Fèis Ìle: The Islay Whisky Festival | Rare Malt Whisky
Every summer, during the last week of May, the Isle of Islay hosts the annual festival Fèis Ìle which celebrates Scottish culture through performances of songs, poetry, history, and piping. Throughout the festival there is plenty of food available, plus classes teaching Gaelic language in addition to the highlight of the event: whisky tasting. Islay is famous for it’s whisky since it is home to no less than eight distilleries and has been producing world renowned whiskies for hundreds of years. If you are a collector, or simply intrigued by the origins of the incredibly complex liquid the Islay Festival is not to be missed.
The art of distilling whisky has been practiced throughout Scotland for hundreds of years and first began when locals learned to transform rain-soaked barley into a spirit, with help from the abundance of fresh water available in springs, streams and burns. Distilleries today continue to use the same water sources that have been used for centuries.
Although there is a tangible Scottish method of distilling whisky, each distillery produces a unique tasting spirit due to varying natural resources used in the distilling process such as:
- The water source
- The shape of the still
- The wood used to build the cask
Known as royalty within the whisky distilling industry, the Isle of Islay is just 25 miles in length yet is home to eight active whisky distilleries:
Despite its small size, each distillery location on Islay benefits from and utilises slightly different natural resources during the distilling process such as the composition of the peat and the natural water resource. Subtle differences in these key ingredients largely changes the aroma and taste of the malt thus distinguishing each distillery from the other.
Origins of Islay Whisky
Scottish folklore notes that the art of whisky distilling was first brought to Islay by monks travelling from Ireland. Upon arriving at the little island, the monks realised its aptness for the distilling process due to the abundance of peat (partly decomposed vegetable matter), fresh water and barley – which was grown by local farmers.
What Makes Islay Whisky Special
Peat is believed by many to be the key ingredient in the Scottish whisky distilling process and one which distinguishes Islay’s single malts from the rest of Scotland. Islay’s peat, made up of decaying moss, heather and lichens, has been developed over millions of years and is very different from the peat of mainland Scotland. Sitting on the west coast of Scotland, the Isle of Islay is beaten by Atlantic storms resulting in the salt water soaking deep into the peaty earth and even into the warehouses holding the whisky casks which ultimately affects the taste of the malt. Typical Islay whisky is well-known for its faint notes of sea air and seaweed.
It is understood that many of the original Islay distilleries (many of which are now closed down) started as farms, however they were gradually relocated to more remote parts of the island when excise tax was first introduced on whisky – approximately the 17th century. However, it is said that the tax man did not attempt to visit Islay for some 150 years as the local islanders had a terrible reputation of barbaric tendencies. For those who are interested in attending Fèis Ìle will be happy to know that today this notion is far from the truth. In addition to whisky, Islay is well known for its warm and welcoming nature.
Islay Distillery Open Days at the Islay Whisky Festival
Throughout the festival, the Islay Whisky Distilleries open their doors for visitors to tour the legendary rooms that have housed the ancient art of whisky distilling for centuries. During the tours you will be able to hear secrets of each distillery, shedding light upon the legendary whisky heritage of Islay. On top of that you will have the opportunity to sample some of the most popular whiskies from each brand. For those who are looking to purchase Islay whisky that is more of an investment than a souvenir, you will have to look at sources out with the island itself.
Rare Islay Whisky from The Rare malt Whisky Company
At the Rare Malt Whisky Company we stock rare malt whiskies of the highest quality that each hold a special significance, for example a discontinued bottling or an edition with a one-off cask attribute that differs from the norm of the brand. We currently stock ninety bottles of Islay whisky with several originating from each of the remaining distilleries and one extremely rare bottle from the now closed down distillery of Port Ellen.
Port Ellen and the Islay Whisky Festival
Although the Port Ellen distillery is no longer active, the site is used as a maltings which is owned by British alcoholic beverages company Diageo. The Port Ellen maltings supplies to Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Ardberg, Laphroaig, Kilchoman, Bunnahabhain and Tobermory. This site is permanently closed to visitors except during the Islay Whisky Festival. As the bygone distillery still plays a pivotal role in the production of Islay whisky, a tour if the property is a golden opportunity to learn as much as possible about the legendary brand. Special bottlings from the distilling era of Port Ellen are hard to come by, therefore it is likely that the one remaining bottle stocked at The Rare Malt Whisky Company will be sold sooner rather than later, especially with the upcoming Fèis Ìle.