Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival
For whisky enthusiasts the arrival of May across Scotland can only mean the enticement of several whisky festivals. These thankfully form an orderly queue, with the Spirit of Speyside festival arriving at the end of April. Shortly afterwards, Campbeltown muscles in with its own celebration before Islay rounds off a busy period with its infamous Feis Ile extravaganza.
Islay may dominate the attention and bottle collectors, but the most expansive and varied of the trio is the Speyside celebration of whisky. The Spirt of Speyside is now in its 18th year and continues to attract visitors from across the world. Traditionally it has an awards ceremony to celebrate the best Speyside whiskies and for 2017 it has gone international with several tasting sessions across the globe including the Netherlands. It’s not resting on its laurels either, as for 2018 its looking to make inroads into new continents and raise the profile of this celebration of whisky.
For this year’s incarnation a huge catalogue of events had been assembled that numbered over 500 in total. Whisky remains the key central theme but beyond the tastings there’s something for everyone. Special tours and distillery events are the foundations but there are sporting activities, fine dining, live music, hand on craft experiences, fairs, book launches and auctions. When your potential whisky region reaches out towards Inverness and down to Huntly, it becomes a huge geographical and logistical challenge. Everyone rallies around to support the festival with a system of taxi vouchers being offered, some distilleries put on free transportation to assist with the rural nature of travel. There’s even a wee train that can take you on an unforgettable journey to a distillery assuring arrival in style, or even bespoke executive hire options should you wish for the more luxurious option.
Speyside is traditionally the heart of Scotland’s whisky industry, forming the avenue towards the majority of blended scotches sold across the world and its most high profile single malt exponents. Around half of the distilleries in Scotland fall into this one region, featuring famous names such as Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich and The Macallan, but the festival also moves the spotlight onto lesser known distilleries such as Glenallachie. This gives the Spirit of Speyside festival a sense of community and equality, with towns across the region making the effort to support the festivities with their own organic events. In 2017, there was a pop-up shop offering the chance to purchase old whisky relics from a bygone era and when we visited it was staffed by ex-workers from the industry, so you had the opportunity to talk about the old times. Then the annual auction where rare bottles were sold and some bargains are to be had if you know your whisky.
The warm welcome was apparent wherever we travelled and shop owners and distillery workers eager to know where attendees had travelled from and how their Speyside experience was shaping up. The event is a fantastic and rewarding experience set in a stunning part of Scotland. It’s not just the events that take centre stage but those moments you did not plan or envisage. Such as sitting in one of the several famous Speyside whisky bars, chatting with enthusiasts and locals, or eating fish and chips whilst sitting on the beach watching the Spey river flow rapidly past. Engaging in a whisky tasting with complete strangers who have travelled from all over the world including America, Brazil, Malta and Germany. It’s all about the whisky and the enjoyment of this vital employer to the region.
The ticketed events themselves are attractively priced with many free events on offer so all budgets are catered for. Deluxe and original distillery tours are available and unique events are pitched and organised by distilleries in pursuit of the best annual new event. Could you image sitting down for a lavish meal alongside a distillery owner or master blender? Or having a barbeque at a distillery, cooked and organised by the distillery team themselves? Then dancing the night away with a traditional ceilidh. It’s all happening during the Spirit of Speyside Festival.
Given the sheer size and widespread number of distilleries, many of whom are open for business as normal, you could envisage it’s all too much. Thankfully, this isn’t a festival where a single attendance guarantees you have seen everything; it’ll leave you wanting more. Events and distilleries are constantly evolving and changing. Whether it’s the opening of a closed to the public distillery such as Tormore just for the festival, or the chance to tour Knockando with its current manager, these events may not be available in subsequent editions. The baton is handed onto other distilleries to support the festival before being handed back in subsequent years in a game of musical whisky chairs. The whole concept becomes an endless cavalcade of whisky delight that’ll have you scouring the next festival listing.
Each year, certain distilleries release their own very limited expressions purely for the festival. This has become very popular on Islay with its Feis Ile and is a major draw. Speyside has annual support from Glenfarclas and Glenfiddich who
always pull something memorable out of their extensive warehouses just for visitors. For 2017 we had a typical robust Glenfarclas from 2007 and Glenfiddich stole the show with a cask strength whisky from a sherry butt that was also made using peated malt. An exceptionally rare expression and a wonderful Glenfiddich that was best enjoyed with friends around a campfire, exchanging whisky tales and taking in the natural beauty of the region. Other distilleries also bottle exclusives for the festival including Glenlivet and Spey.
If you cannot make the Spirit of Speyside festival during its annual run, then the organisers also have a Distilled event held during the first week of September. This is a celebration not only of whisky but local spirits and beers, conveniently held under one roof. It’s the younger sibling of the festival and is already established on the whisky event calendar.
Whatever your favourite distillery, style of whisky or preference for what a whisky festival should constitute. The Spirit of Speyside Festival is one of those unforgettable whisky experiences that is compulsive and addictive. We’ll hopefully see you on Speyside for the 2018 incarnation!