There are five main malt whisky regions in Scotland – the islands, the highlands, the lowlands, Islay, Campbeltown, and Speyside.
Speyside rules supreme in terms of numbers – it contains more than half of the distilleries in Scotland, a total of almost 50. And, unlike Islay and its peaty beasties, its malts are heavily sherried numbers that come with a touch of smoke and a lot of rich fruity notes. Accustomed as I am to Irish whiskeys like Redbreast, Speyside is a great place to start exploring our neighbours’ single malts. I’ve been writing about whiskey in the Evening Echo and Irish Examiner for the last couple of years, so when an opportunity to visit the Spirit of Speyside festival presented itself, I jumped at it. And what a trip it was. Six days of non-stop fun, travelling around the region, meeting legends of the distilling industry, eating great food, discovering amazing whiskies and generally having the time of my life. This is how it went down.
1830 – 2230 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Touch of Tartan Gala Dinner, Glen Moray Distillery, Elgin.
I opted to wear a kilt for this, the formal gala that kicks off the week. I didn’t have to kilt up, but how often does an average paddy get to don a lovely pinafore and not be ridiculed? I know what you are thinking and no, my haggis was not free range. You don’t go commando in another man’s fatigues, so I guess I will never get to feel that freeeeeedom William Wallace was always shouting about.
I was at a table with a group of Chivas Brothers employees, a firm owned by Pernod Ricard, parent firm of Irish Distillers, who operate the distillery in my hometown. So there was a sense of familiarity about us all, chatting about the recent redevelopment in Midleton.
I also got to meet Richard Forsyth, head of Forsyths of Rothes, who make pot stills, or more specifically, all of the pot stills in Midleton – which are the biggest in the world. His workers are in Midleton at the moment installing a micro distillery, and his team will be over again to install three more massive pot stills by 2017. He told me that the last time they installed the giant pot stills in the Garden Stillhouse they had to shut the road that runs alongside Midleton College as it is barely wide enough for the stills to get through. They decided that the quietest time in Midleton would be a Friday night, as everyone would leave the cars at home.
But this being Midleton, some numpty had parked his car right at the narrowest spot, meaning they had to carry out a panicked search of all the pubs in Midleton to find the driver and get him to shift his vehicle. Thankfully they found him and got the stills in, ensuring future generations will be swimming in whiskey.
Also at my table was Mark Gillespie, who whisky nerds will know as the guy who does Whisky Cast, a podcast/blog/etc of some note. Mark was a journalist with Bloomberg until he lost his job in 2008/2009, then he really doubled down on his whisky fandom and made a career out of it. I’ve been to a few events he was covering and he is very impressive to watch. He knows everyone, and is always watching the room to see who he can interview. Whereas a lot of whisky bloggers can make the industry stuff a little bland, he approaches it as a journalist, and understands what makes a good story. If you’re into whisk(e)y, I recommend his podcast.
So we enjoyed amazing food, washed down with Glen Moray’s lightly peated expression – a nice, uncomplicated dram. Certainly less complicated than trying to sit down whilst wearing a kilt.
Thursday, 30th April
1000 – 1200 Blind Tasting with Gordon & MacPhail, Elgin.
This was nice and close as I was staying in the Laichmoray Hotel in the lovely cathedral city of Elgin. Neighboring towns may well point out that, as it has a population of about 18,000, Elgin is nowhere near a city, and it’s cathedral barely stands, having been destroyed by the Wolf of Badenoch hundreds of years ago. But it is a bustling little spot, nestled along the coast north of the Cairngorms National Park.
G&M is a legendary shop; they are independent bottlers and also are heroes of the whisky world – without them, there might not be single malts, as they continued to buy and bottle malts from various distilleries all through the various highs and lows of the industry.
In a beautiful upstairs boardroom we had a talk about the history of the store, then passed around little vials of scent, tasked with guessing what each scent was; honey, oats, mint, tea tree – these were all scents associated with whisky. Then it was on to a blind tasting of five whiskies. At most tastings people just had a tiny nip and left the rest – not me, I remember Black ’47 and the terrible hunger and thirst of my people, so I floored every drink I had and made increasingly wild and ridiculous guesses as to what each one was. I scored seven out of 25. I am an oik.
