Monday, 2 June 2014

Smile for Feis Ile 2014: Islay Whisky Festival Roundup

I’d been lusting after a trip to Scotland for quite some time, but never got round to trekking that far up north. However, with my chap’s increasing enthusiasm about whisky, it was inevitable that this would be the year we crossed the border. When he told me part of our holiday had to be at Islay’s Whisky Festival, I can’t say that I was overjoyed... Six months or so down the line, I’d somehow found a new appreciation for the drink, and having just come back from 4 days at Feis Ile 2014, I’m already thinking about next year’s events.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve not heard of it; the relaxed island life must permeate through the peat because nothing gets officially confirmed by anyone until the very last minute. The Feis Ile website was still showing last year’s programme of events until a couple of months ago, and they don’t have much of a social media presence (not surprising with the lack of reception/internet coverage on the island).

As Hugo pointed out on Wednesday, the festival runs during the last week of May every year. Each distillery (there are 8 on the island) has its own open day, where they host events and showcase their limited release for this year. You have to be on the ball as the ticketed events - tours, masterclasses, pairings, tastings - sell out as soon as they go on sale. If you’re a whisky fanatic then this is BIG.

Some distilleries have their bottles for sale from the first day of the festival; these will probably release another, extra special, more expensive bottle on their open day. Others like to stick to tradition and only have theirs on sale from their official open day. As I found out, this means a lot of queuing and saying goodbye to a fair few pennies in order to get your hands on the good stuff - though chatting to your equally eager neighbours in line is all part of the fun.

Anyway, catching an early morning ferry from Kennacraig, we arrived on Islay for Lagavulin day. We did a quick whistle-stop detour to Bowmore to pick up their release; a 1st fill American oak bourbon cask matured whisky, bottled at 56.1%. Only 1000 were available for a reasonable £50. On their open day they also had 300 1989 vintages up for grabs for £350. Laphroaig was next, which is one of the bottles Hugo mentioned, Cairdeas; a double matured Laphroaig from bourbon barrels and Amontillado sherry seasoned hogsheads, at 51.4% for £65.

We then headed to Lagavulin to join a very lengthy queue (I noticed Master of Malt tweeting #Lagaqueuelin, haha). Drawn from casks filled in January 1995, this was matured in European Oak Sherry Butts, and was personally selected by Lagavulin warehouseman Iain McArthur. At 54.7%, it comes in an edition of 3,500 bottles and cost £99.

We’d managed to get in on a distillery tour due to a cancellation, but to be honest, I wish we hadn’t have bothered. If you’ve been round a distillery before, it’s all the same kind of stuff; the only perks were being given a special Feis Ile Lagavulin glass and getting a taste of their Festival release at the end of the tour. That hour would have been better spent out in the grounds where they were giving out free 16YO and Distiller's Edition on tap. They also had a game where you had to guess the age of the whisky, a seafood and oyster truck, a range of live music and craft stalls to browse, all under the glorious sunshine. We couldn’t make it to the Caol Ila day, but apparently they had the same free dram’s all day vibe going; what a treat!

Sunday is famously Bruichladdich day, and thanks to the keen eye of my chap, we’d got tickets to Jim McEwan’s Masterclass. It was a pretty grim morning, but I’d been assured that Jim had a direct line to God, and that they must have an agreement for sunshine on Laddie day every year. Our ‘breakfast’ tasting was at 11am, and sure enough, when we finished, the sun was peeking through the clouds.

Taking place in one of the warehouses, which was absolutely heaving with people, we were greeted with 6 glasses of whisky, none of which are able to buy, other than the Feis Ile bottling for this year. Jim’s masterclasses are always well-attended; he’s got quite a stage presence, and evidently has a number of jokes up his sleeve. Tasting notes were intertwined with stories from the distillery and some lovely live music, making the whole thing feel very special. I’ll quickly run through what we had..

Dram 1: A 1984 American bourbon cask Bruichladdich. Dram 2: Black Art Sorcery; a secret whisky made especially for the tasting. Dram 3: A 1986 Pedro Ximénez Sherry Cask. Dram 4: Port Charlotte 2001 Chateau d'Yquem Cask. Dram 5: Octomore Quadruple Distilled 1695 Discovery 7 Year Old Feis Ile 2014. This is the result of the first and last time, since 1695, that a whisky has been quadruple distilled. It was coming off the still at a CRAZY 89.4%, and has been bottled at 69.4%, though you’d not guess that it was that strength, and surprisingly, the peat is still there. Dram 6: Unknown, we were just instructed to neck it; classy.

Masterclass over - feeling much merrier - we followed the piper’s band down the road and in through the distillery gates, where we hit up the shop to pick up the Octomore Feis Ile 2014. 1695 bottles were released and were limited to 1 per person at £150; not surprising considering the lengths they went to in order to make it!

Bruichladdich charge a £5 entry fee to the open day, but this included two free drams; you could choose from a selection of Laddie staples, or a strong G&T with their very own Botanist Gin. Live music, cocktails, more queuing , buying bottles of gin (then forgetting about buying bottles of gin) and god knows what other drunken antics later.. It is safe to say that Bruichladdich’s day lives up to the hype (and the following morning’s atmosphere sure felt a little delicate).

Monday saw us scoot over to Bunnahabhain to pick up their early release; Dràm an Stiùreadair (The Helmsman’s Dram); a 10YO single malt first matured in ex-American Bourbon casks for 9 years before being finished for 1 year in a Marsala cask. Only 632 bottles were available at 56.7%, and it cost £95.

Because we weren’t staying for Ardbeg’s open day, we took a trip there in the afternoon, and took part in an unusual tasting. I shall save the details of that for another day though, so be sure to look out for it!

If you hadn’t have guessed, I had an AMAZING time, and would recommend anyone (preferably with a thirst for the hard stuff) to go. Events may be the last things to get announced, but don’t be fooled, places to stay on the island for the festival week start getting booked up now. We organised our trip around Christmas time, and were finding it extremely difficult to find a room for just a few days. Spaces on the ferry also get limited, particularly if you’re bringing a car..

Obviously I’m not telling you to book now, but if you do fancy going to Feis Ile in 2015, then sign up to distillery newsletters (they leak information first) and generally keep it on your radar. Even though we were stung with an additional £40 excess baggage (whisky) fee, I’d definitely say it was worth it.. Islay is a stunning island, with the friendliest people, and the most delicious drams.

Did you make the pilgrimage to Islay this year? Have you managed to get your hands on any of the festival releases? Tell us! (... we're nosy)


  1. Hey Lucienne, looks like you had an amazing trip, I've got to make it next year.

    1. Do!! It was amazing! A bit gutted I wasn't around for Ardbeg Day, but they're celebrating a big birthday next year.. So next year's open day should be GOOOD. x

  2. Wow! Just wow! That Bruichladdich tasting in particular sounds amazing!

    1. It really was! The Sherry and Chateau d'Yquem casks were my favourite.. You should go!