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Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Spirit Of Speyside Festival 2011

In two weeks time, Neil and I shall be making our fifth (fourth for the blog) visit to the Feis Ile, Islay’s Festival of music And whisky. As usual we shall be driving up, kipping somewhere en route and making our way across on the CalMac ferry, provided that Neil has booked us on the correct crossing this year! It is always a festival we look forward to, despite the increasingly competitive nature of the distillery shops when the bottlings are released and we shall be doing our utmost to blog every day from each distillery, hopefully bringing an irreverently packaged slice of Islay to those who can't make it over.

One event that seems to have been left behind in the wake of the Islay revival, is the Spirit Of Speyside Festival. Last week, Caskstrength and a few other whisky blogs were invited up to the event by Chivas Brothers. No long car rides, no motorway service stations and certainly no Ginsters pasties were required to bring you news from this gathering; just a quick train to Gatwick and before you could say 'Spirit of Speyside', we were in Aberdeen awaiting the start of a busy schedule.

For those of you who have never been, Speyside covers a large area of the Scottish Highlands and has around 40 single malt distilleries open or mothballed and many others, which live on through rare and unusual bottlings. This makes the idea of bringing them all together for one week of festival fun a rather daunting task, but kudos to the people running the organising committee, as well as to the array of distillery owners and managers who have come together to make this work. Speyside is undeniably the home of whisky and as such, the festival should be lauded as much as any event in the whisky calendar.

The itinerary for our three-and-a-bit day visit was rather daunting: One mountain, two 12km walks, five distilleries and numerous drams all to be fitted in around the Royal Wedding celebrations...

Day One:

The main event on the day of arrival was the Spirit Of Speyside opening dinner. Apparently the opening ceremony rotates annually between distilleries on Speyside and this year this honour fell to Knockando. A beautiful old distillery with plenty of character, it played host to not only an opening dinner but also the Spirit Of Speyside 2011 Whisky Awards Final Round judging, which we were asked to help out with. Six different drams, split into three categories;

12 - 15 years old

18 - 20 years old

21 years & older

with two whiskies in each category, it made the task of judging the 2011 World Whisky Awards earlier in the years seem mammoth in comparison. The judging forms were the sort of thing we might expect if the referendum on the Alternative Vote swings in favour of the “yes” camp and if we can pair each General Election candidate with a different whisky, it might encourage the sort of turn out that this event drew; a new way of casting your vote, via the AV system...the Aqua Vita way, that is!

Just to highlight how jam-packed the festival schedule was this year, here are some other events that you could have chosen to do on the opening day:

Speyside Cooperage tour, Gourmet Heaven whisky & Chocolate pairing with Gordon & MacPhail, or bottling your own 2011 festival spirit at the Glenglassaugh distillery. So much to do and so little time!!

Day Two:

The morning kicked off with a tour of Longmorn Distillery. A real treat as we were being shown around by Distillery Manager Neal Corbett who is, shock-horror- an Englishman in charge of a Scotch Distillery! Hailing from the Midlands, Neal has an amazing knowledge concerning the art of distillation and as a result had to put up with a barrage of questions from us about cut points, temperatures and fermentation levels.

The real masterclass came when we were asked to nose a sample of New Make against a test sample, something that a team of highly train managers and blenders have to do once a week to make sure that each and every distillery from the Chivas portfolio is up to scratch. These guys have highly trained, bloodhound like noses which could sniff out a Rosebank in a field of flowers at twenty paces. Amazing stuff and utterly educational.

At the end of the tour, we got to try a 15 year old cask sample and the 16 year old, which replaced the 15 Year Old in 2007 (we have notes for the 15 here)

Longmorn 16 Year Old - 48%

Nose: Hints of dried fruits, leather notes, and toasted almonds all surprise at first, then with water, some of the classic Longmorn fruitiness develops, pears, ripe plums and a bourbon sweet vanilla.

Palate: Hints of woodiness, hugely mouth coating with fruit sherbets and well reduced caramel sauce notes.

Finish: Very lengthy, with lingering notes of cherry brandy.

Overall: As fans of the 15yo, we were pleased that this expression hasn't deviated too far from the brilliance of the original.

