Feis Ile Starts; Big Peat Reappears and a Timorous Beastie Beckons; Brora Reopens; Jim McEwan Retires (Finally?).
Well, it‘s the end of May and Feis Ile time again, though Islay‘s annual festival of malt and music is virtual again this year. It all kicks off tomorrow (Friday 28th May), a day earlier than usual. There have been lots of notifications of online live events to join and there may still be a chance if you haven‘t done so yet. Look on the distillery websites for more information. It will be too late for tasting samples to be sent out to you but there are other sessions to attend. I‘ve signed up for Laphroaig‘s events on Tuesday as it‘s a brand I used to work on and I may well try to sign up with more distilleries before end of tomorrow. Like last year, I‘m really missing not being able to do my annual Feis Ile whisky dinner at The Port Charlotte Hotel. That trip to Islay is one of the highlights of my year as I don‘t get to go very often otherwise. The ferry journey blows away the cobwebs and clears the mind – such good therapy. Hoping to do the trip soon, though, as Laphraoig is keeping a few bottles of something for me „until you can come and pick them up yourself“. Now there‘s an incentive! Though a former colleague told me recently that due to Covid restrictions on ferry space serving the Scottish islands (don‘t know which ones he tried) – and some boats off for repair – he couldn‘t get a booking for June, despite being date flexible. My advice to any of you out there is to keep trying.
Also, as it‘s Feis Ile time, distillers and bottlers have been bringing out their Feis bottlings again though they are available only from distillery online shops or selected mainland stores. One new peaty offering is Big Peat Peatrichor from Douglas Laing & Co. who do this every year for Feis, as well as at Christmas. This is the Summer bottling to celebrate Islay rainfall (frequent), is available now and there are only 5,000 bottles for global distribution. It‘s a powerful 53.8% abv this year and, as ever, no chill-filtration and no added colour so don‘t be surprised at the pale hue. We‘re told, „The word Peatrichor (or petrichor) describes the earthy scent produced with rain falls on dry earth / soil.“ It‘s true (and I like the pun but petrichor is the correct spelling) – find out more at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-44904298 . Let‘s nose and taste:
Appearance: A pale lemon, young Chablis colour. Tears swift but oily and not too far apart at first, then widening out.
Nose: Even at the usual safe distance for a stronger whisky – nose burn! I had to hold it further away. Initially sherbet lemon sweets and antiseptic/medicinal for me. A fresh air note like walking along a shore. The peat and smoke do not overwhelm at first, they emerge from the glass as it sits. With water, there‘s some oak sweetness and vaniila notes as well as coconut and a touch floral (from the sample bottle there‘s an almond and floral note too).
Palate: Some mouth-coating viscosity. Smoke, tar and char – much more than the nose would have you believe. Deceptive! Some throat-catching embers but also wood sweetness and licorice. It is a peat smoke bomb.
Finish: Long with peat smoke and tar but a residual sweetness too.
Big Peat fans – indeed, any peat fans – will love it. Find it at selected specialists for about £45/bottle or equivalent in your country dependent on duties and taxes.
Another new expression from Douglas Laing is a Timorous Beastie (Highland Malt) but I‘m told there may be a sample available so I‘ll cover that again, via a tasting note another time if it arrives. In summary, it‘s out now at about £50/bottle and only 3,600 bottles to go round. It‘s also at cask strength – a huge 54.9% – and matured entirely in American oak bourbon casks. I‘d expect plenty of vanilla but hope to find out.
Other Feis bottling notifications recently sent to me are those from Diageo available to the wider world from 1st June. We have, from the media release:
„Lagavulin Fèis Ìle 2021 – 13 Year Old
The Lagavulin bottling has been matured in refill American Oak casks and finished in high char Port-seasoned casks. The limited edition run of 6,000 bottles will be released with an ABV of 54.4%, and an RSP of £160 per 70cl. Available to purchase at Lagavulin Distillery and malts.com.
Caol Ila Fèis Ìle 2021 – 12 Year Old
The Caol Ila festival bottling has been matured in refill American-Oak and finished in high char Moscatel-seasoned casks. Fèis Ìle Caol Ila 12 Year-Old is bottled at 56.6% ABV, with only 3,000 bottles available. It will retail from £130 per 70cl. Available to purchase at Lagavulin Distillery and malts.com.“ The moscatel aspect interests me. Go to it Feis fans!
Ages back Diageo started on distillery reawakening and brand home refurbishment works. The latest of these to materialise is Brora which has recently reopened after three years of painstaking work. Massive care has been taken to ensure that the spirit matches that of the original distillery, too. Astounding archive items were found on opening up the buildings, like the original 1890‘s distillery plans drawn up by architect, Charles Doig. An archivist heaven! Just to add confusion Brora was originally called Clynelish but it was renamed as Brora and a new Clynelish built which was the subject of a recent extensive refurbishment programme as a Johnnie Walker brand home. The Brora distillery is 202 years old but was closed in 1983 – as were so many distilleries during the 1980‘s whisky glut as sales declined, particularly in the US.
The old wildcat gates (look at the design on the gates) were reopened and the first new cask filled by Master Distiller Stewart Bowman, a local man and son of the last exciseman at Brora before its closure. This historic cask was rolled into Warehouse Number One, „home to the most precious relics of maturing Brora casks“. The media release also quotes Stewart Bowman,“In 1983, my father wrote in an old distillery ledger ‘Commencement of Brora Distillery silent season (undetermined period)’. Growing up in the village we often wondered whether Brora would ever return, but today we filled the first cask. It is with great pride that I can now say to my father, the Brora community, and all the ‘old hands’ that worked at Brora and helped to craft a legendary whisky, that the stills are alive and we are making Brora spirit once again.” It must have been quite an emotional day for some of those present. If you want to visit, this will be possible from July (Covid regulations permitting) but only by prior appointment and bookable at www.brora.com . There are two experiences to be had and both expensive but, from the sound of them, well worth it. To mark this reopening, a special distillery-exclusive expression has been launched this month – The Brora Distillery Collection: Hidden Beneath, a Brora 1982 39-Year-Old. In April they revealed the Brora Triptych, „…a three-piece collection of extremely rare Single Malt whiskies each representing a distinct style of Brora’s proud and storied heritage“. This set is also now available for purchase.
Last word must be about the Jim McEwan retirement chat which was held virtually last Sunday evening and joined by people from a number of countries. Some names and faces I recognised but not the majority. Hardly surprising given the number of friends and fans James has made over the years. The event was hosted by the guys who made the „Water of Life“ film with him. It was a lovely story-filled send off (Jim‘s stories, what else?) and even though I‘d heard some before, they always bear multiple hearing. Many attendees also had questions to pose. Seems the English version of his autobiography is due out at the end of June and will certainly be available from dramfool.com and, I would hope, all good bookshops. It‘s hard to think of James actually retiring from the whisky world but both he and Barbara (who has also given much of her time and family life to the whisky industry) deserve time with their family and for their ambition to travel unfettered by work timetables. I hope they achieve all their plans.
First piece next month is an interview with Jaclyn McKie of Isle of Arran Distillers. Until then, happy dramming.