Kindred spirits

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My article on the Spirit Of Speyside whisky festival in Scotland went into Saturday’s Irish Examiner, naturally they had to trim it as I had written The Lord Of The Rings, so I’m posting the full version here. I wrote a separate blog post about it here, which covers all the events I attended, and has tons of photos, but is not as ‘journalisty’ as this. 

There is a large clock tower standing in the centre of the village of Dufftown in the Scottish highlands. Over the years the building has been home to the council chambers, a prison, and a place of execution – a role that earned it the title of The Clock That Hanged MacPherson, after it hosted the dispatching of a local Robin Hood-style highwayman.

And, despite being the most conspicuous point in the area, it once hosted an illicit whisky still. The Highland distillers were a cunning and canny lot, finding all sorts of ways to evade the taxman – which might explain why a perennially cute Kerryman was brought in to keep an eye on them. But Listowel native Maurice Walsh, famed for writing The Quiet Man, was swept away by the beauty of the place, finding inspiration for some of his best works – and finding a wife – while stationed as an exciseman, or gauger, on Speyside.

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Standing in front of the clock tower on May 1st last as the snow fell around me, it wasn’t hard to see why he fell for it. Speyside is a Garden Of Eden for distillers. The River Spey languidly coils along the wide glacial plane of the valley, having made it’s way down from the snow-capped peaks of the Cairngorms mountain range. The limestone bedrock filters the water making it pure and hard, perfect for distilling, resulting in the area having the highest concentration of distilleries anywhere in the world, a fact that is celebrated in May of each year with the Spirit Of Speyside whisky festival.

Just as a distillery’s master blender can take disparate elements and use them to balance each other into a perfect harmony, the festival manages to combine distillery tours, tastings, food, drink, music, dance, crafts and outdoor activities to create an experience like no other.

I was in Dufftown for an important event in the local hall – a contest to decide which of four whiskies went best with a bacon roll. On a snowy morning in the Highlands, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to be doing – having four nips of great whisky and a bacon buttie at 10am. The famously temperate microclimate of Speyside doesn’t always reach into the mountains, so a warming drink and munchies were definitely the order of the day.

The event was organized by Mike Lord, a former comedy club host and one-time neighbor of Graham Norton, who gave up his job in the city to take on the Whisky Shop in Dufftown. Mike takes his whisky seriously – as he explained to us at the start of the tasting, there would be no ketchup or brown sauce in the bacon roll, as ‘this was science’. After we had made our choices – mine being a fruity, rosé-tinted, port-finished single malt – we strolled along to the Whisky Shop itself to take part in a blind tasting of seven independent bottlings – whisky that is purchased direct from the distilleries by independent firms. The store was packed with Americans, Germans, Scandinavians – but Dufftown is used to visitors from afar, for it was here that Sirius Black was first sighted after he escaped from Azkaban in the third Harry Potter movie.

After sampling the magnificent seven malts, we were magically spirited away to another scenic village – Aberlour, home to both a wonderful distillery, and also the Walker shortbread factory; a match made in heaven. The distillery was the venue for an evening of music and whisky hosted by Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley, two former record label talent scouts, who guided us through a pairing of Johnny Cash, Carole King, Pink Floyd and David Bowie with whiskies that reflected both their music and personalities – and not a Proclaimers track in sight.

Aberlour distillery was founded by James Fleming, who not only made great whisky but also engaged in much philanthropic work – a fact reinforced by the venue of another musical event later that evening. The village’s James Fleming Memorial Hall played host to Charlie McKerron, who has won numerous awards for his both his solo fiddle-playing and work with Scottish trad supergroup Capercaillie.

Gaelic trad is much like our own, evidenced by McKerron’s references to The Chieftains, Donal Lunny, Gerry ‘Banjo’ O’Connor and Seamus Begley. The similarities between the two cultures strike you everywhere you go – the word ‘fáilte’ means the same in Gaelic as in Irish, we both say ‘sláinte’ for ‘cheers’, and while they spell céilí ‘céileadh’, the dancing is much the same, albeit a bit more frantic. I had a crash course in Gaelic dancing at one of the festival’s ceilidhs, held in the cooperage of GlenMoray distillery in Elgin. The cooperage was also the venue for the opening gala, at which I opted to wear a kilt, which quickly became a crash course in how to get out of a car whilst preserving your dignity.

