Having travelled to the heart of Scotland's biggest whisky producing region for the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival to judge the best new events category, Sean Murphy reviews the five entrants and reveals his chosen winner.

Having been asked to judge the five new events at the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival I knew I was in for a tough task, but as I was travelling up the A9 on the Wednesday for the opening dinner I truly had no idea just how hard it would prove to be to pick a winner on the final day.

The Festival itself has grown hugely over the last few years, with thousands flocking to the heart of Scotland’s biggest whisky-producing region for the chance to take part in an events schedule that is filled to the brim with tours, talks, walks, masterclasses and of course tastings.

Speyside, which lies in the north-east of the country and stretches across the Moray area from Aberdeen to Inverness,  has just over half of the country’s distilleries and is a tourist hub for fans of Scotland’s national drink.

First launched in 1999, this year’s Festival saw nearly 500 whisky-related events and catered for everyone from curious beginners to hardcore veterans, with people travelling from all over the globe to take part in five days of whisky filled frivolity.

As part of the programme, five of the huge array of new events in this year’s festival were shortlisted to go to head to head for the chance to win the annual Best New Events Award.

Ranging from a history walk and a Ghillie tour to a world record attempt and a trip through the smuggler’s trails, the events were as varied as they were intriguing and saw some of the amazing cast of characters, ambassadors and whisky celebrities the Festival is famous for, gathering to delight those attending the biggest Spirit of Speyside Festival yet.

Day One: The Glenlivet Smugglers One Life Livet Tour

The wonderful little Argocats await

Beginning with The Glenlivet Smugglers One Life Livet Tour, which takes guests on a tour of the Hidden Glen, immersing them in the history of the area and revealing a world of gaugers and whisky smugglers, the first day of the judging process saw me and a large group join Charlie Ironside and his team in two Landrover Defenders as we enjoyed a tour of the key points of interest around Scotland’s first legal distillery, The Glenlivet.

Charlie and his wife Susan, who founded the tour, are well liked in the area, and for good reason, both are knowledgeable and welcoming. Today, Charlie and one of his team are taking us round and giving us a brief history of the area, with visits to the Old Packhorse Bridge, Josie’s Well (the original water source for the distillery) and no less than two castles. All the while, Charlie and his fellow guide regaled us with tales of the historical battle between the gaugers (excisemen) and the smugglers, and furnished us with some of The Glenlivet’s best drams.

The true highlight of the trip though, was when the group were transferred to the Argocats, the little eight-wheeled off-roaders that transported us around the heather strewn hills surrounding The Glenlivet.

With a dram at the summit of the hill and lunch in the Peat Reek Bothy (a throwback to the old illicit still dens of the past) it was an excellent end to a fun-filled first day.

Day Two: Whisky Tasting: The World of Duty Free Whiskies Tasting

Neil and Joel resplendent in full captain’s garb.

Day two began with a trip to Dufftown and the chance to sample some amazing travel retail whiskies with  whisky writers, experts and sometime TV celebrities Neil Ridley and Joel Harrison, who were to be our pilots for the day on a ‘Flight of Fancy’ that saw us transported by plane around the Speyside Region (and beyond).

A warm greeting by the pair, who were decked out in full pilot’s garb, included stamping our ‘passports’ and handing out our boarding passes before the true fun began.

The Tasting itself involved four whiskies from some of Speyside’s biggest and brightest distilleries and the madcap atmosphere of the event was topped off when our special air hostess for the day, turned out to be none other than The Whisky Shop Dufftown’s Mike Lord in a rather fetching dress.

It was a nice touch and along with the great knowledge and boundless energy of the two hosts, created a fun atmosphere that left the whole room smiling and laughing right through until the all too brief event finally ended.

Day Three:  The Speyside Cooperage Guinness World Records Official Attempt

Winner David with his cask.

A trip to the Speyside Cooperage must surely now be at the top of the schedule of anyone visiting the Festival and in my mind, it’s one of the best places to go in the area and a definite must visit for anyone who hasn’t been.

It should have been hard for them to find a way to top last year’s insanely brilliant “Blackening” event, but they definitely managed to do just that with this truly outstanding Guinness World Records attempt.

With international visitors, family members and fellow Coopers arriving to watch the four challengers attempt to be the first to make a 190 litre cask and beat the time of seven minutes thirty seconds set by the Guinness Book of World Record officials, the atmosphere in the Cooperage was one of excitement and it was great to see people of all ages getting involved.

