The beautiful area of Speyside is defined by the distilleries that lead you through the heartland of whisky country. Much has changed in the world of whisky since the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival was founded in 1999; malt whisky production has has increased by over 60 per cent in 16 years. Perhaps just as significant is the steady increase in the number of visitors now visiting distilleries.
The concentration of distilleries in the Speyside area make it the ideal place to start your journey and enhance your knowledge of whisky. But it's also a real celebration of the countryside, the food that is grown locally and activities that take place on hill and riverside. Last year saw a variety of artists playing sessions and with so many events taking place over the long weekend, there is no end to the entertainment.
James Campbell, chairman of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, said: "When the very first Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival took place all those years ago, I don't think that anyone could have predicted - or even dreamt - that it would grow into the world class event that it is today. It's been a phenomenal success and keeps on going from strength to strength. "He concluded "in order to ensure that we keep our reputation as one of the leading whisky festivals anywhere in the world, we need to keep running a festival that appeals to everyone whether they are a whisky connoisseur or a whisky novice."
You can share a good dram anywhere in the world but at the festival you are be able to dig a little deeper. Many of the distilleries aren't usually open to the public, but during the festival most organise special tours and tastings. The sheer imagination that goes into planned events will leave you reeling!
A Visit to Ballindalloch Castle and Gardens and The Ballindalloch Spirit
Ballindalloch Castle has been home to 23 generations of the Macpherson-Grant family and continuously occupied since 1546. Throughout the festival, the family welcome guests to enjoy the varied attractions of their impressive estate. If a relaxing walk takes your fancy, the castle's walled gardens offer a perfect place to wind down, while the castle itself offers the opportunity to peruse an extensive collection of family memorabilia and 17th Century Spanish paintings curated by Sir George Macpherson-Grant in 1850.
Through their historical links to Cragganmore distillery the family have a strong whisky pedigree and in 2014 they opened Scotland's first single estate malt distillery. Joined by host Brian Robinson, guests are introduced to Speyside's newest distillery and the men who run it: Charlie and Colin. As Scotch whisky must by law be aged for at least three years, unfortunately there's no Ballindalloch whisky available to taste just yet. However guests are offered the opportunity to try a little new make spirit in the filling store.
As if that's not enough, during Spirit of Speyside, guests are invited to join the current resident of the castle, Guy Macpherson-Grant, to sample from a selection of the family's private casks in the comfort of the distillery's Club Room.
Ballindalloch Distillery, Ballindalloch, Banffshire, AB37 9AA Tel: +44 (0)1807 500 331 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.ballindallochdistillery.com
Manager's Tour at Benromach
While many distilleries have embraced new trends and mechanised production techniques, Benromach - which was founded in 1898 - has continued the legacy of traditional Speyside distilling. Its team of three operate the site entirely by hand and conduct every measurement in the time-honoured way - no mechanical or computational assistance here. Rising in the nearby Romach Hills, even its water source remains unchanged from when spirit was first produced by its founders.
For one day only, Distillery Manager Keith Cruickshank will act as guide for a lucky few; share anecdotes from his years in the whisky industry and offer insight into the production of this lightly peated dram. To top it all off, there's a tutored tasting of cask samples and bottlings from the Benromach range.
Can't make it to the Manager's Tour? There are plenty of opportunities to experience the whisky's traditional (pre-1960s) Speyside style at one of their many complimentary Benromach Welcome Tours - available on each day of the festival.
Benromach Distillery, Invererne Road, Forres, Moray IV36 3EB Tel: +44 (0)1309 675 968 Email: email@example.com www.benromach.com
Spirit of the Spey
Go with the flow and canoe down the River Spey for a journey with a difference. Paddling in pairs, canoeists will be accompanied by Spey specialist and whisky envoy Dave Craig on a journey that provides a completely different aspect of the mighty river.
The route, approximately eight miles long, includes a picnic lunch stop at Carron Bridge before continuing onwards to the iconic Telford Bridge at Craigellachie where on the riverbank, in or around a tipi, tasting of various Speyside malts takes place to mark the journey's end.
"It's a fantastic way to see the river from a new angle and passing silently in canoes enhances the chances of seeing a fantastic range of birds and animals." says Dave.
Visitors may choose to be transported back in time and Bygone Drives offers a nostalgic trip down memory lane in chauffeur-driven classic British motors dating back to the 1950s and 1960s including Bentleys and a Daimler V8.
