For most of the year, if you visit the small picturesque Isle of Islay - resting off the south west coast of Scotland - you’ll find a quiet place of fewer than 4000 people. It’s famous for its wildlife, its curiously shaped churches, its pristine beaches (that’s in Scotland, we promise!), and the unparalleled warmth of its inhabitants (known as lleachs). It’s the kind of place in Scotland where the pace of life is a little slower, the doorways are a little more welcoming, and the people and the land are held together a little tighter. But that's not all, Islay is home to a famous Scottish whisky festival, Fèis Ìle.
That means a lot of great whisky.
You see despite only being a small island, Islay is one of the five distinct whisky producing regions recognised by the SWA (the Scotch Whisky Association). At its peak, it had 23 recognised distilleries, but even now this small area is home to eight, with several more in development. Famed for the smoky spirit that comes from burning the island’s peat to malt the barley, it’s a place that politely likes to tell you that, yes, there’s whisky, but then there’s Islay whisky.
So what do you do when you have eight distilleries, all within a 10 mile radius? Well, you throw open the doors, and invite the world in for a dram! And for eight days of the year, that’s exactly what Islay does.
Originally, the Fèis Ìle festival was started in 1984 as a small local celebration, in support of the Gaelic language speaking population of the island (who still number 25%). The first whisky tasting didn’t take place until 1990 - a small town hall event taking place as part of the festival. By 2000, though? Whisky and the festival had become inseparable; as the profile of the distilleries grew, people looked to “the Feis” as an opportunity to visit the home of their favourite malts, and to shake the hands of those that made them.
So the distilleries started opening their doors even wider, offering guided tours, tastings, and specially tailored events. By the early 2000s each had a designated Open Day, including music, food, and dancing; they even started releasing special edition festival bottles to reward people who made the pilgrimage. And the Ileachs? With whisky flowing through the veins of the island for centuries, they were quick to embrace the new amber hue of their once small festival.
With eight consecutive open days, for eight of the world’s best whisky distilleries, and an open invitation for anyone to join, the festival has become a riotous celebration of everything that Islay, its people, and whisky lovers the world over hold dear. And with the population of the island tripling during the festival, it’s fair to say that it’s no longer just a whisky festival, it’s the whisky festival.
The dates for 2018 have come and gone, and Islay life has briefly returned to its normal pace. Don’t be fooled, though, it’s only a 51 week rest it takes before the next Feis Ile festival begins, and preparations are already underway!
Because one thing’s for certain - come the last week of may in 2019? Islay, the “Queen of the Hebrides”, will be cracking opening another bottle of festival spirit, and asking you if you’ll join her for a dram.