What you should know:
- Fèis Ìle (pronounced 'feish eel')- is one of the biggest annual whisky events that all whisky lovers who love peat should know (essentially an age-appropriate Coachella festival for those above 30)
- Every year, Islay distilleries release hotly-anticipated limited edition expressions to commemorate the Fèis
- These limited bottles are known to be high-quality, consistently praised by veteran critics and highly sought after
- Over the years we have seen a number of good Fèis Ìle expressions from especially Bunnahabain, Caol Ila and even SMWS (Scotch Malt Whisky Society)
- Let's look into the exciting 2021 Fèis Ìle line up!
The festival at Ardbeg Distillery (Image Source: Visit Britain)
The Islay Festival that every whisky fan should know
The Scottish Isle of Islay has a modest population of three thousand people. Each and every month of May since 1984, all eyes in the Scotch whisky world fall on the Isle where the Islay distilleries come together and welcome close to 10,000 screaming visitors for a week-long festival where single malt and music is enjoyed.
The Islay Festival of Music & Malt – or in Fèis Ìle (pronounced 'feish eel')- is one of the biggest annual whisky events of epic proportions. For over a week, whisky lovers at the Isle enjoy live music, whisky tasting and cocktail masterclasses, distillery visits, dancing and dining.
This is essentially the Coachella festival for whisky-lovers, and it’s a little more age-appropriate as you approach your thirties.
(Image Source: The 13 Dogs you’ll meet at Coachella (Bark Post))
As visitors fill up, the isle’s beautiful beaches become adorned with tents and caravans. Each distillery prepares a schedule of masterclasses featuring exclusive whiskies, exciting line-up of live music, distillery tours and, for the adventurous, cave exploration or powerboat trips along the isle’s coastline. All this extra-curricular cultural activities aside, the one thing that brings the whisky world to the isle for an entire week is a shared love of Islay whisky.
Annual Fèis Ìle special edition bottles
Above all, the most anticipated item is the release of highly prized limited edition the bottles by each Islay distillery (and independent bottlers too) to commemorate the Feis. These special festival bottles are known to be high quality and consistently praised by veteran critics.
These limited edition expressions are so highly sought after that hours-long queues have formed outside the Bowmore and Bunnahabhain Distilleries for instance, with many people camped out overnight to be the first in line to buy the Fèis Ìle edition bottles in the morning.
And because not everyone can make it to the festival, past Fèis Ìle bottles have become highly coveted collectibles when released in the secondary market. Each bottle’s price tends to double or quadruple after the festival.
What sort of bottles can we expect? We shall explore below a couple of very interesting and enjoyable past bottlings which have been extremely well-received.
The first is the Bunnahabhain 1988 Champagne Cask Finish from the 2019 Fèis Ìle.
During the 2019 festival, Bunnahabain fanatics camped out overnight to get hold of one of only 120 bottles of this stuff which was finished in “Champagne” casks. This bottle is richer and sweeter than the Islay whisky, with no peat at all. The “Champagne” finish lends to it a refreshing green apple, citrus and lemon tart character, supported by caramel and candie fruits.
(Trivia: Bunnahabain received an admonishment from the Scotch Whisky Association for calling this a “Champagne” cask finish expression. Shortly after the 2019 festival, it transpired that the casks used for finishing the whisky was not Champagne casks, but used to store white wine that would later be used to make Champagne. This did not appear to bother whisky lovers nonetheless, who gave this bottle a very positive rating.)
Another lovely prior festival bottle is the sherry-matured Caol Ila 22 Year Old 2019 Fèis Ìle edition.
This expression was released at a very affordable price of around $220 with 3000 bottles. Matured for 22 years in sherry-seasoned American oak, this one is a whirlpool of cherries, roasted walnuts, maple syrup and peat. Complex and well balanced with the right amount of sweetness and peatiness, this one was also a hit with many veteran critics.
2021 Fèis Ìle bottles
What’s next for 2021? This year is the Festival’s 36th iteration, and in spite of lockdowns we expect the demand for Fèis bottles to continue to be hotter than it has ever been. Although the UK is still battling Covid-19, the 2021 Fèis Ìle event would go on online and we see that an exciting range of bottles are slated for release.
The first is Ardbeg’s new “Scorch” expression, which highlights the use of Ardbeg’s most heavily-charred bourbon casks to mature their whisky, imparting to it a palate of sweet smoke, grilled meats, black liquorice and medicinal lozenges.
Lagavulin 13 Year Old Port Cask
Lagavulin would be offering a 13 Year Old expression that is matured in ex-bourbon American Oak (the distillery's classic style), and then finished in high-char Port seasoned casks. One would expect this to be a little sweeter and drier with more dried fruit character due to the port finish. The charred barrel might also help to remove sharpness from the spirit and make it smoother than the usual Lagavulin.
Bruichladdich Laddie Origins & 17 Year Old Single Cask
Bruichladdich Distillery has come up with an unpeated Bruichladdich expression that looks either really ambitious, or quite frankly a little bit excessive. The Bruichladdich Laddie Origins celebrates the 20th anniversary of Bruichladdich's resurrection, and is intended to bring together different milestones and characteristic elements to demonstrate Bruichladdich's style.
