Having spent a day at Fèis Ìle with Bunnahabhain, we’re more convinced than ever that you need a whisky holiday. Here’s why.
Recently we gave you a chance to win a trip to Fèis Ìle 2024 with Bunnahabhain. But that’s not the first time we’ve run that particular competition. Eagle-eyed MoM readers will know that last year we did the same and the winners were James, Ben, and Ciaran. I know that because I met them and joined them for their day of victory during the Islay Festival at Bunnahabhain Distillery.
“A once-in-a-lifetime prize”
Ben described it as both “a once-in-a-lifetime prize” and “a prize too good to be true”. He summarised: “I think we’ve all seen these types of competition taglines and dreamt of what that would be like. Well, as a whisky drinker when we saw the tag ‘Win and trip to Fèis Ìle 2023’ on the Master of Malt website in 2022 we rushed to hit ‘Buy it Now’ on a qualifying bottle of Bunnahabhain. Fast forward to 2023 and we’ve just returned from that ‘once in a lifetime’ experience”.
The Islay whisky makers really do pull out all the stops. Transport to Glasgow airport and a flight to Islay kicked things off and then it was straight to Bunnahabhain (after slinging the bags in the hotel) for its distillery day, where it’s open to the general public and alive with activity. Two different bands occupy bright white tents, food stalls and bars are dotted around, and the distillery and its bay provide the most stunning canvas in the backdrop, particularly in the radiant sunshine. I got more colour on one day in Islay than I did during a week in Spain last month. Go figure.
Of course, the main attraction is the whisky. I can’t really remember a moment when I didn’t have a Glencairn glass in my hand filled with something brilliantly Bunna. Things were taken up a notch with the promised masterclass, hosted by Mr Bunnahabhain himself, distillery manager Andrew Brown, and the always exceptional master blender, Julieann Fernandez. They talked distillation process, distillery character, and cask profiles as we enjoyed five drams: Bunnahbhain 12 Year Old, a single malt aged in a Banyuls cask from France, and the three festival offerings, the Canasta cask, the Manzanilla Cask, and a 17-year-old Triple Cask Moine, the peated Bunnahabhain.
Bagpipes, dolphins, and Bunnahbhain’s Fèis Ìle 2023 whiskies
Canasta is cream sherry produced by Williams & Humbert from a blend of dry oloroso and sweet PX sherries. As festival bottlings go, it’s on the affordable side, while still being interesting and tasty enough to warrant some fuss. The Manzanilla Cask takes things up a notch, a 25-year-old that enjoyed a secondary maturation, not a finish, of six years in the barrel that previously contained a salty dry wine from Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It’s beautiful, a rich, super-sherried dram which just elevates all the flavours you expect from the distillery, particularly the salty maritime quality. The star of the show for me was the 17-year-old Triple Cask Moine, a marriage of three peated drams including an oloroso finish, bourbon matured, and rum finish. It was full of rich smoke and these expressive dark fruit notes, but managed to keep the Bunna DNA alive too. “That was an amazing hour, and we continually pinched ourselves to make sure we were really there,” Ben says.
We were then whisked off on a private boat trip, soaring away from Bunnahabhain Bay with more of the 2023 Fèis Ìle bottlings in our glasses as the sun continued to beat down and Islay’s great landscape opened up in front of us. Then the dolphins appeared, playfully catching up with and swimming under the boat, popping up on either side with great leaps and dives back into the water in a moment that brought genuine tears to the eyes of several on board. James summed it up: “How do you describe what we’ve just seen? There’s no word for it. People pay so much to go elsewhere, but the natural world of the UK is as beautiful as anywhere on the planet. We need constant reminders of that”.
Returning back to the island, everyone was very much in need of a good meal and a food truck providing pizzas of black pudding and caramelised onion or tikka with curry sauce was welcomed heartily. They were devoured while listening to Scottish rockers The Rolling Drones cover George Michael, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘Amazing Grace’ and more while a bagpipe belted out the riffs. The fact that we topped it off with local oysters (outrageously good) from which we sipped Bunna from the shell just felt decadent.
The case for a whisky holiday
All the while, we’re opening up, creating bonds, and shooting the shit. It’s familiar territory for our competition winners. The three friends live in Eastbourne and share passions for whisky, music, politics, and cycling, taking in a stage of the Tour de France each year. They’re seasoned whisky travellers, having seen Ardmanurchan, Tobermory, and the Isle of Skye on a recent cycling trip. When they’re not gleefully gallivanting, they’ll hang out and share a few drams while listening to music. They’re whisky folk. Our kind of people.
Which meant they got great value out of our next stop, Warehouse 9. This behind-the-scenes peek at Bunnahabhain’s most famous storage warehouse saw Ben take part in ‘re-gauging’ a cask and use a ‘whisky thief’ to test the liquid for ABV, which he noted was another fantastic experience. As the distillery day drew to an end we were taken back to our hotel and treated to a beautiful meal. There was more whisky. More chat. You don’t have to ask many questions on Islay to hear great stories. You also don’t have to spend that much time there to create your own. Ben described it as one of the “greatest whisky experiences you are ever likely to have”.
The time I spent in Islay made me think that whisky holidays should be more of a thing. I’m sure there are people who read a blog like this who have already put whisky at the centre of their travels. But if you haven’t then it’s time to start booking distillery tours and getting out there. The Islay festival is remarkable, but it’s not Disneyland. It’s a real place and there’s an island beyond the festival that’s worth seeing all year round. For two years I’ve attended and loved the Spirit of Speyside festival. Whisky has taken me across the world and introduced me to some of the best people, all of us connecting via our love of everything the spirit encompasses.
The guys have a maxim that you “meet only nice people at the top of mountains”. After a long climb on the bike, the people you see at the summit all share a passion that, in turn, drives trust and kinship. It’s their belief that whisky is the same. As James says, “You can be diverse and different in every way, but whisky makes kindred spirits of us”.
Bring Bunna to you: Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old
Of course, if you can’t get to Bunnahabhain or beyond anytime soon, you can always bring the charm of Islay to you. Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old is an unpeated Islay single malt Scotch whisky bottled at an impressive 46.3% ABV, a serial award-winner that represents excellent value. It’s very much Bunna in a bottle. It’s got all those bright coastal elements which sink into this lovely, rich sherried goodness. Here’s a full tasting note to whet your appetite:
Nose: Lots of fresh floral notes and briney seaweed elements lead with nutty honey, marmalade, wet hay, stewed dark fruits, and sherried spice.
Palate: Oily and rich with roasted nuts, juicy dried fruit, earthy vanilla, clove, dark cherries, black pepper, and a tiny sour apple tartness.
Finish: Sherried and herbaceous with mochaccino and more of that classic coastal salty tang.
Here’s some final words from Ben: “I know that sometimes when I see these types of competitions I just believe it will never happen, but I am writing to say that us regular whisky drinkers just had the most amazing extended weekend, all because we bought a bottle on Master of Malt and enjoyed it with friends. So, all I am saying is, competitions are awesome and I’ll be entering every single one I see from now on! Thank you to everyone who helped make it happen at both Bunnahabhain and Master of Malt”.