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The Islaympic Games

By Rob Allanson
Every year, the Islay Festival of Whisky attracts peat fanatics from across the globe and this year’s Ardbeg open day once again proved that the distillery still knows how to throw a party. Anyone who has ever opened a bottle of peated whisky from Islay will tell the non-believers that the only way to truly under-stand what all the fuss is about is to take a trip over to the magical island and experience it first hand. What better time than during the last week of May, when the legions of peat freaks and smoke chasers from all around the world descend on the famous isle for the annual Feis Ile - a celebration of all that makes Islay great.

This year saw whisky fans from as far a field as Japan and America making the pilgrimage for the week-long festivities, that have been running in tandem with the distilleries since 2000. The distillery open days, accompanied by their annual limited release bottlings have now become the stuff of legend and none more so than Ardbeg Day –traditionally the final distillery to open their doors during the festival.

Previous Ardbeg open days have been centered on a specific theme, sparking some rather out-landish costumes for the staff and distillery manager Mickey Heads, including flamenco out-fits (to tie in with a Spanish oak theme) and this year was certainly no exception.
Decked out in tracksuits, trainers and sporting special sweat-bands and whistles, team Ardbeg looked the part as they formally opened the Olympic themed events on a surprisingly sunny Saturday morning.

A sea of international flags were handed out to the various nationalities for a parade around the distillery, led by an Olympic torch fuelled by peat, to the tune of the ubiquitous Proclaimers classic ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). Mickey Heads then proudly proclaimed the Ardbeg Day games well and truly underway and alongside family orientated games such as sheep tossing, canine racing (featuring a bungee run and dog suits) and cask end discus, the tastings and masterclasses were all suitably sports themed.

Bryony MacIntyre, part of Ardbeg’s whisky creation team hosted a highly informative look into Ardbeg phenol levels (cheekily entitled Bryony’s Phenolic Gymnastics) and those in atten-dance got a chance to try some interesting peated cask samples alongside a brand new lightly-peated Kildalton and the Ardbeg Day festival bottling – this year released internationally across the network of Ardbeg Embassies from Taiwan to Sweden for those unable to get to Islay.

“You can see that the events seem to get bigger, better and wackier every year,” explained Bryony. “It’s a fantastic experi-ence and everyone has a great time- people are booking their places for the year after.

“People are making life long friends from the events too, which is great.”

For Eugene Van der Meer, a veteran visitor to the Feis Ile and Ardbeg enthusiast, this year’s open day was one of the very best. “It’s always absolutely brilliant. The atmosphere, the people and our returning friends make us come back year on year and Ardbeg day is still the best. They do things differently – from the tours to the games, everything is so well themed and thought out.”

Mickey Heads was delighted with yet another successful event. “Here at the distillery everyone gets involved. It’s been great to throw crazy ideas around and see everyone enjoying themselves.”

One can only imagine what theme lies up their peaty sleeves for next year’s festival!