May Outturn 2023 Article
In previous May Outturns from years gone by, also featuring our festival casks, I’ve had the opportunity to talk of my Feis Ile and festival experiences. Wild rides around Islay, strange visitors to the bothy, mile-long lines to score the special bottlings (many of which are included in the following pages) and hosting amazing tastings at Islay House. This intro will be a bit different. If you want to catch any of those stories from earlier festival iterations, you can spot them on our WhiskyWise blog online. This issue I want to touch on what the festival releases represent, how they come about, and the wider implications of such releases.
The Feis Ile/festival releases from both the distilleries directly and the rare releases from the SMWS are a representation of the regions in Scotch whisky, and a celebration of the malt & music that comes from these regions. It’s a moment to drill into the regions that find their unique identities through their whisky production. Years ago, I used to say whisky regionality was becoming increasingly irrelevant, especially with the Highlands producing peated whisky, and Islay producing unpeated malts from time to time. What use is there in celebrating a style of the region if that style is increasingly so diverse? I think I may have that wrong. The celebration isn’t about just the style, or the peating levels. It’s about the diversity of flavour, the people that make this wondrous spirit, and the growth of Scotch whisky as a whole.
As a result, one of the most fascinating aspects of watching the Feis Ile and other regions have their festivals each May has been the change in growth of regionality in this equation. This year, for instance, we are celebrating a very special release from a Lowland distillery that is not only a new code for the Society, but also an entirely custom mashbill built from the ground up by our team. A start-to-finish experiment in what a corn-based grain whisky does with this level of cask treatment. Almost like what a bourbon would taste like if Scotland made it instead of the Americans. That’s not very “Lowland” in style, nor very fusty Chesterfield, nor very pipe and granddad. This is the new realm of Scotch whisky showing its face and I have to admit, this is VERY exciting. The regions are changing. The interest in each region still ebbs and flows, but this polarity between what’s happening with the old realm of trusted names and the new realm of innovators in malt is an exciting time to be alive to taste what’s happening here.
So on to how this month’s scarce festival releases come about. Euan, Kai, Julien & Ed in our spirits team are wholly responsible for the planning and execution of these rare releases and single casks. They are that nice mixture of perfect representations of each region, and new expressions to challenge and excite what’s happening in this space. They are at the forefront of what’s happening in each region, and while scarce, open our palates up to the opportunities and tastes of what’s being celebrated with parties around Scotland for May, and I’m super excited that we get to share these releases with you at the EXACT same time as release in the UK. I won’t bore you with logistics, but that’s no easy feat. You’ve effectively skipped the freezing, cold, mile-long queue on Islay to get your hands on these by being a loyal member of team Australia branch!
The last point I wanted to touch on was to ask how does this work for the rest of the world? Andrew’s written a great piece in this Outturn about the whisky boom, the new wave of craft distilleries showing up, and that’s not just limited to Scotland either. With over 600 distilleries in operation in Australia now (100+ of which have whisky on market, or plan to), how long until there’s a proper sense of regionality in Australian whisky? Surely it’s a matter of when, not if. If even Champagne can have micro-regionality of sparkling wine within that already small region, Aussie whisky will eventually as well. The most pressing question will be what value or utility does that have to the end drinker of that, if at all. Fun times ahead.
Read on, enjoy the festival experiences and casks on offer, and see you around all the action this month!
This article is featured in May 2023 Outturn — bottles will be available to purchase on Friday the 5th of May 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.