Spirit of speyside whisky festival: Dramming up support - Scotland Magazine
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Spirit of speyside whisky festival: Dramming up support

Held each spring, the Spirit of Speyside festival celebrates whisky’s past, present, and future This is what whisky was made for,” says Iain Forteath, indicating the Speyside scenery around us. …

Held each spring, the Spirit of Speyside festival celebrates whisky’s past, present, and future

This is what whisky was made for,” says Iain Forteath, indicating the Speyside scenery around us. 

We’re sitting on old casks by the side of the River Avon in the Cairngorms. It’s late in the day and the sun’s going down but there’s a massive fire blazing, we’ve got thick woollen blankets on our knees, and best of all: we’ve got a selection of some of the best drams that whisky has to offer. It’s not long before we feel very cosy indeed.

A Tomintoul whisky tasting

Iain, master blender at the nearby Tomintoul Distillery, is our guide for the evening and he’s wonderfully enthusiastic in sharing his knowledge of Scotland’s national drink. We sit in a friendly circle round the fire as he passes round a selection of single malts and talks us through their flavours and subtleties. The Tomintoul 16 year old: sweet and creamy; the 21 year old, with its tastes of citrus and toffee; and the cigar malt, full of gentle peat, are just a few of the ones we sample.

The Tomintoul Distillery

These fireside sessions by the river have been one of the highlights of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival for a few years now and will be returning for the 2024 festival (1-6 May 2024) unsurprisingly. As Iain indicates, whisky was made for being drunk outdoors but the fireside sessions are also a good way to get to know your fellow festivalgoers. Sitting on my left are a young couple from Germany and on my right a group of retired friends from Clark County, Washington. They came here, they tell me, because this is the right place to really nurture your love of whisky.

Master blender Iain says this real mix of people is something he sees every year. “People come from all over the world to the Speyside festival,” he says, “and it’s because if you drive around Speyside for 20 miles or so, you’ll pass so many distilleries.” He says the valley we’re in has always been a traditional destination for distillers but has expanded to become the heartland of whisky. “I think of it like a rustic Scottish Bordeaux – you know, like the Bordeaux Marathons when you go round all the wineries there. Speyside is the whisky alternative.”

It’s not hard to see what Iain means when you travel round Speyside: the festival is full of tastings, visits, tours, cèilidhs, you name it, and your days could be jam-packed from morning till night if you wanted. 

The Strathisla Distillery. Credit: VisitScotland / Paul Tomkins

One of the places I visit is Strathisla, one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland – founded in 1786 – and as you’re guided through the rooms, you’re warmed by the casks and cosseted by the most glorious aromas: grain, apple, pear, oak. The fermentation process here takes 52 hours and seeing every stage makes you love whisky a little bit more.

The following day, it’s back outdoors again for one of the more unusual ways to discover the story of whisky. Charlie Ironside and his team at Glenlivet Hill Trek organise tours to the summit of Carn Ghrantaich and they’re going to take us to the top on Argocats: open-top eight-wheel-drive vehicles. On the way up, we cross every sort of terrain, and the angle of the vehicle sometimes changes dramatically, but it’s an exhilarating way to travel against the backdrop of some of Scotland’s most dramatic scenery.

Taking Argocats to the top of Carn Ghrantaich

About halfway to the summit, Charlie stops the vehicle and gets out to show us the details of the landscape around us. To the north-east is the imposing Ben Rinnes and to the south-west the Cairngorm mountains. Charlie also points out a field that a local farmer was ploughing one day when he discovered a network of tunnels and chambers underground: it was the site of an old illicit still. Before distilling was licensed in 1823, such stills would have been very common across this valley mainly because it was the ideal place to hide them and smuggle the whisky out: very beautiful but wild and empty.

Back in the Argocats and a few minutes later, we reach the top of Carn Ghrantaich where we’re given another taste of the local drink (this time: Glenlivet single malt) and as it warms our lips and hearts, it’s more than a match for the nippy weather at 1700ft. There’s another fascinating stop on the way down as well: a visit to the site of the original Glenlivet Distillery, founded in 1824, and the first to be licensed in Scotland. A team of archaeologists from the National Trust is busy sifting the earth and stone for clues to the past.

Gordon & MacPhail have been bottling whisky since 1895

After the Argocat drops us off, cheeks red with the super-clean air, I head off for my last visit, which is to one of the most beautiful distilleries in the whole of Speyside: Cardhu, sitting snugly in a hill above the village of Archiestown. Cardhu is particularly interesting because it’s the only distillery in the area that was founded by a woman, Helen Cumming, who started off by selling whisky to passersby through the distillery window.

The Cardhu visitors centre tells Helen’s story with pride, and then we’re off to the tasting room where we sample Cardhu Amber Rock, a soft, spicy dram finished in American oak ex-bourbon casks. It’s being paired today with something a little unlikely: doughnuts. Vanilla crumble, coconut raspberry, meringue, mango: they may not seem like the most obvious thing you’d have with a dram, but their soft sweetness really brings out the deep and dark flavour of the whisky.

Fortunately, later the same day, there’s a chance to work off the doughnut calories at a cèilidh hosted by another of the distilleries in the area: Dallas Dhu. A marquee has been erected near the white-washed walls of the distillery and the evening gets started with a quick round of the Gay Gordons. I also get to indulge my new-found taste for Cardhu with a couple of nips of its 18-year-old single malt. In the breaks from the dancing, I enjoy its warming hints of caramel and dark chocolate, drawn magically from the peat-softened bubbling streams of the Mannoch Hills, high above the valley. Perfect really. 


Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival 2024

This year’s festival takes place from 1-6 May 2024, with hundreds of events being held across the region.

Glenlivet Hill Trek is running its Livet on the Edge Argocat tours, Livet Illicit Land Rover tours, and a brand-new full-day combination of both called The Whisky Detectives. Meanwhile, Iain Forteath will be hosting three fireside whisky sessions on 2, 3 and 4 May. 

For more information and to book, visit www.spiritofspeyside.com

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