What is Fèis Ìle?
This month’s Pour & Sip box contains whiskies solely from the Scottish isle of Islay, in honour of the island’s annual music and whisky festival, Fèis Ìle, so we thought we’d give you the lowdown on the history of the iconic, beloved event!
Islay is something of a pilgrimage for Scotch lovers, having gained almost mythic status among the whisky community. The affectionately known Queen of the Hebrides is the second-largest island of the Southern Hebrides, but it’s comparatively small to most whisky-producing places, with an area of 239sq miles and only around 3,300 people living on the island.
There are nine distilleries on the island (with plenty more in the pipeline), all of which take part in the annual music and whisky festival, Fèis Ìle. Jura has also managed to sneak into the celebrations, even though it’s technically not on Islay (calling the Isle of Jura its home) In the last week of May, the island hosts the 10-day mega event. Each distillery has its own open day with tastings, tours, music, and more, with most distilleries also showing off their festival-exclusive bottlings (among others). Because of the obvious reasons, in recent years the festival had to be virtual, so 2020 and 2021 were Fèis without the Ìle – which makes this year’s in-person celebration even more exciting!
The festival’s history goes back to 1984, when it was called the Islay Festival of Malt and Music. People were concerned that the Gaelic language was under threat, so a committee was formed to revive it. Because of this the first Gaelic Drama Festival took place. Fèis Ìle was originally part of this, showcasing the talent of local people through music and ceilidhs.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the first whisky tasting event took place – in a seemingly fortuitous turn of events, the event was won by an Islay local, and the runner up was the festival’s current chairperson, Florence Gray. It took a little while longer, until 2000, for the distilleries to become more involved in the form of hosting open days and bottling special whiskies. Over two decades later, and we can’t imagine the festival without the distilleries!
Anyone who has been to Islay (sadly I’m not one of them) will tell you that really, it’s all about the people. The whisky is just as important as the music and ceilidhs, but there’d be nothing without the people of Islay and their hospitable spirit. If you haven’t already, hopefully one day you’ll make the pilgrimage to the unique place, but until then, you’ll just have to enjoy the spoils of the isle from home…