The Fèis Ìle whisky festival is world famous, drawing thousand of people to the shores of Islay for a week of distillery open days and great spirits. We hopped on our bikes and made our way to those famous shores, finding out about the history of each distillery and all about the whisky they have to offer.
Helmed by the wonderful team of Andrew Brown at the Distillery, and Kirsty McCallum creating the expressions, Bunnahabhain is one of only two purpose built distilleries on the island (made the same year as Bruichladdich, in 1881). Shortly about to undergo significant renovation to modernise, in its present form it’s still a fascinating trip back to the era it was built, when all the malted barley would come in by boat to the very pier that sits in front of the distillery.
Famous for being an unpeated Islay spirit (though they’ve now come out with some signature peated expressions), and having a significantly different flavour profile from the others on the island, it truly is one of the outstanding Scottish whiskies. With amazing attention to their cask management, and superlative sherried and wine cask expressions, the distillery may be one of the lesser known on the island, but its fanbase is loyal, loving, and rightly growing every day. Moreover, being resistant to the price-hiking effects of excessive fame, Bunnahabhain is the perfect place to pick up incredible whisky at a far more reasonable price.
Go to Dram:Bunnahabhain 12 year old
Special occasion Dram:Bunnahabhain 1988 30 year old Sherry Cask
Caol Ila is one of two distilleries owned by Diageo on Islay, and its primary purpose is to produce for blends such as Johnny Walker. As a result, it has an enormous output of 6.5 million litres of spirit a year. That’s not to say it doesn’t release single malt - it does, and it releases a fine range, but the output of the distillery is certainly part of a broader network, rather than one centred on a signature style and expression. With over 10 million casks in storage to draw from, particular work is put in to how to restore casks, rejuvenate casks, and how to draw the most life they can from the oak as it sits in the warehouse waiting to be bottled.
Go to Dram:Caol Ila 12 year old
Special occasion dram:Caol Ila 1983 30 year old
Producing one of the most heavily peated whiskies on the Island - even one year releasing the famously named Ardbog on their yearly open day - Ardbeg is beloved by “peat heads” everywhere, for it's a spirit that has a phenol content (the compound that makes whisky taste smoky) of around 55pm.
With a particularly loyal fan base who get to call themselves members of the Ardbeg Committee, when Ardbeg isn’t busy sending whisky into space to see how it ages, it’s known for its emphasis on connecting with its customers.
The final open day on the Fèis Ìle festival falls on Ardbeg’s day, and it has become “Ardbeg Day” - a celebration of the distillery, it’s people, it’s spirit, and those that love it. And with yearly themes (this year was the groovy 70s) that see the whole distillery decked out in fancy dress, it’s always one of the highlights of the festival.
Go to dram: Ardbeg 10 year old
Special Occasion Dram:Ardbeg Galileo
Sharing the same south east corner of Islay as Arbeg and Laphroaig, Lagavulin was reputedly tasked with imitating its Laphroaig’s spirit in the early days of its creation, after a dispute between neighbouring landlords led to rivalry. In the modern day, however, it’s well and truly established itself as a classic Islay malt of its own, and is held in high regard all over the world. Similar to Caol Ila, it’s one of the two distilleries on the island owned by multinational drinks conglomerate Diageo, but differently to its island sibling, Lagavulin focuses more on its single malts expressions, with less destined for blends.
Go to dram:Lagavulin 16 Year Old 43% 70cl
Special occasion dram:Lagavulin PX cask finish
If you ask John Campbell, the distillery head at Laphroaig - what makes the spirit special, he might tell you something technical. Something about the cut of the spirit for instance - how as the spirit pours out of the still, they wait longer before they siphon off what they use, to make for a cleaner, less heavy spirit. Or how important the floor maltings are - one of only three on the island who still hand turn a portion of their own barley. Or how they value and appreciate their customers so much that they’ll let you become a “whisky landlord” - receiving an honorary plot in one of their treasured peat fields.
There are innumerable things, but it’s all of these qualities together that suggest the attentions to detail Laphroaig is known for, and that shines through in the spirit in the glass. One of the oldest on the Island, it’s famously smoky, and richly flavoured like the other south coast Islay whiskies. For many, it’s the quintessential “Islay dram”.
Go to dram:Laphroaig 10 year old
Special occasion dram:Laphroaig 27 year old
With a hugely loyal fanbase, Bowmore has been charging its stills for longer than any other distillery still operating on the Island. Though it was established officially in 1779, if you ask one of the workers on site, you’ll get a raised eyebrow, and a reminder that there can be quite a gap been something starting, and it becoming “official”.
Situated in the capital of Islay, Bowmore (meaning “big bend”), the distillery is rightly famous for the quality of its spirit. With a significant output of 2 million litres, and using traditional wooden washback, it’s also one of only three distilleries on the island still with its own malting floor - where the barley is still turned by hand. Bowmore is also home to one of the world's oldest whisky maturation warehouses, the legendary No.1 Vaults, where If you’re very lucky (or buy your tickets early enough), you might get to enter and taste a dram drawn directly from the cask.
Go to dram:Bowmore 12 year oldSpecial occasion dram: 28 Year Old, 2018 Feis Ile Limited Release
Bruichladdich, the “Progressive Hebridean Distillers”, reopened in 2001 after a group of four bought the distillery (and all the stocks therein) from its then owner Jim Beam. One of the four was quoted at the time predicting that “our market share is going to be minuscule - but we want to do it properly in the old-fashioned way."
One of only two purpose built distilleries on the island (with all the others initially established as farms, or buildings of other purpose), it’s a fascinating record of what Victorian whisky making technology looked like. Still entirely operated by hand, with wooden washbacks, and with no technology governing the making of the spirit, it’s certainly the most interesting tour on the island, and a uniquely Islay whisky. Respected the world over for its progressive and honest approach to distilling, and with numerous “distillery of the year awards” to its name for the sheer quality of its output, for many Bruichladdich is the whisky drinker’s whisky.
And with their three signature expressions - Bruichladdich unpeated, Port Charlotte peated, and Octomore heavily peated - there’s an outstanding whisky for every taste. And if whisky isn’t your thing? It’s home of the Botanist Gin, so there really is a spirit for everyone!
Go to dram:Bruichladdich Organic Scottish Barley
Special Occasion Dram:Bruichladdich Black ArtGo to Gin:The Botanist, of course!
The first new distillery built on Islay for 125 years, Kilchoman made waves in the early years with its ability to release outstanding whisky that seemed to defy the age of the spirit inside the bottle. Kilchoman set out from the very beginning to prove that age is just a number, and that there are far more important things at play - most importantly, the quality of the casks, and how they’re managed.
As “Islay’s Farm Distillery” Kilchoman adds an extra dimension. Building their own malting floor, and growing a proportion of their own barley on-site, meant they could release a bottle of whisky made entirely in one location, thus their “100% Islay Barley” expression was born.
The only family owned distillery on the island (it’s run by Anthony Wills, his wife, and his three sons) the world has been paying close attention since 2004, as they’ve brought out award winning whiskies at a young age. With only one spirit still, it’s a chance to tour the smallest distillery on the island, and one that has a particularly strong connection to its location.
Go to Dram:Kilchoman Machir BaySpecial occasion dram:Kilchoman PX Sherry Release