After an eventful three week trip to Scotland (week one, two and three for the lazies), that we specifically planned around the Spirit of Speyside festival, annually held in the last week of April. Information about this festival is – except for the info on their website, hard to find sometimes, and for first timers it might be hard to get an idea about what to expect, and what not to expect.
I want to go there, but where do I start?
Well, at the beginning would be the easy answer, and in this case that means; have a look at the Spirit of Speyside website. There you will find the definite dates of next year’s event (as said, normally this would be the last week of April), and the possibility to register as a friend. Write down the dates and start browsing the internet for accommodation in the area – sooner is better. Except for the whisky distilleries, there is not much tourism in the area, and hotels and inns can be counted on one hand and the few rooms available might be gone a year in advance already. More luck could be found if you would look for a self-catering cottage with a group of people, which will cut your costs dramatically. Even better price-wise, might be to look for a camping or family park in the area, but we have not looked at this ourselves. Further away from the centre of the festival (Dufftown, Aberlour, Craigellachie) means better availability and lower prices in cottages, inns and hotels. Our last trip included about half an hour to most events, which was very acceptable.
All right, dates are reserved, accommodation is settled, now what?
Because the organisation will now have your contact details (remember you just gave it to them?), they will now start sending you exciting information every now and then with sneak peeks of what you can expect on the programme for next year’s event. Besides that, which is maybe the most important, you will get a reminder about when the programme will be online, which will be the last week of January. From the first week in February, one week after the programme is announced, ticket sales will go online and the most exciting events and distilleries will be sold out fairly quickly. As in: within minutes. It is like booking a rock concert or tickets for Comic Con, but in this case, whisky geeks from around the globe are online at the same time to get the one-off or never-seen-before events. Preparation is key, but no guarantee.
The week you get before ordering is therefore very important: make an itinerary that connects with other events on the same day, use Google maps to calculate driving distances between events and have second, or even third choices. A wise thing to do to make sure you get what you want, is not to make the group too large. Some events only have eight to ten slots per session, so if you would want to attend with eight, chances are that two or three of these slots already have been booked, and you are too late. We (certainly) do not want to scare people away from going, and with 500+ events as there were in this year’s (2016) event, there are many options to choose from.
So, what kind of events are we talking about?
First of all, you could attend the Spirit of Speyside Whisky School, an intensive three day course for only 16 people each year, where you will be taught in all aspects of brewing, distilling and maturation from people of the industry and the IBD. This course has a small overlap with the festivities, and is booked separately, and if you are unable to book immediately, you can be put on a waiting list.
Besides that, there are many distilleries that open their gates for the festival but are normally closed to the public. For us as geeks, these events are most interesting, since every distillery has its own interesting quirks and funky methods, which add to the character of the distillery and spirit. Most of the distilleries have a small tasting attached, of will flog open a cask for you to taste when walking through their warehouses.
Speaking of which, there are tastings everywhere in the area. Almost every bar, shop, distillery, restaurant, hotel, tea-room, ice-cream parlour or barber shop will have an event in the programme with mouthwatering selections of drams for you to choose from. Depending on your budget, these vary from standard line-ups of ranges you may already know to bottlings of distilleries you may never have heard of and bottles you have never seen.
If you think you have seen every distillery if you have visited one (you have not, we promise you), or think you have tasted most whiskies and there is not much more to discover (…), there are many other fitting events available. Want to be more active? Try canoeing on the river Spey, a Picnic in the gardens of Glen Grant, have a ride in a steam train on the Strathspey railway, walk the beautiful Speyside way, have a Victorian High Tea at the Tamdhu station or dance the night away at one of the many Cèilidhs.
Not geeky enough? Then see how stills are made at Forsyths or how casks are (re)built at the Speyside or William Grants’ cooperages, vote at the whisky awards, meet the authors of your favourite whisky books, have a cooking workshop with a whisky chef or just eat at one of the many dinners in the available hotels and restaurants. The options are endless, most events are (obviously) whisky themed or have close relationships with (one of) the many distilleries.
