Speyside Whisky Festival

by Donna Dailey

Apart from the occasional wee dram on my visits to Scotland, I’ve never been much of a whisky drinker. So I wonder what I’m in for as I drive to Dufftown on a grey, misty morning to preview events for the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. 

A whisky tasting at the Aberlour Distillery during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in Scotland, photo (c) Donna Dailey

A Whisky Tasting at the Aberlour Distillery
All Photos (c) Donna Dailey

The annual festival celebrates Scotland’s national drink. More than half the country’s whisky distilleries are in Speyside, making the region home to an industry worth £2.5 billion a year. But with over 400 events in 5 days, ranging from light-hearted fun to serious encounters with rare whiskies worth hundreds of pounds, it turns out the festival is as much for novices – or even non-drinkers – as it is for connoisseurs. 

“It’s a real Macbeth morning,” says Mike Lord as he welcomes us to The Whisky Shop in Dufftown. “When Macbeth meets the witches in the woods who tell him he’s destined to be king, they were making whisky.”

Lord’s understanding of Shakespeare might be suspect, but his knowledge of whisky isn’t. He carries around 650 different whiskies in his shop, and specialises in whisky and food pairings. Lord presides over one of the festival’s most popular events: the Bacon Roll Challenge. And we’re about to try our hand at choosing the best single malt to pair with a humble bacon roll.

Pairing whisky with a bacon roll during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in Scotland, photo (c) Donna Dailey

Rules apply: a plain roll, unsmoked bacon, no egg, no sauce. Lord is looking to get the purest taste. Each year the whiskies change and over the past 8 festivals, he’s tried some 28 single malts. He especially looks for new releases that have a bit of oiliness in their mouth-feel to complement the bacon.

“I think it’s more difficult than wine pairings because the flavours in whisky are more complex,” he explains. “You never know what’s going to come to the fore.”

Lord suggests we have a bite of bacon roll, a sip of whisky, then another bite of the sandwich. We rate four whiskies, one of which, from the Isle of Arran, is the previous year’s winner. Then we vote for our favourite.

It’s a tie between the 15-year-old Cardhu and the Glenrothes Vintage Cask. But Lord is ecstatic because we’ve brought a Speyside whisky back into the winners’ fold.

Dennis Malcolm, Master Distiller at Glen Grant during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in Scotland, photo (c) Donna DaileyDennis Malcolm

It’s this kind of passion for whisky in general, and Speyside in particular, that makes the festival so much fun. Lord gave up a career in London’s financial sector to pursue his love of whisky fulltime. Others, like Dennis Malcolm, are Speyside born and bred.

Malcolm was born in the grounds of the Glen Grant Distillery. He started in the business as a 15-year-old cooper (cask maker) and today is the company’s Master Distiller.

“Glen Grant is not just a distillery, I think it's a visitor attraction,” Malcolm tells us as we stroll through the Victorian Gardens, which were created by John Grant, one of the founding brothers, in the mid-1800s. The gardens, which cover half the distillery’s 55-acre site, are free to the public all year.

It’s a beautiful spot, with woodlands, a fast-flowing stream and dozens of apple and cherry trees. During the festival in May, when the trees are in bloom and the rhododendrons are flowering, there are special guided tours and a Victorian picnic where many guests come in period costume.

A wee dram of Glen Grant in the Victorian Gardens at the Glen Grant Distillery on Speyside in Scotland during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in Scotland, photo (c) Donna Dailey

Malcolm leads us across a narrow bridge beside a waterfall to a secret spot, known as the Major’s Safe, where there’s a stash of Glen Grant whisky and glasses. We sip a wee dram in the bracing air, and hear tales of these colourful whisky entrepreneurs who brought steam trains and electricity to Speyside.

Whisky making is like being a farmer or a gardener,” Malcolm says. “You may not live to see the results of what you're doing but you're laying down the legacy for future generations.”

That legacy dates back hundreds of years, long before the English Parliament imposed a tax on whisky in 1644. For the next two centuries, illicit stills and smuggling became a way of life in Scotland, nowhere more so than in the remote Braes of Glenlivet, where it’s said there were over 200 illegal stills.

An argocat Glenlivet Hill Trek on The Glenlivest Estate on Speyside during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in Scotland, photo (c) Donna Dailey

Taking the Smugglers' Trail by Argocat

The next morning, we pile into an 8-wheel-drive Argocat for The Glenlivet Hill Trek, which follows the old smugglers’ trails. It climbs halfway up a bleak hill to the Peat Reek Bothy, a tiny stone hut housing a crude still, where hill farmer Robbie McPherson made a fortune in illegal whisky back in the day. 

An argocat Glenlivet Hill Trek on The Glenlivest Estate on Speyside during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in Scotland, photo (c) Donna Dailey

Then it’s onward up the steep, heather-clad slopes to the summit of Carn Liath. Out comes a whisky hamper, and we sip a warming glass of The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve as we drink in the magnificent view of the surrounding hills and glens. We can just make out the steaming stacks of the modern Glenlivet Distillery far below.

An argocat Glenlivet Hill Trek on The Glenlivest Estate on Speyside during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in Scotland, photo (c) Donna Dailey

A Wee Dram on The Glenlivet Hill Trek

We bump our way down along the ancient paths, startling red deer and mountain hare that race off across this austere landscape. It’s wild and exhilarating, like the origins of whisky itself, and it’s my favourite festival experience.

Pairing whisky with chocolate during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in Scotland, photo (c) Donna Dailey

Pairing Whisky with Chocolate at Gordon & MacPhail

Not that that’s an easy call. During this festival sampler there’s also a sensory afternoon at Gordon & MacPhail, nosing the subtle aromas in a range of single malts followed by a delicious pairing of whisky and chocolate. I get to create my own special whisky in blending sessions at Glenfiddich and Cardhu.

We visit the Glenlivet’s Malt Loft and secret Library to try some of the best limited edition whiskies bottled from single casks. And we enjoy a gastronomic whisky dinner at the Dowans Hotel, featuring seasonal Speyside produce matched to Chivas Brothers single malts.

Whiskies, like wines, improve with a little knowledge and experience. By the end of my stay, I was nosing and tasting with the best of them. I discovered a new appreciation for this endlessly complex and fascinating drink. And most of all, I learned that whisky is a whole lot of fun.

The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival

Information can be found on the festival website: www.spiritofspeyside.com

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