Whisky month a region at a time - Islay

We look back at this beautiful blog written by Paula Arthur, long time whisky fan and expert from a few years ago. Paula worked with us for a number of years and is a veteran of Islay’s festival, so who better to share her wisdom, top-tips and memories.

‘Feis Ile’: what is it?

Pronounced, ‘Fezh Eel’, it is Gaelic for ‘Islay Festival’.

The Islay Malt & Music Festival, as it otherwise known, takes place during the last week of May each year. Islay’s population swells from approx. 3,000 to 20,000 as people from around the world make the pilgrimage to this small island off Scotland’s west coast, to celebrate all things Islay: the food, the drink (there’s more than whisky here), arts & crafts and, of course, the people.

Many visitors return year after year, meeting friends old and new.

The first Feis Ile was in 1984 and was a celebration of Gaelic culture and music. The first whisky tasting wasn’t until 1990 and the now-famous Festival whisky bottlings didn’t happen until 2000!

The musical tradition is strong still: past performers include Runrig, Capercaillie and Dougie McLean. More recently, bands like Skerryvore, A’Hooligan, Trail West and Reely Jiggered have kept folks tapping their toes. Robin Laing is a familiar face, too.

Feis Ile day 1

The first day of the festival is the Community Opening Event, where the Festival Committee officially open the festival. There’s music, food stalls, rides and all sorts – a great wee evening to kick off a fantastic week!

The rest of the week, each distillery would have its’ own Open Day, with tours, special events, tastings and masterclasses – many sold out within minutes of the tickets being released months before! Music, crafts, food and community groups are present, helping entertain the many visitors to the distilleries.

Feis Ile day 2 – Lagavulin:

The first Open Day of the Feis is Lagavulin’s. The compact visitor centre means queues for the limited edition bottles can stretch to the car park. Take the opportunity to discover the picturesque ruins of Dunyvaig castle – and take an iconic photo of the distillery at its best.

Feis Ile day 3 – Bruichladdich :

By now, a visitor to the Feis will have settled in, gotten their bearings and realised just how long a queue for a festival bottle can be.

Day 3 is usually Bruichladdich’s Open Day, one of the busiest. Part of this is because of the variety this distillery has to offer and the space they have to host various events throughout the day. This can range from normal tours to sit down dinners with guest speakers and open air bars.

Bruichladdich Distillery
Bruichladdich Distillery; Credit Eoin Murphy

Bruichladdich also offers a variety of styles of whisky (and a gin!) There is the unpeated Bruichladdich (an oddity on Islay), the peated Port Charlotte, named after the nearest town and former distillery and the super-peated, cask strength Octomore. Each expression has variations too, terroir and provenance play an important role in this distillery’s portfolio!

There is usually a free festival shuttle bus that runs from Port Ellen, past Bruichladdich, to Bowmore. Don’t take chances and drive. Take the bus instead.

Feis Ile day 4 – Caol Ila:

Day 4 of 2020’s Feis Ile would have raised some tough decisions: should one stay in bed just a little longer after Bruichladdich’s Open Day or should one hit the road. But which Open Day should one visit? Caol Ila to the north, near Port Askaig? Or towards the centre, near Bridgend for Islay Ales’ Open Day and a change of pace for the palate?

With discipline and a designated driver (or taxi) both Open Days could be done.

It is not uncommon for strangers to share one of the few taxis on the island, split the fare and become friends on the way.

By now, festival goers will often have made new friends, regardless of language barriers, age gaps or whatever. This is the magic of whisky. Plans can change through a chance encounter with such a friend, leading to discoveries of new whiskies or new experiences.

If choosing Caol Ila, check out the stunning view across the distillery’s namesake, the Sound of Islay, to Jura.  If you visit Islay Ales in Islay House Square, why not visit the lovely community garden near the shops

Caol Ila Distillery
Caol Ila Distillery; Credit Diageo

Feis Ile day 5 – Laphroaig:

Day 5 of the Feis Ile means it’s time to head to Port Ellen and see what Laphroaig are up to for their Open Day!

As you approach the entrance to the distillery, hoping for a parking place, you will probably spot people in wellies, wandering around the marshy fields opposite. The fields are littered with small flags of the world. These are the Friends of Laphroaig, hunting for their square foot of Islay as per instructions in every bottle of Laphroaig. (This is a free, no strings attached club for Laphroaig fans. The best bit is, once a year, you can collect land rent in the form of a 5cl bottle of Laphroaig from the distillery!)

Laphroaig Distillery
Laphroaig Distillery; Credit Laphroaig

Laphroaig produce an annual bottle at the festival time called ‘Cairdeas’, meaning ‘friendship’ in Gaelic and Friends of Laphroaig enjoy priority purchase.

