Whisky - The Speyside Festival 2016 Review


Not one of my normal climbing blogs but one about one of the other passions in my life - Whisky.

I'm 40 this year and one of the things on my List was to attend the Speyside Whisky Festival based in and around the town of Dufftown (pronounced Duf-tun) in Speyside, Scotland. Bernard (the affectionate name I give my Volvo Estate) was packed ready for 4 days up North. I was a little surprised at how little there was in the boot, what had I forgotten. It was only when my wife Bex pointed out that it was because we didn't have the kids with us! Yes this is how we used to be able to pack...

7 hrs drive and we arrived at our Bunkhouse in Grantown-on-Spey. I'd stayed at this bunkhouse before when I'd done my Winter Mountain Leader Course a few years previously. Those who have been to Grantown will be aware of one of its more unusual pubs and entertaining Landlords, Robbie. The Craig Bar serves very good pies and has a decent selection of whisky. Robbie will talk to you and is funny in a very self deprecating manner. After a long discussion we asked for his recommendation for our first whiskies of the trip.

"StrathIsla 12 and Tomintoul 16, if you don't like them you don't have to pay for them."

I'd had the Tomintoul before but the StrathIsla was new to me, very light and enjoyable. Not an after dinner whisky but definitely a summer whisky, quite pleasant as a aperitif.

Thursday came and it was a long taxi ride (excellent service from Dufftown Taxi's) to Dufftown for the first time. The cab driver was great and filled the journey with tales of the area, we were bound for The Whisky Train. A volunteer led train running from Dufftown to Keith and back again we would then have lunch on a special carriage then be taken for a tour around the Glenfiddich Distillery.

StrathIsla 12 After a nice brew in the Buffet Car we boarded the train to Keith. It's a magical journey through a sleepy little Glen, we were offered shortbread and on the way out, this is because the StrathIsla Distillery is at the end of the line. we were already booked in for lunch on the separate carriage back at Dufftown or it would have been good to have gone around the distillery as it look beautiful. This was our first time to the festival so you have to expect to make some errors along the way.

For the trip back from Keith we were given more shortbread and Glenfiddich 12 because you're heading back to Dufftown where the Glenfiddich Distillery is! Simple really.

We'll discuss Glenfiddich later on as after a 'light' lunch in the special carriage we were led to the Glenfiddich Distillery for our first tour of the trip.

Bex and I have been round a few distillery's before but I had not experience anything the size of Glenfiddich. It's massive, like a small village and very corporate. You get to watch a short video before the explorer's tour starts for real. It's the kinda of video that has been created by bearded hipsters who have never left London let alone drunk the Water of Life.

The tour guide knew his 'patter' well but it all felt so corporate to us and a long way from what they were trying to promote on the video. Glenfiddich makes nice whisky, its core range is ok but is nothing special in my mind. The 12 is a nice light whisky but not a good as the StrathIsla, they are however the most awarded Distillery in the world (and they do let you know...) The 18 has more depth but just doesn't last long, in the mouth or body. Shame as just as you think there is something there it's gone.

It was very professional tour and if you want a basic understanding of how a Distillery makes whisky then this is a good tour for that.

It had been a good opening day for us, not intense with the highlight being the initial journey out on the train.

Friday was to be a bigger day with a visit to a 'Boutique' distillery and then a Meal with Whisky matching in the evening.It was with a little surprise that we woke to find Bernard covered in 2" of snow. I know we were in Scotland but it's nearly May!

However, I still had the snow Tyre's on so nothing was going to stop us getting the Speyside Distillery - as long as we could find it. It's hidden near Kingussie and to be honest I'm not telling you where it is either. They don't have a visitor centre and only open their doors during the festival. It's in such a beautiful location in the bottom of a little glen that I hope they always remain secret.

It was only Bex and I there and we met Sandy (Distillery Manager), John (The Owner) and Ruby (uber cute dog) in Sandy's office. As it was only us we were treated to a very personal tour of the distillery by Sandy. Bex is a Biologist by training and is really interested by the science of distilling. She'd not really got that much detail at the Glenfiddich Distilery, but there were 20 of us on the tour. However Sandy was all ears and was happy to wax lyrical about enzymes and yeast and was able to answer all of our questions in great detail.

