It is always exciting for me to discover women working in or around the whisky industry who are determined to do something different. So, I was filled to the brim recently when I stumbled upon Rachel MacNeill, who runs a tour company called Wild and Magic Islay, which celebrates all things whisky on the tiny island.
Rachel is passionate about Islay. She has been drinking the local whisky and loving it since she was in her teens.
“In Islay, we take whisky for granted. I remember when I was 17 we would go to the distillery and we’d have a dram and I was always fascinated,” she said.
But, she didn’t always realise how passionate outsiders were until a fateful visit last year during the annual whisky festival. As a favour, she let a German visitor to the island stay with her after he found all of the hotels and guesthouses already booked up. He was so enthused about all things Islay that Rachel says she realised she sometimes took her close access to incredible distilleries such as Ardbeg or Caol Ila for granted.
“It made me realise that being in Islay is like being in your own body…we’re looking out but the visitors are looking in. You don’t think “Ooo I’ve got a lovely foot!” you just take it for granted,” she explained.
Soon after she started Wild and Magic Islay. The tours focus on highlighting all things that the island can offer up to visitors: from the whisky made there, to the food grown locally, the arts and crafts produced and the guesthouses and hotels that welcome visitors with open arms.
She also aims to celebrate the rather intense weather that is often associated with Islay and encourage stressed out city folk to shake off their tenseness by becoming absorbed in the great outdoors.
“We might be out in the wildest wind with the rain in our faces but then they go back at night and stay in a beautiful guesthouse. It’s not roughing it but they’re getting this fantastic experience in the day,” she added.
In addition, Rachel is focusing on her experience as a whisky-loving woman to create tours specifically for us ladies through an off-shoot of her company called: Whisky For Girls – From Washbacks to Slingbacks.
“I’m aiming at folk who are dipping their toe in the water for the first time. I want to demystify it,” she told me.
The tours can be tailor-made and include everything from a greeting by pipers on arrival at the airport, to esthetic treatments, nights out on the town and, of course, lots of visits to distilleries.
She also includes something called “Dram Theatre” in her tours. These communicate the history and her knowledge of whisky through theatre. She hopes that by talking to people in a fun and engaging style they will better remember what they learn about whisky.
“This is all meant to be fun and happy,” she said.
And, indeed, Rachel sounds like one of the new generation of people attempting to bring a lightness to a fascinating subject to make it more accessible for everyone.