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Over the course of the festival there were many incredible meals, but the cask-strength dinner in Scotland’s oldest working distillery was one of the most special. Strathisla distillery in Keith is one of the world’s most beautiful distilleries, and was the venue for an evening of incredible food and drink. The menu was specially commissioned from Eric Obry, the chef and owner of the former Dufftown restaurant, La Faisanderie, and was inspired by the single malts from Chivas Brothers’ Speyside distilleries. One of our hosts for the evening was a man who is the personification of Scotch whisky; Charles MacLean; author, raconteur and Master Of The Quaich – a rare honour bestowed on those who celebrate Scotland’s national drink, which Maclean does with every fibre of his being.

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Maclean has a soft, purring Scottish accents – he could read the phone book and you would consume each word. The Quaich of his honorary title is a shallow drinking bowl used ceremoniously by the Highland clans – it comes in all shapes and sizes, and the larger ones used in presentations looks like a slightly compressed Sam Maguire Cup. It’s pronounced like quake, with a slightly softer ch sound. Pronunciation can be tricky with Scottish words – a helpful Scot I met on the flight from Dublin to Inverness was quick to correct me on my attempt at Moray (it’s pronounced ‘murry’). However, I found the shoe was on the other foot when I visited Speyside Distillery. We met with the owner, John Harvey McDonough, who upon learning where I was from told me he was once in ‘Yockal” (Youghal) for the potato festival.

Called ‘the secret distillery’ due to it’s remote location, Speyside Distillery is possibly one of the best known distilleries due it being the location of the fictional Lagganmore Distillery from the long-running BBC series Monarch Of The Glen.

Harvey-McDonough spent 20 years in Taiwan, and the look and feel of Spey whisky reflects that, with a long elegant look more akin to a perfume bottle. And with both whisky and perfume, scent is everything – a lesson we learned in Gordon and MacPhail in Elgin. The outlet is the stuff of legend in whisky circles, with famed writer Michael Jackson (not the King Of Pop) saying that it is possible that there would be no such thing as single malts if Gordon and MacPhail had not kept buying and bottling malts as they have for the past 120 years. In an upstairs boardroom we were talked through the essential elements that you could encounter when nosing (a nice word for sniffing) whisky. We had to identify scent from little jars – honey, mint, heather, oats, aniseed – and once we had tuned in our olfactory organs, it was on to a blind tasting of five malts, which we were asked to try and categorise based on region of origin, strength, age, cask type and, if we were up to the challenge, which distillery the drams came from. I scored 7/25. Clearly I need to spend more time drinking whisky.

Gordon and MacPhail also own a distillery, and it happens to be one of the places that Maurice Walsh was stationed – Benromach. We took a walk through the distillery and saw how their particular style is made. In comparison to many, Benromach is tiny (it has a staff of three), but its independent spirit makes up for its size.

Also punching above its weight is the newly reopened Glen Keith distillery. Located a short stroll from its sister distillery Strathisla, Glen Keith has maximized modern production techniques to a point where it only needs one person on site to operate it. But tasting it, it is every bit as authentic as any boutique craft spirit. Another distillery with a deceptive appearance is Tamdhu, a post-war development that is stark in its functionality. In a land of chocolate box scenes of hand-built distilleries, it is curiously modern – but its product is fantastic, and testament to what the firm calls their ‘can-dhu spirit’. We had a tasting with recently appointed distillery manager, Sandy McIntyre and recently retired distillery manager, Sandy Coutts, sampling from their hand-picked single casks – a couple of fantastic whiskies that prove, in distilleries as in life, it really is what’s on the inside that counts.

A distillery that merges form and function with a keen eye on heritage, Ballindalloch is part of a 25,000-acre estate overseen by the aristocratic Macpherson-Grant family. Incredibly, Maurice Walsh had a connection to this clan too, having an aunt who married into the Macpherson Grant family.

In the distillery, a converted farm building redeveloped to an incredibly high spec, we met with the Laird, Oliver Russell, and his wife Clare, the Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire. They welcomed us with three drams of their private reserve of rare Cragganmore whiskies, and spoke about how the distillery was officially opened by Prince Charles and Camilla two weeks earlier. The family plans on issuing an eight-year-old as their first release, so the world will just have to wait for Scotland’s first single estate dram. As the Russells pointed out, their family has lived on those lands for 500 years, so they can wait another few years for their whisky to be just right. However, we did get to try some of their new-make spirit– it had a rich, banana milk feel to it, suggesting a bright future for Ballindalloch.

