The Islay Festival of Malt and Music, Feis Ile to its friends, is almost upon us again. From 22-30 May, the Hebridean island’s population will double, with whisky fans from around the world descending to celebrate Islay’s whisky. However, while each distillery on the island has an open day, with an inevitable special bottling, it’s not only the locals who are getting in on the act. Last year, Douglas Laing popped up on the island with some tastings of their independently bottled Islay drams, and this year they’re joined by my favourite independent bottler, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. They are running an open day of their own on the island, including the launch of their first, to my knowledge, Feis Ile bottling – 3.243: Dark, smouldering flamenco gypsy.
As with all SMWS releases, they hide the provenance behind a code (3.243 being the 243rd cask they’ve released from distillery number 3), but are open with the other details. This is a 17 year old whisky matured in a refill ex-sherry butt and bottled at cask strength, 57.1% ABV. It was distilled on 25 September 1997 and bottled in April 2015 – there are 594 bottles available.
Nose: Full on and intense, with a backbone of smoke and minerality. On top of that sits chocolate covered caramel, cherry Tunes and smouldering ferns, with black wine gums, liquorice and leather hiding underneath. As it sits in the glass it picks up more meaty tones, with sweet-cured bacon and barbecue sauce sitting in the midst of the smoke. A drop of water softens things, and releases some gently floral notes: sugared rose petals and a hint of parma violet.
Taste: Gently perfumed, with a touch of parma violet, although that is quickly overcome with intense fruit. Dried raisins and cherries, menthol and liquorice, spiced fruitcake, leather and tar. It’s initially hot, but develops some damp oak and dark chocolate as it calms down on the palate, along with bung cloth, a touch of brine and coal dust. It takes water well, losing some of the heat but maintaining the intensity of flavour, while adding sweetness and a little more menthol.
Finish: Lots of char to start, with blackcurrant sweets developing. Damp oak and liquorice appear, but the blackcurrant remains throughout, slowly fading to a lingering sweet smokiness.
Even if I didn’t know which distillery number 3 is, I suspect I would have guessed this was from Bowmore. The peat smoke is more restrained than in most Islay drams, but at cask strength this still has a kick that you rarely find in distillery bottlings.
It’ll be available to both members and non-members after it launches at the Islay House Garden Party on Friday 22 May – it’s £120 for non-members, but only £80 for those with SMWS membership, which is an excellent price for a dram like this. If you’re up on Islay on the Monday, pop along and see them – it’s free to get in from 9am-6pm. Annoyingly, I don’t get to the island until Sunday.
SMWS 3.243 –Dark, Smouldering Flamenco Gypsy
Islay Single Malt Whisky, 57.1% ABV. £80 for SMWS members, £120 for non-members.
Many thanks to the SMWS for the sample. Hopefully there’ll be a few bottles left by the time I get there…