1300 – 1400 A tour of Benromach Distillery, Forres
Located just off the Waterford Road (coincidence, rather than a very long road), Benromach is compact and bijou. Owned by Gordon and MacPhail, who bought the mothballed distillery and all its sleeping stock to ensure their supply line, it has a staff of three and a cracking product. And no, I am not just saying that because they gave me a free bottle of their ten year old single malt. They make a lightly peated, heavily sherried dram that has a biscuit nuttiness to tame the wildness of the forest fruits. Fun factoid; Maurice Walsh of The Quiet Man fame was an exciseman at Benromach.
1530-1630 The Sound of Aberlour, Aberlour Distillery
The Cask Strength Boys are the Simon Cowells of the whisky scene. No, that doesn’t mean they have massively overdeveloped torsos and tiny sparrow legs, or that they are killing music, it simply means they used to be A&R men. Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley are ex-music professionals, now turned drinks writers and presenters. I had met Joel before when we were both on the Irish Whiskey Academy here in Midleton as he was finishing his book. This event matched tracks from days of yore to an Aberlour 16 year-old Bourbon Cask and Aberlour 16 year-old Sherry Cask – which are only available at the distillery – as well as Aberlour 18 year-old, Aberlour a’bunadh and the now rare Aberlour-Glenlivet 8 year-old from the 1960s, of which very little remains. The choice of tracks most likely had a lot to do with the target demographic – whisky fans tend to be a little older – circa 50+ – so Bowie et al would suit. But I’d love to hear them pair a few whiskies to Napalm Death’s You Suffer.
1915 – 1145 Opening Ceilidh, Glen Moray Distillery, Elgin
No kilt for this one, although I did try my hand (and well-covered legs) at Scottish country dancing. It’s like a cross between Irish dancing and pro-wrestling – lots of linking arms with people and twirling them around rapidly before letting go in the hope they achieve enough speed to break through the earth’s atmosphere and travel into orbit around Uranus. Obviously, with all this flailing you need to keep your strength up, and that’s where stovies come in. Served with crumbly oatmeal cakes (don’t call them biscuits, despite them looking very much like biscuits), stovies are a stew that comes in a variety of viscosities and meat grades. Some are lamb or pork brisket, others are corned beef hash, and are unworthy of your attentions. I loaded up on stovies and continued quaffing the lightly peated Glen Moray. I met with a couple of members of the Scotch Whisky Association; I asked them if it was true that the SWA once stopped an Irish whiskey brand from using ‘Glen….’ in their name as ‘it’s Scottish property’. They said it was possible, as much of what they do is protecting Scotch from any sort of infringement. Hopefully the recently formed Irish Whiskey Association will do the same, and claim intellectual copyright over all whiskey, and sue the hole off the entire planet. Of course I’m kidding….but whiskey is an Irish invention, just so you know.
Friday, 1st May
1000 – 1045 Find the Best Malt For a Bacon Roll, St James Hall, Dufftown
What better way to spend the First of May than standing in the snow in the Scottish highlands? Well, one better way is to then duck inside a Masonic hall to munch into a bacon roll washed down with four great drams. Organised by the instantly likeable Mike Lord of the Whisky Shop Dufftown, this was, as he said, ‘pure science’ – there would be no sauce, no ketchup, no egg; just bread, bacon, a bit of butter, and whisky. I opted for the last drink, which was port finished and fruity; like meself really. Nobody else agreed with me, proving once more that I am an oik.
Dufftown was also where the aforementioned Maurice Walsh met his wife; and in related film/book trivia, is where Sirius Black was spotted when he escaped Azkaban, thus placing Dufftown quite close to Hogwarts.
1100 – 1145 WSD Challenge 2015 – Speyside, The Whisky Shop, Dufftown
After the bacon/booze brekkie we rambled into Mike’s shop, which was packed with visitors from all over Europe. This was a recurring sight at the festival – the majority of attendees seemed to come from Scandinavia, Germany, The Netherlands and the USA/Canada. It really was an education in how powerful whisky tourism is to the economy there – it brings in some stg£50 million per annum.