Longmorn - cask sample - 1989- cask 8583 - 57%

Nose: Big hit of vanilla, followed by royal jelly, classic Longmorn sweet soft fruits, sherbet and powerful floral notes.

Palate: Light, fresh and initially grassy, the fruit influence begins to take hold, with plums, bourbon cask sweetness, vanilla, lemon zest and a hint of dustiness.

Finish: Lingering notes of fresh fruit and bourbon influence dominate the lengthy finish.

Overall: Very similar to the commercially available Cask Strength edition Longmorn, more of which comes later...

After enjoying these two drams with Neal, it was time to take a break and head to the Highlander Inn, one of the most famous whisky bars in Scotland, to ironically catch up on the events happening in London. Ridley had managed to forget about the small sample of The Macallan Royal Marriage bottling he had put in his bag and finding it whilst watching the proceedings on TV made this especially historic occasion, even more memorable.

A wonderful occasion, a magical whisky bar and a fantastic setting to boot. We even spotted the perfect bottling for Tim TWE’s 40th: a natural born Playboy!

The day was finished off with festival dinner at the Aberlour Distillery. Not just any old dinner, but one especially put together by Martine Nouet, one of the world's leading experts in food and whisky matching. Each course had been carefully constructed to match a whisky from the Aberlour range - including our favourite- the 18 year old (rich chocolate notes, blood orange and deft hints of marzipan sweetness) A packed room experienced how whisky can be the perfect accompaniment to a variety of foods and Martine did a fantastic job in linking each dram to it’s respected course. A fantastic addition to the festival, this dinner is certainly one to be early to sell out for next years festival.

Day Three:

This was a day to test us, as it kicked off with a 12km walk from The Glenlivet Distillery with Master Distiller Alan Winchester. Alan is an absolute encyclopaedia of knowledge about the local area and walking and talking with him is like spending time with the great man Barnard himself. Facts, figures and folklore about the Speyside region are Winchester’s speciality, delivered with a rye smile as standard. The walk was challenging, but once at the summit of Carn Daimh Alan popped a bottle of Glenlivet 18 year old and all seemed well with the world. Ridley even made it up in a pair of plimsolls, a fact that had us putting Mountain Rescue into the speed dial of our ‘phones, just in case...

As we made our descent from the hills, where illegal distilling took place in the 16th & 17th Centuries, we arrived back at The Glenlivet to find that as part of their open day celebrations they had fired up their (legal) smugglers still. An amazing piece of kit, which replicates how whisky would have originally been made when many of the local distillers where hidden away in the Glens, trying to evade capture. The spirit straight from the still is sweet and strong, needing water to make it fully palatable. Once cut, it is easy to drink with lovely sugary notes and vanilla essence. You can really see why this Uisge Beatha was so sought after. A real treat for everyone who made the 12km trek, as well as all those visiting the distillery that day. The video here shows the still in action and the effects of the white spirit...

The afternoon was filled with a trip to Strathisla Distillery which, with the sun beating down, must be one of the most beautiful distilleries in Speyside. After a brief tour, we were introduced to the Chivas Brothers range of Cask Strength Editions, bottlings that are only available at each distillery, or online via their respective webshops. Released in very small batches, these are worth a real look with some very well priced (£35-ish) gems in the line up:

Glenburgie – 15 Years Old – 1994 / 2011 - Cask Strength Editions – 54.6% - 50cl

Nose: Huge pear notes, boiled sweets (white), white flowers. Very fresh and juicy indeed.

Palate: Weak lemon drink (freshly made, not cordial) pear juice again.

Finish: Lemons and pears again. Almost like barley water at times too. Very juicy and drinkable.

Overall: A real cracker of a bottling, we loved the previous batch and this is just as good with loads of pear juice and fresh lemonade cutting through. A great summer dram.

Scapa – 16 years Old – 1993 / 2010 – Cask Strength Editions – 60.9% - 50cl

Nose: Vanilla Sherbet, orange crèmes, biscotti, currants.

Palate: Orange zest, sweet mandarins, butternut squash and a hint of coriander.

Finish: Good body, sweet sugars and orange squash.

Overall: A really solid offering from a distillery that produces a unique whisky. Robust and complex.

