Making a pilgrimage to Islay is often viewed as part of a whisky enthusiast’s ‘rite of passage’ – the island, its natural beauty, friendly locals and steeped whisky history holding a near mystical pull which extends far beyond its small borders. But there’s a very different ‘feel’ to Islay during The Islay Festival of Music and Malt when the population of the island nearly triples from its base of 3,228 (at last census) inhabitants. All day whisky revellery, a large (and important) tourist boost and an infrastructure which simply cannot cope with the influx of people. People everywhere – camping on beaches, fields and even on any available roadside verge. 2020 sees a virtual Feis Ile – closed B&Bs, empty roads and distilleries shuttered to the public. But don’t let this quietness fool you – Islay is far from silent.
As of writing, over 28,000 people have watched Lagavulin’s virtual Feis Ile broadcast on Facebook. Consider how many people would have been able to experience the distillery at its physical Festival open day…..a mere fraction of the 5,000+ tourists who flock to the island for its busiest week. Whilst sitting in front of a screen is absolutely no substitute for taking in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and experiences of the Festival (to say nothing of the camaraderie) this is a startlingly large number of viewers. It is an indication not only of the keenness of those who sadly have had to postpone their Islay pilgrimages – but of an interest and reach that far exceeds the size of the physical Feis itself.
In closing the island to visitors and going digital for the year, the influence of Islay and its distilleries may well have been amplified many times over.
People who would never dream of attending the Festival of Music and Malt (distance, cost or simply a distain for crowds and cuing overnight in the Bowmore carpark) have been able to have a small taste of what Feis Ile can be about. Again, no substitute, but with impressively large viewing numbers for virtual Feis events, both the Festival organisers and the distilleries themselves would do well to think about the 2021 event with a fresh pair of globally focussed eyes.
2020 has changed many aspects of life – and its impact on the drinks industry is yet to be fully grasped. However, it is clear from the buzz that still surrounds Feis, in its pared back, virtual form - that whilst the island’s infrastructure creaks with visitors, its digital influence is notionally boundless.
People will, one hopes, soon be returning to Islay for their whisky pilgrimages – and 2021 will, I’m sure, be a party like the island has not seen in a long time. But with a largely untapped digital audience champing at the bit to get involved in the Festival – even from a distance, the distilleries may soon start to wonder if they should be permanently offering the addition of a digitally ‘enhanced’ Feis Ile experience to site alongside the physical event. There's a whole world of whisky enthusiasts out there - many more times the number that can visit the island in person each year. And they're seemingly willing to experience some of the magic of Islay in a digital format. Welcome to Islay time – wish you weren’t here.
I’ll be posting a few thoughts and reviews tied to the distillery open days which are taking place this week. Today is the turn of the island’s largest producer – Caol Ila.
Whilst some distilleries crank out the exclusives like there’s no tomorrow, others take a more leisurely approach to releases. Perhaps the preponderance of independent bottlings necessitate the more leisurely pace of Caol Ila’s OB releases – or perhaps the distillery’s focus on blending (up until 2002’s 12 year old release) is something of an emotional holdover, despite the site’s large output of 6.5m LPA. Either way, those looking for OB releases of Caol Ila outside of the distillery’s core range have had to look at Feis bottlings, Diageo Special Releases (until 2018) and the occasional whisky show edition – somewhat slim pickings compared to many of its peers.
Visitors to the distillery (outside of Festival week) would occasionally be greeted by hand bottlings, but back in 2017 and 2018 and were presented with two, slightly mysterious, but similar distillery-only exclusives. Fans of the spirit (myself included) look to Caol Ila for the versatility of its spirit – its ability to present consistently across a variety of ages and from a variety of cask styles – but these two distillery exclusives offered something which you’d normally have to turn to independent bottlers for – red wine cask influence.
Offering scant information on the bottles themselves, these NAS releases were formed from ex-bourbon and red wine casks. In the case of the 2018 which we’ll review today – refill and first fill ex-bourbon together with 1st fill charred Californian red wine casks. Whilst the 2017 edition featured 3,000 bottles, its follow up doubled down to an outturn of 6,000 bottles. Clocking in 57.4% ABV and marked on the label as ‘natural cask strength’, the original RRP was around £90.
Nose: Fruits, fats and foreshores. Jammy berries, foam strawberries, plums, banana skins and lemon curd – all sweet, but slightly musty. Pan oils and greases are joined by tangible minerality – salt water, rock pools, single beaches and sodium bicarbonate. In the background – the original ex-bourbon cask provides a backdrop of toffee and vanilla buttercream. The addition of water reduces the coastalness and reveals more of the peat influence – antiseptic wipes and sweet wood smoke.
Taste: Quite oleaginous on the arrival with a syrupy combination of jammy berry fruits (raspberry and strawberry) making a brief greeting before subsiding for much bolder coastal peat influence. Intense ashiness, iodine, rock salt and wet sand make the first landing – with a second wave assault from powerful black and cayenne peppers. The development is cask driven – charred cask heads and vanilla essence alongside salted toffee. Dilution is thought-provoking – whilst the arrival takes on a wider, more spirit-driven fruit complement (orchards, citrus and berries), the smoke and spicing reverse their slots. Fruit – spice – then (still highly coastal) the peat influence.
Finish: Long with piquant pepperiness, mentholated oak and lingering salinity.
An untypical Caol Ila that displays concentrated coastalness much more than its fruity wine cask introductions would suggest. Whilst distillery purists might bemoan its divergence and its focus on cask as opposed to spirit – to my mind, it's those aspects that makes it both interesting, and a solid choice for a distillery exclusive. Whilst some prefer their whisky ‘on the rails’ – others like to be surprised – and this combination of distinctive sweetness and saltiness does provide that curiosity. Modern and cask-driven but still entertainingly distinctive.