Here’s a wee piece about the Feis Ile I started a couple of weeks ago while there but only just got round to publishing now…
It’s been two years since I was at my last Feis Ile and, although my own life has changed somewhat beyond measure, Islay seems, as ever, very much the same. If you’ve never been here I would urge you to pay the place a visit. It is not somewhere easily or swiftly described. When I think of Islay much of my thoughts are shaped by memories of working here during two summers at University in 2005 and 6. So it is somewhat strange for me now to experience it more and more as a visitor or tourist than, as I was always used to, a worker. When you work here you see the best and worst of Islay in a way that is well hidden to the casual or enthusiastic visitor. At its worst the island, like all islands I imagine, can feel like a prison at times, it can be easy to become quite lonely out here if you don’t have a regular social life, something that can be a little difficult to attain if you’re not well located. However, it can also be a place of quite breathtaking beauty, the kind of beauty that reveals itself in inches and pieces over time. The more time you spend here the more you see of these quiet and spellbinding moments. Although the real brilliance of Islay, like any great place, lies in its people, not just the locals but the people it attracts as well, it seems to be a focal point for wilder minded people of resilient and warm character. Spending time here now, although technically I am here on a work trip, is a great pleasure, to be able to see more of the island and spend more time enjoying it is a great privilege.
I have been here since the 22nd of May and won’t be leaving till next monday so I have had the rare fortune to be here for the whole of the festival. It has been quite interesting to see it in its entirety from the perspective of a visitor, the last time I was here for a full festival I spent it working at Ardbeg every day. Much negativity is made of the Feis Ile these days, not without good reason either. As I wrote on these pages two years ago, the queues for over-priced, special bottlings is becoming quite ludicrous. As long as people are willing to pay for these (rarely exceptional) whiskies then this will be exploited by the companies that make them, the problem is it does tend to make the festival feel more like a cattle market for bottle scavengers. Thankfully this aspect is easily avoided. What this festival has proven so resoundingly for me is that on Islay you are the master of your own destiny when it comes to whisky. You can queue and visit each distillery on its open day or you can simply gather the best people and whiskies around you and have a riot of a time (see below).
The thing about the Feis Ile is that it provides a great opportunity for people who don’t often see each other to meet in Scottish whisky heartland and let their hair down a little (see above). This year has already seen some spectacular occasions in the form of Jon Beech’s wonderful and rowdy International Port Ellen day on the beach down by the old distillery warehouses (again, see above). Not to mention the Flaming Lobster Night at Lagavulin Hall which was, as ever, a phenomenal occasion steeped in great whisky, food, music and good times. These kinds of opportunities are rare enough at the best of times but Islay is the perfect location and catalyst for them. These wonderful evenings are like whisky oasis’, all sutured together by long days filled with bustle, movement, re-acquainting yourself with old friends (and old drams) and a huge amount of giggling. I have paid the price with a hefty dose of sunburn this year but it’s a small price considering the weather and the free reign its afforded us of the island.
I think we’ll finish up with my notes for the tasting that I hosted at the Gaelic College on Tuesday the 29th. It was a tasting called Islay Masterpieces and was conceived as a promotional exorcise for Mulberry Bank but it turned out to simply be a night of truly exceptional whiskies that will not be forgotten by any that attended for a long long time…
Ardbeg 10yo OB. Black label gold lettering. Black screw cap. Rotation late 1970s. 40%. 75cl.
Colour: White wine
Nose: Immediately a huge hit of iodine, farmyard, hay and sea salt. Lashings of antiseptic, tar, old rope, hessian, oysters, kreel nets, smoked mussels in brine and seawater. This is one of those proper old style Ardbegs that marries huge coastal and farmyard character together perfectly. Goes on with more of these beautiful, pin-sharp medicinal qualities such as tincture, ointment and antiseptic with an almost salivating freshness. Not the most intensely ‘Ardbeg’ of Ardbegs, it has some almost Laphroaigy qualities in these medicinal tones but it reeks of old school Islay personality. After time little hints of wild flowers and fresh herbs begin to appear giving it a more refined edge.
