With its endless distilleries, sweeping highland landscapes and a dram-soaked tale around every corner, Speyside has plenty to offer even the most discerning of whisky connoisseurs. But the unassuming people and their passion for the holy amber liquor are so darn infectious, that it’s also the perfect place for a self-confessed amateur drammer like myself to soak up the atmosphere. And of course, some of the world’s finest whiskies.
I visited ahead of the 20th annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, which takes place between the 1st – 6th May, to get a flavour of this year’s activities. With no less than 500 whisky-centric events taking place across just five days, it’s an event which attracts regular visitors from Norway, America, Japan and beyond.
My weekend in Scotland’s legendary whisky country began at the iconic Craigellachie Hotel, which dates back to 1893. Perched along the River Spey, the hotel is the perfect mix of homely and high-end, and has character dripping from the rafters.
The 26 rooms balance vintage and modern perfectly, and feature hand painted double beds with Johnston’s of Elgin cashmere topped covers for extra cosiness. The hotel itself has also seen its fair share of celebs in recent years, with Noel Gallagher and Kate Moss seen partying here back in 2015 in the Quaich Bar. Unfortunately closed for a refurb when I visited, the Quaich is one of the world’s best whisky bars with over 900 malts to choose from.
After a swift Old Fashioned in the Copper Dog downstairs, it was time to head for dinner at The Dowans Hotel in nearby Aberlour. Housed in a beautifully renovated Victorian mansion, the Murray family have done an excellent job updating the building without compromising its original period charm.
After a cocktail masterclass in the cosy Mbar, we were seated in restaurant Spé to enjoy their infamous tasting menu. We were joined by Sandy McIntyre from the local Tamdhu distillery, who supplied the whisky pairings for the meal, along with some excellent conversation.
The menu made the most of the locally sourced produce, and hit the ground running with the Pan Seared Scallops served with a trio of rhubarb. But it the showstopping main of Ballindalloch Venison with Haggis and Rabbit Sausage which bowled everyone over. Perfectly pink and more tender than venison has any right to be, the fact we were all still talking about it two days later was testament to its quality.
After some much needed rest and a hearty Scottish breakfast back in the Craigellachie, it was onwards to Elgin to begin a full day of whisky-inspired antics. The first stop was the Gordon & MacPhail store, where we took a table in the newly refurbished tasting room.
Hosted by Whisky Ambassador Fraser Robson, the Rare Vintage session gave us the chance to taste a selection of rare malts and exclusive whiskies that spanned various styles, dating as far back as the sixties.
An incredible experience that comes highly recommended to anyone visiting Speyside, you can’t come here without a trip to their bottle shop, where a world of whisky porn awaits. Bottles range from the £30 region up to £14k, and so serious whisky collectors might want to bring their credit card.
Moving onto the historic Johnstons of Elgin wool mill, it was time for a delicious lunch in their recently restored visitors centre. Famed for its luxury cashmere clothing, the mill works closely with some of the world’s most iconic fashion houses, including Chanel and Vivienne Westwood.
Next it was onto Strathisla Distillery, which is home to the world-renowned Chivas Regal malt. Noted for being the most visually stunning distillery in Speyside, our behind the scenes tour allowed us to see the distillation process from start to end. With a story to tell at each and every stop, our charming host rounded the tour off with a tasting session in the barrel room, where we sampled a few wee drams straight from the copper dog.
With the group thoroughly warmed up, we moved on to the kind of laboratory you wished you had at school for the fantastic Chivas Blending Experience. After tasting a selection of malt whiskies, our mixology skills were put to the test as we were tasked with creating our own individual blends.
Whether ‘Fletch’s Blend’ will go down in history as an iconic tipple is up for debate, but I think I did a pretty good job. Good or bad, you get to take your bottle home where you can let your loved ones be the judge. After a round of Chivas Brothers cocktails in the lobby, we moved onto The Whisky Shop in Dufftown, which is considered the malt whisky capital of the world.
Something of a local institution, this bottle shop stocks no less than 600 whiskies and is a favourite with locals and tourists. As well as organising close to 40 of the festival’s activities, owner Michael Lord is known as the guy that runs the now legendary annual bacon roll challenge, where visitors must take a blind taste test to determine the whisky best suited to the breakfast staple.
After freshening up for the evening, we reconvened in the elegant confines of the Copper Dog’s private dining room at the Craigellachie for a special dinner hosted by festival chairman, James Campbell. It’s worth noting that not only does the Copper Dog have its own popular blend of whisky, but a sister bar in Dubai of all places.
The small yet well-edited gastro pub style menu went down a storm, and I made an excellent choice with my Cider and Bacon Mussels starter. The Rib-Eye Steak main was even better, presenting one of the juiciest cuts I’ve had in a long time.
After a dram or three too many in the bar after dinner, it was time to hit the sack for one last bash in whisky country. And, if anything can beat your regular hair of the dog, then the Glenlivet Hilltrek can.
Located just by Glenlivet’s original distillery, the buggy trek into the freezing cold countryside plunders the past to expose fascinating stories of the illegal whisky trade.
The contrast of these illicit stills compared to Glenlivet’s shiny new home is jarring indeed, but it tells you just how far this storied region has come in the past few hundred years. A fitting end to a memorable trip, this award winning excursion is a festival essential. I arrived in Speyside liking whisky, and left absolutely loving the stuff. So that’s one more vice to add to my ever-growing collection, amen.
The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival runs from 1st – 6th May 2019.
A list of recommended accommodation can be found here.
Written by Jordan Fletcher
An edited version of this review appears in the Spring 2019 edition of H&N Magazine.