Whisky is a key part of Fèis Ìle, an annual celebration of Gaelic history, poetry, song and dance.
Looking back on my first Fèis Ìle, I think two things in particular surprised me: the funnels; and the abundant sunshine. For anyone who visited the festival this year, the latter – barring one damp, midgy afternoon on Jura – needs no explanation. We’ll get to the funnels later.
Even Jura had its moment in the sun. The decision to split its distillery day in two paid off with a glorious Wednesday. Everywhere else, from the exuberant birthday celebrations at Lagavulin to the practically tropical Ardbeg Night shindig a week later, had no reason to complain. ‘You should have been here last year,’ said one veteran Fèisophile with a sad shake of the head. ‘Hideous. Absolutely hideous.’
Every distillery does it slightly differently during Fèis. As ever, there were queues, most notably at Bowmore, where the fervour to get hold of this year’s bottlings had the dizzy air of the January sales or the first day at Wimbledon. Manager David Turner left the distillery on Tuesday night at about 9.45pm, to be greeted by a dozen hardened Bowmore groupies, desperate to get their hands on one of the 200 Vintage Edition bottles the following morning.
Others played it differently; there were queues at Lagavulin and Kilchoman, sure, but there were also sufficient quantities of whisky available to satisfy everyone (I think). Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain put their Fèis bottlings up for sale on the Monday; Ardbeg’s and Jura’s will also be sold more widely afterwards.
There’s a debate to be had here: at one end of the spectrum, the desire to give festival-goers something special and exclusive – but what if you end up disappointing hundreds, who queue for hours only to come away with a bottling from the core range, a fridge magnet and a baseball cap?
On the other hand, why bother to come all the way to Islay to snag that Fèis bottling if you can order it off the internet a few days later? Somewhere between these two poles, a happy medium must exist.
Night and day: Ardbeg’s open day was perhaps the most inventive and original
There were one or two other gripes among the dedicated festival-goers. While some distilleries made a clear effort to innovate and offer new attractions and activities to keep things fresh for long-time visitors – Ardbeg being perhaps the most shining example – others stuck to the same formula as before. There’s a fine line between ‘tried and tested’ and tedium.
Contrast this feeling with the buzz surrounding this year’s Spirit of Speyside festival, where visitors were spoilt for choice, with hundreds more events taking place in a much shorter period than the Fèis. Is it just that more distilleries = greater competition = more creativity and dynamism?
Accommodation is another issue. Of course Ileach business owners want to make the most of their busiest week of the year, but when the punters decide that hiring a camper van is a cheaper and better option than taking a room, something’s gone slightly awry. Reports of vacancies and cancellations reinforce the point, as does the sight of mobile homes trying to edge past each other on the narrow roads to Kilchoman or Bunnahabhain.
At the end of what was almost entirely a joyous and sun-filled week, these might sound like ungracious quibbles, but an event like Fèis has to keep asking itself difficult and searching questions to become even better than before, and to keep those utterly passionate whisky nuts flocking to this small island from all over the world.
And the funnels? I first spotted them at Jura, then they resurfaced at Bunnahabhain when, as a masterclass concluded, the two people either side of me surreptitiously decanted the remains of their cask samples into sample bottles (always best to use a funnel when you’ve had a few drams), carefully inscribing them with a handy marker pen.
Beyond recalling Islay's proud smuggling heritage, it also prompted me to wonder what will become of these whiskies. Retasted later, at leisure? Or taken home to Germany, Finland and South Africa, to be squirrelled away and then dug out again at some future date – Islay malt's bootleg tapes?
Either way, it illustrates the kind of near-obsessive fascination that this annual whisky extravaganza inspires. Only at Fèis…
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Our festival special ends with Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Jura, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.
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Away from the distillery days, Fèis offers an array of tastings, masterclasses and charity events.