Palate: Wow, there’s the Ardbeg! A big punch of old, oily, simmering peat, typical late 60s/early 70s style. Huge farmyard suggestions again, lots of different oils, camphor, tcp, slight touches of cured meats, salted beef, tobacco smoke, tar, brine and wax. Delicate natural sweetness as well in the form of mead and toffee. As big as a whisky can be at 40%, very impressive weight on the palate with such heavy peat and medical flavours sloshing about.
Finish: Long but very soft with all the intense peat giving way to loads of medicine, coastal notes and seaweed.
Comments: It’s always a great privilege to taste young old Ardbeg, these kinds of bottlings give you such a wonderful, open perspective on this now historic distillate. Immaculate whisky.
Bruichladdich 21yo 1971-1992. Private single cask bottling by Roland Worthington Eyre. Cask 3950. Approx 51%. 75cl.
This was a cask of whisky that Roland owned and kept in his living room on Islay in 1992. It was bottled by hand over a period of two weeks into a (reputedly vast) variety of various bottles and containers. Some were given a label and kept but most were merrily consumed. So if you ever find another bottle it will probably look quite different from this one and taste maybe slightly different as well. So these notes are effectively pointless. Oh well, I’m still going to write them anyway, just for a larf.
Colour: Light gold
Nose: A beehive in a tropical fruit garden. It’s one of these wonderful 1970s Bruichladdich that just explodes with ripe fruits, melons, mangos, guava, papaya, passion fruit, banana, pineapple, if it’s exotic it’s here. Lots of natural honey, touches of vanilla cream, a perfect line of oak that never intrudes but rather supports the spirit beautifully with big notes of warm spice and cedar. Cloves, nutmeg, digestive biscuit, coal dust and pine sap. With more time that classic Bruichladdich freshness gets bigger and bigger with that huge fruitiness showing no signs of waning. That wonderful salty, resinous edge keeps on going as new aromas of wild strawberries and eucalyptus begin to emerge. What a stunning nose, brilliantly complex but perfectly controlled and focused as well. With water: it becomes farmier now as well, lots of earth, hay, cow shed aromas and cut grass on top of all that sea air and fruit.
Palate: On the palate it’s the same story, lots of nectarines, orange juice, Grand Marnier Liqueur, fresh herbs, sea salt, touches of oak, natural vanilla, more honey, it seems to be perfectly aligned with the nose and just as expressive. Wonderful stuff. With water: It softens and becomes wider, lots of stone fruits and herbs with more drying saltiness. Majestic whisky.
Finish: Long and very dry, full of salt, eau du vie, pineapple, apple peelings, oak and fading hints of honey.
Comments: It’s a perfect Bruichladdich if you ask me. Completely exemplary of this great era of production and a wonderfully composed dram, far too drinkable though. Probably why there’s none left. Lucky Roland.
Bruichladdich 21yo OB mid 1990s. Bottle number 90 of 389. 53.4%. 70cl.
This is a rare, sherry matured official Bruichladdich bottled sometime in the mid-1990s. You don’t see this one very often, I’m intrigued.
Nose: A perfect sweet, sticky and salty sherry at first. Very rich and dense notes of glazed dark fruits, aged madeira, Guinness cake, wet leaves, cigar boxes and cured meats. A rich vein of salt runs through the whole thing which, coupled with these fresh fruit aspects that begin to emerge, makes it reek of classic Bruichladdich. This is almost like a sherried version of the 1972 above. With a little time it becomes super fruity, lots of greengages, green apples, ripe melon and all kinds of other garden fruits. A slight tang of crushed black pepper as well which gives it a wonderful bite. With water the sherry calms down quite a bit and the saltiness really takes off, it becomes quite briny, lemony and develops an almost greasy coastal quality. With more time it becomes very liqueurish and syrupy with more notes of citrus fruit and chocolate.
