A spirited event

A spirited event

James Millard explains why the Speyside Whisky Festival is a mean contender in the whisky event stakes

Awards & Events | 16 Aug 2002 | Issue 25 | By James Millard

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The region of Speyside must certainly be a candidate for the best location in the world in which to hold a whisky festival. Home to nearly half of all distilleries in Scotland, the area between Inverness and Aberdeen is dotted with some of the most picturesque and elegant distilleries that Scotland, or indeed the world, has to offer.May 3rd to 6th saw the fourth annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, although this year’s events had a lot more to offer than whisky. As if the nectar of the Gods wasn’t enough, there was also clay pigeon shooting in Mulben, an art exhibition held at the Baxters Highland Village, theatre, concerts, kilt-making, coopering contests, cookery lessons, HM Customs exhibitions; much more than there is room for here.The highlight for most of the tourists, who had travelled from numerous continents the world over, was the opening of distillery doors that are for the rest of the year kept firmly shut. Mortlach, Glendullan, Aberlour, The Balvenie and other great names in malt whisky all held exclusive tours within their hallowed walls, making the festival a must for any distillery-spotter or enthusiast.Much of the activity was centred in Dufftown where visitors picked up their tickets for events and tried desperately to book themselves on the Seven Stills Bus Tour. This tour, guided by Ian Miller, Distillery Manager for Glenfiddich and The Balvenie, is always the first activity to sell out, sometimes many months beforehand. The reason is simple: the tour concentrates on tasting the products of each distillery as the bus makes its way from one to another. It has never finished on time and is so physically demanding (whisky-wise) that it prompted one of the festival organisers to print t-shirts bearing the legend ‘I survived the Seven Stills Bus Tour’.A less alcoholic alternative can be found in the exhibition by HM Customs situated in the car park of Glenfiddich Distillery. There are no drams available, but this is probably all for the better after seeing the exhibits of the numerous methods used for smuggling goods into Scotland in the past, some of which bring a tear or two to the eye.As if to defy the HM Customs efforts, Dufftown is now equipped with a museum displaying illicit stills and contraband material. This year the museum was sponsored by Paar Scientific, a manufacturer of machines used to measure alcoholic content. The company raised money for the museum by asking people to guess the alcohol content of a whisky. At the end of each day the closest guess received gift vouchers to spend in the Whisky Shop, Dufftown. Murmurs of ‘fixed’ were audible when the prize on the Saturday went to the Sales Executive of William Cadenhead Ltd; a company which just happens to bottle cask strength whisky! The Whisky Shop, Dufftown, hosted several ‘Talk & Tastes’ over the four days. Some of the regulars were present, such as Per Lovlie, authors Dr Steve Cribb and David Stirk, and also some newer faces like Mark Watt from Royal Mile Whiskies, Mark Davidson from Cadenhead Whisky Shop and a team from the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. Some attendees certainly appeared to be a little overcome due to the soporific effects of whisky!Where there is whisky there is food, and this year every local restaurant from Elgin to Dufftown was trying to keep the masses happy. There were special whisky dinners at A Taste of Speyside, The Old Monastery and Laichmoray Hotel, but the highlight for many was the Aberlour Whisky Tasting and Whisky Dinner with Michael Jackson and Martine Nouet held at Aberlour Distillery. This exquisite dinner was prepared by Martine and complemented by drams of Aberlour whiskies introduced by Michael Jackson. Both the whisky and the food were faultless and, given the popularity of the event, let’s hope that Aberlour Distillery puts on a similar show next year.For the energetic visitors, The Highlander Inn put on their ever popular ‘Coothie Doo’, an evening of song, dance and merriment, while Dufftown kept up the annual tradition of a ceilidh at the Royal British Legion. And for the really adventurous, the Highland Gliding Club enabled the daring to observe the distilleries from the air. Most, however, kept their feet firmly on the ground, playing golf or visiting the celebrated Gordon & MacPhail shop in Elgin. The weekend finished with the Dregs Party held at The Whisky Shop, Dufftown, where the remaining whisky from all of the tastings could be enjoyed. Some disappeared more quickly than others, and it all went, with a bang. For those who had not had enough, and there were a few, the festival would not have been complete without a trip to the Craigellachie Hotel and its Quaich Bar, home to over 350 malts. Working your way through them is a tiring task, but thoroughly enjoyable.Overall there were too many distilleries to visit, too many whiskies to taste, too many restaurants to discover and too many friends to make. In other words, it was the most successful festival so far, and tickets are going quickly for next year’s. Sure, you could visit Islay, but for more entertainment than can possibly be healthy, try out the Speyside Whisky Festival next time you have a hankering for a memorable experience.
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