The last day of Feis Ile means only one thing – Ardbeg Day! There was a huge queue when I arrived. Of course there was!!
Rocking up at 9am, an hour before doors officially opened, meant I was in the shop by midday. I could have arrived up earlier. Given I’d parked up at Lagavulin the night before [see pic below], I hardly had to go far, but had decided to have a large & leisurely breakfast instead. Then again, I wasn’t expecting to buy or miss anything.
By 12:20pm I’d spent, no ‘invested’, £600:
- £5 entrance free [= a glass and a dram]
- £40 on a Dr Bill [Lumsden] tasting [an 8-fold increase since 2018: WLP]
- £555 on a 15yo single cask!! Am I crazy?
This was to be my only Feis Ile purchase [few fancied virgin oak finished Lagavulin or Caol Ila], though I certainly regret not buying the KIlchoman release as previously discussed [WLP]. Making up for lost time [four years], I hope this bottle will significantly help pay for my trip,.. at least the petrol! Single cask Ardbeg’s fetch four figures, so for a distillery to sell 600 bottles at £555 a piece in just a few hours, well, it’s a win-win. That’s how I’ve justified it, anyways. Perhaps I was bullied into it by those intimidating punks? Honestly, I feel uncomfortable about the whole thing.
Whilst in the aforementioned queue, punk-attired staff pour this year’s festival release, Ardcore! ‘No doubt by the time these notes come out, Feis Ile will be a distant memory‘, I wrote at the time [not far off]. For what it’s worth, here’s my brief take on the two [generous] drams I had on the day.
Ardbeg Ardcore  Ob. Feis Ile 2022 46% WB84.16 WF81
- C: Perhaps [h]ardcore more in name than nature, we’ve a quality-assured, straightforward, clean wash/beer distillate-driven release that points to a young spirit. As is so often the case, the official 10yo reigns supreme.
Scores 83 points
As per usual, Ardbeg put on a cracking show as did the weather. The sun always shines on Ardbeg Day. Ardbeg has a winning formula. Helped enormously with whisky aflowing and some appropriately energetic and engaging live bands, this year’s punk-themed party was in full swing with immediate effect. The usual whisky-related games, however, were considerably harder to master this year and the prizes less appealing. Whilst a consistent stream of £2 coins went in, I observed only 2 bottle wins in an hour. By contrast, in 2018 [see pic], all the prize bottles had been won before midday. Indeed, even I managed to win an Ardbeg 10yo with ease back then [WLP].
It’s 2pm already and time for the [hotly anticipated] ‘Dr Bill’ Tasting.
It’s the first time Bill Lumsden has attended an Ardbeg Day in 20 years and he’s come suitably attired.
He [Bill] muses over Ardbeg’s rise from the darkness to its cult status, recalling how little whisky was produced at Ardbeg in the 1980s & 90s. Indeed, Ardbeg was closed from 1981 to 1989, so the distillery has been playing catchup ever since. I believe I heard Bill say only 150,000 litres/400 cases of whisky were produced in 1997 when it reopened after another closure in 1996 [SW]. Glenmorangie paid just £7.7 million for Ardbeg Distillery in that same year – that’s less than half of what one cask recent sold for, ONE! [Further reading: tSB]
It took the team 10 years to get back to full operations, says Dr Bill, Ardbeg’s capacity having since doubled with the installation of four extra stills. Before then, it was a shoe-string operation with a very limited stock of 1970s juice to play with.
Poured blind, first up we have:
Ardbeg Uigeadail  Ob. 54.2% WB88.68 [WF]86
The early Uigeadail’s were made up using a variety of stock that included “classic” bourbon cask reserves from the 1970s and standard 10yo juice. Let’s not forget too that Ardbeg 10yo was only launched in 2000.
- N: Shut the back door, this is really good. It seems I may have simply neglected/forgotten about the Uige. Sweet leather, sweet vegetal, white [Vienetta] ice cream [without the chocolate], and so very salty as if to cancel itself out [if that makes sense].
- T: It’s not as millimetric or layered in comparison to the 10yo, but what fun it delivers, a fabulous soup of bourbon & oloroso casks with Ardbeg’s particular peatiness & sweetness that we shall see in the new make – yes, Ardbeg’s new make is coming up!
- F: Finishing on soft-sweetly vegetal ash, this is all you could want from single malt on a sunny Saturday afternoon on Islay.
- C: What era of Uegeladil is it, I ask. “Current”, says Bill, who tells me he will reject batches but this one he regards as “great”. I must buy a bottle asap. Not sure why I stopped buying and drinking it? it was always a favourite, a staple.
Scores 87 points
Ardbeg is only one of five distilleries to have purifiers. “It traps larger chain molecules”, says Bill.
Ardbeg New Make  Un-Ob. Spirit Sample 69.5%
New make: “Treat or torture”, suggests Bill. Always a treat for me. We are told the distillery ran the spirit still an hour before cutting it especially for this year’s Feis Ile masterclasses.
- N: Clean, coppery, fruity, bready/yeasty, herbaceous,… the phenols somewhat veiled, albeit with burnt raisins, a scorched nuttiness. Lovely stuff.
