Awards & Events

Islay Whisky Festival, the must for May

Martine Nouet describes the highlights visitors can anticipate at this May's Islay Whisky Festival
By Martine Nouet
A distillery visit a day keeps the blues away in the merry, merry month of May.For the third year, the Islay Malt and Music Festival is fully ready to welcome crowds of whisky pilgrims from the world over. Growing numbers of enthusiasts have already booked distillery tours and special tastings. The festival has rapidly proved to be one the most awaited and acclaimed in Scotland, with many regulars coming each year. If recognition brings satisfaction to the festival committee, it also entails additional brainstorming, as each distillery has to come up with new ideas to entertain the peat-freaks and music addicts each time.The lucky ones who will be sailing on malty waters between 24th and 31st May this year mustn’t forget to adjust their watches to allow for the Islay time difference: taking time to share a pint with the locals at the pubs, enjoying a stunning sunset on Lochindaal, giving way to the lambs on the road and returning for distillery tours that had sold out earlier. Whisky fun is not confined to inside the distillery walls.As in previous years, each distillery has a special programme one day in the week with bonus additions here and there. Good news: festival goers will not starve this year. Restaurants will extend their opening hours and a mobile catering van will be on site every day.Festival diarySaturday 24th May: Lagavulin dayLagavulin Distillery workers travel back in time, from 2003 to 1903, in distillery tours all afternoon. Neil Wilson launches the third instalment of ‘Scotch and Water’. Distillery manager Donald Renwick hosts two special tastings. Enjoy scallops by the shore. Blues night with band Ninetyfive Proof at 9.30pm.Sunday 25th May: Bruichladdich dayOfficial opening of the bottling hall, a première in Islay whisky-making. Super Masterclass by Jim McEwan (already sold out) in Warehouse 5. Barrel-rolling competition for the tough ones; cellar tastings for the wimps. Ceilidh in courtyard with the Islay Pipe Band, with local artists
including Norma Munro and, Robin Laing who presents his new CD.Monday 26th May: Caol Ila morning and Port Ellen Maltings afternoonTwo distillery tours at Caol Ila and two tastings of the Hidden Malts with Billy Stitchel and Jim Beveridge. Tours in the afternoon at Port Ellen maltings with venison burgers barbecued in the kiln. Tasting session of different Port Ellens.Tuesday 27th May: Jura dayTwo special ferry crossings morning and afternoon to get a taste and a tale with malt Superstition and learn more about George Orwell’s affinity with Jura. Storytelling with barbecue on the beach (weather and midges permitting).Wednesday 28th May: Bowmore dayIn addition to morning distillery tour, traditional peat-cutting demonstration on the peat moss in the afternoon, with ‘Ginger Willie’ challenging peat-cutting star Norman Campbell. Nosing and tasting session including the mythical Bowmore 1964. Songs and music in the malt barn
at sunset.Thursday 29th May: Ardbeg dayTake a walk on the wild side with the first ever performance on Islay of the famous celtic band Clan an drumma – a six-piece Glasgow band that uses tribal percussion (one member has a distant family connection with Islay). Madonna had them play at her son’s christening. Clan an drumma will play outdoors (weather permitting) with a special concert at 4pm. Special whisky buffet at The Old Kiln during the day. Two walks to the water source, with refreshments, in the day.Candlelit whisky dinner at The Old Kiln on Saturday 24th (40 tickets at £35, booking starts from 9am on Saturday 24th). Midnight tours of the distillery (Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday night) for a real ‘thrill at the still’.Friday 30th May: Bunnahabhain dayDistillery manager John MacLellan conducts four tours. Special launch of a 1963 bottling, only available at the distillery. Create your own Black Bottle T-shirt using the distillery stencils.Bunnahabhain filling-store hosts the Managers’ Night. A special taste of Islay community feeling.Last chance to learn Scottish dances and make bids for charity auctions.Saturday 31st May: Laphroaig dayCome and wish Laphroaig’s new man good luck: Robin Shields, the new distillery manager appointed a few months ago, now a permanent resident on Islay. He will host a celebration lunch for the Friends of Laphroaig (now 150,000 worldwide!) and take distillery tours. Lucky draw for a chance to test your ability as a distillery worker during the day.Don’t miss the new novel way take in the best view of your favourite distilleries.The Seafari Islay company takes visitors to all seven Islay distilleries on a rigid inflatable boat. Heaven for photographers! The Seafari boat will be mooring in the bay of the distillery of the day all week long. Details at are asked a small fee for all tours, tastings and events, which helps support local charities.Last, but not least, accommodation might be the tricky point – hotels and bed & breakfasts being fully-booked, even if cancellations are expected from American visitors, due to the political situation. Try: Destinations can be helpful:
www.whisky-tours.comIf you’re going, enjoy your whisky week on the coast of heaven!