Gin, beer and smugglers’ tours on the penultimate day of Speyside’s annual whisky festival.
It might not seem like it at times, but a certain degree of preparation goes into a masterclass. While a degree of improvisation is preferable – the roads less travelled are always more interesting than the main highways – a sort of structure does help.
It also helps to have tasted the whiskies you are talking about. There’s improvisation and there’s sheer recklessness. Which is why at 9.30am I’m sitting in Strathisla with 10 drams in front of me. These are for two classes, one of which is blind, so don’t expect me to divulge what they are. They are all, however, great.
Being at Strathisla also allows me to have a quick snoop around the Chivas Brothers Archive, run by the estimable Chris Brousseau. It is, sadly, only relatively recently that firms have realised how important the past is to their brands.
Living history: The industry is belatedly waking up to the importance of archives
No matter what efforts are being made now, the fact remains that until the industry realised that the past is important, the meticulous written records were more often than not consigned to bonfires or landfill.
‘That’s it?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, but…’ and his eyes light up, ‘it’s the first book – there’s the date and time of the first filling.’ It’s not a lot, but it’s something.
Chris shows me a letter from Charles Dickens praising Glenlivet, one from John Smith, Charles Doig’s original plans for distilleries, the legal document which enshrined The Glenlivet’s prefix.
There’s bottles galore, some real, others fake… Anyone fancy a ‘Balentye’s’ from Casablanca? Archives are a vital role in combatting counterfeiting.
‘We’re running out of space,’ he says. This is good. That means there is a realisation of the importance of history. Archives – and archivists – are a forgotten but vital component in whisky’s future.
Bottles galore: Just a few of the items in the Chivas Brothers Archive
Then it was time for the ‘light lunch’ proposed by my dear buddy Mr MacLean, over which we could discuss our Sherried whisky class. (You see? Preparation).
‘Light’ in MacLean’s lexicon can often tend to mean what other folks call ‘boozy’, but moderation was the watchword on this occasion, although in these days of the ‘just water for me’ culture, beer and wine might be seen as wildly excessive.
Lunch was taken in the Copper Dog, the marvellous, stone-flagged pub in the basement of the newly refurbished Craigellachie Hotel. Upstairs, Lyndsey Gray and her team run the Quaich bar with its serried ranks of bottles rare and fascinating, cocktails and views over the Spey.
The Craig’s revival has created a focal point for quality, like the village in which it sits, a hub. The Quaich Bar is no longer a hidden, small, dark green nook, accessible only to members of the Church of Drams, but open to all, bright and proud.
It’s not alone. On a whim, Mr MacLean and I then decided to spend the rest of the afternoon stravaiging around the higher-end drinking establishments of Speyside (thankfully, we had a designated driver).
First stop was the Dowans in Aberlour. It’s a hotel I’ve long loved though, like many of its kind, was always one where an eyebrow would be raised if you didn’t have a faithful hound with you when you checked in. A sporting place, stuffed with fishing rods and the smell of cordite and dog hair.
Now it is transformed into a stylish, modern hotel, with a sleek silver-and-black cocktail bar and another, The Still, with a wall of whisky, a club and regular tastings.
I didn’t ask if dogs were welcome. No longer do you enter through the back door, trailing mud. Now the entrance is at the front, giving you a sublime view over the river.
We drifted on to the four-star Station Hotel in Rothes, another establishment which has been gutted and redesigned, and now boasts two bars – Toots as the public, and a main bar.
There’s copper everywhere – you could make a sma’ still from the coasters alone – which is no surprise since it’s owned by the genial and humble Richard Forsyth. There’s another wall of whisky, but Dutch bar manager Bert Macor has smuggled in a fine selection of genever – which is where Charlie and I start.
Wall of whisky: The bar at the Station Hotel, Rothes
Tourism is important to the region. Forty percent of the visitors to the 2015 Spirit of Speyside festival stayed for six nights, but it isn’t just for this time of year. People come all year round; distillers bring in guests.
The issue for many years was a lack of bed space, a need for more hotels, restaurants and fine bars – quality, in other words. Offer all of that and people don’t come for a day trip, they stay, they spend, they sit and drink, and talk. These hotels are vital to a new, confident Speyside.
In many ways, what they are doing is learning from the past, from people like Alexander Edward, the young tyro who built the Craigellachie Hotel (and most of the village, and a distillery or two).
He saw the middle classes coming up by train to the Highlands and gave them a reason to stay by building a hotel. The new generation are doing the same. The past, you see, is always alive.
Today, Mr MacLean and I are doing our Sherried whisky class featuring two Sherries and eight drams, then comes a blind tasting on blends, and finally I am being deposited on a (hopefully fictitious) desert island to choose some drams.
For those of you up here already, a few of us are wandering up Ben Rinnes on Sunday morning. Meet at 10am on the Edinvillie road (Glenrinnes end).
Now… breakfast. If I hurry, I can squeeze in a visit to Dalmunach.
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