- T: I’m digging these easy coppery sour fruit notes, sour lemon, grilled lime, yet with a [lemon drizzle] sweetness on top of the ash, Iced Gems [without the biscuit bit],…
- F: ,… clean bready [bread crumbs], crisps, burnt popcorn, peaches,… all scorched/BBQ-ed.
- C: That’s quite some notes for a new make. It’s quite some new make.
There are murmurings around the warehouse. Recapping, we’ve had the current standard Uige and now the new make. Expectations are high for something,.. old and legendary given the historic generosity of past Ardbeg Days not long gone [WLP]. Third up, oh, it’s Fermutation.
Ardbeg Fermutation 2007/2021 13yo Ob. Ardbeg Committee Members [8000 bts] 49.4% WB87.49
I’d read about this at the time but didn’t jump on it. Having sold out in a flash [40 minutes], I’m pleased to be trying it at least.
- N: Clean [again], even-keeled salty malty [sour/grassy] beer nose with lime green popsicles, candy chews, blackcurrant jelly, stuffing balls,.. and a farmy ‘honky’ wash. This is a reminder that Ardbeg has it all going on.
- T: Sharp/fizzy salty sour lemon,…. bourbon driven I’d imagine [yep, in went into refill bourbon]. Despite the whacky-long ferment, I find this very focused.
- F: Remains focused and hi-energy yet centred.
- C: Very high quality though perhaps not as ‘fun’ as the Uig.
Scores 88 points
Ok, so three down [the current standard Uige, the new make, and Fermutation], and one to go. It turns out our final dram is a chance to try the whisky we’ve all just paid an embarrassing amount of money for. A fair few peeps are disgruntled. Expectations and changing times huh?! On the other hand, it’s a neat idea for those flipping their bottles.
Ardbeg 15yo  Ob. Feis Ile 2022 Rare Cask #9099 [btl #142/699] 51.8% WB91.20
I’d previously posted my review of this on Whiskybase before the hyper-scoring began in earnest. Thankfully, peeps didn’t overreact over this one. Despite owning a bottle, these are – as ever – my genuine first impressions of this rare official single-cask release.
- N: Expectations aside [being present at a masterclass hosted by Dr Bill Lumsden at the distillery on Ardbeg Day], this seems old – 1970s old. Indeed, we are talking of a proper old sherry style – all the sherries – and none of that contemporary syrup. Bill: “Sherry, the most misunderstood wine”. Delectably salty too. In short, it’s a stunning nose in context.
- T: Old-skool [old G&M bottlings] style in flavour, yet also crisp and vibrant [no OBE, obvs, and a high abv]. Salty vegetal-sweet peat juice serges onto the palate and pulsates with life,.. salt, sherry, salt, sherry,… then into rich chocolate.
- F: More and more giving as we work our way through this beautiful whisky.
- C: Beautifully crafted whisky, this Ardbeg offers a sherry masterclass in a glass!
Scores 91 points
There’s nothing else for it. I head straight to the bar in the filling store and to the lucky dip locker. Nothing much has changed since 2018 [see pic below] aside from the fancy dress.
The rules are simple. Pay a few quid, pick a number, open the door and see what you got. It’s Ardcore [again]. “Nooo”, I cry. “It’s the Committee Release”, they say. “Woohoo”!
Ardbeg Ardcore  Ob. Feis Ile 2022 Committee Release 50.1% WB84.76
- N: Very similar, of course, to the standard release, yet being more alive [more esters etc.], all on barley juice, it’s simply more voluminous yet chilled at the same time. No theatrics here, the phenolic yeasty/beer is more towards,… allium lemonade[?]
- T: With an abv-spiciness upfront, we are taken straight into the business end of an incredibly relaxed cask-strength whisky.
- F: Perfectly seasoned saltiness.
- C: Uber barley faithful, this one might glass-age rather well.
Scores 87 points
It’s time for the Ardbeg team to say goodbye
,… though a few extra bottles emerge for a post-Feis Ile debrief.
Here’s where I’m at with Feis Ile. Getting to islay is a commitment. As a committed whisky enthusiast, I want to experience things at the distillery I cant get anywhere else. I don’t want to be drinking what’s available to me at my local supermarket. Furthermore, I want to feel special and rewarded for my customer loyalty. Feis Ile, as well as a celebration of music and malt, is a marketing exercise where companies and their brands that can lose fans as well as gain them. Some nail it, others no so.
If you’ve never been to Islay before, go immediately and certainly don’t avoid Feis Ile. You can spend the whole week on the island and not know too much about the festival. Logistically, it’s not the stuff of nightmares ‘they’ lead you to believe.
If you’ve been a consistent visitor to Feis Ile, however, then you’ll have seen the gradual changes. If you’ve not been for a while, the generosity seen just a blink of an eye ago has passed which is strange in this time of plenty for distilleries, brands, and shareholders.
Having just discovered this video this morning, the way Michael Jackson talks about Ardbeg and the other Islay distilleries in 2003, I imagine he would be dismayed at what has happened, what has changed in the last 20 years.
I say farewell to Feis Ile.