All but those close to the Cooperage team – who must have already been supremely confident in the ability of the competitors – issued an exclamation of surprise when all four competitors finished around the three minute thirty mark, smashing the record time.

A few tense moments followed as the casks were subjected to official tests to ensure they were water tight but the celebrations soon began when it was revealed that veteran Cooper David McKenzie was the new record holder with an awe inspiring time of three minutes and three seconds.

With beers, whisky, gin, ice cream and a wonderful buffet then provided by the Cooperage team it was a great end to the day and a brilliant way to join in the success of the Coopers and the management.

Day Four: The Macallan Ghillie’s Tour & BBQ Lunch

Robert with his loyal dogs.

The Macallan Distillery is in something of a transition at the moment as its exciting new state-of-the-art facility is built close by, but that didn’t stop the team putting on one of the events that I was massively excited for, the Ghillie tour, which would see myself and a group of six other Festival goers taken on a guided walk of the distillery’s two-mile stretch of the Spey with their experienced Ghillie Robert Mitchell.

The distillery itself is one of the region’s most successful and it was intriguing to see how the new building was shaping up, but the true highlight of the day was their fishing beat and the charming Ghillie who cares for it.

Arriving on the Spey, we were taken on a walk around the distillery’s fishing section of the world famous river – which stretched from the bottom of the distillery down to the Telford Bridge. For both whisky fans and fishing aficionados alike it was a truly enthralling tour, particularly with such an experienced and welcoming guide.

The chance to spend some time with the Ghillie’s pet retrievers and take a shot at learning how to cast on the Spey was a huge bonus and the excellent range of drams supplied by Kat from The Macallan only added to the occasion.

To top it all off, we were then treated to a BBQ at the Ghillie’s hut and what might have been one of the best lunches I’ve had in Speyside, all accompanied by Robert’s hilarious fishing tales, the excellent service of the distillery staff and of course more amazing whiskies.

Day Four: Mortlach History and Whisky Walk

Alistair discusses Mortlach distillery’s unique distillation method

Arriving at the Seven Stills pub in the historic town of Dufftown, the group was greeted by our guide Alistair Jeffs, who was in full exciseman regalia, and provided with three amazing drams from the nearby Mortlach distillery.

As if the uniform wasn’t enough of a clue, it quickly became apparent that this was no ordinary tasting and walking tour, and that Alistair was no ordinary guide.

Having created the tour himself after moving to the area five years ago to go open a B & B with his wife Karen and discovering its wonderfully rich history, Alistair is bright, enthusiastic and filled with tales about George Cowie, William Grant and the cast of characters who resided in the area and went on to found two of the region’s biggest distilleries in Mortlach and Glenfiddich.

The walk itself took in some of the amazing historical sites in the area and covered not just the whisky industry but also the history behind the now famous Dufftown clocktower, the North of Scotland Savings Bank and the local Kirk which also happens to be the oldest continuous religious site in the country (dating back to 566).

Through it all, Alistair provided insight into the life of excisemen and Mortlach distillery itself, ending with a fun experiment with a Sike’s Hydrometer and a demonstration of some of the other tools of the Gauger’s trade. This event was a unique insight into the other side of the fence from the romance of all of those tales of distillery workers and their cheeky attempts to procure some of the distillery’s whisky for themselves.

And the winner is…

As clichéd as it sounds, it really was almost impossible for me to choose a winner out of such a strong cast of entrants and each of the events was outstanding in its own way.

I looked at everything from knowledge of the guide and how welcoming the tour was to the reaction of the guests and entertainment value and I struggled to decide on my favourite as all five were truly excellent and definitely worth recommending to all and sundry.

I was impressed by Charlie and his team’s knowledge and unique tour; Neil and Joel’s insanely fun tasting and expert knowledge; Gill and her team at the Cooperage’s ingenuity in beating last year’s wonderful ‘Blackening event’ and their brilliant hospitality; The Macallan team and their dynamic tour, Robert’s knowledge and stunning food; and of course Alistair’s passion for the history of his adopted town and his thoroughly enjoyable walk.

I couldn’t decide on a winner until the very last moment, and in the end, I could only pick one, and it simply came down to the one event which covered the most areas and had the most universal appeal, so I settled on the Glenlivet smuggler’s tour.

Congratulations to Charlie and the team and well done and thank you to the other events for making this such a wonderful and equally challenging role.

• The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival returns next year on Thursday 3rd to Monday the 7th of May 2018, you can find out more here

 

 

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Sean Murphy

Driven by a passion for all things whisky-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over six years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink.

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