A panel of industry experts enjoyed a blind taste test of no less than 48 whiskies before selecting their favourite Speyside drams from four categories for this year's festival awards.
Single malts from the stable of whisky giants Chivas Brothers have taken the lion’s share of nominations with the judges selecting the firm’s drams in three out of four categories.
The brand’s Aberlour a’bunadh, Aberlour 12-year-old and Glenlivet 18-year-old have all been shortlisted for the accolades. The number of categories in the awards has been expanded from three to four this year in order to reflect the huge range of Speyside whiskies in circulation.
The eight finalists will now be put through the taste test by members of the public at a series of roving judging sessions taking place during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, which runs from April 27 to May 1.
The finalists were as follows:
Tamdhu Batch Strength 002
12 Year Old and Under
Aberlour 12 Year Old
Cragganmore 2004 Distiller’s Edition
13 Year Old to 20 Year Old
The Glenlivet 18 Year Old
Glenfiddich 15 Year Old
20 Year Old and Over
Mannochmore 25 Year Old Special Release
The Macallan 30 Year Old Sherry Cask
The judging panel was made up of expert noses from the spirits industry, including retailers, writers and hoteliers.
Among them were renowned French food and drink writer Martine Nouet, Mike Lord from drinks emporium The Whisky Shop Dufftown and Dave Broom, editor-in-chief of industry bible scotchwhisky.com and the current holder of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival International Ambassador Award.
Our very own writer Sean Murphy was also delighted to be involved for the first time.
Festival director Julie Fraser, who manages the awards programme, says the panel of nine judges had a very difficult time whittling down the 48 entries across the four categories, she said: “Although it sounds like the perfect way to spend a wintry afternoon on Speyside, it is actually a really difficult role to perform and it is not one that I, even as a whisky fan, would relish."
“As with any other awards scheme, the judging is always performed in a blind taste test to ensure that the results are completely neutral.
"Although the panel may sometimes have an idea about what is in the glass they have no way of knowing for sure and I think it is quite fair to say that a few of them were rather surprised when the identities of the whiskies were finally revealed.
“The judges felt that all of the entries were of a very high standard this year, and it made their job of selecting just two finalists in each category particularly difficult."
Festival chairman James Campbell added that the discussions around the table following the tasting helped the dispel the myth that "such a thing as a typical Speyside whisky exists".
He added: “Over the many years that these awards have been running we have been able to shake off the perception that Speyside always equals light and fruity: the reality is that Speyside whiskies offer something for all palates from the rich and fruity to the spicy and peated and to the light and floral.
“But the judges have now had their say and the final decision rests in the hands of the public who attend the roving judging sessions.
“I think our distillers would agree that the fact that these awards are voted for by the whisky-drinking public – the people who actually go out and buy their product – makes winning all the more of a special achievement.”
The Awards made their international debut last year when one of the judging sessions was held overseas, with German whisky fans in the city of Cologne given the chance to cast their vote.
This year, the organisers are going even bigger with no less than five overseas panels being given the chance to help decide the winner before the start of the Festival.
The awards are sponsored by Forsyths of Rothes – the coppersmiths responsible for building many of the pot stills in which the shortlisted single malts were distilled. The judging took place at the luxurious Knockomie Hotel in Forres, which sponsors the tasting session.
The awards prize-giving will take place at the Festival closing ceilidh on Sunday, April 30 at Knockando Distillery.
• For more information about the Festival go to www.spiritofspeyside.com, where tickets are now available to buy for all of the events.