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The Fèis Ìle, or Islay Festival, takes place towards the end of May each year. Sadly 2021 will be the second year in a row that the festivities will exist only in a virtual environment, thanks to the complications of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. With events taking the form of live streams, whisky fans across the world have been scrambling to scoop up tasting packs. I must confess that I haven’t gone in for much myself, although I’m sure I’ll tune in to some of the content throughout the week.
Thus far, the one purchase I’ve made is a tasting pack from Bunnahabhain that features a sample of their two festival bottlings, along with a dram of their excellent 12-year-old. It has to be said, some of the ticket prices I’ve seen for tasting packs have been on the high side, though that issue certainly isn’t exclusive to the Islay Festival. I must give credit therefore to Bunnahabhain who not only made their tasting packs available for just £20, they also put enough of them on sale that people were able to go to their website days after release and pick up a pack.
There have been times recently where it’s felt like whisky has gone insane. Every other week there’s some new small-batch release that sparks a feeding frenzy. The clamour to get a bottle inevitably results in unhappy consumers ranting into the void that is social media. There’s an unofficial SMWS group for example, where the membership of 2,500 people can’t understand why they weren’t all able to grab one of the 300 bottles released.
It sometimes feels like we’re having to pay more and more money for less and less of an event. No matter how good the whiskies are, sitting at my kitchen table, watching a tiny person on my laptop screen isn’t much of an experience. Like all the insanely priced bottlings released, people don’t want to miss out, so they pay the money. I get it. God knows I’ve paid stupid money for some whiskies myself. Bunnahabhain deserves a lot of credit though for making it possible to sample their special releases. Even if you’re not able, or willing, to buy their festival bottling for £100 or £300, you can at least try them for just £20. Thanks for that Bunnahabhain. Thanks for making Scotch whisky available to all, instead of just the privileged few.
Fèis Ìle 2021 Marsala Cask Finish
This 2001 vintage single malt was finished in Marsala butts. Bottled at 53.6%, it retailed at £199.00.
Smell: Wow this is intense. Dried fruits. Raspberry and blackcurrant jam. Roasted chestnuts. Brown sugar. There’s also some old oak and a little bit of char. Maple syrup. Tobacco.
Taste: This is seriously sumptuous stuff. It’s syrupy and sweet but there’s also the sort of depth that only comes with age and some gentle woody spice. Plum and dried fruits. Walnut. Brown sugar. Aniseed and ginger. Oak. Dry, spicy finish.
Value for money: I can’t really argue that a bottle of whisky at £199 is great value for money. What I can say though, is I’ve tasted other drams in this price range, and higher, that aren’t as good.
It’s wonderfully rich and carries good weight on the palate. You can tell there’s a somewhat dignified old malt in there but it’s been given a new vigour by the Marsala finish. It’s wonderfully fruity, yet old and woody at the same time.
Not one for those of us on a budget but were I in the frame of mind to spend £200 on a single bottle, I’d want it to taste as good as this.
Fèis Ìle 2021 Moine Bordeaux Finish
An 8 year old single malt made from heavily peated barley. Finished in casks that once held red wine from the Bordeaux region. Bottled at 59.5%, it retailed for £85.00.
Smell: Intense fruit mingles with peat smoke. There’s plum and blackcurrant. Glace cherries too. Woodsmoke. A little peppery spice. A splash of water brings out some honey and vanilla. Chocolate and coffee.
Taste: Big fruity arrival quickly turns to fire and brimstone. Lots of pepper, plenty of oak and a cloud of smoke on the finish. Before then we get notes of red apples and cherry. Water tones down the spice and dials up the fruits. The dram is much better for it. It seems to take longer to develop with the water and if anything, the mouthfeel improves.
Value for money: Were I to walk into a shop tomorrow and see a bottle sitting there for £85 I would buy it on the spot. I can’t really give it any more credit than that. I realise that asking price will still be excessive to some but it’s among the lowest of the festival offerings and it’s simply delicious. The Moine series has produced some absolute belters along the way, this one is no different.
I just love drams like this. It’s a complete assault on the senses but in the best possible way. It’s smoky, yes, but there’s so much more going on too. The combination of powerful cask finish and characterful malt could so easily become chaotic but that isn’t what happens here. The two collaborate beautifully and the end result is one of the most satisfying sips I’ve had in a long time.