Ardbeg circa may 2010, not much different to circa may 2005 really.
My first festival on Islay was 2005, I had visited the island back in 2004 for the first time and been understandably very taken with the place. I remember visiting Ardbeg for the first time in September and tasting a 1976 single sherry cask that they had bottled for the festival back in June, there were 504 bottles and I was impressed they had nearly sold them all within a few months. It was going for about £160, I remember thinking that was pretty expensive at the time but as soon as I tasted it…well, you’ve heard it all before.
Sampling six different unforgettable 1990 refill-barrels. One of the many joys of working at Ardbeg.
When I returned in May 2005, this time to work for the summer, Ardbeg had two festival bottlings, a 1975 ex-fino and a 75 ex-oloroso, both hogsheads, both exquisite whisky, both £190. This was in honour of the Cuban theme that year, remember the military coo, the false moustaches, the bandoliers with miniatures, the food, the epic tours. It was not an experience you forget in a hurry, it was Islay and it was fantastic. I met people in that first week during the festival that have become great friends, I learned more than I thought possible about whisky and I count myself fortunate to have been there. My experiences on Islay have rippled out through my life and led me to many other great friends and experiences.
Ardbeg 'tache' finish.
The last Islay festival is still fresh in the memory ending as it did only a few weeks ago. I wasn’t there for the whole week but I saw a fair bit of the Island and the other distilleries, things I hadn’t normally managed to do in previous years. I had a great time, I tasted some incredible whiskies, I saw some great friends, there was sunshine, wonderful food, great music, it was Islay but there was also something else. There were mutterings, you start to hear these stories about ques at four in the morning for festival bottlings, you hear fleeting grumbles about prices and unfairness. You hear snapshot blether but you ignore it, its just part of the hubbub of a festival. Then you start to see them, massive ques of people outside Lagavulin, some people that were new to the festival didn’t even know what they were queuing for. Whole sherry butts bottled specially for the festival selling out in hours. Then you eventually get the impression that you’re not in a festival anymore that you’re an observer looking in on a mechanised process of bottle selling, a controlled and targeted mass exchange between producer and consumer. These products are then processed through the next levels, some will join collections, a few consumed and many will be placed in the jaws of ebay, the beast that guzzles limited bottlings as soon as they are release and promptly spits them back out at new price levels.
One of our escapades from last year's festival, an Ardbeg that failed to make it to ebay. Now that's a real Ardbeg Supernova!
Now Islay is fine if you don’t bother with the festival bottlings, I gave up a long time ago, it’s a game I can’t afford to play and I’m often fortunate enough to taste most of them anyway. Its just that people are coming to play the bottle game these days, they dive headlong into the whirligig. And the companies know this all too well, just look at the prices rise and rise every year. Its understandable, its profit, single casks are not always financially sensible to produce but for some the prices are now becoming daft. Ardbeg’s ‘people’ were originally planning to sell this years 15yo festival cask for £220, only an intervention from the distillery staff themselves got it down to £120, still ruinously expensive for a 15yo whisky. Bowmore’s 25yo limited to 100 bottles for £300 or thereabouts had people queuing from four in the morning to get into the distillery. Then you hear the people who don’t get bottles grumbling, the people who have come for years, the locals, the retailers, the regulars, there’s more disappointment year after year and it breeds bad vibes through the whisky world.
Some say the festival is just pants these days.
The cumulative effect is the dawning realisation that its not really about the music or the whisky, its not about Islay or the people that live there and the visitors who flock there, it is just about turning bottles into money. Its just another extension of the industry at large. I stayed at Lagavulin hall with some very good friends and it felt like we were conducting our own festival, tucked away from the madness outside. We ventured out and bought some bottlings but it was always a source of frustration, never of joy, it led to standing in queues lamenting the prices and reminiscing the long gone days of the 2002 festival.
Standing in line for bottles at Caol Ila. Nae joy.
However for all the moaning and the criticising it must be remembered that these are things out-with the control of distillery staff. They are people just doing their jobs and they take a hell of a lot of flack over it. They have to put a face to these prices and it reduces their enjoyment of the festival too. It should also be remembered that the distilleries do put on a good show, Ardbeg, for all its ridiculous prices, still raises a lot of money for charity on its festival day as it has always done. Laphroaig remains the only distillery to put out a widely available, reasonably priced festival bottling that is in the spirit of inclusion and fairness, Cairdeas being a very apt name. I didn’t rate this years Laphroaig bottling as one of their best but it was top by far in terms of price and availability. It was on offer all week, people could buy a few bottles, sit down outside, crack one open and share it with their compadres. There were no daft queues, no squabbles, no bitching about someone who got more than the regulation 1 bottle per person. It was as a festival bottling should be.
Well done Laphroaig. The master edition goes exceptionally well with Actimel yoghurt drinks.
The island is still a vibrant place to be, it is after all Islay and no amount of overpriced nonsense bottlings and bad feeling can take that away. There are still those dazzling, deserted beaches, places where you can stand amongst a thousand different breezes and feel part of the endlessness of nature. There are still the silent evenings, the aching stillness of summer nights. You can dive into the cold brilliant blue of the Atlantic and come out breathless beneath the heavy afternoon sun. There is still the laughter of whisky-fuelled nights and the froth of music that bubbles in and out of every corner. These are the things that stick in my mind when I think of Islay, its easy to get distracted by the endless festival bottling madness, its pissed a lot of people off and justly so but it needn’t be this way. How many festival bottlings do we really need? We know they probably taste good, we can try many similar whiskies, the sheer quantity of independent bottlings these days is mind boggling. There will always be something new and amazing to taste, or to sell if that’s your thing. If you’re genuine about whisky then why not reclaim the festival, lets boycott the distillery bottlings, lets make the Islay whisky festival the biggest BYOB whisky fest in the world. Everyone next year just bring a few amazing bottles to open and we’ll all just hang out play music enjoy the Island and share these great whiskies with our friends. It really works, that’s what we do every year now and we have a much better time for it.
BYOB-1. Festival Bottlings-nil.
The Islay festival’s engine does not run on money just yet but you can sadly feel it spluttering with the wrong type of fuel. In the end these bottles are the prices they are because there are enough people willing to pay them. We all lament the old days, it would be great if, just in the spirit of the festival, having a passion for whisky, for sharing and fairness, the distilleries could produce larger bottlings at prices we could all afford. But that is just a pipe dream, it won’t happen and we all know it. So maybe we could just make things better ourselves by not being so bothered with these bottlings, they’re frustrating and daft why let them spoil an otherwise great week of whisky, music and friendship. We have the power to change this ourselves by not indulging in overpriced gibberish, by choosing to have a good time without yet another single cask Caol Ila or Bunnahabhain. Yes this process of ever more expensive bottles has been damaging but it is only as damaging as we allow it to be.
Surely this is what the festival is really about...?