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25/05/2016

A beginner's guide to the Islay Music and Malt Festival | Fèis Ìle

Lagavulin Distillery, Isle of Islay

 

We probably don't have to tell you how good seven days of whisky, music and Gaelic culture on Islay is. People go once, and then go back, year after year. But what if you've never been before? How does it actually work? Here's our guide for first-timers. Drams at the ready.

 

Seven whole days?

Yep. Each distillery has its own open day, with all the atmosphere of a mini festival: bands playing, food stalls, and the all-important malt bar. The distillery also releases a special bottling for the festival. It's a limited release expression that's guaranteed to sell out - so get in line if you want one.

Away from the queues you'll find whisky tastings, cocktail making and local food stalls. It's not your average festival fare though: pick up a box of local mussels, or try half a dozen Islay oysters sloshed with Lagavulin 16.

Want to learn a bit more about the whiskies at each distillery? Book a ticket for one of the whisky and food matching masterclasses. You'll taste a range of expressions, and see how something like a peppermint can quieten certain flavours and enhance the others in a dram.

 

Everything booked up? Don't panic.

The masterclasses, ceilidhs and other events tend to sell out pretty quickly - have a look for tickets at  islayfestival.com . If you missed your chance, don't fret. There's a lot going on that you don't need to book for: the bands play all day; the pubs roar all evening. Just head for that day's distillery to get started.

 

New friends on the ferry become old friends on Islay

The festival is an extremely friendly place, and it begins on the ferry. Get chatting to your fellow festival-goers and you'll meet people from all over. Lots of them will be old-timers and whisky enthusiasts, so it's worth getting their take on the best things to do and places to go.

Then you'll find you run into them on the island - not just at the distilleries, but in the pubs, the restaurants, even the Co-op - where you can greet them like old friends.

Timetables & Fares
 

Bruichladdich open day is always sunny

It sounds silly but it's true: it's always sunny on the Bruichladdich Distillery Open Day. The rain could be lashing down the night before, and you could experience 100mph winds the day after, but by some bizarre feat of nature if it's Bruichladdich Open Day you're guaranteed sunshine. What ever they're doing every year, we need the secret recipe! 

 

Where can I stay?

Islay has plenty of hotels and B&Bs, but it'll be hard to find a room if you're not booked in at least a few months in advance. The advice from the regular festival goers? "Book now for next year." 

Lots of people camp out too. There are camping sites near Port Ellen and Port Charlotte with good facilities and brilliant views - try Kintra (pronounced Kintraw), four miles outside Port Ellen. You can also camp out in front of the White Hart at Port Ellen, but the facilities are limited to the public toilets in the car park.

Visit our Accommodation​ section for inspiration.

 

What's the best way to get about on the island?

It's a whisky festival spread across the whole island - so transport between the distilleries and your accommodation needs careful thought.

It's tempting to bring pals and a car, then draw up a careful rota of designated drivers between you. If you want to take the car, book your ticket nice and early. That's one option - but not the only one.

You can do it on foot. Leave the car at the port in Kennacraig and hop on the ferry. Base yourself in Port Ellen and you'll be within walking distance of three excellent distilleries - Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg (they're all in a row, along the coast). The footpath is smooth asphalt, and it's a great way to work up to and walk off those drams. If you're going further afield, catch the local buses, or look out for the shuttle service that some distilleries run to Port Ellen. As with everything else: if you're booking a taxi, book it in advance.

Your third option is to take the bike: Islay is excellent for cycling. It's mostly flat or undulating, with none of the terrifying ascents you'll find in the Highlands. You'll meet plenty of fellow cyclists, and you'll see lots of Islay too - not just the whitewashed courtyards of the distilleries. There are various ways to Hopscotch over to Islay from the mainland, and it's free to take your bike on the ferry.

 

And finally: pack waterproofs and sun cream

The weather changes rapidly on Islay: it'll be raining one minute, and bright sunshine the next. Pack a good waterproof and sun cream and you'll have all bases covered. Then you can get down to the serious business of finding your perfect Islay Single Malt.

 

Get ahead with our West Coast Whisky Pass

Before you start your whisky journey over to Islay why not buy one of our West Coast Whisky Passes? Launched in November 2015, we've partnered with some of Scotland's best distilleries and whisky establishments from Arran in the south to Harris in the north, we're sure you'll find the perfect deal for you.

More about Whisky Pass

 

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