In the WSD we made our way through seven independently bottled drams. In Scotland, as here, there are many firms that do not distill, but rather buy whisky straight from the distillers and bottle it themselves. The main difference is that here in Ireland firms try to pretend that they are distilling it themselves, as opposed to imply saying ‘this is our version of a Cooley spirit’ or whatever. It’s frustrating. Anyway: There was a competition for the best tasting notes so I gave it my best shot, and by best shot I mean I became a cross between William S Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, if they exclusively worked in haiku. The key to good tasting notes is in having access to a broad spectrum of flavours and scents, as well as the confidence and vocabulary to share the sensations. I always point to the Master Of Malt tasting notes – they are witty, bizarre, incredibly varied and most of all they make you want to try the whisk(e)y. My notes (pictured above) from this challenge read like the book yer man in Se7en had in his flat.
1200 – 1230 Rotary Pop-up Shop, Aberlour
Aberlour, like Dufftown, is a picture-postcard little village steeped in history and whisky. In the back of the scout hall the local Rotary Club held a little bric a brac sale, I picked up a Glenmorangie display yoke that lights up and is of almost no use, and a Ballantine’s Quaich. There was a lot to be had there, but with my luggage already full on the way over I was wary of obtaining more gear to cram in. We paid a tiny sum and moved on to lunch in Fresh in Aberlour, which was awesome and if I had an Instagram account I’m sure I would have taken a heavily filtered photo of it.
1400 – 1530 Glen Keith Tour, Keith
On the sign welcoming you into Keith are the words ‘The Friendly Town’. That they needed to tell you that, coupled with the fact that they actually used single quote marks, makes it seem somewhat sarcastic. Thankfully we found no evidence to suggest that it is anything but friendly. We had a special tour of Glen Keith distillery, which mostly makes malt for blends. It is a lean operation in every sense – there is only one person on shift at any time, and the plant practically runs itself. At the end of the tour we crossed the old railway line, and a beautiful little bridge, into Strathisla, where we had a tasting of cask-strength Glen Keith single malt. Our host talked about how important memory is to taste – your taste, your flavour-association is a construct, guided by your entire life. There are no wrong answers when doing a tasting – just have the self-belief to say what you taste/smell, no matter how daft it seems. I compared a whisky to mothballs – ‘in a good way’. I have no shame.
Once the heat of the Glen Keith cask-strength had dissipated I was able to get hints of marmalade, apple pie, sweet mustard and a little hint of clove or cinnamon. Not bad for a palate that had been bombarded with flavours all day.
1640 – 1720 The Whisky Line, Keith to Dufftown Railway
This was one of the events that (almost) didn’t involve whisky. Boarding at the old train station in Keith, not far from Strathisla, the trip is an eleven-mile line linking Dufftown to Keith. The line was reopened by volunteers during 2000 and 2001, and passes through some of Scotland’s most picturesque scenery, with forest and farmland, lochs and glens, castles and distilleries. The line is overgrown in some parts, and slowly travels up and down through some beautiful scenery. The whole thing feels a bit like the train in Spirited Away. Speaking of spirits, we also got a dram of Glenlivet 12 and a bit of shortbread to keep us happy. The Scandinavians in the carriage behind us had a singsong, mutilating We’ll Meet Again in the process. But sitting on a slow train to god knows where with the sun flickering through the trees and deer occasionally appearing, they could have been singing Cannibal Corpse’s Fucked With A Knife and I wouldn’t have cared. It was bliss.
Here’s a video that completely fails to capture any of that bliss:
1930 – 2215 Strathisla Cask Strength Dinner, Strathisla Distillery, Keith
We were on our way into Strathisla when we bumped into Charles MacLean – Master of the Quaich, Icon Of Whisky, and living legend. When I told him where I was from he was effusive in his praise for the single pot still whiskeys being made in my hometown, which made me feel quite proud. He was also good enough to have his photo taken with me, despite the fact that I look like a human oil spill.
Then it was inside to eat, drink and be merry. The menu for the dinner, specially commissioned from Eric Obry, the chef and owner of the former Dufftown restaurant, La Faisanderie, was inspired by the range of single malts from Chivas Brothers’ Speyside distilleries – including the range of Cask Strengths Editions – single cask whiskies bottled at natural cask strengths of over 55% alcohol by volume. Some strange beasts in there – I’m not sure about whisky pairing. It seems to be taking off, and is a great introduction to whiskey, but it is a small drink, so it really is better suited to enjoying between courses. A single measure of whisky, as someone once noted, ‘is little more than a dirty glass’.
