Spirit of Speyside Festival Review: 2014May 22nd, 2014
The first Speyside Whisky Festival was staged in 1998, and from its low-key beginnings the event has blossomed into a five-day springtime extravaganza, celebrating all aspects of distilling in Scotland’s most productive whisky-making region. This year, visitors from 31 different countries participated in a remarkable total of some 370 events, as the Festival raised the curtain on Scotland’s designated ‘Whisky Month.’
Festivities commenced at the ‘Touch of Tartan’ opening dinner at Glen Grant distillery in Rothes, where, according to his billing, Charlie MacLean offered a touch of “Hollywood glamour,” as guest of honor, thanks to his role in the Angels’ Share movie, which is fast achieving almost mythic status. Indeed, given the opportunity to question MacLean about any aspects of his fascinating life and career at a later event in the Drouthy Cobbler bar in Elgin, one participant could only come up with “Did they give you a Winnebago during filming?”
Although Speyside is home to nearly half of Scotland’s malt distilleries, many of them are not usually open to the public, so one key attraction of the Festival is the opportunity for aficionados to see inside some which usually keep their doors firmly locked.
Of most interest to attendees was probably the chance to explore Diageo’s vast Roseisle plant near Elgin, while a manager’s tour of Auchroisk was also provided by the company. Chivas Brothers showcased its Glen Keith, Glenburgie and Tormore distilleries. Meanwhile, Tamdhu, which featured in last year’s festival for the first time, offered a one-day-only series of ‘VIP’ tours, conducted by distillery workers.
As the rush to build new distilleries continues its momentum, one highlight of this year’s Festival was the chance to take a ‘hard hat’ tour of the partially completed Ballindalloch distillery, situated on the Ballindalloch Estate, close to Cragganmore.
This venture is fronted by ex-Glenfiddich chief guide Brian Robinson, and benefits from the technical input of Diageo veteran and former Talisker manager Charlie Smith. Funding is being provided by the Macpherson-Grant family who own the estate, and it is likely to be a minimum of eight years before a single malt is released. The style will be a relatively heavy Speyside, and the design embraces quite small stills and wash tubs rather than condensers. Distilling is projected to start in July.
While the festival organizers always try to be innovative – hence this year’s Tomintoul and Glenlivet whisky treasure hunt, scarecrow-watching and the chance to participate in the knitting of a giant cushion – straight up tutored tastings remain as popular as ever. Indeed, the same old faces can be seen year after year sampling their way through flights of whisky provided by the likes of independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail, Berry Bros & Rudd and Adelphi.
These are in addition to numerous distillery-based tasting sessions and specialist tours, in which The Macallan, Aberlour, Glen Elgin, Glenfiddich , Cardhu, Benromach and Strathisla all participated. Glenfarclas also got in on the action with the launch of its first ever distillery-exclusive bottling. The single cask 1988 vintage release in question comprised 300 bottles, and with queues at the visitor centre door ahead of opening time, the bottling sold out in four days. Future exclusives are promised on the back of this success.
Additionally, The Glenlivet released a limited edition bottling by the name of Auchbreck, and the distillery hosted several events as usual during the Festival, including the opportunity to taste whisky being made in its unique outdoor ‘sma’ still, as would have been used by illicit distillers in days gone by. There was also the chance to visit the site of the original Glenlivet distillery in the company of Chivas Brothers’ distilling manager Alan Winchester, one of the very best people to talk to if you really want to know about Speyside and its whiskies.
A new element to the Festival this year was ‘The Spirit of Speyside Sessions,’ a series of concerts and ceilidhs being staged in venues closely linked to the whisky industry. One such session was provided by Copper Dogs, who launched their debut album with a gig in the ruins of Balvenie Castle, close to Glenfiddich distillery.
The band recorded the album in Balvenie distillery’s floor maltings, and its line-up includes the Balvenie global ambassador Sam Simmons on guitar and vocals, William Grant’s new global ambassador for blends, Rob Allanson, on bass, Cat Spencer on lead vocals and Simon Roser on drums. The album, titled ‘The Balvenie Maltings Sessions,’ also features guest appearances from some familiar whisky figures including Dave Broom (vocals), Brian Kinsman (bagpipes), Neil Ridley (organ) and Nick Morgan (guitar).
The climax of the Festival came with the announcement of the winners of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards, sponsored by Rothes coppersmiths Forsyths, and unique in that they are voted for by the public during a series of roving sampling sessions during the weekend. The winner of the 12-year-old and under category was Benriach 12-year-old Sherry Wood, while the title for malts aged 13 to 20 years went to Balvenie 15-year-old Single Cask. In the 21-year-old category Cardhu 21-year-old topped the poll, and the prize for distillery special editions went to the Tamdhu 10-year-old Limited Edition.
James Campbell, chairman of the Spirit of Speyside Festival says that “This years’ Festival has exceeded all of our expectations. This part of the world is known internationally for the warmth of its welcome and hospitality. We feel that we have now established a really good platform to build upon in future years and have already begun planning more great events for next year.”