Awards & Events

Spirits rising

There's a real sense of purpose on Speyside at the moment, reflected by its rapidly developing Spirit of Speyside Festival.Dominic Roskrow reports
By Dominic Roskrow
Put it down to the eight outstanding whiskies we’d had to taste and judge, the fact that the dinner was served late or that the generally amenable ambience, but Alex Salmond couldn’t stop beaming.The Scottish National Party leader had stepped in at the last moment to replace SNP member of parliament Angus Robertson, who was tied up with a by-election campaign, and he was clearly enjoying himself.“If you see me on television later tonight and I look happier than normal,” he told the dinner guests, “it might just be down to the fact that I’ve enjoyed one or two of these splendid whiskies.” And they were splendid. They had been chosen by a Whisky Magazine panel and there were eight of them instead of the suggested six. All of them outstanding. Guests had to taste them and then select their favourites in three categories – what a marvellous start to the Speyside festival.Fitting, too, that the dinner, held in a warehouse at the picturesque Strathisla Distillery set the standard for what has become an excellent advertisement for this most fertile but traditionally not particularly united whisky region.Traditionally only Chivas Brothers has bothered to promote the festival, but with an energetic and talented Spirit of Speyside Festival committee in place that’s changing, and fast.Before we’d even arrived at the dinner the sense of dynamism in the region had swept over us. The Glenlivet is in the process of having its visitor facilities upgraded, for instance, new trade hospitality facilities are being installed at Strathisla, and over at The Macallan Edrington has all but completed a stylish refurbishment programme that has turned the distillery manager’s house in to comfy accommodation, and has upgraded the famed Easter Elchies house in to luxury living quarters.Perhaps most exciting of all is the introduction of an interactive visitor attraction in to one of the old warehouses which will demonstrate the importance of wood to the development of fine whisky. It will be like no other attraction in the region and looks set to add a new dimension to whisky marketing.It’s rare to get the opportunity to pull a single malt whisky apart and to study its component parts. When you get the chance to do it with a malt as special as Longmorn and the chief surgeon is Chivas master blender Colin Scott then you’re on very hallowed ground indeed.Asmall group of journalists was given the chance to taste 15-year-old Longmorn from three different casks. The first, a bourbon barrel, provided a typically fruity Longmorn but with strong orange, candyfloss, floral and sweet vanilla notes. The second, a sherry hogshead, was mustier and more perfumed and with a different fruit emphasis – a woman’s handbag, offered Robin Laing. And who am I to argue?And finally we sampled a much darker, sherry rich offering, with nuttier notes and mince pie, cherry and dried fruit.Longmorn, Colin told us, was a symphony orchestra and these were the individual instruments. Add a tasting of a cask strength Longmorn and a slightly older version set for release later this year (the worst kept secret in the industry we were told) and it added up to a truly exceptional tasting.Having already visited the rarest whisky section of Strathisla and tasted some very old and very special samples of Royal Salute, we felt we’d spent enough time with Chivas and it was time to go off-piste and have lunch with Duncan Elphick at the Highlander.There’s a feature about what he’s up to elsewhere in this magazine, but with the future of the Craigellachie Hotel once more in doubt, he’s getting on with establishing his pub as a warm and vibrant whisky bar.One of the surprise names on the shortlist of eight whiskies at the Spirit of Speyside Festival was that of Benriach Authenticus, not least because it is a heavily peated whisky. But one or two peated whiskies have appeared in the region, so we went over to talk to Billy Walker about the distillery’s progression since he bought it, and what more’s in store.Benriach is a dinky and compact distillery with its own floor maltings that are currently idle but may not remain so.On the whisky front the team here is playing with styles and pushing at the boundaries with all the vigour of Bruichladdich but with little of the bluster.And it’s hard not to be excited by the sample room, which boasts a selection of peaty whiskies that range from fishy, phenolic heavyweights to sweet Ardbeg-style charmers. You name a type of cask and there’s a whisky maturing in it here.Should we feel guilty about indulging in such smoky delights while in Speyside? I think not.We’re on a strict time clock and we have to dash sooner than we would have liked.But before we head off to the airport we have time to stop of at Glen Garioch, another distillery with a newish visitor centre and just about to come in to its own with a range of ambitious plans.The distillery’s moving to using unpeated malt which might set alarm bells ringing for some. For the time being, though, Glen Garioch is a strange sister of a whisky to Bowmore, with the same parma violet notes in the slightly older expressions and a complex but decidedly kooky character that makes it like no other malt.It’s a great way to end a two day dip in to the Speyside festival but I come away impressed by the sheer diversity of whisky tasting experiences on offer.These are great times for Speyside – and I can’t wait to get back.Spirit of Speyside Festival winners
12 years and under: The Glenlivet 12 Years Old
13 to 20 years old: The Glenlivet 15 Years Old French Oak Reserve
21 Years and over: The Balvenie 30 Years Old