The over whelming fear for me was that we had had such a great tour and it had been only us, we were now heading to tasting their produce. What if their whisky was dreadful, I'd still feel obliged to buy a bottle. What if it cost a fortune?

We were lead into the tasting room (what a room!) where they had there whisky well presented. Oh God please taste nice!

First up was the Spey Tenne, a NAS whisky (probably nothing less than 8yrs) which is finished in port for 6 months. Oh well here goes...

I need not have worried, it was fantastic. Very light but fruity with the port warming the body. Very long lasting for a young whisky. Defiantly one for a summer evening as the sun goes down.

Next came the Spey 12, lighter in colour and with a strong vanilla flavour and again long lasting. Good. The Spey 18 quickly followed, this was my favourite. Matured in sherry butts it's quite dark in colour and just lasts and lasts and lasts. The distillery had done a special bottling for the festival which came from first fill bourbon casks (I think). This was also a belter! Does this distillery do bad whisky? No it does not. Their main market is Taiwan but I think we need to keep this for ourselves.

We were made to feel really at home by the distillery, after a walk around the grounds it was a shame to leave but we were changing accommodation so had to go.

We were leaving Grantown behind us and moving closer to Dufftown. However so that we could spend more money on whisky we were camping for the next 2 nights - we're both climbers and used to it :-)

That evening we were being hosted by the Ballindalloch Distillery at the Delnashaugh Hotel. It was to be a three course meal with each course matched with whisky - something Bex and I had never tried to do before.

The sharper amongst you will know that the Ballindalloch Distillery only distilled its first spirit a couple of years ago so doesn't actually have any whisky of its own to pair the food with. What was it going to do? Well Brian, our host, lead us through the construction of the distillery. We seem to be in new golden age of whisky with distilleries popping up all over the place :-).

So far our meals on the trip had been a bit hit and miss so it was with some trepidation that then the first course was served with the first whisky. Smoked Salmon accompanied by 27yr old Cragganmore from the estates private casks. Words can't do it justice!

In fact words can't do the whole meal justice. Venison plus a 29yr old Cragganmore for main and a Tart with cream plus another 27yr old Cragganmore for dessert. An excellent evening with excellent company and host.

Saturday was our final full day at the festival. We had chosen to go to the whisky fair in the Memorial hall in Dufftown. Bex and I had been to events like this before and the set up is very simple. Pick up your Glencairn glass on entry and go and try as many whiskys as you like. It's a great way to taste a lot of whiskys that you may not normally try. There is a bit of a skill to it and if you don't follow some basic rules your pallet will be blown within 1hr and you'll be in a mess within 2!

  • Drink lots of water. Try and have half a glass after every whisky.

  • Take your time. They are unlikely to run out.

  • Eat food.

  • Don't go for the Peat Monsters first or no amount of water and shortbread will clense your pallet.

  • Drink what you like, throw what you don't (that's not blasphemy)

This was a fair with lots of smaller distilleries and independent bottlers. For some reason I'd always stayed clear of independent bottlers thinking they were inferior to the main distillers. How wrong was I!!

We discovered Adelphi, The Whisky Castle and Dream Drams independent bottlers. The best from those was a super Fettercairn 7yr from the Whisky Castle and a Speyside (them again) bottle from Dream Drams. I think I've been turned to looking in more depth into independent bottlers.

Of the main distillers there then Glendronach 18 has always been a favourite in our house. I wonder how it's going to change with there recent purchase by Jack Daniels.

Special Mention should also go to Strathearn Distillery for there magic produce. Great Gin and very interesting spirit. One to follow I think,

Sunday was our final morning before heading back home that evening. What better way to start than having a bacon sandwich and whisky in the St James hall in Dufftown and stating which of the 4 whiskys on off we thought best. Bex had chosen not to drink that morning so it was 8 for me :-)

No 3 was the clear winner :-) Turned out to be the Arran Lochranza Reserve NAS.

Not sure what everyone else voted for though.

In conclusion it was a brilliant festival and we had a great day. Will we come again. Definitely.

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