Miltonduff – 18 Years Old – 1991 / 2009 – Cask Strength Editions – 51.3% - 50cl

Nose: Dried fruits, pear juices but not as much as the Glenburgie, pickles.

Palate: Vanilla and soft ice cream, but that’s about it.

Finish: Spicy vanilla.

Overall: Not a great deal of character or personality in this dram sadly. More Milton Keynes than John Milton...

The Glenlivet – 16 Years Old – 1992 / 2009 - Cask Strength Editions – 57.8% - 50cl

Nose: Baked banana, vanilla fondant, boiled sweets dusted with sugar.

Palate: Big hit of sugary tea, a fantastic texture and notes of sauternes wine.

Finish: Crème Brule topping, dark honey and Lilt soft drink (pineapple and orange fizz).

Overall: Good use of the key distillery characters to produce something that is clearly The Glenlivet, but differs from their usual range and has more in common with the Nadurra than any other bottling.

Strathisla – 16 Years Old – 1994 / 2011 – Cask Strength Editions - 55.3% - 50cl

Nose: Creamy banana ice cream, vanilla pods, ‘taste the difference’ custard, blackcurrant tart.

Palate: Toasted sesame seeds mixed with fruit sorbet, creamy raspberry yoghurt and pink wafer biscuits.

Finish: Biscuits with toasted almonds.

Overall: A close run thing between this and the Glenburgie, but this won out as our dram of the series. Well worth picking up a bottle online.

The evening saw a whisky quiz with various teams of locals and visitors competing for a prize of a bottle of Inverleven 1973 / 36 Year Old / Deoch an Doras. Thankfully, it was someone from our group whose team won the prize and we returned to our lodgings with the promise of a dram. We were not let down and as the cork was popped, we settled in to our arm chairs to digest the days entertainment and rest our weary feet from the long walk earlier in the day. It was a much needed rest as the following day some folk were departing before the dawn chorus, whilst others of us were in for more fitness with yet another 12km walk only this time up a mountain...

Day Four:

Gulp... what were we thinking. Clearly the spirit of Speyside must have been inside us when we agreed to our next challenge. Caskstrength and TWEB had agreed to traverse the highest point in the region, the whisky mountain, Ben Rinnes. Much like Ronnie Cox’s red socks, you can see the mountain from everywhere in Speyside. The view from the top, we were promised, was going to be spectacular. And they were right. From the near-1,700ft you can see 8 different counties, backdropped by an incredible deep blue sky and a whole host of distilleries, nestled in amongst the landscape.

Our guides were to be the ever-knowledgeable Alan Winchester and the indefatigable Mr Dave Broom, who along with Ann Millar from Chivas Brothers, had installed a geoscope at the summit to all the distilleries you can see. The walk was packed with whisky enthusiasts from across the globe, including some members of London’s Whisky Squad, as well as other writers such as Hans Offringa, Oliver Klimek and anyone else who fancied signing up for the event. We’ve complied a small video to show you some of the journey, as well as Dave Broom’s assessment of the view from the top, which can be viewed here.

Once the summit was conquered the only real rearward was a dram and what better whisky to have than Benrinnes:

Benrinnes – 15 Years Old – Flora & Fauna – 43%- 70cl

Nose: Nuttella, cherry jam and digestive biscuits. A big nose with lots of bold character.

Palate: A big mouthfeel with warming elements of copper, coffee and some dark furniture polish, although not in a heavy sherry influenced way. Plus huge Walnuts. ;-)

Finish: Some wood spices, with the cherry jam returning. Well stewed tea without milk.

Overall: Very enjoyable, even with the wind lashing us and the massive plastic cup. Would like to try this at home in the warmth, but it was a hugely enjoyable dram to enjoy on its namesake peak!

What you want? a F***ing medal or something??

After making a hasty decent from the top, it was time to make our way back to Aberdeen airport for the (rather bumpy) flight home. With ultra-clear skies for take off, we could gaze out of the window at the mountain we had just conquered and as the plane lifted in to the sky, it was easy to pick out some of the distilleries we had seen just a few hours earlier from the top of the mount.

An amazing trip, with plenty of activities on offer for everyone. For more information on the Spirit Of Speyside Festival, visit