The Whisky Tasting Club

The Speyside Festival Part One

I’m standing in the reception of The Craigellachie Hotel in Speyside and the receptionist who is talking to me looks suspiciously like Miss Hoolie from Balamory. Clearly The Spirit of Speyside has roped in all the big Scottish guns this year.

“No I don’t know when the bus to the dinner is coming because they have told me nothing.” BIG smile! That’s a problem, I say, because I need to be on it.

“Oh, lots of guests have been asking,” she says. BIGGER grin. Which begs the question: then why haven’t you found out?

But I’m in a good mood as I’m back in Speyside, so I let it go, and head to my room. I have been travelling for 11 hours and want to pour myself a wee welcome dram in my room, toast the river (as I do), have a shower and prepare for a battle with my kilt.

Five minutes later the phone rings. I am still struggling with a broken suitcase zip. “The bus is here,” says Miss Hoolie, who I know is smiling. “Give me five minutes,” I say.

Seven minutes later Miss Hoolie waves to me as I stagger towards the bus, having showered, semi towelled, and kilted. I am applauded on to the bus. and spend the rest of the night being introduced as the ‘five minute kilt man.’ I am harassed, dishevelled, humiliated, embarrassed, entirely blameless and without a whisky. Ah, so the Speyside Festival hasn’t changed after all!

If you want to find an emblematic representation of the Speyside Festival, it’s the Craigellachie Hotel. It is old and traditional, an imposing manse embodying the huntin’ fishin’ and shootin’ nature of the river and the region – and a strutting, rutting fortress of dead stags’ heads and dark wooden panels, where the food is rich and rugged and they expect you to eat your steak bloody.

And then there’s the Quaich Bar, a whisky bear pit, intimidating to even the most hardy whisky souls , more quake than quaich, and home to any number of bare knuckle fighting whiskies. If you’re brave enough you can go up against them, growing in confidence as the whisky flows round by round, until you hit the early hours and a knock out blow sends you reeling to bed. It’s no place for the timid – and traditionally it hasn’t been great for anything but the old school of single malt whisky ‘no water Scotch single malt whisky lovers either.

How can you change that, and should you? Can you move on without sacrificing the generations of tradition? It’s not as if the Craigellachie hasn’t tried. It has changed hands more than a rugby ball in an All Blacks attack. And yet here we are – for good or bad, same as it ever was.

Which bring us to the whisky festival. A few years back the May festival was in a civil war with an Autumn whisky festival in the region and it was fragmented, disorganised, closeted and, dare I say it, more than a wee bit dull. The lasting memory I have of it from a few years ago was standing in an empty whisky museum in a driechy Dufftown with a whisky writer who had a face like a basset hound as he waited for someone – anyone – to sell a book to and sign it.

We live in a fast moving whisky world. So is there any future for a festival so tied to the past but which needs to feed in to the cosmopolitan, increasingly female and young whisky consumer? Can it find a place in the new whisky world order without throwing the old barley out with the bath water?

simple answer? Yes it can. Welcome to The Spirit of Festival Whisky Festival, a four day celebration which has doubled the number of events it stages since 2011, has even more ambitious ones for the future, and has turned the region in to a whisky Disneyland around all the region’s traditional iconic places and sights. It’s instantly recognisable as the Speyside Festival but it’s like finding that the old Rolls Royce now has a Formula One engine.

How has it happened? Meet Mary Hemsworth, festival manager and the Karen Brady of whisky – a sexy powerful bundle of energy who combines a a fun girly side with a business brain and a steel backbone; the sort of person every journalist would love to ply with Riesling and listen to bawdy and irreverent anecdotes from her no doubt colourful career, but is sharp and just a little scary. You wouldn’t want to cross her. And if you did, you suspect you’d come away smarting. You suspect that over the years many have tried to cross her, rule her or patronise her. And yet here she is, with the great names of Speyside on side with her and moving the festival forward at a rate of knots.

Couples stroll by, laughter echoes round the streets, motor cycle groups wave as they drive by, a steady stream of buses move visitors around the region, information points provide tickets and information. The sun helps, too, though Friday is a nightmare and still great.

You feel the elation from happy whisky lovers in the whisky capital of the world. It’s impressive stuff – and perversely, though I managed to completely miss three of the five major things I wanted to do, wasted two hours standing in a corridor waiting to be an extra in a VisitScotland film and was then told I wasn’t needed, and had no more than a veggie kebab for lunch on one day and a cheese toastie on another, it was the most enjoyable visit to Speyside I can remember.

How did that happen? Read part two tomorrow and hear about a bawdy and utterly hilarious whisky comedian, meet some Speyside legends and hear about two rarely seen distilleries – Tamdhu and Mortlach.

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