Feis Ile 2013

As you may have noticed from the flurry of whisky posts, the end of May saw Feis Ile, the music and whisky festival on the sparkling Hebridean island of Islay. A small island with eight distilleries squeezed onto it, all flinging their doors open and welcoming the hoards inside.

Barrels Behind Bars

I blogged each open day as I went along, as close to 'live blogging' as the whisky (and the less than ideal mobile signal) allowed. Now I'm back home, it's easier to fit more than one picture to a post!


It is fitting that the first distillery open day of Feis Ile 2013, the whisky and music festival on the beautiful island of Islay, is Lagavulin. We arrived on Saturday and headed there before we even got to the cottage we were staying in.

Lagavulin Distillery

As I've mentioned before Lagavulin formed my introduction to the world of whisky, and holds a special place in my heart. It's also classically Islay; big, powerful peat flavours, rich in colour, and insanely drinkable.

Their open day had all the features you'd expect - drams, live music, tasty food. But despite being one of the big boys - owned by Diageo and with a branding that is definitely on the luxury side - the day felt more like a village fete. It was almost beyond understated.

There were a number of special tasting sessions running, which had fully sold out seemingly within seconds of them becoming available, but there was plenty of entertainment to be had for the rest of us too.

Lagavulin Tasting

Two of their core range - the 16 year old and the 2012 Distillers edition - were freely available; a limited view of their range perhaps, but a good choice that contrasts the raw power of the 16 year old with the sweeter, richer and probably more approachable Distillers Edition.

Cocktail sessions were running through the day; whisky cocktails make a whole lot more sense to me than the oh-so-trendy beer cocktail, and I understand the logic of using the best ingredients when making anything but I have to confess that the whisky purist in me couldn't help but feel a little distressed at the prospect of taking the magnificent Distillers Edition and adding stuff to it. I am forced to concede that the results were quite tasty, although I'd rather have it neat myself.

The cocktail session also gave me a chance to try Lagavulin's new make spirit, fresh from the still that morning. I've had new spirit on occasion and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it's not usually a great taste. At Lagavulin, however, it was positively tasty - yes, incredibly strong but with a smoothness that would make many lesser whiskies blush, a wonderful oily texture, sweetness and smoke. I almost wish they sold it.

Just before we left, we bumped into the lovely folk from Master of Malt (who are also here all week) and they kindly gave me a chance to taste the festival bottling. Strong, smokey and delicious, it's like a turbo charged Lagavulin and it's going to make it very hard to decide which whiskies to take home!


Ahh, Bruichladdich! The distillery whose open day really does set the standard for the rest - even the locals will tell you it's the one not to miss - and had the biggest queue I've ever seen in Islay.

Bruichladdich Music

It is also, I believe, the only open day with an entry fee - five pounds gets you into the event and a couple of drams of their Laddie Classic or The Peat Project. Despite this, there always seems to be twice as many people there than at any other distillery.

The crowded courtyard was surrounded by food stalls, dram tasting - both the freebies and the premium tent, with all manner of Bruichladdichs past and present available to try - and even a beer tent from Islay Ales. One entire side of the space was devoted to the HGV trailer stage, from which a stream of excellent bands filled the day with music.

The sky was blue and mostly cloudless, at least at the start of the day, and the sun was warm without being too hot. It was, in short, just about perfect and despite my worry that the higher visitor numbers this year would spoil the atmosphere, the Bruichladdich open day remained one of the best parties.

View From Bruichladdich

The whisky was as excellent as ever. The Laddie Classic reminds me of my beloved and long-lost Waves - sweet and light and perfect for sipping in the sun. The Peat Project is big, bold and classically Islay - smokey and delicious. The festival bottling is something special too, and to be honest if I could just spend a few days working my way across their premium dram bar I would be a happy (if dangerously drunk) man.

In the shop, Bruichladdich were selling off some of their old Valinch stock - one off bottlings going right back to 2001 when the distillery re-opened; whisky that you couldn't usually dream of finding on sale.

It wasn't all perfect, of course. The shop struggled to cope with only one till and one credit card machine, and the queues for food were immense; it took over an hour to get a burger. But it's hard to feel too grumpy when you're stood in a queue, if you're enjoying good music, great whisky and fine friends.

Caol Ila

Caol Ila has one of the prettiest locations in Islay; nestled on the east coast looking out across the Sound of Islay to Jura, even in the full swing of an open day there's a peace and tranquility to the place.

Caol Ila From The Water

The distillery itself is, in parts, beautiful too. The great copper stills sit in a large distillation hall with glass walls, looking out to the ocean - if it weren't for the industrial concrete block they backed onto, it would be a perfect sight.

The More Industrial Side

The open day itself had a lot in common with Lagavulin, perhaps unsurprising given the fact that they're Diageo brothers. They had the heavenly seafood shack that's following us around the island, they had tastings of a couple of their expressions - the 12 year old and the Distillers Edition, again - and if you'd managed to book in time they had more interesting tutored tastings available too.

We were blessed with another wonderful weather day. Islay always seems to be sunny when we're here, or at least it keeps the rain and the wind to the night time. And it was a beautiful way to spend the afternoon, sipping fine whisky - Caol Ila may not be my number one whisky these days, but it's still right up there - enjoying the sunshine and the views, but it felt more like an illicit picnic outside the distillery than an actual event.

Just as whisky is about more than just the taste, distillery open days should be about more than just letting you into the grounds. caol Ila gave us a nice enough afternoon, but we didn't really get to see it's soul.


While I'm sure that the glorious warm sunshine and blue skies in Islay help, I'm starting to suspect that when it comes to picking a location for your new distillery, a beautiful coastal location is right up there with a good water supply and a ready source of peat.