Palate: Once again this one is very much in synch with the palate, maybe not quite as dynamic as the nose but the flavours are still big, rich and direct with great composure. Lots of dates, Christmas cake, crystallised fruits, dark chocolate, fruit compote, walnuts, chocolate oranges, tangerines and salted meats. With water: again the coastal notes dominate, although the dark fruits and chocolate become fatter and more extravagant with notes of cocoa, roast coffee, prune juice and black tea. The wood is once again perfectly balanced with no overtly tannic edges or chalkiness at all, instead it seems to keep everything in check.
Finish: Long and heavy with simmering coffee, bitter chocolate, smoky bacon, salted cashew nuts, orange bitters and dried mixed herbs. Potent stuff.
Comments: Another brilliant Bruichladdich that shows just how great this distillery can be in sherry. Great cask selection and a great bottling, further unnecessary proof that they really were doing something special on the Rhinns back in the 1970s.
Bruichladdich 1960-1973 OB. Single cask 1043. 100 proof. 26 2/3 fluid ounces.
This is one of those bottlings I’ve been dreaming of opening for a looooong time. Distilled in march 1960 it is entirely possible that the distillery was still using peated malt at the time. Needless to say I am pretty excited about this one. No more blether, time to try it…
Colour: Dark copper
Nose: Fucking hell. There is definitely a lot of peat in there but what strikes more is the sheer intensity of the fruit, it is actually like sniffing the freshest damson and plum jams imaginable, like there are pots of the things being opened and stuffed up your nostrils. I don’t think I’ve ever smelt a whisky quite like this before, I don’t know where to begin. In no particular order there is tobacco, ancient style peat, maraschino, mint, eucalyptus, tar, coal, the densest barrage of fruit imaginable, this is nothing short of mind blowing, I don’t think it is entirely legal to continue. With water: censored!
Palate: A sherry bomb, is this only 100 proof, it’s like dynamite. It’s hard to tell where the sherry ends and peat begins. I’m not even sure I want to try and describe this. I should probably try it with water, just to try and retain some semblance of professionalism. With water: I’m sorry but I really shouldn’t write about this. I’ll get killed. This is the reason I’m into whisky. Nuff said.
Finish: What do you think?
Comments: The phrase once in a lifetime is tossed about a bit too much these days regarding whisky. Needless to say it is perfectly appropriate here.
Lagavulin 30yo 1979-2009. The Syndicate bottling. Cask 113. 51.2%. 70cl.
This is one of several bottlings done under John MacTaggart’s ‘Syndicate’ label and sold originally through Bruichladdich distillery.
Nose: A wonderful mix of green and tropical fruits, smoked tea, seashore aromas and fresh shellfish. It is one of these classic aged peaty whisky aromas but much lighter than you would expect for a Lagavulin. In fact to me it is very reminiscent of several of these great Caol Ilas of similar age and vintage from the likes of Berry Bros in recent years, that green tea/fruit/citrus/seashore profile is really prevalent here, maybe that is a hallmark of SMD production practices at the time? With time it develops more of these wonderfully delicate notes of wild flowers, sea air, pollen and chocolate limes. Fragile but very evocative and beautiful. With water: the saltiness bites a bit more aggressively now but it is still very light and flowery with notes of dandelion and chamomile.
Palate: A little more punchy at first but then gives way to a swathe of green tea, smoked meats, delicate medicinal notes and beeswax. Quite gentle but very mouthfilling and engaging. Like the old official Lagavulin 30yo this one needs time and concentration but is proving very rewarding. With water: remains relatively unchanged with water but it is still effortlessly drinkable and surprisingly light and delicate for a Lagavulin. Lots of drying seaweed that betrays a little more classic distillery character and plenty of citrus rind and seashore quality, very lovely old Lagavulin.