You can come back year after year and meet new people and join different events each time. The area is beautiful and as with Islay and its Feìs Ìle, you might need more time than only the couple of days during the festival to explore the region.
Wow, that sounds like there is quite a lot to do, will I drown in tourists and geeks?
Well, no. Quite the opposite. The atmosphere is very relaxed; you are in Speyside. Grab a printout of your tickets, have some fun at the event, meet your new best friends, see where that single lane road takes you, enjoy the fabulous weather, drive to the beach for a stroll and enjoy some of the freshly caught seafood.
Will there be festival bottlings available at all distilleries? I only have a budget this large, you know?
Some distilleries do have a special bottling available, or have un-bunged a special cask which is available to bottle yourself, but most definitely not all distilleries offer this. Budget wise, you should be quite safe, and driving on the other side of the road isn’t all that bad, really. They all do it there, so how hard can it be, right?
How do I best get around the festival?
There are many (private) taxi services, and also buses and trains are not that bad to get around. If you can bring your own car, or rent one locally, you can still enjoy the festivities and the drams that are poured, albeit on a later moment of the day. Distilleries nowadays encourage responsible driving and allow sampling into your own bottles for the designated drivers. We would definitely keep going to these kind of festivities bringing our own car, since some of the events are quite far apart. As an (extreme) example: the Boortmalt Maltings in Buckie and the Speyside distillery are both in the Speyside region, but are about 120 km – a two hour drive, away from each other. Again, make sure you get your facts straight and your planning in order.
Okay, now we know what to expect. What not to expect?
As with the rest of rural Scotland, WiFi hotspots and proper data coverage or even signal on your mobile phone is sometimes hard to get. Again, preparation is key, and we will definitely bring a print out of the more difficult to find areas with us next time we go there. On the other hand, people everywhere are really friendly and helpful to point you in the right direction – if you do not encounter a car with other whisky tourists looking for the same location, of course.
Do not expect distillery managers to be sword fighting about who has the better distillery either (which would be nice though), nor will there be distances between the people working at the distilleries and all of us – the consumers; you might be dancing with ambassadors, warehousemen or your very own neighbour (which would be weird) at one of the Cèilidhs. People are friendly and share their passion, heritage and daily life with us. Enjoy what you can, do not abuse their hospitality and with that, you might come a long way, or even a little further as you would have expected. As it would work in normal life.
I added a couple of days (before or) after the festival. Is there still enough to do?
If you have never been to the area: hell yeah. Coming from all directions there are distilleries to visit that are normally opened for visitors already – also a couple that are close to the region, but not in the programme. If you have had your share of distilleries, you can visit a golf-course or two, try your luck at fly-fishing or hunt your own deer for dinner – if you are into that.
Drive into the Cairngorms and enjoy the vistas along the way to Perth, toast with your new best friends on top of the Ben Rinnes, or drive the Isle of Skye on the other side of the country. Make it your goal to visit every whisky-bar, enjoy great lunches at Le Petit Gourmand, the Knockandhu Woolen Mill and the Mashtun or dine at the Dowans, Highlander Inn and the Station Hotel – to name only a few.
See bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth, look for harbour seals in the sandy shores or find porpoises, pilot or killer whales further out on sea. If you like ruins and old buildings, there are enough to see along the way to anywhere, and if you are lucky and there is snow, make sure you bring your snowboard and bikini, because: Scotland.
We could continue giving you examples, but we are pretty sure this gives you an idea about the many possibilities in and around the Speyside area and the during festival. Soon we will be doing some in-depths of a couple of the distilleries there, and along the way, which we hope will be interesting enough to keep your attention. Many of the pictures we took will slowly be released on Facebook, where you can follow us for an update on our latest whisky related activities.
Thomas & Ansgar
Copyright notice: Photos by WhiskySpeller