Whisky writer envy of thousands as he lands judging role at Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival

The Scotsman Food and Drink's very own Sean Murphy is set to be the envy of whisky fans everywhere as he lands judging role at Spirit of Speyside Festival.

Published 16th Mar 2017
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

Writer, barman, foodie, whisky aficionado – Sean Murphy wears many different hats in the course of his day-to-day working life.

And now he is about to add another job title to the collection with a role that is widely considered to be the most sought-after job at one of the world’s leading Scotch whisky festivals.

Sean has been appointed as judge in the Best New Event competition at the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival – a role that will see him visit five brand new events to the Festival programme and determine which one best whets his appetite.

It’s a position that Sean, who is based in Glasgow, was only too happy to accept after making his inaugural visit to the Festival last year.

During his five days at the event, he was amazed at just how much could be crammed into one visit and the range of activities on offer.

This year there are almost 500 events taking place across the Speyside region from April 27 to May 1.

From exclusive behind the scenes distillery tours to the chance to meet the people who put their hearts and souls into the region’s most famous export, the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is truly unique.

Sean says he has become the envy of colleagues and friends since his appointment was announced, and he feels a little overwhelmed that such an important task has been placed in his hands.

He adds: “I've promised the people that I've spoken to about it that I'm there in an official capacity and not just to enjoy myself, although most of them don't believe me when I say that. There's some envy there, certainly!

“What I discovered last year is that the Festival itself is expansive. I don't think I was prepared for how spread out it would be or that there would be so many events, but in the end I realised that was the beauty of it.

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“The events were varied and never boring and it was amazing to meet so many people who were as massively passionate - if not more so - than I was about the subject.”

Five events have been shortlisted for the coveted Best New Event title and it seems that they have already proved a hit with this year’s revellers, as tickets have been in high demand.

Sean will have his scorecard at the ready for the first stop on his tour - Whisky Tasting: The World of Duty Free Whiskies. The event, organised by The Whisky Shop Dufftown, is with critically acclaimed spirits writers Neil Ridley and Joel Harrison and participants will take an immersive flight of unusual whiskies only available from travel retail.

He will then hook himself a rare opportunity to meet a man who most definitely enjoys a little water with his whisky – ghillie Robert Mitchell, who works on beats of the River Spey owned by The Macallan.

During The Macallan Ghillie’s Tour and BBQ Lunch, Sean and the other participants will be able to chat to Robert about his life on the river, before walking one-and-a-half miles along the mighty Spey while he shares the secrets of its salmon pools. He’ll then host a BBQ lunch at one of the distillery’s fishing huts before sharing one of his favourite drams of The Macallan.

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Sean will then be at Speyside Cooperage, which was the scene of one of his favourite events from 2016. He was one of a handful of visitors who witnessed the blackening of two apprentice coopers – an ancient ritual which marked the pair becoming fully-fledged coopers – which went on to win the Best New Event award last year.

This year Speyside Cooperage will be setting up four coopers in a head to head battle in a bid to set a new world record for the fastest time to build a 190-litre barrel. The minimum requirement to achieve the record is seven minutes and 30 seconds.

Speyside’s whisky smugglers will be the focus for the Glenlivet Smugglers’ One Life Livet Tour by Glenlivet Hill Trek. During the tour, experienced guides will take guests to historic sites not usually open to the public on foot and on eight-wheel drive argocat vehicles.

They will enjoy drams of malt whiskies, lunch in a renovated stone bothy on the slopes of Carn Liath and finish off with a guided tour of The Glenlivet Distillery, which became the first licensed distillery in the Glenlivet Valley after the Excise Act of 1823.

The final stop for Sean and his scorecards will be the Mortlach History and Whisky Walk organised by the Seven Stills historic inn and malt whisky bar. During the tour with a qualified guide, participants will walk just over a mile, enjoying drams of Mortlach along the way.

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Although the focus will be on learning about the history of the dram and distillery, Celtic monks, grave robbers, excisemen and the temperance movement in Dufftown will also be among the topics up for discussion.

Sean has excellent pedigree for the role of judge: his passion for the amber nectar blossomed into life when he started working at Glasgow’s famous whisky watering hole, The Potstill. His cousin now owns the bar, and Sean continues to do the odd shift when he’s not writing about food and drink for The Scotsman newspaper.

During his time at the 2016 Festival, Sean was surprised at just how accessible the key players in the industry were and did not realise there would be so many opportunities to come face to face with the distillery managers, master distillers, blenders and ambassadors that are so critical to the industry.

The fact that he was able to meet to many of his own whisky heroes – including the likes of writers Ian Buxton, Charlie McLean and Dave Broom – made it all the more memorable for him.

Sean believes that interaction is the key to a successful event, and is excited to see what organisers have been able to put together. Sean says, “The mention of a Guinness World Record attempt caught my eye, I think that will be an exciting prospect.

“The Macallan Ghillie tour will also be very interesting. I'm intrigued to see a different side to the Spey and specifically the fishing that goes on there. The events look as varied and as enticing as last year and I can't wait to attend them and see what the different teams come up with this year.

“Interaction is hugely important, either in the activity itself or giving people the chance to meet the producers and teams who work so tirelessly to create these stunning whiskies.

“A unique offering is also something I'm keen on. Getting the chance to experience something like the blackening event last year – an event that only a few people have been privileged enough to enjoy - is hugely important.

“Overall though, I think the ability to deliver something interesting and fun will be most important to me. Seeing people's reaction to the events will definitely affect my judgement of them.”

“Overall though, I think the ability to deliver something interesting and fun will be most important for me. Seeing people's reaction will definitely effect my judgement on each of the events.”

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. The programme includes almost 500 different events, from whisky tastings to whisky walks.

• More information about the event is available at www.spiritofspeyside.com and tickets are also available to buy on the website. 

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