Awards & Events

Speyside festival preview

It's bigger, it's better and it's back – yes, once again, the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is upon us and the organisers promise a host of good things. Ian Buxton investigates
By Ian Buxton
First of all, check your diary. The 2002 Whisky Festival runs from 3rd to 6th May inclusive and, to really enter into the spirit of things, you should take the whole long weekend (and perhaps a day or two to recover afterwards).Speyside comes alive for the Festival and this year will be no exception. However, what really marks out the 2002 event as very special is the sense of local involvement. “Speysiders are really getting behind the programme,” organiser Stewart Buchanan told me. “There’s a fantastic community feel developing around the Festival with grass roots events drawing on a local market as well as bringing in sophisticated international visitors.”Stewart was not exaggerating about the global appeal – last year’s visitors included groups from Chile, Brazil and Argentina and even some hardy souls from the Falkland Islands.So, if this Whisky Festival is worth coming halfway round the world to get to, what can you expect? The organisers promise ‘whisky, music, food and fun throughout Speyside’ so let’s begin with the main attraction, the cratur itself.Of course, many Speyside distilleries are open all year round. Tourism is vital to the local economy and whisky visitor centres promote their rival brands and create vital jobs to replace those lost to mechanisation. But, if it’s possible, for four days their doors open even wider, the welcome is warmer and you get to see some distilleries normally closed to the public.Many aficionados, however, will make straight for The Macallan’s new centre. Distillery tours are a lot easier here with purpose built facilities and you can feast your eyes (though not, sadly, your taste buds) on a spectacular collection of exceptionally rare and valuable Macallan vintages. The visitor centre also features a new video, a shop and some pleasant and well-informed tour guides. This is probably one to book ahead, as demand will be high (see contacts information panel for phone numbers and other information).Less well known is Benromach, a compact distillery, just on the outskirts of Forres. Benromach lay silent for many years until well-known whisky merchants Gordon & MacPhail lovingly restored and re-opened it in 1998 – fittingly, its centenary year. It’s the perfect place to understand the whole distilling process as the layout is ideal for tours and the distillery’s intimate scale means you can take it all in at a glance. Look out for the unusual ‘Boby’ malt mill and the small mashtun. Benromach really is hand-crafted, and you get a terrific sense of personal involvement and pride here. The distillery will host several tastings and a Family Day on Sunday May 5th, with free tours, nosing competitions, games and kids events.
Benromach’s owners, Gordon & MacPhail, also have a full programme at their well-known shop in South Street, Elgin. Of course, this is worth visiting in its own right to sniff out rare and obscure bottlings (bring your credit card, the range is very
tempting) but try to take in one of the special events. Do you know your feints from your foreshots? On Friday and Monday there’s a light-hearted session on whisky flavours and aromas and a ‘tour’ of the flavour wheel. Tickets are £10, with a maximum of 12 people at each session.Gordon & MacPhail's flagship event sounds remarkable however. When did a Scotsman last offer you £700 worth of whisky for just £50? Perhaps that’s why only eight fortunate tasters can subscribe to their very special Ancient Speysiders
tasting on Friday and Saturday. Vintages going back to World War II will be on offer and, yes, stocks are limited!Aberlour has to be on your itinerary. Famous for Walker’s Shortbread this pretty town is also home to Aberlour Distillery, part of the Pernod-Ricard Group. The shy and retiring French normally keep the distillery to themselves and their trade guests but, for one evening only, you have the chance to visit the elegant Fleming Rooms and enjoy a sumptuous dinner. “We aim to share an enjoyable evening with whisky enthusiasts”, says Aberlour's Ann Miller. It’s certainly quite an offer – guests will enjoy a tutored tasting of hitherto unreleased cask samples with Michael Jackson, a very special dinner by French gastronomist Martine Nouet, more Aberlour with every course, recipes and tasting notes, a signed copy of Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion and a bottle of Aberlour single malt. Tickets are £47.50 per person.Elsewhere, there is a full programme of tutored tastings, tours and special events. With distilleries at every turn, you could spend all four days just visiting. There’s only space to mention briefly Glenfiddich’s Clay Pigeon Shooting Competition, story telling and tours at Glen Moray, HM Customs’ Contraband Caravan, the Collectors and Memorabilia Exhibition and Sale, minibus tours to various distilleries (you don’t want to drink and drive) and so on. Information on all this and much more can be found on the festival web site at www.spiritofspeyside.com. It also has a very useful guide on where to stay and a comprehensive events listing.But perhaps, perish the thought, your partner has had enough whisky. It would be missing the depth and variety of Speyside if you didn’t look around a little at the wide range of alternative attractions.The most exciting and spectacular way to see Speyside is from the air. If you happen to leave your private jet at home, then contact the Highland Gliding Club in Elgin and take a trial flight. You’ll get an overview of the world’s most densely packed collection of distilleries, with some spectacular scenery thrown in for good measure and a few tips on gliding. Trial lessons last around 15 minutes, depending on conditions, and cost from £20. Details from www.highglide.co.uk
