For malt connoisseurs, it is the chance to join one of whisky’s most elite clubs, one that gives unique access to distilleries that are never open to the public and the rare chance to meet some of the experts and legends who are synonymous with Speyside’s most famous export.
During one weekend in spring, whisky producers unite to rally behind the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival and offer exclusive tours, rare tastings and very special experiences that happen at no other time of the year.
It makes for an exciting blend of almost 500 events at venues ranging from small boutique distilleries to the homes of the biggest and best known global brands, and opens up almost all of the region’s 50-plus distilleries to whisky fans – at least those lucky enough to get their hands on some of the most sought-after tickets around.
The golden tickets for this year’s Festival were for an exclusive few to gain a behind the scenes glimpse of Speyburn and Balmenach distilleries. These distilleries entered the Festival programme for the first time this year and, not surprisingly, tickets sold out within hours of them going on sale.
However, there are many more Festival-only events that still have some availability.
Renowned whisky writer Dave Broom will deliver a Whisky Mountain Tasting of special drams featured on the Festival toposcope at the summit of nearby Ben Rinnes. The good news is that participants don’t have to pull on hiking boots and climb the region’s highest summit to enjoy this one – it takes place in its shadow, the comfortable surroundings of Edinvillie Hall.
Dave will share what makes Speyside and its whiskies so special to him, guide participants through the nosing and tasting of his personal selection of six very special malt whiskies from distilleries associated with this ‘whisky mountain’ and which are featured on the toposcope. Most of these will have been specially drawn from casks by distillery managers at his specific request and they include some outstanding releases which have recently attracted his attention.
There would be no whisky without barley and tours of Boortmalt Buckie Maltings will reveal all aspects of malting process including drying, storage, steeping, germination and kilning. The process will be described at each stage and its influence on distilling performance.
The small Speyside Distillery near Aviemore is the most southerly in the Speyside region, and it throws open its doors especially for the Festival, to welcome a limited number of guests to its Art of Distilling tour.
Alchemy and Angels will reveal fascinating secrets about the history and distillation of The Glenlivet from master distiller Alan Winchester. Alan, who was recently named the top Master Distiller of the Year, has spent over 40 years distilling whisky and is responsible for the enduring legacy of the iconic single malt. He will be joined by maturation director Brian MacAulay who is responsible for the selection of the casks used to mature this single malt whisky, who will share a tasting of drams from a selection of casks to illustrate their influence on the new spirit.
Cragganmore Distillery’s Drams and Scran sees distillery manager Kevin Innes pair five expressions of Cragganmore Single Malt with food that complement each expression in the luxurious surrounds of the Cragganmore Club Room. Visitors will also visit the duty free warehouse and have the opportunity to draw and enjoy a taste from a duty paid cask.
Those who have the nose for a good dram should join Benromach Distillery’s Stuart Urquhart, who is looking for discerning noses and palates to help choose the next single cask to be bottled as a Benromach Distillery exclusive.
A wonderful job for any whisky lover, it involves nosing and tasting a selection of cask samples, deciding on the winner, and writing the tasting notes for the next Exclusive Single Cask Distillery available only at Benromach. The ticket price includes a bottle of this exclusive malt once it has been bottled.
Meanwhile, a taste of history in the making is on offer during an exclusive festival tour called Decades of Glenfarclas - Tour and Tasting. This journey through the years at Glenfarclas culminates in sampling whiskies stretching right back over five decades.
And for those who are utterly devoted to furthering their knowledge about Scotch malt whisky, there are still some places available at the Spirit of Speyside Whisky School. During this three-day education experience, which starts before the Festival kicks off, students will be guided by experts in the distillation process and learn about all aspects of whisky making from malting to maturation.
All students who successfully complete the course will gain a diploma and a knowledge about whisky making on Speyside that is second to none.
Festival chairman James Campbell says: “Where else in the world can you learn about the art of distilling, pick the next exclusive cask, hear a master distiller discuss alchemy and angels or have a whisky tasting in the shadow of the region’s highest peak all in one weekend?
“The Festival has become a must-do for whisky acolytes at home and abroad and it is thanks to the support of our many partners that we have achieved that status.
“While there may be competitive rivalries within the industry, what we see during the Festival is unity and co-operation, making the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival the outstanding success that it is.
“Our partners show imagination and flair in coming up with new and dynamic offerings to add to our programme every year. It’s what sets us apart from other festivals and, I’m sure, it’s what keeps our visitors coming back year on year. It means the Speyside whisky experience is the most authentic you will sample anywhere.”
Based in the heart of Scotland’s malt whisky country, the five day festival has events from Kingussie in the south to Forres in the west and Buckie in the east.
Situated directly between the cities of Aberdeen and Inverness, Speyside is the base for many high-profile international brands.
More information about the event is available at www.spiritofspeyside.com and tickets are also available to buy on the website. The Festival is active on social media – facebook.com/WhiskyFestival and @spirit_speyside on Twitter and Instagram. Use the hashtag #dram17.