Strathspey Steam Railway
Those who love the golden age of steam should step aboard the Strathspey Steam Railway. Passengers can sit back and relax, taking in the picturesque scenery of the return route from Aviemore to Broomhill Station while enjoying an afternoon tea with sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, cakes, tea and coffee. There will also be whisky nosing and tasting session featuring four specially selected whiskies from Speyside Distillery single malts expressions.
Keith and Dufftown Railway
You could also join one of the regular services on the Keith and Dufftown Railway Line, Britain's most northerly heritage railway. Enjoy a slower pace of life travelling through 11 miles of beautiful countryside, crossing the magnificent Fiddich viaduct, passing by a loch and castles, and see what wildlife you can spot on the journey on the whisky line.
Glenlivet Hill Treks
Venture into the remote Glenlivet Hills on board an unstoppable eight wheel drive Argocat all-terrain vehicle. By going off the beaten track, you'll learn secrets from the area's illicit whisky making past, and find out about the characters and the lengths they went to in order to evade detection by excise men. The off-road adventure from Charlie Ironside includes picnic lunch in an atmospheric bothy, and the opportunity to walk with a cask-carrying whisky horse along one of the area's Smugglers' Trail before visiting Glenlivet Distillery that in 1824 became the area's first licensed distillery.
Glenrothes Distillery and Rothes House
Martine Nouet, Queen of the Still, will be joining Ronnie to lay on feasting with a barbeque and a tour of the distillery. The distillery isn't usually open to the public and has a cooperage on site. Rothes House will provide the setting for an exclusive dinner with thoughtfully selected courses paired with wine and whiskies.
Martine will also be cooking with malt whisky and offering demonstrations at The Oakwood Cookery School, Elgin, which has been shortlisted for 'Best New Event of the Festival award'.
Speyside by Night
The sun may have gone down, but the party is far from over!
The Mash Tun
Originally constructed in 1896 by James Campbell - a sea captain - to resemble a small ship, The Mash Tun offers a number of tastings and dinners throughout the festival. Situated in the heart of Charlestown of Aberlour, this cosy pub is something of a local institution and at the bar you'll often come across familiar faces from the world of whisky. There is, of course, an ample whisky selection and hearty food served from midday.
The Mash Tun, Broomfield Square, Aberlour, Banffshire AB38 9QP Tel: +44 (0) 1340 881 771 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.mashtun-aberlour.com
The Drouthy Cobbler
Named in honour of John Shanks, a local shoemaker who famously cleared the grounds of Elgin Cathedral 1826, The Drouthy (thirsty) Cobbler is a perfect place to meet other festival goers, share a dram and wind down after a long day exploring. The home of Speyside's only regular comedy club, it is also the venue for a vast number of the Spirit of Speyside Sessions.
The Drouthy Cobbler, 48 High St, Elgin, Moray IV30 1BU Tel: +44 (0) 1343 596 000 Email: email@example.com www.thedrouthycobbler.co.uk
Spirit of Speyside Sessions
Now in its second year, the Spirit of Speyside Sessions offer an incredible line-up of traditional musicians, comedians and even a ceilidh or two! Perfect for getting your foot tapping (or your sides aching) while you enjoy a final dram of the day.
Performing artists include: Skerryvore, Spiro, The Mae Trio and Pip Mountjoy, Pictish Trail and Rozi Plain, Robin Laing, Nae Reel, Footerin' Aboot, The Dandy Ceilidh Band, The Copper Dogs, Shona Donaldson and Paul Anderson, Knockdhu Ceilidh Band, Captain Bird and The Big Smoke Band, Dufftown and District Pipe Band, Speyside Dixielanders, Charlie McKerron, Tim Edey, Ross Ainslie and Marc Clement. The events will take place at multiple venues on Speyside.
Something to remember it by… The Whisky Shop Dufftown
The shop is owned and operated by Mike Lord, who is both an expert in the whisky field - he sits on the panel of the World Whiskies Awards and has been hosting whisky events for more than 15 years - and a true ambassador for both Speyside and Scotland's whisky industry. With more than 50 bottles open for sampling at any one time, Mike and his shop manager Vicky Keough are on hand to share their knowledge and passion. Drawn by his impressive range of whiskies (which will satisfy even the most demanding whisky enthusiast), Mike estimates that nearly 6,000 guests visit his shop during the Spirit of Speyside to browse, talk whisky and attend the regular events hosted within.
The Whisky Shop Dufftown, 1 Fife Street, Dufftown, Moray AB55 4AL Tel: +44 (0)1340 821 097 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.whiskyshopdufftown.com
Steam into Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival - by train, vintage vehicle, canoe or all terrain vehicle.