The first interesting element is the fact that this is the first triple-distilled expression from this distillery. Triple-distilled expressions are unusual for most Scottish distilleries, and tends to make the resulting whisky very delicate, light-bodied and bright. The distillery also touts the fact that the barley used are "biodynamically" grown in the Islay region. Biodynamic agriculture is essentially is very similar to organic farming.
All of this is then matured in a huge variety of 7-8 different cask types: first-fill bourbon, genuine sherry, French white wine, French sweet red wine, Sauternes, cognac and Pauillac red wine. It would be tough to imagine and interesting to see how this would taste like, although wine casks are a classic specialty for Bruichladdich.
Another release from Bruichladdich which is likely to receive overwhelming attention is the Bruichladdich 17 Years Old Fèis Ìle 2021 Single Cask. This one has been matured for a full 17 years in 2nd-fill sherry casks, which is incredibly rare a style for Bruichladdich. Did I also mention how expensive sherry casks are? This also comes in at a very punch 59.2% ABV.
Caol Ila 12 Year Old Moscatel Finish
Laphroaig Càirdeas 2021 Pedro Ximenez Casks
Pronounced a bit like "care chase", the Càirdeas series from Laphroaig is released at Fèis Ìle every year, the time when the distillery gets more friends visiting than at any other time of year. Not coincidentally, Càirdeas is Gaelic for "friendship".
Laphroaig does not often come in sherried expressions, so this one would be an interesting exploration as it has been matured in ex-bourbon casks and European oak Pedro Ximenez sherry casks.
Bowmore 18 & 23 Years Old
Bowmore would be releasing two limited edition bottlings. The first is an 18 Year Old and matured exclusively in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks. The second is a vintage 23 Year Old matured in a first-fill ex-bourbon single cask.
This appears pretty straightforward- the use of first-fill casks would transmute full flavour that should be well-balanced by Bowmore's rich bodied and smoke-heavy distillery character.
Funnily enough, the official product images show bottles labelled for Feis Ile 2020. So this was probably bottled by Bowmore before COVID-19 broke out, and it did not join other distilleries in releasing their festival bottling online in 2020. We will let this one slide, Bowmore!
Kilchoman Feis Ile
Kilchoman is releasing a moderately peated (20 ppm) expression which was 55% bourbon-matured and 45% sherry-matured. The distillery also boasts that this is a single-farm origin expression- where all of its barley were harvested within the a single farm to exude its terroir.
Bunnahabhain Mòine Bordeaux & Marsala
Bunnahabhain would be releasing two limited edition bottlings. The first is a 7 Year Old moderately peated expression finished in Bordeaux wine casks. As you may know, Bunnahabhain is one of the least Islay-like Islay distillery because it does not usually release heavily peated expressions. However, their Mòine series is really a showcase of Bunnahabhain with a characteristically Islay-esque helping of peat. Although Bunnahabhain tends to produce unpeated malts, they have more than enough practice putting together peated expressions - here's the proof! It would be interesting to see how the dryness and earthiness of the Bordeaux wine would interact with the smokiness of this one.
The second is a much older 19 Year Old finished in ex-Marsala casks. Marsala is a type of Italian fortified wine much like sherry, but has a thicker mouthfeel with greater complexity and heavier spices. This would be somewhat consistent with the distillery's classic style of making ex-sherry finished whiskies.
Jura Feis Ile
Like the Bruichladdich 17 Years Old mentioned above, this is also likely to receive lots of attention. This one has been matured for a full 18 years in "genuine" ex-sherry casks from the Spanish city of Jerez. That would have been more expensive than usual for the distillery. Sherry cask-maturation is also a pretty rare style for Jura.
SMWS Smoky Maritime Hit & Madame Butterfly
Two new releases would come from SMWS (Scotch Malt Whisky Society) which, although they were not given the rights to use the Fèis Ìle trade mark, have still participated in the event annually. Nothing much is so far disclosed about these bottles, except for their age and origin distilleries. However we can venture an intelligent guess from the distinctive label art.
Let’s try to solve these riddles.
The first is a “Smoky Maritime Hit”- Distillery 10 Small Batch Release (Bunnahabhain, 7 Year Old, 59.6%, 932 bottles) with a label showing a red lobster with a bandaged arm (if I may call a lobster’s pincer an arm) and holding a cup of espresso in the other arm.
Considering the lobster, an intelligent guess would be that this is another smoky Bunnahabhain release with briny maritime character, medicinal notes (the bandages), and earthy notes (the espresso).
The second is “Madame Butterfly in the Garden of Eden”- Society Cask No. 3.316 (Bowmore, 16 Year Old, 56.2%, 178 bottles) with a label showing an elegantly-dressed Asian woman beside an apple and a serpent’s tail curled around the fruit – invoking a strong biblical reference.
This is a little harder to solve, but my guess is that this Bowmore has a lot of sweetness, fruitiness and a flavour elements evocative of Asian or Japanese food. With the reference to the Garden of Eden and concept of forbidden fruit, we can begin to imagine that this one has lots of fruitiness. The image of an apple might lead some to think that it should be an appley whisky – but from my very brief period of time in Sunday school and reading of medieval art history, my take is that the apple was simply just a generic symbol for an enticing forbidden fruit. What of the “Madame Butterfly” and the woman in the picture? Madame Butterfly is a Japanese character in a novel of the same name, and I would hazard a very lazy guess that perhaps this Bowmore would be reminiscent of Asian or Japanese food.
What do you think of my interpretation?