If distilleries from the air sounds too stimulating, then let the train take the strain! Trips on the Keith and Dufftown Railway let you travel back in time and enjoy whisky and shortbread as the scenery rolls past. It’s an ideal way to combine sampling with sightseeing and the route offers spectacular photo opportunities. Departures are from Dufftown station, just along from Glenfiddich, and more information is available at www.keith-dufftown.org.ukOn a more down-to-earth note, if the gardening bug has bitten your partner you can sneak in another distillery while walking through the Glen Grant Gardens at Rothes. Originally laid out in 1886 by Major James Grant, the woodland garden was slowly overgrown and effectively lost to view for 50 years. The garden has now been painstakingly restored and really is a very special and quite enchanting location. Your visit will be enhanced by a dram of Glen Grant in the Major’s Dram Hut and, in this extraordinary living museum, you can easily imagine yourself in the garden’s Victorian heyday.Elsewhere, Speyside’s worldwide reputation for quality is best illustrated at Johnstons of Elgin, the only integrated cashmere mill in Scotland. You can explore the exhibition area or take the mill tour to see the whole process, which combines traditional craftsmanship with contemporary design. I was fascinated to see teasels being used to comb the cashmere, in a beguiling combination of Nature and machinery. Naturally, there’s an extensive shop with prices just a little below the high street and many exclusive offers.A pleasant restaurant offers a chance to refuel before seeking out bargains. Johnston’s Eleanor Cantlay points out that the same soft water used in distilling is essential to the finishing of cashmere and offers what she calls “a little indulgence – cashmere in the morning, with luxurious Glen Moray single malt in the afternoon”. It sounds like the high road to bankruptcy, but is not to be missed.The Baxter’s Highland Village at Fochabers is a well-known and deservedly popular spot on the tourist trail. This fiercely independent family company is famous for knocking back close to 200 take-over approaches. (Some of us wonder what the whisky industry would be like if their distilling counterparts had followed Baxters’ lead.)In the Highland Village, Baxters will have a special festival menu as well as an exhibition of local art. The recreation of their original shop is a fascinating time capsule, with many whiskies now lost jostling for space among the jams and soups. You can also shop here for clothing, souvenirs and cookery essentials.With all this diversity, you will need somewhere very special to stay. Perhaps the most logical choice is to persuade the Craigellachie Hotel to install a camp bed in their magnificent Quaich Bar! With over 420 single malts, some offered at £150 a nip, a restful night is assured. In fact, Craigellachie are offering a VIP Spirit of Speyside weekend with three nights’ accommodation, dinners, tastings and accompanied tours, clay shooting and more from £375 per person. Such is their reputation that only a few rooms remain for this package of ‘all-inclusive bliss’. Meanwhile, Craigellachie's Duncan Elphick tells me he's having additional shelves erected in the Quaich Bar for yet more malts and plans to offer guests the new
Craigellachie Malt Library to grace their own study or dining room.There is plenty of choice too at Cullen’s Seafield Hotel, where the bar list runs close to 200 whiskies. Cullen is, of course, home of the eponymous Skink and this distinctive smoked haddock and potato soup never tastes better than in the Seafield’s idiosyncratic dining room. The mixture of hunting prints and promotional photographs of obscure blues artists from the Deep South is hard to resist, particularly when capped with a nip of the nearby Inchgower.Knockomie House Hotel in Forres has the silent Dallas Dhu as its nearest neighbour. The distillery is open today as a museum, run by Historic Scotland, and is well worth a visit. Afterwards, you can repair to the Knockomie’s Bistro or enjoy a full à la carte menu in the main restaurant.Knockomie has recently been extended to provide additional accommodation. During the Festival visitors will be able to enjoy ‘Tales from the Cask’ – after-dinner stories of smuggling and illicit distilling, all of which, I am firmly assured, lie wholly in the past.There’s a definite air of confidence about 2002’s Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. Everyone I met, from distillery guides to hotel managers, is firmly convinced that the Festival is now very much established and that this year will be an outstanding success. Spokesman Stewart Buchanan summed it up for me: “Despite all the difficulties in tourism, we’ve continued to expand the Festival. The international demand is there and there is enough momentum in the event and belief in the partners to keep driving forward.”Let’s hope he is right. Nearly 300 years ago Daniel Defoe, writer and English government spy, noted that Morayshire was “a
pleasant country, the soil fruitful, watered with fine rivers and full of good towns”. Little has changed since then, but the impact of BSE, foot-and-mouth and September 11th threatened to hit visitor numbers very hard indeed. Tourism and distilling are today inextricably linked, and nowhere more so than on Speyside where the local economy values and welcomes every visitor. If you love whisky, then this is the year to show it with a visit to share the Spirit of Speyside and enjoy a blend of hospitality, entertainment, food and fun that’s unique to this “pleasant country”.Contact details
For more information on the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, visit www.spiritofspeyside.com for a full events listing, accommodation offers and more.
Specific attractions can be contacted as follows:
Macallan Distillery: +44 (0)1340 871 471 or www.themacallan.com
Benromach Distillery: +44 (0)1309 675 968 or www.benromach.com
Gordon & MacPhail: +44 (0)1343 545 111 or www.gordonandmacphail.com
Aberlour Distillery: +44 (0)1340 881 475 or www.aberlour.com
Highland Gliding Club: www.highglide.co.uk
Keith & Dufftown Railway: www.keith-dufftown.org.uk
Glen Grant Distillery and Garden: +44 (0)1542 783 318
Johnstons of Elgin: +44 (0)1343 554 099 www.johnstons-of-elgin.com
Baxters Highland Village: +44 (0)1343 820 393 www.baxters.co.uk
Craigellachie Hotel: +44 (0)1340 881 204 www.craigellachie.com
Seafield Hotel, Cullen: +44 (0)1542 840791 www.theseafieldhotel.com
Knockomie House Hotel: +44 (0)1309 673 146 www.knockomie.co.ukInformation from Aberdeen & Grampian Tourist Board is available on +44 (0)1343 542666 or www.castlesandwhisky.com – or, for more information, visit www.undilutedscotland.com