May is Whisky Month in Scotland and I, Dalek, lived out one of my dreams by visiting the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival 2018 in the capacity of VisitScotland Ambassador. I combined my usual public transport travel along with some excellent festival transport arrangements and a kind lift from the festival’s Chairman, Mr. James Campbell (appointed Keeper of the Quaich this year) to explore a fair bit of this naturally beautiful part of Scotland and attend some exclusive events at some of my favourite distilleries in a space of 48 hours.
In total, I stepped into 5 distilleries, 5 towns, 4 whisky bars & restaurants and tasted more than 2 dozen Speyside drams under some delightful Scottish weather. My hope is that this photo essay and detailed reviews inspire some of our readers to partake in a celebration of Scottish culture by attending the festival in person next year between 2nd – 6th May 2019 (tickets go on sale in Feb).
- Distilleries and festival events
- Glenlivet Open Day 2018
- Benromach Vertical Tasting, Forres
- Stops at Tamdhu, Cardhu and the new Macallan
- Charming Speyside Towns
- Legendary whisky bars and one of 2018’s best meals
- 7-course meal with Whisky pairing at Alchemy, Dufftown
- Breakfast & finalist tasting at Station Hotel, Rothes
- Highlander Inn, Craigellachie
- Public transport map and logistics
Distilleries and Festival Events
Glenlivet Open Day
For a long time Glenlivet fan like myself, the Open Day was an absolute dream come true. I was able to attend a tasting led by none other than the Master Distiller Alan Winchester. The tasting marked the launch of the Cognac cask finished Captain’s Reserve, Glenlivet’s newest expression. Alan talked through the legacy of the Glenlivet Distillery (officially est. 194 years ago) and his own 40+ years of experience sharing some remarkable images of the area.
The tasting was accompanied by a food pairing set up by Ghillie Basan, an acclaimed food writer based in the Speyside region, that contained an explosion of flavour using Scottish ingredients and spices / techniques from around the world. Though both individuals are superstars of Scotland’s food & drink scene, they are also approachable individuals who happily gave a couple of minutes of their time to talk to a fan (moi).
I also enjoyed the easy way up a hill to explore the Glenlivet Smuggler’s trail on an 8-wheeler in a wonderful tour operated by Glenlivet Hill Trek. The visibility stretched for miles from the summit and the guide was knowledgabe about the area and its geology. Plus whisky cake and a wee dram on the way back at a bothy certainly helps. 🙂
Benromach Vertical Tasting
USP: A touch of smoke in a Speyside whisky goes a long way. Also, next to a train station!
Benromach is to the Speyside region what Briuchladdich is to Islay, remarkably different to other whiskies in the region yet quite distinctly Speyside. The distillery was closed for a period of 15 years between 1983-1998 but was reopened by Gordon & MacPhaill (they’re awesome). The distillery commemorated the 20th year of reopening by an anniversary bottling which was one of the stars of the “vertical” (named so due to the rising ages of each dram – 5, 10, 15, 20 & 35) tasting. Each and every one of the expressions were top notch and the guide led us through the tour and tasting with was warm, friendly and professional. Highly recommended!!
Stops at Tamdhu, Cardhu and the new Macallan
On the drive to Benromach from Rothes, I made a few stops at 3 iconic Speyside distilleries pictured below.
- Macallan has gone hyper-modern that allows for a large storage, higher production and a kick-ass Visitors centre that somehow does not impact the green landscapes thanks to its architecture.
- Cardhu is the home of Johnnie Walker with the distillery’s output making the core of many of the famous JW Labels.
- The erstwhile Tamdhu station is now part of the long-distance trail Speyside Way but has a perfectly preserved station of a line that I can only dream of getting revived (similar to the Borders)
Charming Speyside Towns
A popular draw of travelling in Scotland is to enjoy its lovely towns and the wonderful weather lent itself to some fantastic views. Elgin in bloom was surprisingly beautiful (given its relatively urban outlook) but Craigellachie stood out yet again!
Legendary Whisky Bars & Meal
7-Course Dinner with Whisky Pairing at Alchemy
Hands down, one of the best fine dining establishments in Dufftown and perhaps Scotland. Their 7 course meal with whisky pairing had the perfect mix of Scottish classics with an inventive twist (Clootie dumpling, Cullen Skink), top of the line Scotch whisky (the Inchgower 14 and Glendronach 18 being the stars) and Scottish provenance (meats, seafood & produce) cooked to perfection. The Venison with chocolate and poached pear is one of the single best plates of food I have had the pleasure to taste. Full review to come!
Breakfast & finalist tasting at Station Hotel, Rothes
On Sunday morning, I finally was able to put names to a number of faces who form the backbone of the Speyside whisky festival at the blogger breakfast at the iconic Rothes station hotel. The whisky bar houses 500+ distinct malts and is within 50 miles of 50 Speyside distilleries! But it’s most unique feature is an in-house Spirit Safe. Helped myself to a delicious breakfast and exchanged stories with other bloggers and well as industry figures. There’s few better places to spend a Speyside weekend at.
The festival winners are unique in the sense that any member of the public can vote in an open and democratic process. The winners were also 2 of my favourites.
Highlander Inn, Craigellachie
This pub is so legendary in Speyside, Anthony Bourdain’s Raw craft episode in Dufftown (embedded below) lists the Cragellachie establishment as the local pub even though it is about 4.5 miles away from Dufftown. The whisky bar houses more than 400 types and one of the largest selection of Japanese whiskies in Scotland. The blend Oishii Wisukii (one of the headline images of this post) has a unique bottling and is a limited release made by the inn, it was truly a pleasure to see it IRL.
Public transport map and logistics
Most of my weekend travel plans were centred around the Malt Whisky Trail bus 36 connecting Elgin to Dufftown (timetables)
- Friday: Edinburgh to Elgin by ScotRail (stay overnight at Ardvolich Guest House)
- Saturday: Glenlivet Open Day provided a free bus from Elgin
- Saturday: Glenlivet free bus to Dufftown, stay overnight (AirBnb link, lovely room)
- Sunday: Stagecoach bus 36 festival bus to Rothes Station Hotel
- Sunday: Rothes Station Hotel to Benromach, Forres by bus 36 to Elgin & ScotRail
- Sunday: Forres station to Edinburgh via Inverness by ScotRail train
In a space of 48 hours (Fri – Sun night), I enjoyed a full complement of festival events while covering 700 km roundtrip from Edinburgh. And it is only a coincidence that the final map looks like a heart ❤
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