After enjoying a dram (or three), listening to live music, smelling the peatsmoke from the kiln by the floor maltings and catching up with all your new friends – perhaps it is time to get ready for the Laphroaig ceilidh! Be prepared to dance, laugh and even sing. These are proper ceilidhs and I’ve heard songs, stories and poems from all over the world here. Everyone is welcome.

‘Cairdeas’, indeed.

Feis Ile day 6 – Bowmore & Ardnahoe:

Day 6 and another 2 Open Days!

This time, it is the oldest distillery on Islay, (Bowmore, est. 1779) and the youngest – Ardnahoe only opened in 2019!

Despite the difference in age, each distillery has a contemporary look to their visitor centres. Bowmore showcases their history with some stunning bottlings on display in the bar area, with a balcony overlooking the sea.

Ardnahoe has equal pride: their founding family, Hunter Laing independent bottlers, have a family connection to the island and feel they fulfilled a long held dream. They also have a stunning view over the water from their stillroom. Their tasting room may be smaller than Bowmore’s but it’s still stylish!

Ardnahoe Distillery
Ardnahoe Stillroom

Bowmore is the heart of Islay – literally and historically. With its round church at the top of the hill (no corner for the devil to hide in) to the local swimming pool made from a converted distillery warehouse, the town of Bowmore is distinctive. Not only is there is an annual parade during the Feis Ile but the first independent bottlers whisky festival has been hosted there (including our friends, Wemyss Malts, among others).

Bowmore Distillery
Bowmore Distillery; Credit Bowmore

Old and new, innovation and tradition. That sums up the whisky industry in a nutshell, I feel.

Feis Ile day 7 – Kilchoman:

Day 7 is to be Kilchoman’s Open Day. The whisky pilgrims make their way inland – and uphill – to reach this unique farm distillery. Such steep hills. Don’t cycle unless you are both fit and brave! Park the car in the overflow carpark/field off the main road and climb aboard the free shuttle bus instead.

Kilchoman is the only Islay distillery that can boast field to bottle production. Everything is done onsite. They have a 100% Islay bottling to prove it.

Production at the distillery only started in 2005 and it was the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years. A gamble that has since paid off – the distillery has expanded.

Kilchoman Distillery
Kilchoman Distillery; Credit Kilchoman

No longer do you park next to a sheep trailer and walk past the tackroom to reach the distillery. Instead, the car park has grown, more warehouses have been built and there is an outside picnic area. This space is needed during Open Day! The queues for special bottles start early and the queues for the barbecue or cafe are often not much shorter, it seems!

Feis Ile day 8 – Bunnahabhain & Jura:

Day 8 We are nearing the end of our Islay odyssey. Today should be the Open Days for Bunnahabhain and Jura.

The road to Bunnahabhain can be both visually stunning, and potentially disconcerting if you are not used to narrow winding roads overlooking deep water with oncoming traffic. It is worth it, though.

Bunnahabhain is another distillery that knows how to entertain. Great music, fresh caught scallops, fill your own bottles, cocktails – all play their part in making a memorable day. As does the location: gorgeous views from the pier for a start.

Jura is equally adventurous. Bounce across the Sound of Islay on the ferry from Port Askaig to Feolin on Jura then travel round the coast to Craighouse and the Jura distillery. Watch out for deer on the way. They’ve even been spotted swimming across the Sound, to Islay! A great place to get away from it all, George Orwell famously wrote 1984 on a neighbouring islet. For the truly adventurous, you can climb the Paps of Jura or perhaps hike north to view the dreaded Corryvreckan whirlpool.

Jura Distillery
Jura Distillery; Credit Whyte & Mackay

If you have time, why not visit The Whisky Island Gallery and Studio, home of award-winning photographer, Konrad Borkowski?

For more information, try www.islayblog.com (for the stag swimming clip) or look up Konrad on Instagram or Facebook.

Feis Ile day 9 – Ardbeg:

Day 9 The final day of the Feis Ile. This brings us to our final distillery’s Open Day, Ardbeg.

A distillery that knows how to party, Ardbeg welcomes some of the most ardent fans. People will queue overnight for the special bottles, often swapping stories of past festivals, while trading hipflasks or sample bottles procured throughout the week. Throughout the day’s activities, whatever they are (a treasure hunting dig, futuristic ice bar or the Islay-lympics to name just three) there is sense of joy but regret that the fun is almost over. Time to enjoy one last dram or one more dance.

Time to book accommodation for next year, then. And time for all those who help make the Feis Ile a success to breathe a sigh of relief!

Thank you to everyone who puts so much time and effort into running the Feis Ile.  We wish you all the best!

The dates for Feis Ile 2023 are Friday 26th May to Saturday 3rd June.