clearly now on course to intercept them.
Major Campbell reached for his pistols as the Captain of the packet changed his bearing, heading for the nearest possible port, Port Ellen. The transport ship had no guns though, and The Ranger, which was much faster, soon ate up the water between them. Overtaking the packet, Jones fired a warning shot across her bow and another into the rigging. The Captain aboard the packet managed to convince the Major, a fighting man, that no more could be gained from resisting their dangerous adversary. Perhaps thinking of his wife's safety, Major Campbell was forced to agree, and Paul Jones helped himself to everything of value on board (which primarily meant the Major's belongings). Having made it within spitting distance of the shore of Islay with an incredible fortune, Major Campbell would reach the isle penniless, but alive. The pirate Paul Jones, meanwhile, made off into the sunset with his treasure.
Not a bad haul.
The twist in the tale is that John Paul Jones**, born in Kirkcudbrightshire, isn't really thought of as a pirate at all across the pond. Despite how he was portrayed in Britain (and how some of his crews occasionally behaved) the one time privateer is also one of the two men considered to be a Father of the United States Navy and was a part of the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War.
His face has been on American stamps, he's been the subject of feature films, there's a statue of him in Washington D.C. and he was friends with Benjamin Franklin! His remains were (eventually) interred in an extraordinarily-ornate sarcophagus at the United States Naval Academy that's held up by bronze dolphins. Bronze dolphins! He did still terrorise Britain's shores in the late 1770s and relieve Major Campbell of his entire fortune though, even if he also returned the Countess of Selkirk's plundered silver plate along with an apology note.
* A series of movie films that are highly rated by cinephile Michael Bolton.
** Yes, this is where the Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones got his stage name from.