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Issue 80 - Spirit of Speyside

Scotland Magazine Issue 80
April 2015


This article is 3 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Spirit of Speyside

Christopher Coates travels to whisky country to explore Speyside's annual celebration of the lively water

Much has changed in the world of whisky since the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival was founded in 1999; malt whisky production alone has increased by over 60% in the past 15 years – a feat made possible by major investment at distillery sites all over Scotland. Perhaps just as significant is the steady (and in some places exponential) increase in the number of curious visitors journeying to the homes of their favourite drams.

On account of this increasing popularity, no other whisky producing region has received quite as much attention as Speyside; hardly surprising when one learns that over half of Scotland’s distilleries are located on or close to the banks of the Spey – Scotland’s fastest flowing river.

Contained for the most part by the area of Moray, the fact that so many illustrious whiskies hail from such a small region of the country can sometimes be hard to believe – even for the initiated. Indeed, much like the often modest and unassuming distilleries themselves, one could be forgiven for accidentally passing by this tranquil corner of Scotland while travelling north from Pitlochry to Inverness.

While visiting distilleries wasn’t uncommon prior to the festival’s founding, many in the area offered only sporadic access or were just as often closed to the public entirely – a fact which still applies for the vast majority of sites on Speyside today. One must also bear in mind that the now ubiquitous ‘Distillery Visitor Centre’ is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed throughout their long history distilleries have been, and still are first and foremost, hubs of production; initially as pillars of Scottish agricultural life and today as serious industrial operations.

The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival not only offers distillery visitors the opportunity to experience the usual myriad of sensory joys – whether that’s the first whiff of sugary wort fermenting as it transforms into beer-like wash, or the warm touch of a still that’s not yet cooled – but also the rare opportunity to meet the personalities behind everyone’s favourite drams.

Not content to simply offer visitors unprecedented access to the icons of Scotland’s foremost whisky producing region; by day the festival also includes a wide selection of walks, tours and a variety of more adventurous activities on both land and water. Come evening, a fine selection of entertainment can be enjoyed late into the night in the form of The Spirit of Speyside Sessions – a showcase of the region's rich traditional music heritage – which take place at various locations across Speyside; including pubs, village halls and even a steam train!

The festivities begin each year with a very special opening ceilidh, the perfect occasion to meet like-minded revellers and limber up for a long weekend of excitement. Held in different distilleries each year, Glen Moray in Elgin has the honour of hosting the 2015 celebration, offering up one of its traditional warehouses for the evening.

With so much on offer to delight the senses – whether it’s a tune to get the foot tapping, breathtaking views during a hillside adventure, delicious Scottish cuisine or perhaps even a whisky or two – the five day festival certainly isn’t lacking in variety. Indeed, the challenge doesn’t lie in filling one’s itinerary but choosing between the unique events themselves.

Luckily for you, I was invited up to Speyside for a sneak preview of what’s on offer and on the following pages have included some of my festival highlights.

Whisky great and small

As Speyside has something of an abundance of distilleries, one is hard pressed when deciding which to visit. We settled on a big one, a tiny one, a traditional one and one that’s brand new.

Open Day at The Glenlivet Distillery & The ‘Sma’ Still’

The Glenlivet is one of Speyside’s largest and most lauded malt distilleries – so venerable in fact, that in years past other distilleries added ‘Glenlivet’ to their name in an effort to piggy-back on its reputation. As a special treat for Spirit of Speyside, distillery manager Trevor Buckley and his team throw open the doors for an exciting series of open days; offering exclusive tastings, live music and even a treasure hunt for younger guests.

The festival also offers a unique opportunity to see The Glenlivet’s famous ‘Sma’ Still’ in action. By far the smallest on Speyside, the ‘Sma’ Still’ is similar to those originally used by the distillery’s founder George Smith (and his contemporaries in the world of illicit distilling) before he began producing spirit legitimately at the site in 1824.

The Glenlivet Distillery Visitor Centre, Glenlivet, Ballindalloch, Banffshire, AB37 9DB
Tel: +44 (0)1340 821 720

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

A Visit to Ballindalloch Castle & 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 3 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

A taste for adventure?

Had your fill of distilleries? There’s still a lot more to explore. Whether a leisurely train journey fits the bill or if you’re after something a little more adventurous, the festival has it all lined up.

Smugglers' Peat Reek and Pot Still Tour with Glenlivet Hill Trek

Wrap up warm and get ready for some stunning views. Perhaps the most novel way to get around Speyside, the team at Glenlivet Hill Trek will ferry you up hills and down glens in a powerful eight wheeled Argocat. Not familiar with this particular method of transport? Argocats are powerful multi-terrain vehicles designed to climb steep slopes, navigate wetland and even cross stretches of water with ease – all the while having minimal impact on the fragile ecosystems with which they interact.

Following a steep ascent, from the vantage point of Carn Liath’s heather-clad summit, guests are rewarded with incredible views of the surrounding hillsides. This breathtaking panorama also gives insight into why such a landscape – replete with potential hideouts – would have been advantageous to illicit distillers of old. The adventure continues on the Robbie McPherson Smugglers Trail (a route used by the infamous and accomplished 19th Century illicit distiller to transport his contraband south) before descending to the site of the original Glenlivet Distillery. The penultimate stop is 'Peat Reek Bothy', a traditional stone-built hut where one can relax and devour a delicious home cooked lunch before finishing up at Josie’s Well, the water source of The Glenlivet Distillery. Quite the adventure.

Glenlivet Hill Trek, Blairfindy Keepers Cottage, Glenlivet, Ballindalloch AB37 9DJ
Tel: +44 (0)1807 590 372

Spirit of the Spey Canoe /Whisky Journey

Arguably the closest you can get to the very heart of Speyside, prepare to explore the region’s eponymous river and experience Moray like you’ve never seen it before. Accompanied by expert guide Dave Craig, you’ll paddle downriver from Tamdhu Station to Craigellachie, all the while getting to know the river’s varied waters, natural beauty and (if lucky) the local wildlife. The adventure includes a riverside picnic and to top things off, a whisky tasting beside Thomas Telford’s iconic Craigellachie Bridge. No prior canoeing experience is required, although a reasonable level of fitness is.

Spirit of the Spey, Strone Road, Newtonmore, PH20 1BA
Tel: +44 (0)1540 673 826

Master Cooper Tour at Speyside Cooperage

An exclusive for Spirit of Speyside, the Speyside Cooperage – one of the primary sources of casks for the Scotch whisky industry – offers guests the opportunity to descend from the visitor viewing platform and experience coopering (cask building and repair) close up. It may come as a surprise that this age-old craft hasn’t changed much despite advances in technology and the vast majority of the work is still a hands-on process.

This unique tour offers the opportunity to experience the eye wateringly fast artisanal skills of the cooper first hand. Meanwhile, your guide – an ex cooper himself – will share the secrets of his art and explain the cooper’s vital role in the life cycle of a cask. The tour concludes with the rare chance to observe the dramatic (and aromatic) process of cask firing, followed by a dram.

Speyside Cooperage, Dufftown Road, Craigellachie, Aberlour AB38 9RS
Tel: +44 (0)1340 871 108

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

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

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 They say that Rome was built on seven hills, but Dufftown was built on seven stills – which arguably makes the centre of this historic burgh the perfect place for a whisky shop. Just as Dufftown – originally named Mortlach – was re-founded in the 19th Century as accommodation for returning soldiers, The Whisky Shop Dufftown was established as a home for Scotland’s national drink.

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


The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival takes place each year during the first weekend of May. Please note that most events have a limited number of available tickets, so booking in advance is a must!

For detailed travel, event and booking information visit: