The Feis Ile festival held on Islay annually is a week long celebration of all things whisky. Each distillery takes it's turn in the spotlight, bottling something special and offering a calendar of exclusive events with the emphasis on enjoyment. It's marvellous vibe and spectacle if you have the opportunity to experience it.
Islay by its nature is not easily accessible even when you live in Scotland. A long drive to a ferry port is required - if you're not flying from Glasgow - before taking to the seas and destination whisky isle. For some enthusiasts it may seem more hassle than its worth, unless you're a member of the whisky auction flipper club. The true meaning of a festival and celebration at times seems a little tarnished when you have speculators purchasing multiple bottles and auction site vans on hand to snap up such spares. It's a sign of the times and a topic for another article. Bottles are for opening as shown when I did just that with the Glenfarclas 26 year old Speyside Festival release.
For 2016 Bunnahabhain wanted to offer fans another option to reach their celebration. Rather than expecting visitors to make their own plans and accommodation arrangements how about an all inclusive package? The Day Tripper package was born.
For an asking price of just £95 per person the concept was ambitious as it was generous. Attendees were to be collected in central Glasgow by coach, before sailing on the HMS Bunnahabhain bound for Port Ellen. A full Scottish breakfast would served onboard and those charming Brand Ambassadors would be on hand to quench any thirst. Arriving on Islay, you were then bussed to Bunnahabhain for a welcome from Andrew Brown, the distillery manager, who has worked at the distillery since 1988 in a variety of roles. After a few spare hours to explore or make those essential purchases, the HMS 'Bunna set sail for home, offering dinner and a couple of drams to replenish energy levels. Then after reaching Glasgow the party would unite once more for a farewell dram at the Pot Still.
An exceptional gesture from the Bunnahabhain team and one I would expect took a great deal of planning and offered little profit other than opening up the festival to those normally unable to make the trip. I joined this merry band of day-trippers along with Justine from Kaskwhisky thanks to an invite from the organisers for which I'm very grateful and overwhelmed by. How else to best describe the event but through my own experiences? Prepare yourself for the sequel to Planes Trains and Automobiles except this time its Buses Ferries and thetormore4mobile. For me it all starts at 0445 in the less than glamorous surroundings of Dunfermline bus station on my own, wondering if the bus doesn't turn up what will I do?
Thankfully it did and £11.40 took me in relative comfort and isolation into Glasgow's Buchanan bus station. From there it was just a short walk downhill to the meeting point. Amongst our group there was a West coast vibe and if you've been to Glasgow then you'll have seen the motto People make Glasgow that proudly sits above our meeting point. Our band of 27 met at George Square to board a coach to Kennacraig and then onto Islay.
Setting off at the back of 6am everyone was present and accounted for. Anne was in charge of proceedings and ensuring the enjoyment factor and Bunnahabhain whisky flowed, but not until we reached the ferry terminal. The organisers had put an injection of fun into our departure with a goodie bag and assorted items to quench any dawn thirst or hunger.
The drive out from Glasgow and across Argyll was peaceful, with some of the group seeking a couple of extra hours kip or quietly reading a whisky book. At this stage the various travellers kept to themselves until Kennacraig was reached and the excitement began to build. I'm not sure if this was the thought of Islay or a full Scottish breakfast onboard? There certainly was a chill standing dockside, waiting for everyone to disembark and dreaming of a hot cuppa.
A smooth voyage entailed as we set off across the ocean to Port Ellen. The initial rush was towards the restaurant for a much deserved breakfast and conversation across your selected six items. And then it should have been a descent towards the bar, but a heady strength of knots put Islay within sight and many congregated on the viewing deck as Ardbeg, Lagavulin and then Laphroaig. Before the familiar sight of Port Ellen maltings - home now to a sizeable amount of maturing Bunnahabhain casks - signalled our arrival and next stage or our trip.
The terminal was congregated with awaiting traffic and our band of 27 navigated these obstacles towards the mini-buses and onto our final destination of Bunnahabhain distillery. Again, another noticeable smooth transition. Before too long our convoy was on the open Islay road the Bunnahabhain 12 year old was flowing almost literally everywhere with the bouncy nature of the terrain.