Saturday, 2nd May
1030 – 1130 Dufftown Whisky Fair, Memorial Hall
Fifteen stands operated by some great distilleries and all you need is a glass and a thirst. It was great. There was also a whisky-chocolate pairing, with a really interesting lemongrass infused chocolate matched to a Macallan. A German guy next to me nearly gagged, but I thought it was fantastic, albeit in a Willy Wonka kind of way. Also there was BenRiach, a Speyside classic, and GlenDronach, which BenRiach also own, but is not really Speyside at all, lingering on the periphery of the region. That said, it has that big, sherried heart that I love, and is one of my favourite scotches. So I milled through the three or four they had on offer, then slithered down to the Tomintoul table for more. Unsure how to pronounce it, the chap at the table helped me out: ‘My boss is a sixty year old bloke named Tom, and he always says “Just picture me, getting out of the shower, in a towel – Tom In Towel”.’ So now that image in my mind too, and I don’t even know Tom. But he still makes great whisky.
1145 – 1245 Dufftown Pipe Band, The Square, Dufftown
If I had travelled all this way and not seen a pipe band I would have asked for my money back. Not that I paid any money, but you get the idea – they are the sound of Scotland. Hard not to get stirred up by it all.
1300 – 1430 Tamdhu Distillery Tour
Tamdhu is a complete oddity. Built in the postwar boom for distilling, it is a brutally functional, industrial building in a land of picture-postcard distilleries. But there is an honesty to it – distilleries are factories, no matter how they try to project a downhome, folksy image; Tamdhu simply admits this. Normally closed to the public, we had a walkthrough with the assistant manager, then on to Warehouse 1 where both the recently appointed distillery manager, Sandy McIntyre and recently retired distillery manager, Sandy Coutts, conducted a tasting from their hand-picked single casks. Whatever about the exterior, their product is great.
1500 – 1700 Glenfarlcas Whisky Tasting, The Mash Tun, Aberlour
The Mash Tun was packed for this – a tasting of the Glenfarclas range (10yo, 12yo, 15yo, 21yo, the 105 cask strength edition and then the 40yo), overseen by George Grant of the Glenfarclas family, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the great Scottish actor Gregor Fisher. While there we met Willie from Donegal and Tadgh from Carlow (both pictured above), two contractors in the area to work on the massive redevelopment of The Macallan, which is being transformed into a version of Hobbiton. Willie seemed to mistake me for some sort of whisky buff, and gave me a glass of ‘great whisky’ to nose and identify. I couldn’t smell a damn thing, and told him I wasn’t even sure it was whisky. I wasn’t far off, as it was Bells.
1830 – 2030 Perfect Match, Aberlour Distillery
More fine dining, but this time with finger food and some wonderful Aberlour whiskies, held ‘neath the looming camera obscura photo of a bottle of A’bunadh taken by one of the chaps from Mumford and Sons.
2030 – 2300 Charlie McKerron and Friends, Fleming Hall, Aberlour
Recently described as a “wonderful, high octane fiddle player and composer”, Charlie McKerron has now clocked up 29 years on the road as a professional musician. Charlie was a member of Gaelic super group Capercaillie, which has sold over 1 million albums to date. He has written music for film and documentary and contributed to the sound track for Hollywood blockbuster Rob Roy. During the show he referenced The Chieftains, Seamus Begley and other Irish trad musicians, showing the incredible cross-over there is between our two countries and cultures. The best thing about the show was his squeezebox player, who looked like he was having a particularly animated conversation with Jesus during every song.
Sunday, 3rd May
1000 – 1230 Speyside Distillery Tour, Kingussie
This one took a bit of travelling, but was well worth it. Speyside Distillery is not normally open to the public and was taking part in the festival for the first time this year. Although visitors have never before been inside the building, it may be familiar – it appeared in the BBC television series Monarch of the Glen. You know, ‘the Scottish Ballykissangel’.
