The Spirit of Speyside
Joel Harrison of CaskStrength.net reports for us on his recent trip to the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival.
Film has Sundance. Rock music has Glastonbury. Single malt Scotch whisky? Depending on your palate, it has two important festivals of celebration, both held during May. Towards the end of the month, peat-heads and fans of smoke are drawn like the angels to Islay’s warehouses where, under the banner of “Fèis Ile: the Festival of Music and Malt,” each of the island’s eight distilleries (plus Jura) host their own open day, turning the isle into something akin to a whisky theme park for a week.
However, peat is not for everyone and, with Islay being limited in capacity for both transport and accommodation, those whisky advocates whose palates are more focused on heather and honey have a more than suitable alternative: The Spirit of Speyside Festival.
As the global appetite for scotch increases, so the Spirit of Speyside festival has started to grow, offering a wide range of tastings, tours, dinners, walks, shows, quizzes, and other creative events which highlight not just the global popularity of Speyside whiskies, but also their increasingly relaxed, entertaining and inclusive attitude.
Boasting an enormous number of distilleries, Speyside is the beating heart of Scotch whisky production; be it stand alone single malts or those which play the vital role as key components in blends. This makes organizing a festival across so many potential sites, with so many different brands, flavors, and focuses a tricky task, so I headed out to the region to see how it works.
On arrival, one just has to open up the specially produced newspaper for the festival to see a mindboggling double page spread of events. All of which are excellently supported by a comprehensive festival bus service costing just £25 for a ticket, which will last you the duration of the five days and allows unlimited travel between participant distilleries and other key destinations.
The festival’s opening is marked by a gala dinner on the Thursday evening, hosted each year by a different single malt distillery. 2013 saw the baton passed from The Macallan to The Glenlivet, who staged their fantastic feast in a converted warehouse where the 300 guests were treated to speeches, musical entertainment, and a charity auction of rare and collectable bottles from across the region.
From there in, planning becomes simply a matter of choice. From bespoke tours and tastings, such as “The Ultimate Mortlach Experience” which includes a rare bottle from the distillery created only for the festival, at £150, through to “Fill Your Own Octave Cask” at Glenglassaugh, for just £10, there is something for everyone to do. On the Saturday alone, I counted over 50 available events, some with regular time slots across the day. Price-wise, some of the events are free, but the majority weigh in at under £20 per person.
From the myriad of tastings on offer at the festival, my pick of the bunch (and my word, what a big bunch there is to choose from) was a tasting at Aberlour distillery. Billed as “Casks from the Past,” just four whiskies, with a combined age of over 150 years, were on show.
As it turned out, the first three drams were all extra special Aberlours: the first was a limited edition 12 year old, at 56.8% from a first fill oloroso sherry cask. A real monster, this bottling is sadly only available locally (the first few cases were offered to the residents of Aberlour village, who had to turn up with proof of address to enable them to make the purchase). I say sadly as it was a real winner of a dram. It was followed by two cask samples, drawn for use in the tasting only: one at 26 years of age (60.2% ABV) and one from 1978 (55% ABV). The curveball final dram came courtesy of the closed distillery, Inverleven. Distilled in 1973 and bottled at 48.85% ABV, this Lowland single malt was made using their ‘Ugly Betty’ Lomond still which now sits on the aforementioned Isle of Islay, making The Botanist gin at Bruichladdich distillery.
As the festival rolled on, one of the most pleasing aspects was not just trying a variety of different expressions from across the region, but hearing voices and accents from across the world from all those who had made the effort to attend.
Carrying everything from the 200-only limited edition festival bottling from Glenfiddich, through to the first release under new ownership from Tamdhu distillery, who chose the festival to officially re-open the distillery, the valiant effort from the whisky lovers seemed to throw the gauntlet down to the angels and the 2% per-year share of Speyside Scotch which they take away. I guarantee you, this year’s record number of visitors took home a lot more liquid than that, both in bottles and in their bellies. If you’re planning a trip to Speyside, try and make it during festival time. You won’t be disappointed.