Caledonia calling

The back garden of Linn House in Keith.

Three years ago I flew home from the Spirit Of Speyside with a heavy heart. After spending a week there, I was going back to the real world in the knowledge that I would never have the time or, more importantly, the money, to come back. I went back home, wrote a piece for the Irish Examiner, wrote a sprawling blog post, and sang the praises of the festival every chance I got. That week in Scotland genuinely was one of the best things to come out of my time as a journalist, a once in a lifetime opportunity to sample great whiskies, meet industry legends and just lose myself in a beautiful part of the world. It saddened me greatly that I wouldn’t be back again.

Fast forward three years and I am doing my usual blithering about whiskey on the internet when I get a DM, telling me that if I can make it to Speyside, Chivas Brothers will put me up and show me the sights. I didn’t bother asking for T&Cs, nor did I care is this was a set-up that was going to end with me waking up in a bathtub full of ice and my kidneys missing. All that mattered was that I was going back. And so it was that via car, train, bus and plane I made it from Cork to Speyside just in time for the opening ceilidh in Benromach.

I love Benromach. Owned by the Urquharts of Gordon & McPhail fame – the firm without whom there would be no single malts – the whisky made in this compact little distillery has that perfect mix of smoke, fruit and attitude. The Scots learn ceilidh dancing in school, so when they have a hooley everyone can have a go. The pace of the dances ranges from fast to frenzied, with partners flinging each other around the place as though the sole aim is to launch another human being into the stratosphere. Frankly, I haven’t seen anything comparable outside of the mosh pit at a Napalm Death gig. Each table had a few bottles of whisky on them – we had a Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve, Aberlour 16, and a Strathisla 12, so those combined with some good wine, and great food meant we were all ready for a crack at the dancing. The key to survival on a Scottish dancefloor is to simply submit to the maelstrom and try not to fall over.  

It was bizarre to see so many faces that I knew from Twitter whizzing by me, and it really brought home why festivals like this are so important. Whisky can be a lonely passion – it’s a great irony that something meant to be shared and enjoyed with others is so often consumed alone in front of a computer screen. Still, if it wasn’t for connecting with my fellow nerds on the internet I would think there was something wrong with me. But then you come to this festival and everyone is there in real life, going at the dancefloor like whirling dervishes, and you feel a little less alone. It set the tone for the rest of my stay – whisky, community, life.

The group of influencers, writers and journalists with Alex Robertson of Chivas on the left. But wait – what is that spectral figure at back left? Could it be a ghost?

When I was at the festival in 2015 I was with three journalists. This time was different – while there were some dedicated whisky journalists, half the group were that most ephemeral of creatures – the influencer. Curiously, I was also there as an influencer, despite the closest I come to being an influencer is the fact that I drive a Fluence. The thought of me having influence over anyone is terrifying, as I’m a hair’s breadth away from turning into Jim Jones as it is. So there were bloggers, vloggers, whisky writers and me. It shows how journalism is changing; if you want to hit a certain demographic – ie, anyone under 65 – newspapers are becoming less and less important. If you want to grab the fabled millennial demographic, you are better getting a few smart blog posts than any amount of coverage in the mainstream press. Another sign of the times was the number of former journalists I met who now work within the whisky industry – PR staff, comms managers to brand ambassadors, so many left journalism because they wanted to have a job that offered security.

My home for the four days was Linn House, a beautiful 140-year-old house in Keith, next to Strathisla and Glen Keith distilleries. Chivas Brothers own the house and use it for guests – this isn’t somewhere you book, you have to be invited there, which makes it all the more special.

The bedrooms are all named after Chivas Brothers distilleries (I slept in Miltonduff), but the real celebration of whisky is in The Library. Here we had our aperitifs, all rare drams from the Chivas stable; I favoured a 17-year-old Aberlour that was like molasses, a succulent depth charge of a dram.