Finish: Medium length and very soft but also quite lively and aromatic, it dances very deftly between more of these blossom, wild flower, pollen and honey notes with all these various tea and coastal notes making their curtain call as well.
Comments: I’m tempted to say this is a little disappointing considering the distillery and the age but then it is worth reminding ourselves that Lagavulin struggles to age past 25 very well at all. This one seems to be clinging on in a very beautiful and fragile way. I really like it and it make a great example of how peat evolves with age.
Port Ellen 1974-2005 30yo. Signatory. Cask 6756. Bottle 193 of 266. 58.5%. 70cl.
There were two casks of this bottled around the same time by Signatory. I bought one at the time, promptly opened it and was knocked out, I can’t remember for the life of me if this is the same one I had or not. It’s all a bit academic as you can’t find these bottlings for love nor money these days.
Colour: White wine
Nose: This is interesting, it’s a huge and potent nose at first but what strikes is just how similar it is to some of these old super high strength teenage bottlings of Port Ellen from the 80s by the likes of G&M. That enormous, bruising coastal quality that bubbles up like surf out of your glass is really present here. Add to that buckets of fresh lime juice, fresh oysters, seaweed, brine, burning peat, a tiny smear of vanilla and some white pepper and you have a pretty good idea of what’s going on here. With water: some floral notes, more saline qualities, preserved lemons, lime zest, big mineral notes of flints and pebbles and sandalwood.
Palate: Wow, this is a hot one. There really isn’t much difference from some of the old super-strength teenagers from the 80s. It’s exactly the same distillate and the extra age hasn’t diminished or tamed it at all. With time some wonderful notes of pine resin, sea salt, mustard seed and tar come through but the alcohol is still pretty big, lets add water… more of these pristine coastal and mineral notes, the dryness is really beautiful in contrast to the overall power of this whisky. A real beast.
Finish: Long with a kind of leathery peat and salt quality with hints of pollen, tea and eucalyptus.
Comments: This is a proper old school Port Ellen, from that era of truly pristine, hyper-coastal distillate before it developed that later slightly earthier, dirty edge in the late 70s. It’s also incredible how it really doesn’t taste 30 years old. Quite a wonderful monster.
Ardbeg 1967-1995 28yo. Signatory. Pale oloroso cask number 575. Bottle 409 of 548. 53.7% 70cl.
Thanks to Geert for helping me get this legendary bottle into the tasting.
Colour: Light gold
Nose: It starts delicately on drying, ancient, metallic peat, aged antiseptics, coal tar soap, sea salt and hessian then just builds and builds on this utterly classic profile. Gentle notes of Euthymol toothpaste, mint, caraway seed liqueur, manure (in a good farmy kind of way), juniper, eucalyptus, dried herbs and motor oil. One of these perfect old Ardbegs that balances coastal, farmyard and peat characteristics with spectacular complexity to boot. With water the peat becomes rootier and oilier, there are notes of sarsaparilla, camphor, tcp, iodine, brine, lemon rind, you name it. Fantastic.
Palate: It’s like someone just drove a golf ball of concentrated Ardbeg into my mouth from 400 yards. Astonishing concentration and development, all those classic old Ardbeg characters unfold beautifully and continually. Brilliant stuff. With water: some sort of peat syrup cut with seawater, again quite incredible. Notes of oysters, lemon juice, something a touch carbolic and hints of olive oil and old spices.
Finish: Long dry, salty and spectacular.
Comments: I should just have a cut and paste comment for these old Ardbegs. Something along the lines of: ‘Yet another incredible old Ardbeg.’
We also drank this at the tasting…
John MacLellan from Kilchoman very generously brought this bottle along to be opened for charity. We raised over £1000 for the Islay Sick Children’s fund and tasted one of the rarest and most historically fascinating whiskies it’s ever been my privilege to try. I’d have loved to save a sample to write some notes with but, perhaps needless to say, it got scoffed. Oh well, that’s Islay I suppose.