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Spirit of Speyside: opening night

  • Over the years I’ve seen seaweed in stillhouses and been attacked by midges in them as well. This, though, was the first time I’d ever experienced snow being blown in.

    Sunbursts of daffodils shone out across the bleached hillsides, on which well-camouflaged, new-born lambs shivered. ‘Lambing snow’ they call it in these parts. You could tell who was local. They were the ones who raced into the stillhouse; we incomers dawdled, drinking it in.

    It was worth the slower pace. It’s not every day, after all, that you get a chance to see Auchroisk, that modernist sculpture of a distillery that is, for some reason, little talked-of. Rarer still for folk to stand in the stillhouse, sipping on cocktails, as the hiss of steam mingles with the conversation and we all inch closer together for warmth as the wintry wind blows up the kilts.

    Spirit of Speyside’s opening gala is a chance for a get-together, for a certain degree of scene-setting, the inhalation before the activities start.

    Deeper breaths than usual this year, with close on 500 different events being run and in excess of 26,000 visitors attending. Seventeen years in, this is no longer just a local celebration, but an event which, this year, could bring in £1.5m to the region.

    The evening is also a great place for gossip, the evening’s conversations underpinned by a steady stream of secrets – not that I can divulge anything… at the moment.

    Eyes were flitting about, trying to spot anyone from BenRiach to find out what was going on there and, while there was general surprise at the deal (and the amount paid (‘£100m more than I reckon it’s worth’ was repeated a few times), there were some canny souls who claimed they knew something was afoot – and who was next.

    Whisky and smiles at Spirit of Speyside

    Whisky and smiles: Friends old and new meet every year at the festival

    The guest speaker was Jim Naughtie, broadcaster, author and, as was pointed out on more than one occasion, a local loon. His talk touched on the hard-drinking days of old-time journalism, when bottles of whisky would be hidden in cornflake packets, and his early memories of ‘bottles filled with viscous liquids’, that were smuggled out of distilleries, then pulled out of back pockets at dances.

    It was a speech which touched on politics, while cleverly avoiding them, and framed by his roots in ‘this robust landscape, buttressed by granite’. 

    As he sat down, Capercaillie’s Charlie McKerron started on his last set of magical fiddle tunes, and bottles began to be passed around the room. Old buddies from around the world embraced, new friendships and introductions were made. Writers, hoteliers, barmen, operators, engineers, coppersmiths and managers mingling together.

    I met Sandy McIntyre, Tamdhu’s manager whose brother, I discovered, I went to primary school with. ‘There’s amazing connections everywhere you look,’ he mused.

    It summed up the evening: friendships rekindled, new promises made, and what seemed a disparate collection of frozen folk at the start of the night, leaving as one band, united by whisky.

    Now, inspired by Jim Naughtie’s tales, I am heading off to do a preliminary tasting for a blending class tomorrow, followed by ‘a light lunch’ with Charlie MacLean.

    Wish me luck.

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