We started Friday with a hearty Scottish brekkie and hit the road for Aberlour Distillery. There, Dr Kathy Ader brought us on a walk along the river that feeds the distillery, up to the waterfall behind it and through the woods, talking all the time about the vegetation that grew there, how it was used by picts to make medicines, and how the river and the soil influenced the forest, the town and the distillery. In essence, this was a discussion on one of the buzzwords in whisky right now – terroir. It was an exploration of place, giving insights into how the soil caused certain fauna to grow, and how these plants then drew druids, and in turn settlers, and then a distillery. Aberlour distillery wasn’t just plonked there because it was a pretty spot – it is where it is because it was meant to be there.

After digging into the ancient past, it was time to embrace the future. One of the most recently built and most modern distilleries in Scotland, Dalmunach is a reminder that not all distilleries have to look like Strathisla. This building is a celebration of science, a vast distillery that can be operated by just one person. The still room looks like one of the ships in Alien, with huge bulbous stills and one desk monitoring it all, and one pilot setting the controls for the heart of the run. This is the next generation of distillery, built on the grounds of the old: Imperial Distillery stood here, but it is long dead – you can still pick up a bottle of Imperial from time to time, but it has never been held in the high regard allocated to other silent stills. The red bricks in the foyer of Dalmunach are all that remains of the actual Imperial distillery building, however the old offices and stores are still on site, providing a curious contrast with the science-fiction aesthetics of Dalmunach.

Dalmunach is all about control and consistency, a point made to us by manager Richard Clark was our guide through the plant. I met Richard at a Glen Keith your in 2018 and he is one of those natural-born communicators who litter the whisky industry – part scientist, part historian, part raconteur, part comedian. I asked him if the future of whisky was a world where the master distiller is replaced by an algorithm; he made the point that the human, the natural and the organic will always be central to whisky, and that consistency did not mean ‘without soul’, just as it did not mean ‘better’. He also spoke about how the happy accidents of distilling that made for exception whiskies in the past won’t disappear as they will continue to experiment, albeit in a controlled fashion where they minimise waste and reduce margins of error. Any distillery built on the bones of Imperial needs to be aware that there is a price to pay for being a less-than-stellar producer.

There is no maturation done at Dalmunach – the spirit is shipped off to be casked and aged, with a large amount of it to India for Pernod whisky brands there such as Royal Stag. At the end of our visit we sampled some of the Dalmunach whisky, aged just three years old – it was smooth, well-made whisky, as you’d expect from a Promethean monolith.

After that odyssey through the Spey’s time continuum, it was time to go back to the past with a private tour of one of the icons of whisky – Strathisla. This is one of those picture-postcard distilleries that all others aspire to, and it is the birthplace of the Chivas story. It was a great contrast, going from Dalmunach to a distillery that has lived so long. Our tour guide was Alex Robertson, a former BBC journalist who heads up the Chivas ambassador programme.

One of the great things about visiting distilleries during the festival is being able to take photos – simply listen for the gas meter, and if it doesn’t go haywire, click away. And so it is that I can show you irrefutable proof that despite being one of the most beautiful distilleries in the world, the stills at Strathisla look a lot like butt plugs:

After the tour we were brought to their newly revamped tasting space, a dimly lit room that uses LED striplighting to create the sense of being brought on a journey of flavour.

The aged cynic in me raises my eyes to heaven even reading back over that, but it was very enjoyable – a lot of distilleries here could learn from how the Scots find new ways to make tastings more stimulating, or to challenge the stereotype of whisky being drunk by chaps in red trousers slouched in a plaid armchair in a gentleman’s club somewhere.

The next event was designed to challenged the notion of single malt as an entity to be enjoyed on its own. The Dowans Hotel in Aberlour was the venue for a tasting of three cocktails made with single malts (the one made with A’bunadh was phenomenal), followed by a wonderful meal, more wine, more chat, more craic. Then it was on to The Glenlivet for Skerryvore and Banjo Lounge 4, and at this point I just wanted my leaba. So we skedaddled into the night back to Keith. I like live music, but man, I love to sleep.

