When it comes to Scottish whisky festival, there’s nothing quite like Fèis Ìle on the Isle of Islay. Planning a trip to the famous Islay whisky festival? Then read on for tips and tricks to make the most of your trip to the island. Slàinte Mhath!
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From the National Whisky Festival in Glasgow and Edinburgh to Spirit of Speyside, there are many whisky festivals in Scotland. The most famous might just be Fèis Ìle, a weeklong celebration of whisky on the Isle of Islay.
There are nine whisky distilleries on Islay, and several more in development. The small island community is proud of their local produce and love showing it off to the world. Add music, food and dancing and you’ve got yourself a party!
I attended Fèis Ìle in 2022 and absolutely loved the experience.
In this guide, I tell you more about the Fèis Ìle whisky festival on Islay and share with you some tips to make the most of your time at the event.
Table of Contents
Islay Whisky Festival FAQ
What and when is Fèis Ìle?
Fèis Ìle is one of Scotland’s most popular whisky festivals. The festival happens every year and lasts for 9 days from approximately the last Friday in May until the first Saturday of June.
Each of Islay’s whisky distilleries contributes to the festival programme.
But Fèis Ìle wasn’t always about whisky. The festival actually started out in the 1980s to Gaelic language and culture through drama, music, workshops and ceilidhs. The first whisky tasting joined the festival programme in 1990 and with that the fate was sealed.
Since 2000 the island’s whisky distilleries have become more and more involved and today the programme is a mix of Distillery Days, concerts, dances, workshops and talks.
When is Fèis Ìle 2023?
In 2023, the Islay whisky festival takes place from Friday, 26 May to Saturday, 3 June 2023.
What happens at the Islay Whisky Festival?
Fèis Ìle has two main strands in the programme. There is the official programme curated by the festival committee and the Distillery Days organised by each individual distillery.
This official programme includes concerts, tastings, talks, ceilidhs, and activities like bus and boat tours.
What happens at Distillery Days really varies. Some distilleries like Bruichladdich and Ardbeg host mini-festivals with live music, food stalls, games and activities, while others are much more mellow. Some are open to all, others you have to pay a small entrance fee which usually includes some tasters. No matter where you go, you’ll get to taste lots of whisky!
I attended two Distillery Days in 2022. Bunnahabhain had a small music tent, a food stall and a few stalls selling gifts. Entrace cost a few pound and included three drams. Ardbeg usually hosts a much bigger event. Entrance was slightly more than at Bunnahabhain and included less free drams, but there was a lot more going on. There were several food stalls and bars, a big open air stage with live bands, lawn games for a changce to win whisky and distillery merch, and boat trips along the coast (extra charge).
Apart from the distilleries, there are a few other companies that host events on specific days, like Islay Gin, Islay Rum and Islay Ales, and the Islay Whisky Academy.
Additionally, the distillery on Jura along with Lussa Gin and Deer Island Rum also participate in the Distillery Days.
Do you need tickets?
There is no overarching ticket for Fèis Ìle and you don’t need a festival ticket to visit the island during this time.
Much of the official festival programme is made up of ticketed events. These tickets are released in batches from October/November onwards. I recommend signing up for the Fèis Ìle newsletter to be notified when tickets go on sale.
We didn’t manage to get any tickets because they sold out so quickly. At first I was a little sad about that, but we still have a great festival experience, so don’t sweat it if it doesn’t work out.
The distilleries often organise ticketed events throughout the week in addition to their Distillery Days which you can attend without a ticket. Distilleries announce their programmes closer to the festival. Tickets for special warehouse tours, tastings or activities like guided walks become available from March onwards. I recommend signing up to the newsletter of individual distilleries to stay up to date.
When is the best time to go to Fèis Ìle?
While some festival goers attend for the entire week, you may only want to come for a few days at a time.
I recommend picking one of the weekends as that is when the biggest distillery events take place. Traditionally, Bruichladdich puts on a big show on Sunday (Day 3) and Ardbeg closes the festival with a bang on the last Saturday (Day 9).
If you want to stay on the island after the festival, note that many distilleries close for a few days to give their staff time off and return the distillery back to normal.
Can you do distillery tours during the Islay whisky festival?
Most distilleries offer guided tours on their Distillery Day – some are shortened and free, others are ticketed and extended to include special a warehouse tasting. But it can be pretty hard to score a spot on these tours.
A tour during Fèis Ìle is definitely a very different experience than a tour at any other time of the year. The distilleries (and their shops) are busier than usual and you may find it more stressful than relaxing, especially if you want to do multiple tours in a day.
Personally, I preferred touring whisky distilleries on Islay outside the festival period and just enjoying the events Fèis Ìle without the pressure to see it all. I actually visited Islay for the first time on a Rabbie’s tour and it was a brilliant way to visit all distilleries on the island.
Tips for attending Fèis Ìle
Where to stay on Islay & booking accommodation
Fèis Ìle is one of the most popular times to visit Islay and accommodation fills up far in advance. Islay is a small island and there is a limited amount of accommodation available.
It’s important to book accommodation as early as possible. If you wait too long, you may not find what a place to stay that suits your budget or location.
Where to stay on Islay really depends on what Distillery Days you’d like to attend, how you plan to get around and what type of accommodation you’re looking for.
