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For many whisky connoisseurs, the month of May means but one thing: festival season has arrived. With both the Spirit of Speyside and the Feis Ile (Islay Festival) taking place this month, distillers, blenders and bottlers across the land prepare to unveil celebratory limited edition bottlings to mark the occasion. Even the Scotch Malt Whisky Society trawl their vast stocks to uncover some suitable drams and this year, I have been fortunate enough to get a sneak peek at what will be available to members this month.
But first, a little background information… The Spirit of Speyside festival takes place between the 3rd and 7th of May and sees fans from all over the world descend upon the northeast of Scotland in a celebration of the region and its spirit. With more than 500 whisky inspired events taking place over 5 days there is something for connoisseurs of all levels as distilleries old and new, even those normally inaccessible to the public, open their doors and offer a warm welcome.
The Islay Festival meanwhile began as far back as 1984 and was intended as a means to celebrate the island’s Gaelic language & culture, seen to be under threat at the time. Over the years the festival grew to take in all aspects of Islay life, which of course includes the famous whisky. By the year 2000, the distilleries were joining in, releasing special edition bottlings and creating ‘open days’ featuring music and drams for all.
The Feis takes place between Friday 25th of May and Saturday 2nd of June with the island’s population expected to triple during the course of the event.
For those of us not fortunate enough to make it to the festivals however, there is at least some compensation in a little taste of the regions and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society are more than happy to offer up some examples of what Islay and Speyside can do.
Cask No. 3.307 – A Journey Into Joy
The Society’s first Feis Ile bottling comes from Bowmore distillery and has been matured for 20 years in a Refill Sherry Butt. Bottled at 55.9% abv it is available to society members for £125.00
Smell: Sherry, Rum & Raisin, Subtle Smoke, Ash, Cherry, Berry, Toffee, Chocolate, Marzipan and Hazelnut.
Taste: Treacle, Cinnamon, Chili Oil, Orange Zest, Caramel, Toffee, Nutmeg, Smoke.
Thoughts: It’s not cheap but the price is probably reasonable, given the age of the whisky. It’s an extraordinary dram that reminds me a lot of a single cask expression I acquired at the distillery in 2016. Here though, advanced age has somewhat tamed the smoke, though its presence can never be ignored. Rich sherry notes make for a sumptuous mouthful that shows just how good the Bowmore dram can be. Excellent.
Cask No. 107.13 – Andalusian Gazpacho
From Speyside comes an intriguing dram from the recently revitalised Glenallachie distillery. Matured for 9 years in a Refill Sherry Butt, this is a beast of a dram in every sense of the word. Bottled at 65% abv, it is available to members for £55.00
Smell: Almond, Sherry, Apple and Pear, Toffee, Prune & Figs, Plummy Red Wine.
Taste: Cinnamon Spice and Nutmeg, Raisins, Dark Chocolate, Orange and Honey.
Thoughts: This one is an absolute steal as far as I’m concerned. It’s a huge, indulgent mouthful at an excellent price. Despite my enduring love for Islay and her whisky, I found this Speyside to be the pick of the bunch. Its relative youth makes it affordable and the extraordinary character of the spirit more than stands up to the influence of the sherry wood. The whopping bottling strength only serves to deliver even more flavour and allows for the addition of water without the risk of losing its punch. An absolute beauty of a dram.
Cask No. 29.244 – Weaving Wondrous Dreams
*Available only on Islay during the Feis Ile…
The next Islay bottling comes from the south of the island, on the Kildalton coast. Laphroaig is a dram which often splits a room, but those that like it tend to love it and this expression makes it easy to see why. Bottled at a cask strength of 62.2%, matured for 8 years in a Refill Bourbon Barrel and available at £75.00
Smell: Medicinal Peat Smoke so typical of Laphroaig, Charcoal and Ash mingle with Vanilla Cream and Lemon Pastry.
Taste: Oak Spice, Vanilla, Lemon, Liquorice, Black Pepper, Cream. Long smokey finish.
Thoughts: A well priced single cask Laphroaig that should go down very well with those Society members who make the journey to Islay.
Cask strength Laphroaig can be magnificent and this SMWS offering is up there with the best of them. Like the Greatest Hits album of your favourite band, it offers little in the way of surprises but instead ticks all the boxes that make up a great Laphroaig. Certainly not for everyone, but those that like it will love it.
Cask No. 10.141 – Indulgence By The Sea
Travelling to the north-east of Islay we arrive at Bunnahabhain, the island’s most remote distillery. Aged for 12 years in a Refill Bourbon Barrel, it is available to members at £66.00
Smell: Buttered Freshly Baked Bread, Creamy Vanilla, Pastry, Seaweed and a Salty Breeze, Lemon and Lime, Orange.
Taste: Creamy Malt, Pepper Spice, Vanilla, Sea Salt and Brine, Oak and Liquorice.
Thoughts: Another dram of good quality, that’s reasonably priced. Especially given the ever-inflating prices of Islay whisky. Bunnahabhain has been crossing my path regularly of late, not least due to its popularity with independent bottlers. This bottle highlights the quality of the spirit being produced at Islay’s most northerly distillery, offering just enough cask influence to tame the rougher edges of the spirit, whilst allowing the traditional, coastal character of the distillery to shine through.
Cask No. 9.143 – Graceful Gravitas
Rounding the series off is a dram of supreme sophistication from the Speyside distillery of Glen Grant. Matured for 21 years in a Refill Bourbon Hogshead, bottled at 60.6% and available for £95.00
Smell: Caramel and Honey, Vanilla, Apple, Pear and Grape, Grass, Chocolate, Biscuit and Fudge.
Taste: Full Bodied, Oak Spice, Caramel, Chocolate Orange, Cinnamon, Chili, Lemon and Orange.
Thoughts: A 21 year old malt of this quality for under £100 is great value. Glen Grant is a dram I am rather poorly acquainted with, though if this is any indication of its quality, I shall have to remedy that situation as a matter of urgency. A whisky of weight and gravitas, of quiet sophistication and yet an underlying, raw power.
*** Special Offer *** Special Offer ***
If you are not a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society but have decided that now is the time to join, there are some festival themed introductory offers which may be of interest…