If you’re a “peat freak” like us, Islay is your spiritual homeland and Fèis Ìle your national holiday. Every year, thousands of whisky enthusiasts descend upon the tiny island via the temperamental ferry, battling intense rainfall and a two-bus-a-day transport service to visit the eight working distilleries and experience the unrivalled hospitality and curiosity of the island dwellers.
What is Fèis Ìle?
Fèis Ìle is the annual, week-long festival celebrating Islay whisky that takes place at the end of May (3rd to 7th May 2018) on the South Hebridean island. All eight working distilleries open their doors, welcoming visitors and hosting Open Days, tours, masterclasses and tastings. The whisky flows freely as does traditional live music, local hospitality and (not infrequently) heavy rainfall – although for some reason it’s always sunny on the Bruichladdich Open Day.
WhERE is Islay?
Islay is a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland with a population of less than 4,000. Two-hours from the mainland, it is accessible by a somewhat unpredictable ferry service (any local will tell you that one of the two running the route between Islay and the mainland always breaks down) and is largely made up of bog land. However, for over 200 years, this remote, rain-lashed spot of land has been one of the world’s foremost places for whisky, with thousands making the pilgrimage there each May and thousands more journeying there throughout the year.
What makes Islay whisky different?
Everyone knows that Scotland isn’t exactly a tropical destination however Islay is wetter than most parts. The island is in perpetual bog throughout the year, which has over the centuries resulted in the creation of a dense black substance called peat. Whilst the material is not uncommon around Scotland, sea spray and seaweed have given Islay peat unique characteristics. This turf was cut and dried then used as a coal substitute in winter in 17th and 18th centuries. Whilst cheap and abundant, it gave off a thick, pungent smoke. It is this peat smoke that now flavours the malt in the whisky-making process and the reason that peated (a few distilleries make unpeated whiskies) Islay whiskies have their unique taste.
What do Islay whiskies taste like?
Whilst most whisky produced on Islay is peated, the flavour varies considerably from distillery to distillery. Laphroig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are often considered the “peatiest” distilleries however Bruichladdich claims to produce the “world’s peatiest whisky” (Octomore 08.3).
The billowing, full-chested, coastal smoke of Islay is the island’s calling card in the world of whisky, however not all of the region’s drams are “Like putting on a used fireman’s helmet whilst running through a barley field barefoot” (quote from the Laphroig distillery entrance wall). Despite their peaty character, Islay whiskies are complex, developed and frequently have a beautifully ethereal characteristic that transports the drinker to a secluded coast where the salty breeze whips at their clothes or a quiet pine forest with its invigoratingly fresh scent.