Travel

Spey Pride

The Speyside region is getting its act together and making life easier for the visitor. Here Dominic Roskrow reports on its changing face. And on page 34 we provide the complete visitors' guide to the region
By Dominic Roskrow
Speyside might boast the largest number of distilleries in one region anywhere in the world but boy, at times in the past it sure didn’t feel like it.There’s always been something fragmented about the region. For a starter, it sprawls and the name is a misnomer; don’t expect to find all its distilleries at the side of the Spey – many aren’t even close.It’s a region of two halves, each served by different airports, those of Aberdeen and Inverness. It even has two festivals, both traditionally patchy affairs that have been supported by a proportion of the whisky companies but by no means all. It is possible to wander through the region at festival time and not know it’s on.But with whisky tourism on the increase and the tourist authorities wising up to the fact Scotch can drive business that’s all set to change. Increased traffic from cheap flights hasn’t hurt either.Inverness Airport is expanding faster than any other airport in Europe, too, with Scandinavian flights in particular bringing the whisky enthusiast to the area.The Spirit of Speyside festival, held in the Spring, is also enjoying a new lease of life, as an enthusiastic committee sets out to give the region the sort of profile it so richly deserves.These are exciting times for the area.And if there’s a fresh surge of confidence overall, it’s symbolised by independent bottler Duncan Taylor and the opening of the company’s new shop in Huntly.It’s a thoroughly modern, stylish and spacious affair, with room upstairs for future tastings and other whisky-related events, and ample space to show off the company’s extensive range of whiskies.It’s necessary, too. Hidden away in a quiet town street, the company is made up of deceptively residential looking offices and a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of a whisky operation, where bottles are hand-filled and hand-labelled.The stocks themselves are stored in plain white boxes, but any whisky enthusiast casting even a cursory glance along the packaging will be unable to escape the surge of excitement it invokes.The boxes form part of the company’s inventory, made up of some 4,000 casks that belonged to American entrepreneur and whisky enthusiast Abe Rosenberg. A businessman and opportunist, he bought the stock partly through love of whisky and partly to supply his blending business. Not only did he have impeccable taste, but he was astute, too. He left the whisky in distilleries across Scotland where it remained sometimes for decades.Not any old whisky, either. There are some stunning Islays in the collection and rarities from closed distilleries such as Banff.“That’s famous for being bombed in the Second World War,” says Euan Shand. “A German bomber off-loaded its bombs when it was being pursued across Speyside. The whisky was spread right across the fields and all the cows got drunk. They couldn’t stand the next day to be milked and they’re meant to have produced whisky-flavoured milk.” The collection also contains some truly fabulous grain whiskies aged 30 years plus.“Most grain spirit is matured for the legal requirement of three years and then shipped off for blends,” says Euan. “Normally the cheapest casks are used for maturation. When it is distilled it has a neutral taste so just about all the flavour comes from the cask. And yet some of these have incredible flavour. We have one example of a grain whisky matured in a sherry cask but we don’t know why, and we probably never will.“It might have been a happy accident, but it makes for phenomenal whisky.” The growing interest in unusual and old grain whiskies is a further symptom of the ever-growing demand from whisky enthusiasts for an unusual whisky experience.Up the road at Aberlour I join three Germans and three Australians for the VIP tour the distillery offers. It’s impressive stuff: the guide is enthusiastic and knowledgeable and in a bid to cover a great deal of ground, makes great assumptions about his audience’s knowledge. Our group doesn’t bat an eyelid, so either everyone was completely happy with the onslaught, or it went blissfully over their heads. And as one of the Germans tells me that this is the third or fourth time he’s done this particular tour, you have to assume its the former.It’s a good tour. We taste the distiller’s beer and the new make spirit, are given a lengthy, generous and unrushed vertical tasting and then offered the chance to fill a bottle from either a sherry or bourbon cask, and to put a personal label on it. You pay of course, but it makes for the sort of special gift that the enthusiast is looking for.In Speyside there’s a gentle feeling of change in the air, and it pervades even the stongest bastions of the region.The Craigellachie Hotel has long been part country hotel and part private whisky club. It has been base camp for many an exploration in to the region, but change is taking place here, too. Rumours of the death of the Quaich Bar are widely exaggerated, however. Plain wrong, in fact.The whisky bar is under new management for a starter. Previous manager Duncan Elphick is a hard act to follow but new manager Martin Markvardsen is going about the task in the right way. And with operations manager Liz Hodnett driving events at the hotel, it’s set for a bright future. “We’re planning to grow the hotel’s reputation even further,” he says. “We are not only extending the range of whiskies on offer but we’re planning to offer many at special prices so that they come within the price range of enthusiasts for the first time.” The hotel is holding a Whisky Academy for a week in February and the hotel’s website has been revamped and will be used to promote future dinners and tastings.Some things at the hotel never change, though. We bump in to Charlie MacLean at reception, attempting to check in for the wrong night. And by late evening he is the centre of attention as he relates great whisky anecdotes to a large group of New Zealanders. They’re a great crowd, and the evening slips away in whisky bliss.Glen Moray is an unpretentious distillery but one of the region’s friendliest. It, too, is set for a new lease of life with the arrival in 2005 of new distillery manager Graham Coull to replace the retired Ed Dodson.The distillery was given a rocky ride by our Mystery Visitor in issue 52 but the future is looking very bright for it.It is Graham’s first manager’s job, and he’s relishing the challenge after being one of a large team at Glenfiddich. And he already lives in Elgin so there are plans to turn the vacant distillery manager’s house in to a centre for tastings and whisky-related events, sending Glen Moray from the standard category of tour to the special.Most of all, though, Graham and his team are looking forward to winning new friends for the distillery’s whisky. Owner Glenmorangie’s outstanding wood policy is really bearing fruit here, and Graham’s first special selection, called The Fifth Chapter to recognise the fact that Graham is the distillery’s fifth manager, is in particular an outstanding addition to the portfolio.And the distillery’s reputation will be further enhanced by the surprising choice of whisky writer Jim Murray to name a limited 1986 bottling as Glen Moray as his whisky of the year.Altogether, then, exciting times for Speyside and its whiskies. It’s never been easier to visit the area, and to find something special there when you do so.