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SPEYSIDE: Speyside Shorts

What else is going on at the festival
By Gavin D. Smith

The River Album by Hamish Napier



"Growing up on the banks of the River Spey, I spent many hours of youth practising to the roar of the river in the background, so it's always been there in my music.

'The River' brings to the surface vivid sonic images of occurrences, past and present, along the stretch of the Spey that flows past my childhood home. One of my brother's fishes it, the other canoes it, my uncle Sandy photographed it, my mother paints it, and there's my father's daily fascination with its erratically changing water level. My great-great-grandfather John Findlay was the Head Distiller at Balmenach (see below), the local Speyside whisky distillery - which now produces Caorunn gin! For me the river will always symbolise home and a strong connection to nature. No mortal's relationship with the river can ever be truly harmonious, its ever-changing micro-climate, mysteriously dark depths and unrelenting power are both merciless and enchanting."

www.hamishnapier.com



A short history of Balmenach Distillery



Balmenach was one of the first distilleries to gain a licence in the wake of the highly influential 1823 Excise Act, though distilling had been taking place at this remote location near the River Spey for some time previously.

The distillery was in the hands of the founding MacGregor family until the 1920s, when difficult economic conditions forced its sale, initially in 1922 to a consortium comprising Peter Dawson Ltd, James Watson & Co Ltd and Macdonald Greenlees Ltd. This grouping was absorbed into the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) three years later.

Both Whisky Galore author Sir Compton Mackenzie and diplomat, adventurer and writer Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart were members of the MacGregor family, with Bruce Lockhart being the great-grandson of distillery founder James MacGregor. Happy times spent at the distillery during school holidays inspired the writer's most enduring book, Scotch: The Whisky of Scotland in Fact and Story.

Balmenach was mothballed by DCL's successors United Distillers in June 1993, but Inver House Ltd purchased it in 1997, with distilling recommencing the following year. It is one of five Inver House-owned distilleries.

No official 'house' bottlings are issued, but Glasgow-based Aberko has released several bottlings under its Deerstalker brand.



Murray McDavid



In the heart of Speyside you will find the Coleburn Distillery, the home of Murray McDavid. This is where the art of maturation has been practised at various times during the last 120 years. All whiskies are aged in oak casks to offer a complete range of Scotch from vintage single malts and select grains to vatted malts and crafted blends.

This family of whisky includes Mission Gold, Benchmark, Mystery Malt, Select Grain, The Vatting and Crafted Blend and these whiskies can be tasted at Murray McDavid where the distillery hosts whisky tastings, parties and dances.

The whisky tastings can also be enjoyed aboard trips on the 'Murray McDavid', a 60ft traditional wooden boat, moored on the River Clyde in the centre of Glasgow.

With many years of industry experience, the Coleburn team, led by David Simpson, takes quality whisky and matches the heart of each spirit with wood to enhance its different characteristics. This results in fine drams with very unique profiles that Murray McDavid is truly proud to offer whisky lovers worldwide.



Barrel racing for beginners and other off-beat entertainment



The casinos of Las Vegas may have their high rollers, but the streets of the world's unofficial malt whisky capital will soon have their very own barrel rollers. Visitors to the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival will have the chance to compete in the ancient 'sport' of barrel rolling - a tribute to the warehousemen who perform the task on a daily basis.

The event takes place in Dufftown - recognised as the hub of Scotland's whisky industry because it is surrounded by seven distilleries, including the world famous Glenfiddich - and takes place over a 50m track.

It is just one of many quirky events taking place at the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in the heart of Scotland's best known - and best loved - whisky producing region.

Thousands of visitors from all over the world will descend on Speyside to raise a glass to the national drink at almost 500 separate events. The programme includes distillery tours, exclusive tastings, food events, music, comedy and outdoor activities for whisky connoisseurs and novices.

Barrel racing takes place on a closed road in the town centre of Dufftown on Sunday, 1 May and has been organised by the Dufftown and District Community Association. Nicola Alexander, a trustee of the group, says the event will offer something very different indeed.

She adds, "The idea came about because we wanted to do something different from all the tours and nosings and tastings, but still keeping with the whisky theme. We hope the community will come out for this event, along with the visitors, and enjoy the festival spirit.

"Competitors will be asked to race a 50m track and back up again, when the other member of the team will take over and do the same. The winner will be the fastest team.

"Before the race, two experienced warehouse men from a local cooperage will show everyone how's it's done. We hope to make this a yearly event and even get all the local distilleries to have a competition between each other."

The event is open to teams of two - individuals can be paired up - and there are even prizes on offer for the fastest finishers. The action takes place under the shadow of Dufftown's iconic clock tower from 2.15 - 3.15pm. It forms part of the wider Dufftown Whisky Street Festival, with lots of Scottish entertainment throughout the afternoon.

For those who still have the energy, there's the chance to take in all seven of the town's distilleries in the 'Seven Stills Race'. The course will take in all the famous and lesser known names and offers a varied and challenging route. The race takes place from 2pm to 6pm also on 1 May.

Other quirky events on the programme include the opportunity to canoe down the mighty River Spey and sample some drams inside a tepee at the end of the trip; trying out craft skills by carving a wooden whisky tumbler and needle felting a Highland cow; and taking part in a 'dramble' through the Quarrelwood in Elgin where experts from whisky merchants Gordon and MacPhail will discuss the importance of wood in whisky production.

There's also a women-only event, Whisky Women & WAGS. Dufftown whisky expert Michelle Myron will be leading a walk around the local distilleries, showing how chocolate is the perfect match for whisky. And there's even the chance to enjoy a whisky pancake breakfast at Grantown YMCA - with a special limited edition Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival pancake topping.

Whisky Festival Manager Pery Zakeri says, "We pride ourselves on offering something for everyone, regardless of their level of interest in whisky. It's possible to come and enjoy the festival and the atmosphere without touching a drop - although we thoroughly recommend that all our visitors give the region's fantastic whisky a try.

"There are almost 500 events on the programme this year and we defy anyone not to be able to find something that they will enjoy."

Tickets for all festival events are available to buy now at www.spiritofspeyside.com

The festival is also active on social media. Please see.

facebook.com/WhiskyFestival and @spirit_speyside on Twitter and on Instagram.