Having been lucky enough to visit the beautiful island of Islay some years ago, I was very excited to be going back, however this time would prove to be a very different experience. My first experience of Islay was spent celebrating a special family birthday and although already enjoying a scotch or two on any given evening out in London (where I lived at the time), I believe it was here that my passion for scotch malt whisky was truly ignited.
Islay is a small Island off the southern west coast of Scotland. As a girl whose heart has always been captured by the west coast of Scotland and having spent many happy holidays and outings around the west coast throughout the course of my life, Islay quite simply encapsulates everything I love about this magical part of Scotland. The undulating and rugged terrain, the wide open moors and hills, rocky cliffs and white sands on, what are arguably, some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Birds of prey of many varieties, deer, livestock and all sorts of sea life thrive in this mostly peaceful, fertile and unspoilt haven. As with most of the west coast, the landscape is defined by its prehistoric beginnings and has continued to be shaped across the centuries by the sheer force of the Atlantic weather systems, which it is always exposed to, and by those who have inhabited it.
It’s that landscape that provides the backdrop for some of the best whisky in the world and what has now come to define Islay. With 8 distilleries across this small island, Islay provides the perfect place of pilgrimage for the Scotch whisky enthusiast. This time I was one once again one of those pilgrims having been invited by some friends working in the industry to join them for the latter part of their week-long stay for Feis Ile, the annual week-long festival which is held at the end of May on Islay.
Feis Ile provides a special opportunity for whisky fans the world over to congregate and pay homage to some of the best spirits around and to celebrate all things whisky with like-minded souls.
My first visit was to Kilchoman, the youngest of the distilleries on the Island and celebrating its 10th anniversary. As a small family-run distillery and the first to be built in over 124 years, the distillery has a very warm and intimate feel about it and the open-day party very much reflected this. With local pipe bands, music and home cooking and baking, this added to the delight of the drams on the day, including the Feis Ile 2015 Festival bottling and the 10th Anniversary bottling. It was then onto the lovely Machir bay nearby, which really defines Kilchoman and which the distillery, not surprisingly, have a young whisky named after. It is quite simply one of the most beautiful beaches on the island, looking out to the wide open and Atlantic Ocean. In that way the distillery almost defines the outward looking modern Scotch Malt Whisky industry with a very global perspective. It was this global aspect which really came to define the festival.
My second day involved a visit to the very remote Bunnahabhain, which sits right on the coast on the north east of the Island, and probably hosts one of the most picturesque views of all the distilleries, looking across to the beautiful Paps of Jura from the pier at Bunnahabhain. There was lots going on with some great food on the day and it was lovely to wash down some local oysters with a few drams, followed by some of the freshest langoustines you can get. With a sun-drenched view added, if still a little on the chilly side for May, simply put, it really doesn’t get better than this!
As well as the Festival bottling and special bottlings, there was also an opportunity to do your own small bottling with some lovely whiskies on the day, something which added a special personal touch to a very memorable visit.
The festival ended with the Ardbeg open day on the Saturday and provided a great day to remember and a very special celebration. Celebrating it’s 200th year anniversary, during the same year as it’s highly revered neighbour, Laphroaig, this was a party to end the week-long festivities. As one of the island’s most luxurious whiskies, with a true cult following, this was very much reflected on the day, with a brilliant open-air masterclass from the Distillery Manager, Michael ‘Mickey’ Heads and the chance to try the distillery’s festival bottling, Perpetuum and their very special 200th year anniversary bottling, 1815.
For whisky enthusiasts, this is one festival which should be visited at some point in life. Each visit to the various distilleries truly defined the global nature of the industry, meeting people from all over the world and enjoying the true camaraderie that whisky offers. It’s a festival which enables friends, fans and enthusiasts of the various distilleries to visit the island at this special time, to celebrate this beautifully crafted spirit and mingle with enthusiasts from across the world to pay homage to the special things in life. For a whisky lover, surely there is nothing better!
Glasgow-based Louise Dougan is an Official Ambassador to The Whisky Club