Islay Whisky Festival: Islays not all about smoke

The view from Jura. Picture: Darroch Ramsay
The view from Jura. Picture: Darroch Ramsay
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HAND somebody an Islay Whisky and chances are they’ll know they are getting an Islay before the liquid hits the glass; famously known for its characteristic strong, smoky, medicinal flavours, Islays are the Marmite of the whisky world.

Ironically now the world’s most valuable region of whisky production - both bottlings and casks demand higher price than any other whisky globally - certain long serving distillery managers on the Islay still tell stories of bottles being sent back to the distillery in the 1980s citing consumers that thought they had purchased a “faulty” bottle. Quite a dramatic change in such a short time.

The Jura distillery. Picture: Darroch Ramsay

The Jura distillery. Picture: Darroch Ramsay

It’s perhaps not co-incidental that 1986 saw the start of the Islay Music and Malt festival, or the Feis Ile as it known locally. Founded by locals to celebrate the heritage and culture of Isle of Islay and held throughout the last week or so of May; the festival has grown from a few hundred visitors enjoying the local music and a few drams to a full blown annual shindig attracting thousands of pilgrims from around the globe, with each of the distilleries having an open day and giving visitors the chance to enjoy the celebrations and perhaps (if they manage to get there early enough) purchase a festival bottling - as you can imagine much of the attraction for heading to each of the distillery days!

With such big hitting names involved at the festival, here’s a couple of the highlights from this year’s festivities...

Jura Single Malt Whisky - Feis Ile Distillery Bottling 52.4% - £80.00

Despite being a separate Island to the north of Islay, Jura is very much part of the Feis Ile celebrations. Perhaps this isn’t quite strictly true. The Jura distillery, much like the ones on Islay, has always offered visitors the chance to visit and enjoy its own festivities, but due to additional ferry rides over to the Island and now the fact that it clashes with another distillery day, it has often been seen as the poor relation.

This ridiculous attitude, considering the ferry is less than a couple of quid and four minutes over, was well and truly put to shame this year as the distillery celebrated its 50th anniversary; offering visitors three tours including one from ‘The Nose’ himself Richard Paterson, and the chance to try some of the finest whiskies in store.

In particular, a special 1977 cask aged just shy of 40 years and finished in a Amoroso sherry was probably worth the £20 tour ticket alone and you can expect a bit of excitement when it goes to market early next year. You can expect it to cost a few thousand pounds a bottle. Easy.

Unlike many of the distilleries who focus their energy in the commercial opportunities around the Feis Ile, Jura produced a day that was about giving visitors the chance to engage with the most important individuals and elements within the distillery, show casing what makes Jura special - certainly something to be commended on. This year’s festival bottling was a triple cask bottling that cutely included some whisky from a cask from 1963, the year the distillery was reopened. Elegant and refined, with a smooth smokiness, water really opens up the whisky creating a lovely bit ole’ fruit and spice. Planning a trip to Islay? Make sure you head to Jura.

Bunnahabhain Single Malt Whisky – Sgeul Na Mara - 10 yrs old- Feis Ile Bottling – 60.1 % – £85.00

Another distillery that perhaps suffers for “being out of the road” is Bunnahabhain. Unlike almost all the other distilleries on Islay, Bunnahabhain prides itself on being the gentle taste of the island - Islay unadulterated perhaps. A distillery only yards from the sea, the majority of the whisky produced is aged in sherry casks, with a rich, salty, sweetness being the synonymous characteristics of the end result. The 18 year old is a particular favourite - something I may have mentioned in a piece last year.

This year’s festival day was all about giving visitors a taste of Islay and having a bit of fun; offering locally caught scallops and homemade burgers washed down with a dram or even Bunnahabhain Raspberry Slush Puppie was topped off with some music from the excellent Skerryvore. The day had a very much community feel, with many locals selling local produce and a few of the distillery stillmen taking visitors on tours; all in all a great day that felt like one big party celebrating the distillery - certainly how it should be.

This year’s festival bottling Sgeul Na Mara, Gaelic for ‘Tales of the Sea’, is a big punchy whisky full of notes of liquorice and almonds on the nose with the rich sweetness of dark cherries and hint of saltiness you would come to expect from Bunnahabain on the palate.

Deanston distillery

If the sound of the above festivities sounds appealing, The Deanston distillery near Doon in Stirling is putting on its first ever distillery open day on June the 29th. Details are patchy currently but there will be a festival bottle, master classes and tours plus a screening of Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Share. Sounds like a cracking day already.