Laphroaig certainly has the location, snuggled on the south coast of the island next to Lagavulin and Ardbeg. Despite moderate crowds - although certainly nothing close to the mobs at Bruichladdich - it managed to feel calm, relaxing and almost tranquil.

As well as the premium tastes (of which, I'm happy to say, more in a later post!) the distillery put on tastings of their core range, including their classic 10 Year Old and a cask strength version, right up to their 18 Year Old.

I hadn't encountered their Triple Wood before, which was like a nicely rounded Laphroaig - smoother and sweeter than the 10 Year Old, as if the different casks it had passed through had given it a more reserved, more mature feel.

This year's Cairdeas was spectacular. Port aged, and looking darker than I think I've ever seen a Laphroaig, it blended the sweetness and fruit of the port perfectly with the dry, smoky character of the distillery and manages to be both complex and tremendously drinkable at the same time. For less than fifty pounds, it's a steal.

Another low key open day, but Laphroaig's soul was very much on show. Relaxing on the shore with friends and a fine dram (or two), you really couldn't ask for much more.


The half way point of the week marks the open day of Bowmore, Islay's capital and home of the oldest official distillery on the island.

Bowmore Flowers

The day was a relatively low key affair, once you fought your way past the enormous queue of folks buying the festival bottling. We didnt stay for the whole day, as we had a hot date with Masters of Malt and a tour booked at Laphroaig, but all the essentials were present - tastings, seafood and a music stage.

The tasting tent was generous to a fault, with the full core range available in frankly huge measures; some of the more expensive expressions cost an extra pound or two on top of the token for a free dram given to each visitor on arrival.

I was already familiar with a lot of the range - the twelve and fifteen year olds are pretty standard stock in my cupboard - but the Small Batch Reserve was something of a revelation; light for a Bowmore, but still with that characteristic fire underneath.

Although it was a nice day, it felt slightly more like a marketing exercise than some of the other distilleries' days; a little more strongly focused on sales. One for a short sweet visit rather than a proper day out.


From the oldest distillery on Islay to the youngest; Kilchoman was founded in 2005, and on our first visit barely a year later they obviously didn't have any whisky for us - they did however have an excellent little cafe with some tasty cake instead.

The Kilchoman Range

Fast forward a few years and the cafe (and cake!) was still there, but I was happy to find that it's now second fiddle to some truly excellent whisky. As a young and small distillery, with just two tiny stills, we half expected the open day to be a low key affair, but despite the small space there was lots going on.

In keeping with the whisky and music theme of Feis Ile, there were a variety of bands and even a traditional pipe band to entertain, and the entire range of their whiskies were available from their bar. In addition, a couple of different tasting experiences were on offer, as well as the usual tours.

The Raw Ingredients

Despite - or perhaps because of - feeling slightly amateur and disorganised at times, it was another day that exposed the soul of the place; warm, welcoming and relaxed.

Unlike most of the other distilleries, there were no free drams to be had, but the bar was reasonably priced and after all, we were really there to enjoy the experience and explore their products, not to look for a free drink!

Not a full-on party like Bruichladdich, but different and magical nonetheless - not unlike the whisky itself.


Another day, another distillery and yes, another picture postcard little bay in glorious sunshine and under blue skies. I'm conscious that I've probably used the words "pretty" and "beautiful" far too often this week, but Islay in the sun really does defy any other description.

Looking Across Islay Sound

Bunnahabhain certainly has the beautiful location, although the buildings themselves are rather grey, industrial looking monoliths. Walking in from the car park it feels like your sneaking into an abandoned factory, but then the music from the courtyard reaches your ears, and the smell of the burgers and the seafood shack reaches your most, and you know you've arrived.

The distillery manages to give you that village fete feeling, with craft stalls as well as whisky tastings and the bar. The free drams are limited to the standard twelve year old, but everything else is on offer at the bar - including the spectacular festival whisky, best described as new make spirit poured through a sherry cask!

It's a great way to end the working week, although those of us lucky enough to be on the late ferry get to see one more distillery before home.


Just before we got on the ferry to head home, we got to spend a chilled morning at Ardbeg. This marked the final day of the Islay Festival; in common with Lagavulin at the start of the week it was a little quieter than other distilleries, as some people had early flights or ferries to catch. Happily, we had a late afternoon sailing!


Rather cunningly, as well as the distillery open day, Ardbeg declared it to be Ardbog Day; a global event to mark the limited release of what was essentially their festival bottling, named Ardbog. As you can see, even the distillery itself got a name change for the day.

The distillery is lucky to be set in a surprisingly large space - most of the other distilleries on the island are squeezed into tiny sites and it can be a struggle to squeeze everything in but Ardbeg have plenty of green open spaces (and unlike the rest of the distilleries, ample on-site parking as a result!)

View Across Barrels
The practical upshot was that as well as the tours, drams and music they had room to spread out for things like their Ardbeg Sports Day (featuring peat sack races and the like), a tent making Arbroath (or rather, Ardbeg) Smokies and even a little quiet corner for folks to sit on hay bales around a peat fire, strumming guitars and banjoes and singing Whisky In The Jar.

The whisky flowed as always, and the queue for the festival bottling seemed to be endless - we elected to sit in the cafe and have a truly excellent lunch (as well as a dram or two, of course) instead. The weather struggled a little at times, but the Ardbeg was plenty warm enough against the occasional burst of drizzle.

Resting By The Maltings

There were plenty of people there, but because of the spread out nature of the distillery it never felt crowded; it was the perfect mellow, laid back ending to a wonderful week.

This post was originally published 19th June, 2013. It was last updated 1st June, 2023.