A complicated trek to Islay reiterates what the whisky festival is all about to Dave Broom.
1. Whisky drinkers are changing
A criticism levelled at the Fèis some years back was that it was becoming too much of a club. The same people would turn up every year and, as accommodation was limited, there was little room for newcomers. That appears to have changed significantly.
Not only are there more hotels, but the number of tents and camper vans made some pitches look like mini-Glastonburys. While it is always great to hook up with old friends, there is plenty of evidence that there is a new whisky drinker (younger, more women) out there, making the effort to get to Islay and that the Fèis is beginning to adapt to this shift in the demographic.
2. The transformation of the ‘whisky tasting’
There will always be space for the established format of a person talking about six (or seven) drams, but there was plenty of evidence that new possibilities are now being trialled. Having food with the whisky was pretty much standard; there were excellent street food stalls at every event, while Martine Nouet pushed things further with her pop-up restaurant.
There was whisky and music, the innovative Whisky 101 at Jura’s Tastival, and a greater presence of cocktails and Highballs – seeing the Smoky Cokey on draught was a personal thrill, while Alessandro Palazzi’s Negroni Torbato (Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition, Cynar and Aperol) is a potential new classic.
It showed a desire to engage with this new whisky community, and a willingness to see whisky as something which should be aligned with people’s wider lives. Innovative and, yes, fun.
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Not the dolphins, which didn’t appear (as far as I know). The question was asked – inevitably online by someone who wasn’t there (and answered by people who weren’t there) – as to whether Fèis had lost its mojo and was now just an event for buying bottles.
Well, while there were queues – Bowmore won that battle, with Bruichladdich a close second – I didn’t spot any great obsessive collecting taking place. Perhaps the wise decision to have larger runs (Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig) has changed the mindset of the attendee.
Bowmore might think of having a maximum two bottles per person purchase, though. While the sight of auction vans cruising the roads looking for people willing to do an immediate flip was saddening, what I found was a willingness to share rare drams – not hoard them.
4. Whisky diffusion lines
As well as the usual T-shirts/polo shirts, fleeces, waterproofs and bunnets, the appearance of distillery-branded underpants seemed a somewhat quixotic decision – until plane-loads of folk without luggage arrived in need of such essentials, only to discover that Kilchoman was the sole place to buy underwear.
Is this the start of pants wars? Why only men’s? Is there an opportunity for the Lagavulin Ladies range, the Ardbeg Intimates? Laphroaig Foundations? Laddies and Ladies? (I’ve copyrighted all of these, by the way.)
It was also a lesson for those who hadn’t stayed on the island for a period of time, that what is considered commonplace on the mainland might not be quite as easily obtainable here. You need to plan in advance on Islay and to operate with a different mindset – and that goes as much for the whisky as for underwear.
5. Fèis Fringe?
There were so many events that sometimes it was hard to work out exactly what was going on and where. While the Fèis hasn’t become quite as crazy as Spirit of Speyside, the distances between events can be considerable (see number six); buses don’t run 24 hours a day, taxi fares are steep and designated drivers get understandably grumpy.
It would be good to get the fringe side (whether it’s ancillary distillery events or non-official happenings) quasi-organised with a central information point. If only there was a generic whisky website which might be able to help with that. If you know of one – oh, hang on…
6. Difficult decisions
There was considerable buzz around the arrival of Ardnahoe, with buses ferrying people to look at the site. What’s going to happen next year in terms of schedule, when the distillery is open? It would be logical for them to share the day with Bunnahabhain, though that’s by no means guaranteed, given the fact that Kilchoman and Jura – the two distilleries which are furthest away from each other (25 miles plus a ferry trip) – share their open days. It leaves people with an either/or decision. Surely Jura and Caol Ila makes more sense?
Global gathering: Festival-goers old and new, and from around the world, are welcome on Islay
7. Engaging with a deeper Islay
We had foraged cocktails – admittedly for gin (and, come to think of it, with The Botanist and now gins from Jura and Colonsay, who knows what next year might bring?) – but also walks and talks, which opened up the island.
The distilleries have long been running behind-the-scenes tours, giving visitors access to the parts of a distillery you don’t normally see – the opening of the maltings is a great example of this as well – but engaging with landscape, water and nature is a significant part of the development of Islay’s whiskies. If distilleries are now talking terroir, then they also need to find ways to show what it means. It seems to be happening.
8. Suited and booted
Adam Hannett rocks a three-piece suit. A strange thing to say? Well, generally speaking you're more likely to spot a corncrake than a suit on Islay – there’s no need on a working island for such formal apparel, but Adam’s light blue number had the ladies swooning, and nods of approval from (some) chaps in the audience.
The days of compulsory kilt-wearing are long gone. The suit says the guard has changed, we’re serious, smart players; and, while Islay might be remote, don’t treat us like ignorant islanders. We’re setting the rules.
9. Community engagement
Bruichladdich and Ardbeg are the big days in terms of locals being able to join in with the Fèis properly (they have to work during the week) but, as ever, Islay’s hospitality shone. I heard of stranded people getting lifts in police cars, while in every pub which I went into (all in the way of research) I saw locals chatting with incomers, sometimes to the latter’s surprise.
Advice would be offered, stories told, recommendations given, deep whisky talk entered into. If you want to get an idea of what the Fèis is really about, you can’t stay in your own little group, but get out there and chat. This is a community festival, after all.
10. Plan ahead…
…and have a Plan B in case of transport issues. Start it now. There’s only 51 weeks to go until the next one.
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Festival part two, including Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Jura, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.
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The first half of this year’s festival bottlings, featuring Ardbeg, Bowmore and Bruichladdich.
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A special ballot will decide who can buy the 24-year-old birthday bottling, priced at £1,494.