The small, boutique distillery has been producing spirit since 1990, and now produces the SPEY from Speyside Distillery range of single malts. The tour was hosted by distillery manager, Sandy Jamieson, who is a proper Scot – quiet, and uncomfortable with having his photo taken.
We also met with the owner, John Harvey McDonough, whose family own Harveys of Edinburgh and have all sorts of aristocratic links. He was very generous with his time and chatted to us for about 45 minutes, and was a real gent. He had even visited Youghal once during the potato festival, so he has seen some shit. The day after we visited the distillery, brand ambassador Michael Owen was there, so I avoided having to pretend I knew who he was.
1300 – 1430 Lunch in The Cairngorms Hotel in Aviemore
Aviemore is the winter sports capital of the highlands. It’s a bustling little spot, with loads of families in hiking gear rambling through it. We lunched at the Cairngorms Hotel, which is like Brigadoon on crack. I loved it, and the food was excellent – I had the classic haggis, neeps and tatties, the perfect fodder for a chilly spring day.
1600 – 1730 Whisky Mountain Tasting, Edinvillie Hall
Joel and Neil again, this time holding a celebration of the nearby Ben Rinnes mountain and the many whiskies it helps create. The event was in the middle of nowhere on the lower slopes of the mountain, and as we entered the empty hall I was convinced that this was going to be a bust. But over the next few minutes, the tables filled with whisky fans who had trekked and driven from all over to be there. I think the idea was that we would finish the event by trekking up Ben Rinnes, but since it was pissing down and there was zero visibility, we opted to simply toast it instead. We raised our glasses and sipped the last of our whisky mountain drams, then it was back in the car and away to Elgin.
1845 – 2345 Closing Ceilidh and Whisky Awards Final, Laichmoray Hotel, Elgin
The official close of the festival, this also saw the results of the festival awards, which saw Strathisla 12 win. I was sat next to the distillery manager, Brian Macauley, an Islay native who is now moving on to Scapa. Here in Ireland, distillery workers tend to stay put. Hardly surprising, given that their options for moving around are limited to about four distilleries.
In Scotland, distillery managers are moved about every three years or so. Brian had been at Strathisla for over three years, so he seemed happy to move on, especially to the coastal Scapa. He told me about growing up on Islay, learning to sail almost as soon as he could walk, his early career as a fisherman, his love of seafood, and taking the Islay-Ballycastle ferry to buy fish and chips, before heading home again. Across from Brian was Alan Winchester, another legend of distilling. Alan told me about Maurice Walsh and his connection to the area, and that Walsh’s grandson Barry Walsh was previously the master blender with Irish Distillers Limited. Alan is a walking whisky encyclopedia, and a hillwalking one at that – he was gushing about the Wild Atlantic Way and some of the great climbs along there. He has been master distiller at The Glenlivet for some time, so it probably helps that he likes hillwalking – the distillery is in the highlands and is often cut off from the world by snow and ice. I’d imagine there have been at least a few occasions where Alan had to make the end of the journey on foot.
Monday, 4th May
0930 – 1230 The Glenlivet Distillery walk and Dram Room Specials, Glenlivet
The Glenlivet is one of the biggies – along with Glenfiddich, it is one of the global whisky brands, the ones we think of when we hear the word ‘scotch’. Chivas Brothers Global Ambassador Ann Miller greeted us at the distillery, the first one to legally distill. We visited the site of the original distillery, saw Josie’s Well where the water comes from, and sauntered about the place like lords. They have a great visitors centre, despite the fact that they shut for the winter months. Ann was a fantastic guide, another walking encyclopedia. She rattled off facts and figures about the last 300 years or distilling at the site, and then allowed us to bottle our own whisky.
I told her I had recently attended the launch of the Midleton bottle-your-own facility, and she pointed out that it was in Aberlour where she used to work that they first introduced this feature. They really should have copyrighted it, or got the Scotch Whisky Association to sue anyone who tried to recreate it. Too late now eh.
Then we had an exclusive tasting of some very special drams of The Glenlivet, a handpicked selection of some of the best limited edition whiskies available, mainly from single casks of this iconic single malt. I never tasted them before, and as they were nearly all bottlings from single casks, I may never get another opportunity.