There are few picturesque settings than the Feis Ile Bunnahabhain event set a glorious summer's day. Standing on the old distillery pier; gazing out across the Sound of Islay towards the Paps of Jura. I could have stood transfixed for hours on end here, happily enjoying some local catering whilst distillery staff ensured your dram glass was constantly inhabited. Live music carried across the bay as the festival was in full swing as did the smell of freshly cooked food.
Keeping the day in chronological order, that pier moment came after a warm welcome from the distillery team who I expect were relieved to see their plans come to fruition with our arrival. Then we were ushered into a nearby dunnage warehouse, which is the oldest on site dating from the 1890’s. Here we were handed a dram by the distillery manager and given a warm welcome.
This is the Feis Ile so why not start with a whisky released for the occasion? We kicked off proceedings in style with the Bunnahabhain 16 year old 2016 Feis Ile. This whisky set the barometer high and you can read my review of this £250 very limited release here. Andrew talked about the whisky and then the warehouse itself with a few anecdotes thrown in about racking casks. These traditional warehouses possess an environment and presence of their own. If only the walls could speak and the whiskies that have passed through this space be revived…
Enough dreaming, it was noticeable navigating through the rows and up the claustrophobic staircase towards the upper deck, just how little has changed in this and the other warehouse I visited during my time at the distillery. Bunnahabhain has a real rustic and loved charm about it. The site has an unspoiled nature whereas others have been swamped by the trappings of technology and the drive towards efficiency. On this top floor we were handed Andrew’s favourite dram from the core range which is the Bunnahabhain 18 year old. That’s a review to follow and by now our group was in high spirits and feeling festive.
Andrew had to move onto other festival guests so we were left in the capable hands of the Bunnahabhain Robin Morton, the still man, who had visited Islay on holiday and never left. In the decades since he had worked at a variety of positions before his current role. The distillery manager stated no one does a better tour of the distillery and I couldn’t argue with this statement. What an old school down to earth character. Plenty of banter and tales soon commenced, which you can have a taste of on my YouTube channel. Yes, finally I remembered to take a couple of short videos to capture the event in visual form.
I’m intending to write up both the distillery tour and the warehouse tour I participated in with Warehouseman Iain Shaw for a separate piece including some of the special drams we sat down with towards the end. So skipping ahead we had a short time after both of these tours to enjoy the stunning backdrop and live music before climbing abroad the coach for the return trip. Prior to all of this there was time to raid the distillery shop for some whiskies, merchandise and a bite to eat.
Speaking to members of our group after the distillery tour, some had just explored Bunnahabhain and engaged in the festivities. Others had taken the more scenic option and sat on the pebble beach and watched the world go by. The more organised contingent had pre-booked a taxi and took off to Ardbeg, Caol Ila and Laphroaig for further purchases. Whatever option was selected, everyone had an enjoyable afternoon before hitting the road once again.
Bouncing across the Islay roads towards the 6pm ferry, those high spirits weren’t flagging. By now we were all fully acquainted and new friendships made. Outside the stunning backdrop of Islay sped past, relatively unnoticed as cups were filled with Bunnahabhain 12 and tales to stir the imagination. Once onboard and heading for the mainland, a satisfying dinner was served before populating the ferry bar for more Bunnahabhain.
Setting foot back on Kennacraig, our coach swiftly took us towards Glasgow and our final destination of the Pot Still for a farewell dram. Whilst on route through Argyllshire, Feis Ile bottles were opened and more sweeties handed out. The group were more lively now then they had been first thing, with participants mingling and exchanging opinions and whisky tales. Everyone I spoke with had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and vowed to do it again in 2017. Describing the event to friends since I suggested that it had captured the essence of what the Feis Ile was all about; friendship, whisky and good times.
Some distilleries following the Feis Ile have been criticised for being content to do just the same old again in 2016. Bunnahabhain may have not hidden bottles in coves but they brought the festival to a new audience.
My thanks to everyone involved at Deanston and Bunnahabhain for their hospitality on what was a tremendous day out and hopefully the first of many day tripper events. And to everyone I met during our transport and whisky extravaganza. If you're reading this now and considering whether to attend in 2017, then I urge you to go for it and experience a wonderful day out.
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