An Ode to the Islay Whisky Academy

Islay Whisky Academy Kinship Host, Neill Murphy, reflects on a magical Spring Residential Diploma.

The Islay Whisky Academy Residential Diploma for Spring 2024 has wrapped. It doesn’t quite seem real. Those six days spent on the whisky isle felt like a whirlwind. A hurricane of information and experience, of new friendships and new perspectives and of whiskies so good, you could spend a lifetime trying to describe them. This is not my first time helping out with the Academy. In fact it is my 6th, yet somehow I still find it difficult to make sense of it all. Things seem to happen there that don’t happen anywhere else. It’s like the Residential Diploma takes place on another plane where the normal laws of the universe don’t apply.

I feel almost shell shocked. I’m a tumble of emotions. Sadness at leaving Islay but happiness at coming home. Joy at seeing my family but despair at bidding farewell to the group who were my constant companions over those insane six days. I feel an inability to process the events of the week. Like there was so much to take in and each part of it felt crucially important to understand, for a dozen different reasons. It’s as if the experience cannot be described or defined using any terminology I possess.

I had prepared for the trip for what seemed an age. For weeks, even months, I exchanged messages with the guests who would be joining us. I gathered bottles together. I wrote notes and made plans. Sometimes it felt like the time would never come. Then, one Sunday, I stepped from the MV Finlaggan and was swept off my feet by some unseen force that didn’t put me down again until I reached the mainland the following Saturday. It was a smooth sailing on that return trip but I stepped from the ferry with legs like jelly and nerves jangling, as though I’d just come off the world’s most intense roller coaster.

You’d think I’d be used to this by now but maybe I don’t want to get used to it. Maybe it would be a terrible mistake to take such a beautiful thing for granted. Anyway, no Academy experience has ever come close to being the same. The lectures, the distilleries, the tastings… all vary from course to course and the island’s famously temperamental climate creates a new and unique atmosphere every day, complete with bespoke mood lighting. Then there’s the students. We’ve had people from all over the world attend the diploma and their characters, their personalities, shape the occasion. The Islay Whisky Academy prides itself on providing our guests with new perspectives that can deepen their understanding and enjoyment of Scotch whisky but we in turn gain from them. Through their questions and their insights, we enhance our own thinking and the week shifts and evolves around them.

The Islay Whisky Academy concept starts (and ends) with Rachel MacNeill, a Colonsay-born, Islay resident. Rachel was writing about whisky for women and women in whisky before it was on the radar of most. She sees and understands the world in a unique way and it is that maverick spirit that produced the Academy. Rachel’s understanding and appreciation for the old ways, her love for the technical detail that makes Scotch and her ability to relay information in new and colourful ways are some of the key elements that define the diploma. 

You may think then, that there’s no mystery. You might think Rachel’s formidable skill set, placed in a land of rich history and staggering natural beauty, with distilleries in abundance and eager whisky lovers from all over the world should guarantee a good time and maybe you’d be right but there’s something else. Even for me, a man who considers himself very sceptically minded, there’s an indefinable magic involved that I can’t quite fathom. It’s almost a feeling that we are somehow being generously rewarded for learning and appreciating whisky in a way that’s respectful of the land and the culture that birthed it.

As for our students, we were, as always, blessed with a brilliant bunch. They came from Poland, from England, from Guernsey, from the US, the Netherlands and Germany. They came from different cultures, different backgrounds, different careers, different belief systems, but they came with an open mind and a desire to learn and have fun. I hope they achieved that. I know I did. I also know that I feel wiser and richer for having met them and hope I continue to know them for many years to come. The same goes for all the students from previous courses. I remember each and every one and am thankful for the time I’ve been able to spend with them, even if I often greedily wish for more.

I’m not sure any of this has actually helped me, in any way, to process the events of the Spring 2024 Residential Diploma. I haven’t even mentioned the trip to the museum in Port Charlotte, or the visits to Kilchoman, Port Ellen, Ardnahoe, Laphroaig and Bunnahabhain, or the whisky tastings, or the traditional storytelling, or the Highland Dancers, or the lectures and presentations, or the peat cutting, or the opera singing (!) but maybe expressing my feelings of gratitude for the experience is the first step to understanding the whirlwind. Or maybe, no matter how hard I try, I’ll never quite grasp it fully and maybe that’s OK. Maybe I don’t need to understand the magic, maybe I just need to feel it and acknowledge it.

Our Celtic ancestors believed in the Otherworld, a sort of afterlife that presented as a realm of everlasting youth, beauty, health, abundance and joy. It was said to lie somewhere in the western sea. I think I’ve just been.