Islay Madness

Islay Madness

The island breathes again after its festival frolics

Thoughts from... | 14 Jul 2017 | Issue 145 | By Martine Nouet

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Phew! They have left. The mischievous 'local' in me gazes with an air of satisfaction at the nearly deserted camping-site at Port Mor. No more of these slow-motion camper vans blocking the way on single track roads. Gone those clusters of cyclists, who seem to ignore the elementary traffic rules and became a public danger on the road. The beaches won't be crowded anymore; this is to say you can count up to 25 walkers!

Fèis Ìle 2017 is over. Difficult to say how many visitors surged out of Caledonian MacBrayne ferries, maybe 3,000, which nearly doubles the island population. All the beds were occupied, shops had to renew their stock several times a day, while restaurants doubled their sittings. Distilleries were well prepared to cope with this influx of visitors. I must say it is amazing to see how everybody makes a point of welcoming whisky aficionados and tourists as best as they can. Even if they exchange complaints on social media community pages about certain excessive behaviour. Islay loves the festival week, and so do I. The whisky writer scorns the grumpy local in me. The music and whisky festival is the time to catch up with familiar faces, meet new ones and take part in the general goings on. Even though I did not go to the distilleries every day, I met people in cafés and restaurants or at the Co-op in Bowmore, the hub of sociability. You come in to buy a pack of pasta and 20 minutes later you are still in the store's aisle, talking to strangers or to neighbours.

I went to Lagavulin on the first Saturday, knowing I would meet festival-goers I encounter all year long in different whisky festivals. I think this year the number of German whisky lovers was a record. The regular Italians were there alongside more French than usual but surprisingly, we did not see many Scandinavians. Among the far away visitors, I noticed quite a number of South Africans and Australians. Certainly a cosmopolitan gathering which makes Islay the centre of the whisky world for a week. I am always amazed by the patient queues, I must have developed an allergy to queues, due to my French blood. People accepting to stand for hours in the rain, in the hope of getting their hands on the festival bottling. This was the case in Lagavulin. Before leaving the distillery, I dropped in the shop to get a bottle for a friend, they were not short of them. Why queue then? Bowmore and Bruichladdich with their limited release (500 bottles) disappointed more than one punter though. In Ardbeg, you queued for smoke, but not the whisky one. Each visitor had a token for an Arbroath smokie. No need to queue for Kelpie, 6000 bottles were released and available worldwide. If that could stop the collectors' mad mania!

All these Festival releases have generated a frantic quest for making money, on both sides. Distilleries selling at top price and the customers buying them, with the intention of selling them at a higher top price. This escalation has become stupid and pointless.

This gave me the nostalgia of the first Fèis Ìle events. There may have been three times fewer visitors in the first years, but the distilleries were much more relaxed... and generous. I will never forget the treat of a dram of Lagavulin 16 enjoyed with a shell of freshly pan-fried Lagavulin Scallops, while a lone piper was playing touching laments by Dunyvaig castle. I spent hours, roasting in the sun, with my sadly missed buddy Michael Jackson who tirelessly talked to people and signed his book. So much fun.

Year after year, most distilleries offer the same programme. Ardbeg is the only one to stand out with a different theme tuned with their festival release, this year the mythical Kelpie offered an exploration into the marine world. The lassies were dressed as mermaids while the lads mostly kept to their Ardbeg flashy T-shirts. The dress appearance certainly does not go unnoticed at Fèis Ìle, with all these branded T-shirts and sweaters. A special mention to the Whisky Pigs (South Africa) and to the Caribbean Whisky Mafia (Barbados). What about a T-shirt contest next year? Let's hope for more novelty for next year's festival.
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