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Thursday 27 May 2010

Islay Feis Ile - bottlings round up

Welcome to the jungle. Here we are back in The Big Smoke. The city is full of giant concrete structures and asphalt pavements that have sucked in the all heat from the weekend, when it hit 30 degrees and are now slowly releasing warmth into the cooler, moist air like a giant urban sauna. Yesterday I walked two blocks in Central London and ended up feeling like Michael Douglas’ character Bill Foster in Falling Down. It’s a far cry from the sundrenched Kildalton shoreline, but in order to afford time on Islay drinking great whisky and buying rare, festival only bottles for consumption at a later date, you’ve gotta put the work in and earn the cash. So here we are, back in our concrete jungle. Back at work.

Getting home to the goodies purchased on the island (and one bottle picked up at Loch Fyne Whiskies en route home- see above) and sitting back with a large dram of the Caol Ila Festival Bottling, we thought we’d put together a summary of the interesting bottlings that we’re released in 2010 and, with the festival not yet over, some exclusives of the ones that are yet to come...

Let’s start with day one, which was the Lagavulin Open Day. Here we picked up two bottles, the single cask Festival Bottling, selected by the amazing Iain “Pinkie” McArthur. Released at £74.99 and limited to around 525 bottles (we can’t remember the exact figure) distilled in 1994 and bottled in 2010 the cask (number 3210) is an ex European oak. Their Distillery Only bottling is a cask strength, double matured, no age statement whisky which retails at £69. I heard someone from the distillery mention that there were only 1,000 cases of this (6,000 bottles) but I don’t know how true that is. You can read our notes on this bottling here.

The Festival Bottling sold out before the end of the day, the first time I’ve seen this with their Feis Ile release. Usually the release is available for a couple of days after their open day but this year it seemed to fly off the shelves. Maybe people have been reading notes on how good these bottlings are. You can read our previous notes on 2008 here and last year's here. Or maybe they've been looking here.

It was a similar story over at Caol Ila, with their cask strength Distillery Only bottling (bottled in 2007) This was the second year that they’d released a festival-only bottling and, much like Lagavulin, it was similar to last years release (both European oak ex- sherry casks) but the 2009 edition was distilled in December 1996 and this years was from August 1999, so just a couple of years younger and it was retailing at £74.99.

Up the bay from Caol Ila is Bunnahabhain who pioneered the whole festival bottling idea under the stewardship of ex-manager John MacLellan, who is now up at Kilchoman. The previous couple of years has seen the price of their festival bottling rocket, but this year they’re releasing a single cask 18yo Pedro Ximinez Finish, 384 bottles at £85. Back on course with something interesting and well priced. The bottle went on sale at the start of the week, but it has been so popular that they’ve stopped selling it to hold some back for their open day tomorrow (bottles available from 10am). A doff of the cap to the chaps at Bunnahabhain. Apologies for the lack of bottle shot here.

As mentioned John MacLellan is now up at Kilchoman and they’re doing their first ever festival bottling this year, a single cask at £55. Distilled in 2007 the bottling will be at 62.2%, drawn from a Bourbon cask (no: 11307) and limited to 258 bottles. A good price but it will be young, of course! We hope to bring you some tasting notes of this shortly (as well as a bottle shot!!)

Heading down the road to Bruichladdich, they knocked out two bottles this year. The first was the excellent (or not so excellent, depending on which blog you read!) Islay Barley 2004 Valinch. Another fill-your-own bottling from the chaps at ‘Laddich, this 6 year old retailed at £55 for 50cl. Last year was a 1993 single cask for the same money (except there was a buy two for £100 deal which legally they’re no longer allowed to do. Something to do with the government’s anti-binge drinking policy. The phrase “cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer” comes to mind!) They also snuck out another very limited bottling which was only available to people with a ticket for the Renegade Rum Masterclass. This was a 20 Year Old Rum Finish single cask of just 105 bottles at 55.5%.

Around the bay to Bowmore and they’ve wrestled the prize for “most expensive festival bottling” away from Bunnahabhain (but only just! More on that later...) by putting out a 25 Year Old at £325. To be fair, there is only 100 bottles of this and they have offered another bottling, batch 2 of their excellent Tempest (batch one review here) which will run to just 500 bottles and comes with a signed certificate, all for just £45. Nice.

Jura aren't doing a specific FI bottling but have elected to release Prophecy, a heavily peated batch and also the Boutique range, which will be part of their on-going range in the future.

Onward to the two Kildalton distilleries we’ve not yet covered; Laphroaig and Ardbeg.

Laphroaig have settled nicely into a consistent release schedule for the Feis Ile, again shifting out a bottle of Càirdéas, this time their Master Edition for £45. Bottled at 57.3%, the whiskies in this edition range from 11 to 19 years in age, as opposed to last year's definitive 12 yo version. No info on how many bottles, but it will be available through the Friends of Laphroaig online shop after the Feis Ile. We'll have some further notes on this bottling shortly.

