There is something almost spiritual about a whisky trip to Speyside. Somehow, as you make your way past the numerous pagodas and welcoming signs featuring names familiar to bar shelves around the world, all the carefully tailored packaging and marketing around whisky is lifted away leaving the true nature of this drink: A community working together, a social spirit forging new friendships and manufacturing memories. I’m always amazed at the people I meet in Speyside: if it isn’t a fellow enthusiast visiting from hundreds of miles away wandering around in Dufftown, it’s bumping into distillers and other whisky “celebrities” in the most everyday settings.
Back for its second year, Spirit of Speyside: Distilled attempts to capture this soul by bringing together the community of Speyside under one roof in Elgin Town Hall. While the well-established Spirit of Speyside festival has found great success in its 18 years becoming known as a pilgrimage for whisky lovers across the world, Distilled attempts to place the spotlight on the people and region itself, featuring not only whisky but all the best of Speyside’s larder. As well as catering to the whisky enthusiast, the variety of produce on offer is intended to attract a new, local audience who are looking for an evening’s entertainment rather than specifically an extended whisky tasting.
And so for the second time this year I packed my obligatory festival tweed and lapel pins and headed up to Speyside. From Aberdeen Airport, Elgin is a manageable 90 minutes or so drive across some fairly scenic countryside. David of Moray Firth Tours was my efficient and highly recommended driver for the day, providing a super-accommodating service that included a quick detour to the legendary Buccaneer Petrol Station – featuring an eponymous RAF jet on the outside and a fantastic selection of whisky on the inside!
Arriving at the town hall, I was presented with a venue map, a Glencairn glass and 6 complementary dram tokens (with further tokens available to purchase for £1 each). A quick recce of the exhibitor stands confirms the diverse nature of the event with several beer stands, cocktails on offer, various food options and even a coffee stand. I did dabble among these stands and was largely impressed with what I came across, however I was here for the whisky!
There was a wide variety of Speyside’s malt whisky available for sampling at stands run both by distilleries themselves and independent bottlers from the region. Some of the highlights of the day include:
Benromach Triple Distilled – So new it wasn’t even launched until the week after the festival, Benromach have struck out as the only distiller in the region to triple distill their spirit for this bottling. Undergoing a second run through the spirit still, the peated new make was then filled into first fill ex-bourbon for 8 years. The third distillation seems to ensure a gentle-feeling peat, leading to a nice interplay between delicate dry smoke and warm vanilla alongside other wood spice.
Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 2008 – Bottled in 2017, this whisky is a great advert for first fill sherry hogsheads; the colour and complexity developed belies its relative youth at 9 years old. Classic Glen Grant orchard fruit and honey lies behind a wave of rich sherry dried fruit. Like any good whisky there is evolution; rich notes of treacle and salt caramel appear given some time to breathe.
Glen Moray 2008 Bordeaux Wine Cask – The latest in a line of fantastic Bottle Your Own offerings from the distillery shop at Glen Moray, this full maturation ex-Bordeaux wine cask offers suggestions of its high 60.5% ABV on pouring (plenty of beading resting on the surface!), however this youthful punchiness balances well with fruity sweetness.
Meandering around the stands the people and community aspect of the festival was evident; there were numerous current and ex-industry workers both in front of the stands as well as behind them; on a couple of occasions there were ex-workers introducing themselves to current ambassadors! Meeting the whisky makers as they pour and talk you through a dram is one thing, bumping into people like Dennis Malcolm of Glen Grant and Stephen Rankin of Gordon & MacPhail as they explore the floor really helps make this festival feel unique. This coupled with meeting fellow enthusiasts (including Justine of Kask Whisky fame, and Sarah aka @iheartwhisky who I can confirm makes some tasty fudge!) and making new friends among local residents gives the whole event a very social feel.
For the serious whisky geek there were a number of masterclasses on offer, allowing a deeper dive into a particular set of whisky offerings and a chance to hear from – and field questions to – the people responsible for the whisky. The first masterclass I attended was a lineup of Gordon & MacPhail exclusive bottlings – single cask bottlings sold exclusively through the retail store. Kicking things off with a fairly typical Aultmore, we moved onto a classic Tormore and (rather cheekily!) an non-peated Bunnahabhain. Two rather different drams yet I found it difficult to choose a favourite from between them. The final dram of the session was a fairly unusual non-sherried Mortlach. The Beast of Dufftown was nowhere in sight with this dram, instead the nose led with bright fruit candies and fresh citrus with some wood spice behind. Quite unlike any other Mortlach I have had, and a good example of what an independent bottler can do.
Next up was a masterclass to celebrate Glen Moray’s 120th anniversary, led by Master Distiller Graham Coull. Graham led us through the fantastic 1994 range bottled earlier this year, including a full maturation ex-bourbon, a peated cask finish and a sublime sherry cask finish. The fourth dram of the lineup was the recently released Mastery. An anniversary bottling, this whisky is composed of various fortified wine-finished spirit from the 70’s, 80’s 90’s and 2000’s on a base of madeira-finished 1994 whisky. The nose has deep, rich dried fruit balanced with some warm vanilla spice and some cocoa. The palate is delivered on a beautiful silky mouthfeel bringing more rich fruit which becomes winey in time, a slight nuttiness on the midpalate, with some earthy spice to round things off. As if that wasn’t enough, Graham snuck in a Brucie Bonus dram, a cask sample of peated spirit currently sitting in virgin oak – very much an experiment in progress!
All too quickly the evening session came to a close in the appropriately named Distilled festival. Taking up some new friends’ offer of a post festival dram or two, I couldn’t help but think this was the perfect example of the Spirit of Speyside in effect.