The Feis Ile festival held on Islay annually is a week long celebration of all things whisky. Each distillery takes it’s turn in the spotlight, bottling something special and offering a calendar of exclusive events with the emphasis on enjoyment. It’s marvellous vibe and spectacle if you have the opportunity to experience it.
Islay by its nature is not easily accessible even when you live in Scotland. A long drive to a ferry port is required – if you’re not flying from Glasgow – before taking to the seas and destination whisky isle. For some enthusiasts it may seem more hassle than its worth, unless you’re a member of the whisky auction flipper club. The true meaning of a festival and celebration at times seems a little tarnished when you have speculators purchasing multiple bottles and auction site vans on hand to snap up such spares. It’s a sign of the times and a topic for another article. Bottles are for opening as shown when I did just that with the Glenfarclas 26 year old Speyside Festival release.
For 2016 Bunnahabhain wanted to offer fans another option to reach their celebration. Rather than expecting visitors to make their own plans and accommodation arrangements how about an all inclusive package? The Day Tripper package was born.
For an asking price of just £95 per person the concept was ambitious as it was generous. Attendees were to be collected in central Glasgow by coach, before sailing on the HMS Bunnahabhain bound for Port Ellen. A full Scottish breakfast would served onboard and those charming Brand Ambassadors would be on hand to quench any thirst. Arriving on Islay, you were then bussed to Bunnahabhain for a welcome from Andrew Brown, the distillery manager, who has worked at the distillery since 1988 in a variety of roles. After a few spare hours to explore or make those essential purchases, the HMS ‘Bunna set sail for home, offering dinner and a couple of drams to replenish energy levels. Then after reaching Glasgow the party would unite once more for a farewell dram at the Pot Still.
An exceptional gesture from the Bunnahabhain team and one I would expect took a great deal of planning and offered little profit other than opening up the festival to those normally unable to make the trip. I joined this merry band of day-trippers along with Justine from Kaskwhisky thanks to an invite from the organisers for which I’m very grateful and overwhelmed by. How else to best describe the event but through my own experiences? Prepare yourself for the sequel to Planes Trains and Automobiles except this time its Buses Ferries and thetormore4mobile. For me it all starts at 0445 in the less than glamorous surroundings of Dunfermline bus station on my own, wondering if the bus doesn’t turn up what will I do?
Thankfully it did and £11.40 took me in relative comfort and isolation into Glasgow’s Buchanan bus station. From there it was just a short walk downhill to the meeting point. Amongst our group there was a West coast vibe and if you’ve been to Glasgow then you’ll have seen the motto People make Glasgow that proudly sits above our meeting point. Our band of 27 met at George Square to board a coach to Kennacraig and then onto Islay.
Setting off at the back of 6am everyone was present and accounted for. Anne was in charge of proceedings and ensuring the enjoyment factor and Bunnahabhain whisky flowed, but not until we reached the ferry terminal. The organisers had put an injection of fun into our departure with a goodie bag and assorted items to quench any dawn thirst or hunger.
The drive out from Glasgow and across Argyll was peaceful, with some of the group seeking a couple of extra hours kip or quietly reading a whisky book. At this stage the various travellers kept to themselves until Kennacraig was reached and the excitement began to build. I’m not sure if this was the thought of Islay or a full Scottish breakfast onboard? There certainly was a chill standing dockside, waiting for everyone to disembark and dreaming of a hot cuppa.
A smooth voyage entailed as we set off across the ocean to Port Ellen. The initial rush was towards the restaurant for a much deserved breakfast and conversation across your selected six items. And then it should have been a descent towards the bar, but a heady strength of knots put Islay within sight and many congregated on the viewing deck as Ardbeg, Lagavulin and then Laphroaig. Before the familiar sight of Port Ellen maltings – home now to a sizeable amount of maturing Bunnahabhain casks – signalled our arrival and next stage or our trip.
The terminal was congregated with awaiting traffic and our band of 27 navigated these obstacles towards the mini-buses and onto our final destination of Bunnahabhain distillery. Again, another noticeable smooth transition. Before too long our convoy was on the open Islay road the Bunnahabhain 12 year old was flowing almost literally everywhere with the bouncy nature of the terrain.
There are few picturesque settings than the Feis Ile Bunnahabhain event set a glorious summer’s day. Standing on the old distillery pier; gazing out across the Sound of Islay towards the Paps of Jura. I could have stood transfixed for hours on end here, happily enjoying some local catering whilst distillery staff ensured your dram glass was constantly inhabited. Live music carried across the bay as the festival was in full swing as did the smell of freshly cooked food.