Finally, we finish at Ardbeg who have their open day on Saturday. This effectively brings the festival to a close, along with the final fling and with the 10th Anniversary of the Committee, the buzz of excitement is enormous. Earlier in the year all Committee Members were sent an official invitation to the Open Day with tear-out tickets inside for rides on the day. What will be there? Rollercoasters? Helterskelters? Skittles? Wack The Rat? Who knows! But it sounds like it’ll be a lot of fun.

Whilst we were on Islay, we managed to try a sample of a Distillery-Only 10yo release, which had just sold out when we arrived on Saturday (RRP £180) No doubt there will be other releases like this in the future. Notes below:

Ardbeg - 'Distillery Only' Single Cask - Refill Sherry Hogshead - Cask 2763 - distilled 14th September 1998 - Bottled 5th November 2009- 55.6% vol - 70cl

A note on the colour: much darker than the standard issue 10 year old

Nose: An immediate dusty nature with the nose, hints of sandalwood and cedar. Then the smoke hits in a soft and delicate way - hidden behind the smoke some fruity notes emerge, predominantly over ripe bananas and apricot.

Palate: The first full scale flavour is the fruit, the apricot coming at you head on, using smoke as its engine. Then it starts to heat up, with notes of red chilli and cracked black pepper. With water, the fruits are enhanced and hints of soil and earth appear.

Finish: The smoke really takes hold now and it becomes quite firey on the finish. A last minute delivery of salt hits the mouth at the death. Lots of salt and perhaps a touch of the fruit again right at the end. With water, the saltiness is slightly reduced, creating a better balance overall.

Overall: A pretty solid single cask release from Ardbeg. Our personal preference is for refill bourbon over sherry casked Ardbeg, but this is decent. More like the Corryvreckan and less like the standard Ten, if we were to compare with the standard releases.

One thing we do know about is Ardbeg's Festival Bottling for 2010. (see a sneak preview of the bottle above) Last year they released a Feis Ile pair of 2 single casks, 1189 and 1190, both ten years old (from 1998) and in toasted oak which went out at £130 a bottle. This year's release is another single cask bottling. Whoop! Cask 2761 from 1995, a refill bourbon cask.

As it happens, we were lucky enough to try this at last year's festival at the Twisted Tasting during the Open Day. Back then it was called The Warehouseman’s Special and here are our notes- Perhaps it will taste even better now it's bottled.

Ardbeg - Warehouseman's Special - 1995 refill bourbon - 53.7% - cask 2761 (now Ardbeg Feis Ile Bottling 2010 and bottled at 53.3%)

Nose: Superb vanilla + fudge ice cream over flambéed bananas, coffee revels fresh orange juice, pepper. Fresh chopped mix herbs.

Palate: Heather infused fudge, caramels (hints of burnt sugar?), soft peat, effortlessly sweet notes, into bitterness. Malty cereals. The peat takes time to appear but breaks through to be fairly delicate and well balanced.

Finish: Classic soft Ardbeg fudge, smoke and light elegant peat. Juice from tinned pineapples / a hint of citrus.

Overall: Another sensational dram fresh from the warehouse. We have a soft spot for refill bourbon cask Ardbegs which gives excellent vanilla, citrus and tobacco notes to the peaty spirit.

They’ve squeezed out 228 bottles from the cask and this will be retailing at £220.'s the issue. This is a MASSIVE price rise on last year's releases- especially when you consider that you could have got 2 single casks for virtually the price of just this one!

As most of you already know, the team at the distillery are truly wonderful hosts and from what we've heard, they've worked tirelessly to make this year's open day, also the 10th Anniversary of the committee, the most spectacular yet. I think it is a shame to couple all their hard work and efforts with a bottling that, from our point of view, doesn't offer value for money, especially considering its age and the Feis Ile bottlings released by the other distilleries. Come on LVMH! Sort it out for next year!! Don't let price ruin such a wonderful event. Take a leaf out of everyone else's book and provide something which is easier on the pocket and a true reward for those partaking in what is always such a wonderful open day.

**UPDATE** We're hearing reports that the Ardbeg festival bottling was actually re-priced at the last minute to £125. Fair play here, a much more reasonable price and something for the real fans. Apparently there was a few folks waiting in line from the night before. That's dedication for you!

Anyway, we're not there. We're stuck here, away from all the undoubted merriment. Whisky always tastes that little bit better at the distillery so to everyone who is visiting the island over the next few days, leave all your troubles on the mainland and have a wonderful relaxing time.

Good luck to all the distilleries who have open days still to run (Jura, Bunnahabhain and of course, Ardbeg and we'll see you all again in 2011!