They included three cask strength, single cask expressions of The Glenlivet – Valiant, Uisge Beatha and Auchbreck. The latter was especially bottled exclusively for the festival. In addition we tasted the 1983 Cellar Collection, vatted from a limited selection of casks and finished for its last couple of years of maturation in French Limousin oak casks before it was bottled in 2003 – this is one of very few remaining bottles of this outstanding dram.
The final cask strength dram was the exclusive 18 year old The Glenlivet whisky from a Bourbon cask, which was the one we bottled ourselves.
1315 – 1700 The Ballindalloch Spirit, Ballindalloch Distillery
The Macpherson-Grant family have been residents of the 25,000-acre Ballindalloch estate for 500 years, so when they decided to create a whisky, they were in no rush to get it to market. They are starting with an eight year old single malt, Scotland’s first single estate whisky, meaning that the water, grain and distilling all comes from one place (Slane Castle – recently sold to Jack Daniel’s parent firm Brown Forman – and Castlefreke are both doing versions of this in Ireland).
The distillery is located in a renovated stone-built barn, and is almost completely manual. We got to push a few buttons and take loads of photos, then filled a cask and wrote our names on it for posterity. We got to see the casks filled by Charles and Camilla two weeks before, and had a dram of new-make spirit in copper cups. It was nice, with a real velvety banana milk vibe. The future for Ballindalloch looks bright.
Then it was into the luxurious function rooms, filled with family portraits. One of the largest ones was of Naughty Uncle George. His moniker came from the fact that he never married or had children…and left the whole estate to his boyfriend. He also collected one of the finest displays of early 20th-century Spanish art in western Europe. The family obviously got the estate back at some stage, and we got to meet the Laird, Oliver Russell, his wife, Lady Clare Macpherson Grant Russell. They were lovely; gracious and generous and interested in us all. Over drams in the Club Room featuring, amongst others, some rare examples from the family private casks of Cragganmore from the 1980s, the 23rd generation of the family made us feel right at home. Speaking of home, they also offer guests a few select drams other than the Cragganmore – one of which was a Power’s John’s Lane, made a mile from where I now sit in Midleton.
1900 – 2130 Whisky and Venison, The Dowans Hotel, Aberlour
Ballindalloch estate attracts people from all over the world for the quality of its stalking and shooting and for the beauty of its grounds. The chefs at Dowans Hotel are lucky enough to benefit from our proximity to the estate and the quality of its red deer. The aforementioned Glenfarclas distillery remains independent and family run, producing fantastic whiskies partly due to their access to the fresh spring water from the Ben Rinnes mountain range, part of the Ballindalloch estate.
And so to emphasise the quality of two great products that come from the same exceptional and proudly kept grounds, we sauntered to the recently renovated Dowans for a dram of Glenfarclas 15 whisky, a Grant family favourite, and a two-course venison meal. As we drove back to Elgin I stopped to take a photo of my last Speyside sunset for a while, and promised myself that I would be back as soon as possible, which, given that I have four kids, is probably never.
Bonus level: The Fiddichside Inn
One tiny remnant of a rapidly disappearing world. Just amazing. More on it here and here. The entire trip really was the stuff dreams are made of. I just happened to get lucky and make the grade for an invite – usually journalists are guns for hire, forced to write about things they may have absolutely no interest in. But this was a rare case where one got to have an incredible week doing something he loved. I owe a huge debt to Ann Miller from Chivas Brothers (she is in the Glenlivet photo set above) who was PRO for the festival. She introduced me to all the industry insiders and was so welcoming and gracious throughout. Also I owe Esther and Leanne from Tricker PR, who brought me over to cover the event and ferried me around like a little prince. PR is hard work – it’s not all champagne and free shit. It is a hard slog. So a big thank you to them all. I’ve been on the dole six months now and there are moments when I get totally fed up with the PFO letter and emails arriving, but whenever I do I think back to the week in Scotland. If I was still in full-time employment I wouldn’t have been able to get the time off to go, and I would be a poorer person for it. It was an education, an adventure and an experience I will never forget. The article is going in the Irish Examiner some day soon (he said hopefully) so I will post a link when it does, but ’til then trust me when I say the above meanderings (mostly a butchered press release, TBH) really doesn’t do it justice. You simply have to go.
I also made a ridiculous video. Enjoy: