Awards & Events

The walk of life

A team from Whisky Magazine completed nearly 50 miles of the Speyside Way to raise money for Make Poverty History. Dominic Roskrow reports
By Dominic Roskrow
As great whisky moments go it takes some beating: an obscenely large glass of Balblair poured at Balmenach distillery late on a Friday evening in the company of friends and just as dusk began to turn to night .We’d just completed a 12 hour, 30 mile yomp through Speyside on the back of 18 miles the day before. It had been hell. Or at least the last four hours of it had, when we’d lost confidence in our route and turned back towards a main road across streams and ditches and over fences and bush.We’d added two hours to our walk only to find that had we reached the top of the hill we had turned back from we would have been looking down on Cromdale, our finishing point. And to cap it all we’d managed to find a track with thick swamp-like mud to sink in to and with a gate every 20 metres, so that our tired and battered limbs were forced to discover climbing muscles when every sinew was screaming ‘stop.’Being the only Englishman among properly-kitted Scots, this wasn’t an option of course. But it didn’t stop me telling everyone what I thought. For the record I don’t really think all Scots are scheming liars with deep-buried sadistic tendencies towards their southern cousins.I maintain, however, that you can’t justify calling a walk the Speyside Walk when at times it is clearly not even remotely next to the side of the Spey. And that certainly my walking companions have a very loose definition of the term ‘flat’, as in ‘the worst of it is over now, it’s flat the rest of the way.’Finally, though, we finished and were driven back to the distillery at about 8pm, long after most folk had gone off for the weekend. But as we watched the fermentation taking place at Balmenach, and climbed wearily up to the roof to see the worms, large glasses firmly in hand, dark descending on the very hills we had conquered (yes, I feel, conquered) well …it doesn’t get much better.We’d set out the day before from Spey Bay, a party of eight of us, walking at the start of the Speyside Festival to raise money for Make Poverty History and day one had been a dream. We’d walked along the river to Fochabers and then down to Craigellachie, a gentle drizzle serving to keep us cool.And we were in the pub before five and ready to go out to the first event of this year’s festival: a ceilidh at the Aberlour marquee, a whisky debate featuring Dave Broom among others, and a consumer blind tasting of six Speyside whiskies for a festival awards event. The ceilidh was a step too far for some of us, so we did what seemed most natural and headed for the Craigellachie Hotel bar to celebrate that it was no longer to be sold.We were in remarkably good spirits when we met at Glenfiddich the next morning, though fellow walkers Maxwell MacLeod and Australian Kirstie Wallace didn’t make it. Even the news that there will be no models doing a German Playboy Magazine photo shoot at the distillery (I’m not making this up) until the following week can’t dampen our enthusiasm.Instead we get a group of parliamentary candidates who were joining us for the first hour’s walk from Glenfiiddich to Craigellachie. The Conservatives, Scottish National Party and Liberal-Democrats all made it. New Labour, despite several phone calls and the promise of support, didn’t. Funny that. Pepped by a wee dram of Glenfiddich Solera Reserve drawn straight from the cask, we set out on time and with purpose. It wouldn’t last.The presence of the politicians provides the most surreal moments of the trip. Dave Broom presides over a surprisingly harmonious debate between a Tory and SNP MP Angus Robertson, and I walk with a Conservative who joyfully admits that he’d tried to get just about every seat in England without success, had been lumbered with a Scottish constituency, and didn’t think he had much chance. Which he didn’t.Whisky, it seems, isn’t his forte, but he did come up with the extraordinary view that the traditional way of making it using barley, yeast and water was highly inefficient. “Wouldn’t it be better to extract alcohol from petrol to make it with instead?” he suggested, seriously.Just where do you start with that sort of view? And to think the British could have had his sort running the country.Day two was warm and pleasant, and once we’d said goodbye to the politicians the remaining six of us – Dave, Marcin Miller, Annabel Meikle, Bill Hutcheson, his daughter Jacqueline and myself – enjoyed a pleasant morning stroll by the Spey.Our route took us right by Knockando, where Diageo had kindly arranged lunch for us. Indeed, even well in to the afternoon everything was going swimmingly. And that’s when they told me the worst was over and it was flat from there on in…The Speyside Festival is starting to carve a strong identity for itself and unlike previous years there was a real sense in the region’s main towns of an event taking place.We spent what was left of Friday night at the Mash Tun in Aberlour in the company of the lively and always entertaining team from Ian Macleod, then back to the excellent bar at the Dowans Hotel, which deserves points for having such a well informed and knowledgeable bar person.If you’ve walked nearly 50 miles in two days, then might I venture that a great way to start your weekend is a Glenfarclas breakfast? That’s what Dave, Marcin, Annabel and I were treated to – the full works with some very special whiskies, including a sample of the gift each of us had been given – Glenfarclas from the year we were born. In my case that meant a 1961.Throw in the perfect hospitality from our hosts and the great company of John Grant and well, we were flying by the time we headed off. For me there was time for a quick visit to The Glenlivet to see American author Paul Pacult and to share a dram with Jim Cryle before I had to head home.The feet still ache. I won’t be doing another walk like it again. But my lasting memory? A wonderful glass of Balblair late in the evening, and a large and lovely Glenfarclas the following morning. Now that’s what it’s all about.