With all sorts of transport options, getting around the Speyside region during the annual whisky festival has never been so much fun.
From canoeing on a river to going off the beaten track in an unstoppable Argocat eight wheel drive vehicle to the more genteel options of hiring a chauffeur-driven vintage car or catching a ride on a steam train, there's certainly plenty of scope to get around Speyside in style.
Brian Robinson, distillery host, Ballindalloch Distillery
Well, it's new. It's small. And delightful. If you want a complete contrast to one of the bigger, more established distilleries, this is the place for you. The old farm buildings lie on the estate grounds of Ballindalloch Castle and have been beautifully converted into a small but perfectly formed distillery.
Any other reason?
Last year the building project was still going during the festival but this didn't stop Brian and Charlie from opening up the doors (I'm not sure if there were doors). The 'hard hat' tours instantly sold out. They have been operational since the summer of 2014 so returning visitors will be rewarded to see everything in working order. " At least this year we have our stills!" notes Charlie as he proudly watches over them, when I visited on a cold winter day last year.
The two man team at the distillery are rightly protective of their new baby and are intending to keep things personal. They are offering the super enthusiast the opportunity to work the whole day in 'The Art of Whisky Making Experience.' "This is what we can do because we are a small hands-on operation. We can really go into detail by lifting the velvet rope and allowing access all areas," explained Brian.
Brian is looking forward to being reunited with his first time guests from last year. "They are special and are proud to be able to say they were here first."
Dennis Malcolm, distillery manager, Glen Grant Distillery
In the 1800s the Grant brothers, and then John, known as The Major, took great pride in the site at Glen Grant. The beautiful gardens were established and The Major would treat guests, and needless to say himself, to a wee dram hidden carefully in his secret safe. The delightful setting is as lovely today and should be bursting with spring colour and birdsong in May.
What's going on:
So what better setting for a picnic? Dennis, aka The Major, will be joined by food and whisky writer, Martine Nouet, posing as his niece, Victoria. They will recreate a picnic of the bygone Victorian era with charming tales, rare drams and tasty bites. Last year Glen Grant played host to the lavish Opening dinner with guests welcomed with reception drinks into the still house that glittered in the evening sunset.
Graham Coull, distillery manager and Iain Allan, visitor centre manager, Glen Moray Distillery
A starring role:
In 2006, Glen Moray hosted the Opening Dinner of the Festival and are, once again, kicking off proceedings in 2015. However, the success of the evening has overgrown the scale of venues in the area so the Touch of Tartan dinner and the Opening Ceilidh will be staged on consecutive evenings. The Touch of Tartan dinner will take place in working buildings so the guests will feel perfectly at home as they meet with fellow workers from all around Speyside. The following evening, visitors can take part in the Opening Ceilidh. The format of a traditional ceilidh includes food, whisky, dancing and lively entertainment, with the addition of hospitality provided by well known faces from the industry.
What's going on:
The distillery is expanding production to 5.5 million litres per annum, and warehousing by 50 per cent so the aptly named 'Fifth Chapter' tour will see Graham explaining the changes that are to be made. Graham will then turn his skills to the barbeque, which has a now established reputation as a 'guid night out' by locals and visitors alike. Iain recalled "One year a Swedish choir arrived at the Saturday night barbeque and entertained us all evening."
A good start:
The café at Glen Moray seves a full Scottish breakfast served daily from 10.00am, including Sunday. It's a popular spot for the likes of regular Martyn, known as the whisky cyclist with his trademark pink shirt, who requires a hearty meal before making his way around on two wheels.
Something a little different:
The production of beer and whisky are similar, and the two have a close affiliation. A hauf an' a hauf was the traditional way to drink a half pint of beer and a dram in tandem. The Windswept Brewing Company have experimented with maturing their dark beer, known as The Wolf, into used casks from Glen Moray.
Gordon & MacPhail
Mark Angus, retail manager at Gordon and MacPhail.
You'll not have to look too far to find Mark because he is a man dedicated to his work. This delightful shop was established 120 years ago to be 'centrical and commodious' and selling groceries, whisky, tea, spirits and other delicacies. The principle remains the very same today and the business is still family run, four generations later. A bounty of delicious aromas greet you as you step over the threshold. The Whisky Room houses an eye watering selection of single malt whiskies in every age, shape and hue imaginable.
The ingredients on hand inspire tastings matched with chocolate or local cheeses while the whisky collection reveals flights of old and rare whiskies, cask strength and special cask types, along with blind tastings for a varied programme over the weekend.