The estate is also close to Glenfarclas distillery, one of the last family-owned firms, the rest having been snapped up by drinks giants like Pernod or Diageo. George Grant, the current head of the Glenfarclas clan, hosted a tasting event in the Mash Tun in Aberlour, a popular spot during the festival. One of the most striking things about the festival was how accessible all the distillery workers and owners are – be they operators, owners, Highland Lairds or whisky legends – they are not hidden away in dusty boardrooms, they are there in the pub pouring your drink, chatting about their plans, their hopes for the future. It was Alan Winchester, master distiller of the mighty Glenlivet, who told me about Maurice Walsh and his links to the area, and how Walsh’s grandson Dr Barry Walsh went on to become master blender with Irish Distillers, and is one of the men credited with laying the foundations for the current rebirth of Irish whiskey. Our respective distilling industries have been at loggerheads for more than a century, with the Scots lording it over us for much of that time – but this is changing. Irish whiskey is booming now, as Scotch is slowing. But a trip to Speyside is a reminder that our countries and their national drinks have far more similarities than differences, despite the odd skirmish. The Scots and the Irish have faced each other on the battlefield many times – Skerries in 1316, the Battle of Benburb in 1646, or even the massacre in Murrayfield in the last Six Nations – but the Speyside festival is a wonderful reminder of the unifying essences of our kindred Celtic spirits – good food, good company, and great whisky. And that’s something worth toasting; Sláinte!

Where to stay:

Our base for the festival was the Laichmoray Hotel in the ancient cathedral city of Elgin. The beautiful Victorian building is now a family run hotel that offers excellent food and a bar with more than 150 malts. Other venues include the recently renovated Dowans Hotel in Aberlour, or the Craigellachie hotel, which recently entertained guests like Noel Gallagher and Kate Moss.

Getting there:

One journalist I spoke to recommended flying into Edinburgh, ‘hiring a powerful car and driving up to Speyside via a disused military road in the Cairngorms National Park’. If you’d rather a more direct route, FlyBe goes from Dublin to Inverness daily, while you can also fly into Aberdeen, as the airports sit on either side of the region. Flight prices change depending on date of departure, but do remember to pay the extra for a bag, as you will most likely be bringing home several bottles!

Getting around:

While public transport in Scotland is excellent, a car is the best way to get about. You can, however, trek overland from venue to venue. At almost every event we attended there were large numbers of Dutch and German tourists in hiking gear. If you are driving with friends, most of the distilleries and events offer small sample bottles for the designated driver, so they can collect the whiskies and enjoy them later on.

The hidden gems:

Close to the confluence of the Fiddich and Spey rivers sits a little piece of history. The Fiddichside Inn is about as oldschool as it gets. Owner Joe Brandie is a former cooper who took over the running of the pub after his wife passed away some years ago. The pub itself has been there since 1840 and is a no-frills establishment – no carpet, no food, but a massive array of whiskies. Also well worth a visit is the whisky line, a vintage train that only travels during the festival. It goes from Keith to Dufftown along a disused track once used by the distilleries to transport goods, and is staffed entirely by volunteers who used to work it.

The cost:

The huge variety of events means that ticket prices vary; many of the distillery tours and a lot of smaller events are free, while the tastings are often reasonably priced, ranging from stg£10 to stg£20. The more exclusive events such as the cask-strength dinner in Strathisla cost up to stg£90. For the non-whisky fan there are also many craft events such as tumbler carving, wood turning and glass blowing.

See spiritofspeyside.com for the full line-up for 2016 closer to the time.

Footnote that didn’t go into the paper: Much of the information about Walsh came from the book ‘Maurice Walsh: Storyteller’ by Steve Matheson. I think it is out of print, but your local library – which goes back considerably farther than the internet if you are doing research – has it in stock. 

I actually contacted the chief archivist of Chivas Brothers to see if I could get a photo of the cupboard door in Glenburgie that has Walsh’s name carved on it, but it seems the door may have been lost to a series of renovations. Here are a few pages of the book, it is well worth a read if you like whiskey, and sher who doesn’t? They are out of synch, but so am I.

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