It’s Fèis Ìle – The Islay Festival of Music and Malt – and, for the second year in a row, it’s not the normal island-population-doubling week of in-person shenanigans. While you can now go and play on Islay, the festival has stayed online, and this week sees a host of virtual events, from quizzes and dances to whisky tastings.
While the festivities have kicked off a day earlier than usual, with Ardnahoe grabbing the Friday, the opening Saturday focuses on Lagavulin, with queues usually snaking out of the distillery shop from first light. Sister distillery Caol Ila joins the fray on Monday, although generally with a quieter affair. However, everything is online this year, including the sales of the special festival bottlings – a Lagavulin 13 Year Old and a Caol Ila 12 Year Old…
Fèis Ìle bottlings
Each year, the distilleries dig into their warehouses to find something special for visitors to pick up as a souvenir and sign of dedication to the whisky cause. Caol Ila’s bottling often gets a bit forgotten, despite regularly being hailed as the best of the bunch, but Lagavulin’s release always makes a bit of a kerfuffle.
With so few official bottlings appearing from both Lagavulin and Caol Ila, it’s understandable that a special edition gets some some attention. That attention is often criticism – as you’d expect for anything released by distilleries owned by Diageo, Scotland’s biggest whisky producer – but the negativity is generally quietly ignored as the shelves are usually pretty-quickly stripped of the Fèis Ìle releases.
The press release describes this year’s bottlings as being from experimental batches that were selected by the distillery teams. With both Caol Ila and Lagavulin being run by newly appointed managers, this is a nice way of introducing them both to the whisky world.
Lagavulin 13 Year Old Fèis Ìle 2021
The days of ridiculous Lagavulin festival releases are definitely behind us, and this 13-year-old Lagavulin may be ‘experimental’ but it’s much more conventional than that tag implies. That said, Lagavulin is generally very traditional with its maturation – bourbon casks, the occasional sherry butt and some PX for the Distillers Edition releases – and this adds in a Port finish.
“The Lagavulin bottling has been matured in refill American Oak casks and finished in high char Port-seasoned casks.”
Generally wine casks don’t get that high a char, so I can see where the experimental tag has come from, although it’s maybe a step beyond regular whisky geek geekery. It’s bottled at 54.4% ABV.
Nose: Balanced sweet and savoury, with a touch of mucky farmyard and silage contrasting against sweet peat smoke, smoky butterscotch and custard. Briney notes build, accompanied by burning ferns.
Palate: Surprisingly sweet at first, with sugar and spice slowly disappearing under a wave of damp peat smoke and burning leaves. Earthy notes and savoury char build, followed by numbing menthol.
Finish: Mint and menthol are slowly drowned in tarry smoke.
Much more savoury than I expected, with a focus on the darker and more tarry side of Lagavulin’s character. It doesn’t have the freshness that you might expect from having tried the yearly 12-year-old releases, instead leaning towards the classic 16 Year Old profile.
Caol Ila 12 Year Old Fèis Ìle 2021
I’m pleased that Caol Ila’s festival bottlings are now starting to get the attention they deserve, because they generally are very good. It was always strange to turn up at the distillery and find that not only was there no queue in the shop outside of their festival day, but they had both the current and previous year’s festival bottling available. Those days are definitely gone, although this year’s offering treads familiar ground.
Caol Ila’s main pair of distillery releases are the 12 Year Old and Distillers Edition. The latter is finished in Moscatel-seasoned casks for a total of about 12 years of maturation.
“The Caol Ila festival bottling has been matured in refill American-Oak and finished in high char Moscatel-seasoned casks.”
Sound familiar? It’s a high-strength version (56.6% ABV) of the Distillers Edition, with heavily charred finishing casks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but doesn’t jump off the page as all that exciting. But underestimating Caol Ila’s release is as much as a tradition at Fèis Ìle as almost missing your booked-months-ago distillery tour due to a brutal post-Bruichladdich-day hangover…
Nose: Rich and peaty, with tangerine peel, smoked toffee, salted caramel, singed flower petals and freshly poured tarmac. Bready notes build – freshly baked loaves with a touch of burnt crust.
Palate: A burst of sultana sweetness leads to rich tarry smoke, liquorice, blackcurrants and spiced bread. Medicinal notes roll in as the tar builds, along with mint, menthol and a touch of gravel.
Finish: Tar and gravel linger with sweet mint and some slowly fading dark chocolate. Meadow flowers hang around.
Sweet, complex and multi-layered. Not as much fruit as you often get from Caol Ila, but softly floral and with lots of well-balanced smoke and spice. Very nice, as I’d expect.
Both bottles go on sale at 2pm 31 May 20201 for subscribers to the Malts.com mailing list, with general sale on Malts.com on 1 June 2021 – they should appear here. They will also be available at the distilleries, if you can get there. There are 6,000 bottles of the Lagavulin and 3,000 of the Caol Ila, which should tell you something about the relative popularities in previous years.
Now we get to the bit that makes people wince – the price.
The Caol Ila comes in at £130 for a 70cl bottle. Considering that the Distillers Edition goes for £70 a bottle, this does feel a bit steep – almost double the price for a high-strength version? It’s definitely a different beast to the regular DE, so I’d move swiftly away from direct comparisons, and it does fit in with the pricing in previous years (ie. getting higher), but I suspect this will not fly off the shelves.
The Lagavulin is £160 for a 70cl bottle. While that does at first seem very steep, it fits in with what’s gone before, and the folks who jump on these releases will almost certainly pay it happily. It’s not exciting a dram as in previous years, but it’s still a good’un, and I suspect these will sell pretty quickly. That said, I don’t think it will move quite as fast as we’ve seen in the past – without the investment of time and money in going to the island that purchasers have had for previous releases, this feels like maybe a push too far.
Caol Ila 12 Year Old Fèis Ìle 2021, heavily charred Moscatel finish, 56.6% ABV, £130, Malts.com
Lagavulin 13 Year Old Fèis Ìle 2021, heavily charred Port finish, 54.4% ABV, £160, Malts.com
Many thanks to the team at Story PR for samples of the two releases.