Fèis Ìsle: The Mother of All Whisky Festivals

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Fèis Ìsle: The Mother of All Whisky Festivals

June Outturn 2024 Feature Article

 

If you’ve been immersing yourself in the Scotch whisky world for a while, you’ll likely have encountered two strange words: Fèis Ìsle. No, it’s not a small island or peninsula off the mythical coast of Fèis. Pronounced “faysh eel” (although some locals add an extra syllable and pronounce it “faysh eel-eh”), it’s Gaelic for Islay Festival, and it’s a celebration of music and whisky held each year on the Isle of Islay.

 

Yes, Islay is that island off the west coast of Scotland that is renowned chiefly for where heavily peated, smoky whisky is made. Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg are perhaps the best-known distilleries/ brands, but that’s not to take anything away from the likes of Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich (producer of Port Charlotte and Octomore), and Kilchoman. There’s also a new kid on the block with Ardnahoe these days and, of course, Port Ellen has just been resurrected after being a silent and largely demolished distillery for four decades.

The first Fèis Ìsle was held back in 1986, originally conceived and delivered to accent the Islay summer season for tourists. It was primarily a music and island culture festival that combined community events such as walks, history talks, slideshows, a Ceilidh or two (a Ceilidh is a traditional Scottish barn dance), and other such elements. Whisky played only an extremely small role in the early festivals (there was just a single tasting event held in the first year!), noting that 1986 was the peak of the industry’s horrific downturn and crash in the 1980s, and also that whisky tourism — as we know it today — was largely non-existent. (Well, at least on Scotland’s islands — in the mid-1980s, you could count on one hand the number of distilleries across all of Scotland that had a visitor centre).

The early years of the festival were all about the island and its community. The townships competed for Best Dressed Village; there were decorated floats, stalls, small drama productions, workshops, concerts in the evenings, and even a Carnival Queen from four of the parishes!

The whisky aspect of the festival didn’t really kick in until 2000, and within just a few short years the event had already caught the attraction of the early online whisky appreciation groups and was gathering acclaim. So much so, that I actually booked flights to attend Fèis Ìsle in 2004. (Although I tragically had to cancel after we experienced significant delays and construction dramas whilst building our home. I eventually got to my first Fèis Ìsle on my second visit to Islay in 2009).

In more recent years, the whisky component of the festival has settled into a familiar groove and format.

The festival now runs for nine days, and each of the distilleries has an open day in the programme. Each distillery “opens its doors” on its assigned day, hosts special celebrations, tours, and music performances on its grounds, holds a large-scale tasting, and also releases its annual Festival Bottling. Such bottlings often sell out on the day, and it was not uncommon to see lines with hundreds of hopeful people spilling out the door and into the street queuing up to grab their bottle at each of the distilleries. Unfortunately, with demand for the festival release bottlings so high, a more unscrupulous side of the whisky community took to “flipping” their bottles just a week or two later (sometimes even within 24 hours!) at heavily inflated prices. Thankfully, the distilleries have addressed this in recent years, now planning and catering more for the expected demand on the day, and also limiting the number of bottles that an individual can purchase.

It would not be unfair to say that the whisky component of the festival now dominates its theme and programme. Well, certainly when you look at the influx of visitors — the vast majority of people flocking to the island for the festival are indeed whisky enthusiasts, and the population of the island is said to triple during the Fèis. (That’s roughly 6,000 visitors to an island that generally has about 3,000 inhabitants). Not surprisingly, the available accommodation is at an absolute premium, and plenty of Fèis attendees resort to pitching a tent and camping for their time on the island. If you’re planning on attending Fèis Ìsle one year, it’s wise to lock in your accommodation and transport to the island first before securing anything else! While additional sailings are put on by the ferry company, you still hear horror stories of people struggling to actually get onto the island. (It’s a two-hour ferry crossing so, no, swimming there is not an option!)

My Fèis experience in 2014 was particularly memorable. I’d flown direct into Glasgow from the 9:00pm flight out of Sydney (a 24-hour journey with a two-hour layover in Dubai), hired a car from the airport, drove straight to Kennacraig (roughly a three-hour drive), caught the 6:00pm ferry to Islay (a two-hour crossing), drove off the ferry just after 8:00pm, and headed straight to a small cottage outside of Bowmore where I met up with friend and SMWS International Ambassador, John McCheyne. We then chatted and drammed into the night. I eventually collapsed around 1:00am, having had about six hours’ sleep in the preceding 52 hours! (Nine hours later at 10:00am, I was on the ferry for a day trip to Jura before returning to Islay that afternoon).

Normally, such a journey and the jet lag would destroy you, but the scent of the peat-filled air around Bowmore is a tremendous restorative! With the roaring success that the festival has become, it’s not surprising that other whisky regions have adopted and adapted their own versions of it; the Spirit of Speyside festival and the Campbeltown Malts Festival being two examples. Indeed, the Campbeltown Malts Festival is held on the days immediately preceding Fèis Ìsle, in order to capture the market, noting that Campbeltown is just a 40-minute drive south of where the ferry crossing to Islay departs from.

Feis Ile 2022, SMWS. Open day, Islay House

 

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Islay six times now. In addition to my Fèis visits, our SMWS Ultimate Whisky Tour to Scotland tours which I led were always timed to get to Islay in the week immediately after the Fèis, when the vibe was still strong. Needless to say, the mood and atmosphere on the island are special, and it’s a difficult experience to accurately describe in words. I once heard someone describe it as the whisky equivalent of Woodstock, which I wouldn’t fully agree with, but there’s certainly a sense of kinship and camaraderie in the air as whisky lovers from around the globe gather and share in their mutual appreciation of malt. Total strangers are suddenly your best friends, and there is a generosity of spirit (literally!) about the place. From the distillery days and tastings, to the gatherings, to the Ceilidhs, and to the musical performances, it is certainly a celebration and a magical time.

This year’s Fèis starts on the 24th of May and finishes on the 1st of June. If you’ve received this Outturn and you’re reading it during these nine days, be sure to pour yourself a Society dram from Islay and join in the celebration. As a matter of fact, I’m sipping on a delightful dram of 10.241 as I type this, and will likely crack open an old 33 on June 1st, which is Ardbeg Day.

 

This article is featured in June 2024 Outturn — bottles will be available to purchase on Friday the 7th of June at midday AEST exclusively to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Not a member? Click here to learn more about the world’s most colourful whisky club.

2024-05-30T13:19:28+10:00

About the Author:

Andrew is a Director of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia, and is also its Cellarmaster and its State Manager for NSW, roles he's held since 2005. He describes himself as a whisky presenter, host, educator, taster, and writer!

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