Faintly Fèis

Confession time; I’ve never been to Islay.

That’s right, I am yet to make the pilgrimage across the sea to one of whisky’s most iconic homes. I have never queued to buy the limited festival releases, pitch a tent or stay at the Port Charlotte hotel. I have for years sat on my sofa when May comes around and seen my whisky friends’ pictures on Twitter of them on sailing ships tasting whiskies, arm in arm at distilleries, and often sun burned.

I’m writing this post from a cottage in a Cornish fishing village where my wife and I have made our first successful escape in over 18 months. Along with the majority of the populace all our plans in 2020 were cancelled and we grabbed this opportunity with both hands and don’t regret it one bit. We love it down here. I feel a connection with the sea and rarely take my eyes from it, it’s ever changing mood and sheer power shaping people’s lives and the island on which I live. I live in quite a rural area with relatively clean air but there is nothing that can replace the smell of sea spray, seaweed, wet rock and old rope as you head down into a small Cornish cove.

Image courtesy of Islay.org.uk

This is my Islay. This is one of the few places in the world where I feel truly at ease and at home; although I doubt this will ever be the case given the price of housing and limited opportunities in my line of work in the county. Even more poignant is that this is also the case for local people. Communities are being slowly dissolved away with many my age and younger having to leave their beloved home to find work and affordable housing elsewhere.

I feel there would be similarities between here and Islay. The rugged coastline, the variety and sudden change of weather, but more importantly the sense of community and a tight knit group of local people who are proud of their heritage and surroundings.

The pandemic has caused chaos, loss, and stress for many. There have however been some positives. More companies are opening up to the idea of remote working which will no doubt improve mental and physical health, restaurants, whilst they have suffered, have in some cases also changed the way they traded by offering at home delivery boxes. Fèis ìle was cancelled in 2020 but for 2021 distilleries have for the most part have seen an opportunity to adapt and have gone virtual. This meant that I could buy festival drams directly from distillers rather than seeing hundreds of bottles appear at auction within a week of the festival’s end at a 250% markup – as is tradition.

One of those distilleries is Bunnahabhain. Affectionately known as Bunna by many, this distillery forms one of three Scotch whisky distilleries in the Distell portfolio and has a loyal following. I won’t talk about production methods, technical stats or the history of the distillery here, there are plenty of other websites out there that covered off all that kind of stuff years ago. Their 12 year old is, in my opinion, up there with some of the best value for money whiskies that you can buy. I’ve already mentioned here, in my videos and Twitter feed that the clamouring for limited edition bottlings is becoming increasingly unhealthy and unfriendly. We could all do with having a word with ourselves and settling on some of the more consistent, affordable and quality whiskies such as the 12yr old.

That being said, Bunnahabhain put their festival bottles on the website and whilst there was the predictable server issues from being hugged to death by whisky fans and flippers alike; I came across a tasting set of two samples of the festival releases and a sample of the 12 yr old. That’ll do for me says I and proceed to breeze through the checkout process.

So in this instance Islay came to me and was then promptly brought to the most southerly tip of England. These 3 drams have had quite the journey.

The tasting set in question was £20 plus postage. The two festival drams are an 8yr old Móine (heavily peated) distilled in 2013 that spent a finishing period in Bordeaux wine casks and a 2001 Marsala finish. Both are un-chillfiltered, natural colour and bottled at natural cask strength. The Bordeaux retails at £85 and the Marsala at the slightly more eyewatering £199. At the time of writing, both of these drams are still available to buy.

Bunnahabhain Feis Ile 2021 2013 Bordeaux Finish Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky – 59.5% Un-Chill Filtered – Natural Colour RRP £85

I said in a recent video that a good Bordeaux blend is one of my go-to wines. Approachable, good quality and well priced they are a very good all round claret that goes well with a lot of food or just an enjoyable evening.

This 2013 is on the punchier end of the percentage spectrum at 59.5%.

The nose is initially reminiscent of the recent Glen Scotia Bordeaux cask finish for the Campbeltown malts festival in that there’s lots of berries and a distinct creaminess to it. There’s also some of the same sea air quality that I love in a whisky and a slight hint of smoke, certainly not the level you may expect. This then becomes buttery with a touch of smoked chipotle and honey. With water the oak becomes a little more pronounced alongside more red berries and a malty quality.

The palate carries great texture as you’d expect from an untampered with spirit of the strength and wine influence. There’s an instant peat hit which, for me, came as a bit of a surprise considering the profile of the nose but still a welcomed one. More of those berries, red fruits and butter appears alongside nutty crumble topping that’s slightly caught. Digestive biscuits and cream make way for more oak influence which becomes increasingly apparent alongside some heat as we head in to a long, warm and sweet finish with a hint of that peat throughout.

Overall certainly enjoyable and multidimensional with a good balance of oak and smoke. The wine cask adds interest and for me helps add balance and structure to what would otherwise be some pretty powerful flavours.

Score: Very Good

Bunnahabhain Feis Ile 2021 – 2001 Marsala Finish Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky – 53.6% Un-Chill Filtered – Natural Colour RRP £199

Now onto the Marsala which is a lovely deep copper in the glass.

The nose is initially a little closed and dominated by the rich marsala influence with underlying notes of turmeric, raisin and nuts. With water honey and malt extract appear.

On the palate this dram is much more of an open book although carries a thinner texture than the younger Bordeaux finish. The core Bunnahabhain nutty character is there off the bat alongside tobacco, honey and an almost shitake mushroom kind of earthiness. There is a dryness throughout which is interesting. More nuts come through along with a slight nip from the alcohol. With water I find it a little more approachable with chocolate orange and cinder toffee in the mix too.

Overall an interesting dram for sure but I prefer the much cheaper Bordeaux finish. Speaking of which the Glen Scotia 10yr Bordeaux finish sits around £40 less than that but value is unique to the individual.

Score: Good

As touched on above the Bordeaux wins out for me but this was a great opportunity to try festival exclusives that ordinarily I wouldn’t have been able to.

Malt Music

Fancy some tunes? The Malt Music for these drams is an unadulterated self indulgence. I’ve sat for hours listening to shanties in the Cadgwith Cove and can never get enough of the melodic and foot tapping nature of many of the coastal folk songs, many of which hark back centuries and have been passed down generation to generation. Given the surroundings of both Islay and Cornwall, this just felt right. Sloop John B sung by the Fisherman’s Friends.

Scoring Scale:

Holy Grail – Indiana Jones himself can only hope to find such a treasure.
Unbelievable – Among the best I’ve ever had. Must be tried at all costs.
Outstanding – One you should try to get hold of. Qualities in abundance.
Very Good – One to have on the shelf regularly. Provides consistent enjoyment.
Good – I’d happily drink this. One to buy at the right price.
Solid – No particular flaws but no wow factor either.
Fine – There to take the edge off. Good for highballs and won’t need much thought.
Meh – Somewhat flawed. More of a chore than a pleasure.
Oh Dear – Consistent flaws. Gets you where you’re going at the speed you want to get there.
Please Make it Stop – Not one to seek out. Hope for a gift receipt.

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