Accommodation on Islay ranges from luxury hotels, like Islay House or the Machrie Hotel, to boutique B&Bs like Glenegedale House near Port Ellen (that’s where we stayed for the festival, pictures below), self-catering accommodation like the Islay Glamping Pods in Lagavulin, hostels and campsites.
Which village is best to stay?
Of course you can stay anywhere on the island, but the remoter you stay the more you’ll have to rely on your car or private transfers. That’s why I recommend staying in one of the villages or at least along the main bus routes.
Port Ellen is great for Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin Distillery. We visited all of these on Ardbeg’s Distillery Day. You can catch a bus, hire bikes or even walk to these three distilleries and leave the car in the village. Many of the official festival events, like the opening and the Final Fling, also happen in Port Ellen.
Bowmore is another great village to stay on Islay. It’s centrally located between Port Ellen and Port Askaig, the two Calmac ferry ports. Apart from Bowmore Distillery which is in the village, there are good bus connections to Port Ellen and on to Ardbeg, and to Bruichladdich on the other side of Loch Indaal.
Booking ferry crossings
As you can imagine, there is an increased demand for spots on the Calmac ferry from Kennacraig to Islay.
Just like accommodation on the island, ferry crossings should be booked as early as possible. The summer schedule is usually released a few months in advance and tickets become available then.
Sailings go from Kennacraig to Port Askaig or to Port Ellen. It doesn’t really matter which one you book as the two ferry ports are only 30 minutes drive apart.
You might also like: How to navigate Scotland’s ferries
Booking transfers, tours and taxis
Scotland has zero tolerance when it comes to driving and alcohol. That means that you either need a designated driver or find other ways to get around.
Personally, I recommend bringing a car if you can, in order to use it for non-whisky related activities, like visiting beaches or getting to hiking trails. I drove to one of the Distillery Days and got driver’s drams to take away.
During the day, try to use local buses to reach distilleries. In the evenings, hire local taxis or even private guides to provide transfers to and from distilleries, restaurants or events. Booking these in advance assures you get the transport you need as many drivers will be busy and not available on short notice.
We took buses, taxis and even the unique Islay Tuk Tuk to get around. We didn’t book any of this in advance, but luckily our B&B host was able to help us out with her contacts.
What to wear & bring to the Islay whisky festival
When you attend Distillery Days at the Islay Whisky Festival, dress in layers as many events at distilleries take place outside. The weather can change quickly, so a waterproof jacket is a must.
You will inevitably queue a lot at the distilleries. To get in, to get drinks, to buy food, to enter the whisky shops and buy bottles – I really recommend wearing comfortable shoes.
I saw many people who brought their own camping chairs or insulated picnic blankets as there are not always that many seats available.
You might also like: My complete Scotland packing list & tips
Food at Fèis Ìle
Food at the distilleries
While distilleries usually have some food stalls at the Distillery Days, don’t expect a lot of choice. I found it very tricky to find vegan (or even vegetarian) options and the lines were massive. I recommend bringing snacks or packing a picnic. There is no problem with consuming your own food.
Where to eat on Islay
Since there are so many visitors on Islay during the whisky festival, restaurants fill up quickly. It’s important to make dinner reservations and show some flexibility with meal times. If you stay at a hotel or B&B, your hosts should be able to help you with this.
You could consider eating out for lunch and either cooking your own dinners in self-catering accommodation, or having picnic dinners or takeaways.
Some of my favourite restaurants on Islay include:
- The Islay Hotel in Port Ellen
- 18 Restaurant at the Machrie Hotel
- Peatzeria in Bowmore
- Bridgend Hotel in Bridgend
- Ballygrant Inn in Ballygrant
We also had a fantastic evening meal at our B&B, Glenegedale House.
Buying festival whisky bottles
The Islay Whisky Festival presents the perfect opportunity to stock up on delicious whisky.
Every year the distilleries on Islay release special whisky bottlings for Fèis Ìle. These limited Fèis Ìle editions are very sought after and can vary in prices, depending on how many bottles are available.
We bought quite a lot of whisky at the festival – some classics, the Ardbeg festival bottle “Ardcore” (which cost around £100) and several expressions we hadn’t come across before. It’s worth saving up some money to splurge on these.
Consider, you’re likely to browse the distillery shops after a few drams, so set yourself a budget and try to stick to it. I didn’t expect to come home with quite this much whisky…
Learn more about tasting and buying Scottish whisky in Scotland.
Other things to do on Islay
While the whisky festival is all about the distilleries, I recommend you also make time for non-whisky related activities.
Islay has a lot to offer. In fact, it’s one of my favourite Scottish islands to visit! Whether you’re visiting Fèis Ìle as a die-hard whisky fan or tagging along with one, you’ll have a great time on Islay.
Here are some of my favourite experiences on Islay beyond distillery tours:
- Boat trip with Islay Sea Adventures
- Fat biking on the beach with Kayak Wild Islay
- A walk to the American Monument at the Mull of Oa
- A road trip to Port Charlotte and Portnahaven
- A beach picnic at Saligo Bay or Machir Bay
- Browsing the shops in Bowmore and at Islay House
- A day trip to the Isle of Jura to snorkel and tour Jura Distillery
Find more ideas for things to do on Islay, Jura!
Nothing stands in the way between you and the Islay whisky festival. Start planning the details and enjoy a whisky-fuelled trip to Fèis Ìle!