I had never really thought that heading to Scotland in late January would offer a nice warm break from the chilling cold of a Toronto winter. But, looking at the weather in the area of Speyside, Scotland, I was excited for the warm temps of 4C and leaving behind the weeks of -20C of Toronto.
Speyside is the home of Scotch whisky, as more than half of all Scotland’s distilleries can be found in the region. And that’s why I was there, for the whisky. Oh the whisky, so many different tastes, flavours and memories can be sparked from a nose or taste of just a dram of whisky. I had the pleasure of experiencing much of what a visitor to the 15th annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, May 1-5th, 2014, will be able to enjoy.
We hit the trail running, with a drive (I wasn’t the one driving, don’t worry) through the Scottish countryside from Aberdeen airport. What better way to get over jetlag than to visit Speyside’s smallest distillery, Benromach. Run by only two distillers, it’s not like any of the other distilleries we were still to visit. Amazingly though, none of these distilleries have a huge staff. They are very efficiently run with very little waste.
Our visit also included distillery tours and tastings (not to worry, not all in one day) at:
- Cardhu (they play an important part in the famous Johnnie Walker blended whiskies)
- The Glenlivet
- Glen Grant
At each we saw and smelled the steps of the whisky making process: the malting, milling, mashing, fermentation, distillation to maturation (about 12-25+ years). This all leads to the bottling and the best part, the enjoying. We tasted quite a variety of whisky, with aromas that ranged from floral to spicy, vanilla to fruity and woody to sherry.
As you probably know, whisky is matured in casks and a visit to the Speyside Cooperage was a must. They make and repair casks used around the world. We watched these coopers at work and it’s a sight to see. Working at a blistering pace to get the job done. They are paid based on the number of casks they build or repair during their 9-hour shift. I’ve never seen people working so hard and efficiently. I think I could learn a thing or two from them.
We met so many whisky experts along the way, from ones that had been attending whisky tastings from a young age with their parents to the others that have been in the whisky business for more than 50+ years. We stopped in at whisky shops like Gordon & MacPhail for a whisky pairing tasting and into The Whisky Shop in Dufftown for an informal tasting with the owner, Mike Lord. He mentioned that he has 80 bottles of whisky currently open at home. He has quite a selection to choose from based on how he’s feeling in the moment, which is important when it comes to whisky. Just imagine how many he has in this full collection. Others spoke of their collections as an investment and basically their retirement plan. That sounds like more fun than saving for an RRSP (Registered Retirement Savings Plan). Since whisky increases in value with time and rarely goes bad the way that wine can on occasion, it sounds like a good investment. I think I’ll start my WRSP, Whisky Retirement Savings Plan.
What surprised me on this trip along this whisky trail were the people that I met who are involved in the world of whisky. With the history of this spirit, I expected older males would dominate the industry. Don’t get me wrong; there are many of them, each with incredible stories to share about the whisky business and for some how whisky almost runs in their blood passed down from their fathers and grandfathers who were all in the business at one time. But, along with them, I met men in their 20s with incredible whisky knowledge and I met women, yes women.
There are a growing number of women in the whisky business and an increase in women enjoying this amber goodness. It’s been said that women have a more sensitive palate that can sense the nuances and decipher the various flavours within a whisky. Women like Ann Miller, International Brand Ambassador, Chivas Brothers, Penny Ellis, owner of The Knockomie Hotel and Mary Hemsworth, the Festival Manager, along with many others, play an important part in sharing the stories and whisky expertise for the Speyside region as they introduced the festival to the world. Spending just a few minutes with these women and taking in their knowledge of this wonderful spirit will enlighten any woman or man when it comes to the complexity of whisky.
With all these tastings and fresh countryside air, getting a good meal and place to sleep was also very necessary. Luckily that had us stopping in for a few nights at each at The Knockomie Hotel and The Dowans Hotel. Not only did they offer lovely accommodations, but quaint pubs and fantastic restaurants. I’ll never forget my mouth watering meal of lamb at the Knockomie Hotel plus enjoying a whisky tasting with one of the women of whisky and the owner of the hotel, Penny Ellis.
But Speyside is not just whisky. The countryside and seaside are gorgeous, along with great golfing, walking trails and shopping for maybe some cashmere at Johnstons of Elgin.
One lasting memory will be of Joe Brandie, the landlord at one of our last stops, The Fiddichside Inn. He’s the landlord of one of the oldest pubs in Speyside. This pub has been in the Brandie family for over 90 years and Joe is still behind the bar despite being in his 80s. He knows everyone and is just the cutest.
So, book your flight, reserve your spot at the events and get yourself to The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. It will offer great food, music and whisky. It all sounds like a great to me!
May 3 is International Women of Whisky Day. Whisky lovers around the world should raise a glass to all the whisky women and enjoy a dram. Tweet about it using #IWOWD
GETTING THERE: Fly into Aberdeen or Inverness from London or Europe then rent a car or grab the bus or train to Elgin or Forres.
STAYING: Places to stay during the festival: Knockomie Hotel, Forres – Festival Deal: £125 (about $225) per room, per night on a bed and breakfast basis, includes a 20cl (200 ml) bottle of Benromach 10-year-old whisky. Minimum two-night stay applies to the offer; Dowans Hotel, Aberlour: Double rooms cost from £120 (about $216) per night bed and breakfast.
OTHER ACTIVITIES: See where the whisky casks are made and repaired at Speyside Cooperage, visit the Johnstons of Elgin Cashmere and Woolen Mill, Golfing, Walking Trails and water sports.
INFO: Visit the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival website for details and event tickets, already on sale: spiritofspeyside.com
© 2014 – 2017, Anne-Marie Marais. All rights reserved.