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Spirit of Speyside captures the wonders of the whisky world

As the Spirit of Speyside festival gears up for its 25th year, ​Brian Stormont takes a tour in celebration of the amber nectar​

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The Spirit of Speyside whisky festival will celebrate its 25th anniversary in just over five weeks.

More than 85 venues will open their doors on May 1, when there will be more than 650 events taking place during the five days of the eagerly anticipated festival.

Speyside is the largest whisky-producing region in Scotland, with five distilleries celebrating their 200th anniversaries this year – Macallan, Glenlivet, Miltonduff, Cardhu and Balmenach.

I was fortunate enough to enjoy a short visit to Speyside, where I took in three of the distilleries and some of the events that they are hosting. Also on the agenda was a preview of some of the dishes on a tasting menu being offered at a Rothes hotel as part of the festival.

The Quaich whisky bar at the Craigellachie Hotel.

And if the experience I enjoyed is an indication of what the Spirit of Speyside Festival holds, the 25th anniversary is going to be one to remember.

For the duration of the stay, I was based at the Craigellachie Hotel, where a lovely dinner was enjoyed on the first night. It also offers an excellent full Scottish breakfast, which I tucked into on both mornings of my stay.

And I must mention the hotel’s Quaich whisky bar – a must-see for all fans of the amber liquid.

Behind the scenes

GlenAllachie was our first stop and I was keenly looking forward to this visit as I am a big fan of the whisky.

A behind-the-scenes tour took us on a memorable journey around the distillery, which has 16 warehouses with around 50,000 casks.

Billy Walker, right, master distiller at GlenAllachie, talked about cask management.

The visit was topped off when master distiller Billy Walker popped in as we were enjoying some of the drams – the 15, 10 and 2010.

Listening to him explain the process behind selecting the casks to mature the whisky, as well as some of the exciting plans they have for the future, was a real eye-opener.

GlenAllachie is definitely a distillery to keep an eye on.

We briefly stopped off for lunch at the Dowans Hotel, which is hosting a number of events during the festival, where I enjoyed a delicious salmon dish.

A ‘first’ at the Glenlivet

Fully refreshed, it was time to take in our second event, which was a “first” at The Glenlivet.

To help celebrate its 200th anniversary, the distillery is opening the doors of its newest stillhouse, E2, to the public for the very first time – and I was one of the very first people to enjoy a sneak peek.

The Glenlievt E2 stillhouse.

It was amazing listening to the story of the last two centuries, and the team
is clearly proud to be making whisky in the same way it was made two centuries ago.

The tour was completed by the opportunity to sample three of the distillery’s expressions, including The Glenlivet’s special 200th anniversary release, and the 18-year-old in a delicious cocktail made with lemon, orange syrup and cranberry juice that opened my eyes to the joys of a whisky cocktail.

Back to the 1950s at Glenfarclas

Next up on our whirlwind preview of Spirit of Speyside was Glenfarclas, where I took in the 1950s tour with international sales executive Ian McWilliam.

Glenfarclas is one of the last family-owned and run distilleries in Scotland. The 1950s tour offers a unique opportunity to visit never-before-seen areas of the distillery.

Ian McWilliam who hosts the 1950s tour.

The dunnage warehouse number one was something of a highlight, with the opportunity to try a near 70-year-old whisky, before the experience concluded in fine style in the VIP lounge, where there was an opportunity to see their entire Family Cask Collection and sample five expressions from the 1950s – 1955, 56, 57, 58 and 59.

Obviously, there was an opportunity to try a number of whiskies in a short space of time, so the vast majority were bagged up as drivers’ drams so I could enjoy them responsibly at home.

Mouth-watering Still and Stove

The final event was the chance to enjoy five courses from the Still and Stove tasting menu at the Station Hotel in Rothes. Snacks of smoked eel, beef tartare and sea salt and balsamic crisps were followed by cheese espuma, heritage potato and fig.

The next course was halibut, quince and salsify, which was followed by duck, Marmite and kohlrabi, and then a lovely dessert of chocolate malt, sunflower seed and miso.

Duck, Marmite and kohlrabi, a course on of the Still & Stove tasting menu.

A palate cleanser of elderflower vinegar and granita was then followed by petit fours of beetroot and pumpkin seed nougat, marshmallow and Scottish tablet flavoured with Glen Grant.

The preview of the tasting menu, which was delicious, was a fitting finale to a fantastic couple of days taking in the wonders of whisky in Speyside.

On the forthcoming anniversary, George McNeil, chairman of the festival, said: “It’s incredible to think this is the 25th year of the festival and it continues to grow in size and stature.

Unique festival

“The distilleries in Speyside that take part make it a truly unique festival.

“It’s a chance for visitors to immerse themselves in the whisky world with world-class experiences and behind-the-scenes tours, to visit distilleries that don’t normally open their doors to the public, and enjoy a few days in this beautiful part of the world.

“I think this year will be our biggest and best yet, so would encourage people to book as soon as they can to avoid disappointment.”

George McNeil, chairman of the festival, Sarah Burgess, vice-chair of the festival, and chef Tony Singh at this year’s festival launch.

During the stay, I was transported around the area by Speyside Executive Hire, who are one of the festival partners.

At the time of writing, spaces on the previews I enjoyed were still available. However, these are only three of the many hundreds of experiences available to enjoy at Spirit of Speyside which, on the evidence of what I enjoyed, is an absolute must for whisky fans.

Visit – you will find details of the events I was fortunate enough to attend and much more that is on offer during the festival.