The Glenlivet Open Day is a sight to behold. Visitors from all over the world arriving by the busload (or trekking across the hills to get there), all to see the home of one of the most iconic whisky brands in the world. This is where my trip got deep. In the Guardians Library we had a talk on geology and its impact on water (and therefore whisky) from Ronald Daalmans, a softly spoken Dutchman who is the environmental manager with Chivas Brothers. Much of his work for the firm relates to the impact of distilling on the environment but also water preservation. It’s hard to travel through Scotland without being made aware of the power of renewable energies – across so many hills there are wind turbines looming to remind you that this planet is struggling, vast sentinels desperately flailing their arms to tell you that this planet is going to drown.

Ronald talked us through the geological history of Scotland – one of the most interesting factoids to come from the talk was that both Islay and Speyside sit atop the same seam of rock, meaning that the broader geology of their landscapes is similar. We then had a comparative tasting of water that feeds into three Speyside distilleries and whiskies from same. Don’t ask me which distilleries the drams came from, I have no idea – but you could definitely taste difference in the water. Of course, the big question here is how much is the water that feeds the distilleries treated before it goes into production: How much of its original character does it retain through this process? It’s not quite reverse osmosis or deionising like they do to totally neutralise the water used to cut whisky pre-bottling, but you would wonder what how much limestone sediment etc any distillery would want in its system.

Of course, back in ye olden times distillers were less particular, but the results were largely the same. During the open day, distillery staff ran what is known as the sma’ still, a little piece of the past brought back to life. The spirit from it was similar to modern new make, a creamy sweet drop, which we drank straight from the still.

After that, it was time to disappear into the hills behind the distillery on the back of an argocat.

Argocats, in case you didn’t know, are amphibious vehicles that are used mainly for hunting, or for transporting fey dandies like myself from valley to summit without having to break a sweat. At the summit we had a dram, and it all felt a bit Withnail & I, subjecting ourselves to the beauty of nature after about seven drinks.

Back in the valley we also had a tasting with Glenlivet master distiller Alan Winchester. Alan is like a vast reservoir of whisky lore, and during the tasting he talked about everything, including how the old Dunville’s distillers in Belfast forced the local church to cover their bell in velvet so it wouldn’t disturb the whisky maturing nearby. We were treated to four Glenlivet expressions, including the new Cognac cask edition, and some incredible finger food by Ghillie Basan, who lives high in the hills above The Glenlivet. She actually took the roof slates from her house to serve the food on, and was hoping the rain would hold off until she got them all back on.

Later that evening was a very special meal in Strathisla. With a menu selected by noted food writer and whisky aficionado Martine Nouet, and some incredible whiskies from the Chivas stable, it was a joy to be there and a wonderful end to my few days. I was sat beside Sean Murphy, food and drinks editor of The Scotsman newspaper, one of the few people who I met in Speyside who still worked full time in print. Sean’s family own the legendary Pot Still whisky bar in Glasgow, and he is one of those quietly passionate whisky fans who is a fountain of information. However, I was also sat near another fountain of knowledge, Alan Winchester.

Winchester is retiring at the end of the year, and it’s hard to imagine the Glenlivet without him. He was great company, as was his wife, who was sat on the other side of me, and they both regaled us with the tale of how she used a bottle of the Winchester Collection to make a Christmas cake, no knowing that it was worth twenty grand. As for life after whisky, Alan says he bought a campervan and is going to travel (he is an obsessive hillwalker), whilst also contemplating working on his memoirs. Note to any publishers or ghostwriters – he has kept a diary every day since he was in his teens, so there is plenty material there for one hell of a book. 

Many thanks to Chivas Brothers for their incredible hospitality and generosity during the festival – I will be back.

My takehome from the four days I spent in Scotland was this – how do Irish distilleries emulate this event? How do we pull together to create a relatively localised event that celebrates food, drink, scenery, history and culture? Our whiskey scene is going to be more of a trail than a single detination, so the question is how do we facilitate this? The IWA has a document that tackles some of it by joining distilleries via a network of whiskey embassies – pubs and historical sites of interest to whiskey fans – but we are still going to struggle to create something on the scale of Speyside or Feis Ile, as the logistics are too complex. That said, we have great food, great drink, great people and a great country – we just have to wait a while for the new Irish whiskey legends to rise.

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