Enjoy a dram? Appreciate good food? Know great scenery when you see it? Then there is one place in Scotland you have to be in spring, and that is the world famous and world class Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. I’m writing this as I swirl in the vortex of its nefariously fun mayhem and I’d like to heartily welcome you in.
The reasons why an annual whisky festival is held in this beguiling corner of the Scottish Highlands every spring are manifest. Chief amongst them is that Speyside boasts the highest concentration of whisky distilleries anywhere in Scotland. The waters of Scotland’s fastest flowing river, the Spey, are ideal for conjuring up the ‘water of life’ with dozens of distilleries nestling amongst the rolling hills of this picturesque tree-shrouded oasis.
The names of the distilleries in Speyside trip off the tongue like a who’s who of Scottish whisky. My drive up here through the majestic Cairngorm mountains brought me past Tomintoul (the highest distillery in the land). Then it was on by household names like Glenlivet, Glenfarclas and Aberlour. The roots of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival are deep too – the festival in 2017 entered its 18th year. It’s no small scale fiesta either as this year there are over 500 events.
The events are as eclectic as they are fun and change every year. I love that the distilleries – you’d be wrong in thinking of them as bitter rivals – club together to help stage the series of spectaculars, from train rides to Dufftown and geocaching adventures in the hills, through to fine dining food pairings and no holds barred late night ceilidhs. It’s great too that some distilleries that are normally closed to the public fling open their doors to let whisky fans look at their sacred production.
I know that you can book a tour of many distilleries throughout the year, but the festival steps things up a notch. Here you can rub shoulders with master blenders, master distillers and distillery managers, who are conducting tours and tastings themselves. In short what makes the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival so special is that it offers lots of unique opportunities that are not available at any other time of the year.
My base this year is in Elgin at the Eight Acres Hotel and Leisure Club. It has a swimming pool to relax in and is handily within sight of Glen Moray Distillery, where my first festival event – a brilliant opening ceilidh – was held last night. Here I got to meet some of the stars of the local whisky world including festival chairman James Campbell, who was as gloriously welcoming as everyone seems to be in these parts. He stressed the emphasis of this year’s festival is (as always) on relaxing and having a great time. We certainly did that as we washed three delicious courses of food down with a few drams of Glen Moray. Afterwards young local band Tweed performed the ceilidh honours, leading first timers and the experienced alike through all the classics. They also played a few free form numbers that let the enthusiastic crowd bash around until the witching hour.
I’m writing this now with a surprisingly clear head the morning after the ceilidh – amazing what a wee bit of full on ceilidh dancing can do for you! I’m gearing up for a big whisky (moderately consumed of course – the festival encourages responsible drinking) themed day ahead, which will take in cheese tasting with whisky. Then a whisky themed lunch. Afterwards ice cream tasting with whisky. To top off the day I’m then indulging in a multi-course fine dining dinner with, of course, whiskies to match. You get the idea of a ‘normal’ day at the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. Watch this space . . .
First up on day two is a wee stroll from the hotel to the famous independent bottler, Gordon & MacPhail. The festival offers a great chance to pick up some unusual bottlings and I snare a lovely peaty Caol Ila that has been softened late on its maturation by a wee sherry cask.
The main business is, of course, the whisky tasting, this time with cheese. We have five Scottish cheeses paired with a quintet of matched whiskies. I’m pleasantly surprised – along with my dozen new Swedish friends (the festival is famously friendly) – to discover four work brilliantly. The highlight for me is my favourite blue cheese in the world, Arran Blue. It goes really well with that aforementioned Caol Ila. Seriously! I thoroughly recommend matching a peaty whisky with blue cheese. It’s something I’ve been doing for years, but it was great to be in a room of people all willing to give it a go, and who all ended up loving it.
It was off to lunch now in the famous whisky hub of Dufftown in the hills above the Spey Valley proper. I arrive at Glenfiddich to discover they have just introduced whisky flights to go along with the superb local produce laden lunches in their Malt Barn. Whilst feasting on the likes of Orkney cheddar and smoked venison I work my way through the ‘William Grant and Sons Range’. The backdrop could not be cosier with a roaring fire in the background and a room full of whisky lovers. My flight features four startlingly good whiskies, all rare expressions it’s hard to source yourself. My favourite is the ‘Ghosted Reserve’, a 26 year-old-blend culled from a trio of closed distilleries – Ladyburn, Inverleven and Dumbarton.
Things get serious now with the Whisky Shop Dufftown Challenge. My nose and tastebuds are put to the test as I blind taste first five Speyside drams and then five whiskies. I’m challenged not only to pick my three favourites of each, but also to write tasting notes. These get more colourful with every whisky! I enjoy trying to guess the distilleries they come from, but I’m shocked to discover the one I have down as a young malt hailing from one of southern Islay’s trio of peaty dames turns out to actually be a heavily peated English malt. The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is constantly full of surprises!
Last, but certainly not least I’m whisked off by the always welcoming and helpful Moray Firth Tours up to Martine Nouet’s Through the Seasons Dinner at the Knockomie Hotel in Forres. In the grand setting of the ‘Grill Room’ we savour a brilliant four course menu – each course featured in Nouet’s ‘A Table, Whisky from Glass to Plate’ whisky and cookery book. Each course is paired with a glorious malt. I’m not surprised that some pairings work like the sherry tinged Glenlivet 21 year-old-old Archive with a rich dark chocolate and cardamom tart, but the fact Benromach’s Peat Smoke is an ideal match for a roast butternut and coconut veloute blows me away.
I’d love to be able to stay until the end of this fun filled festival, but duty calls back in the Central Belt so this dinner is my festival swansong. There is still time for you to nab a ticket to come of the events before the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival finishes on Monday if you move soon. If not why not book a trip in next year? On the evidence of this year’s festival you won’t regret it. With whisky, epic scenery and great food all swirled in with yet more whisky this quintessentially Scottish festival is justifiably one of the top draws on Scotland’s busy tourism calendar.
* Further information about the Festival is available at www.spiritofspeyside.com. The festival always runs over the bank holiday weekend at the end of April into May.
Read more about Scotland’s Whisky Country here: Barrels of Ways to Discover Speyside, Scotland’s Whisky Country
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