How does one soak up the moment when you are trying to take notes, photos, ask questions, meet/greet with the people being introduced, ensure you stay on your schedule and be the navigator when your partner is driving? Very... skilfully, that's how. Well, at least that's how I survived the first day of Spirit of Speyside whisky festival in Scotland. I have to say, years of being a project manager certainly helps as does being genuinely interested in the subject matter as well as the people I am meeting. The day started with a Canadian Skalk at the house we are renting in Craigellachie, Canada arrived in full force wearing our proud colors, and in one case hockey jersey. We had the opportunity thanks to my friend Emmett Hossack to open and imbibe the first edition of Confederation Oak from the Forty Creek distillery. It was, as expected, a very special dram and I cannot thank him enough for the gift of revisiting that fabulous and now very rare whisky, in Speyside no less. Proud Canadians we are!
We parted ways and all went in opposite directions. Graham and I had booked the Master Cooper Tour at the Speyside Cooperage. I will be writing a blog dedicated to that visit as I feel that so much needs to be shared and this little recap of day one simply will not suffice. It was extremely educational, entertaining and in some cases the statistical information mind boggling.
After a hot cup of tea, a dram and a few biscuits we headed to our next destination, the Knockando Distillery which is not usually open to the public. One of the things I'm enjoying the most at this point in my #whiskyfabricRoadtrip is learning the proper pronunciation of many of my my favorite whiskies/distilleries/towns. Knock-AN-do (heavy emphasis on the AN) is off the beat and path of the whisky trail, but a gem of a tour because the distillery is yet to be fully automated and still has many of the human touches to it. While we were there, one of the stillmen noted that an exhaust pipe didn't "sound" right and he was in the process of figuring it out. Many of the processes were still done manually and recorded by hand in ledgers, spreadsheets. It was refreshing to see. At the end of the tour, of course, was a tasting and the interesting fact that came out of that was that most Knockando bottlings end up out of country in their largest target market: France. I happen to really enjoy their whiskies so that saddened me a little.
The lineup was quite nice: New make spirit, 12, 15, 18, 21, 25 & the manager's dram. Overall the new make was quite nutty, the 12 buttery, the 15 quite oily with lots of orange oil on the finish, the 18 was probably my least favorite, I found it very light with not much personality, the 21 was lovely with lots of tropical fruit, the 25 - a dram sitting in an old leather chair at the library while the cleaning lady polished the wood furniture and the manager's dram, albeit at cask strength, was not at all what I expected (super aromatic on the nose, palate the total opposite). The 25 was by far the most interesting of drams, followed by the 15 for me. Easily two whiskies I would buy and add to my collection. We thanked the distillery manager and went on to our next destination: Home to get ready for the opening dinner, Touch of Tartan.
The opening gala dinner was 90 pounds which at the time of booking I thought, am I mad? Having been to several festivals, fancy whisky dinners with the "stars" of the whiskyfabric I can tell you this did not disappoint! We arrived for cocktails and had the opportunity to tour the new Glen Grant bottling plant at half speed (it looked really fast to me!?). After a few more cocktails we were lead into a fantastic marquis erected on the grounds of the distillery. It was a cold night in Speyside but you would have never known it. Chandeliers, soft lighting and 400 people sat in comfort the entire evening. You quickly forgot where you were actually sitting because of the fantastic decor and warmth. Opening remarks, dignitaries and Charlie MacLean as the emcee for the evening. Whiskies ready/paired with our meal, fantastic company at the intimate tables arranged.
Then the servers arrived with our first course: Confit of Lossie seafood, smoked salmon with prawns served with a horseradish & tarragon mousse decorated with micro herbs, a dusting of pink peppercorns with a drizzle of creamy lemon/olive emulsion. This was paired with a Knockando 12 year old which I might add was a brilliant pairing. The second course was just as delicious and beautiful in presentation. Sundried tomato w/Glen Grant apple chutney stuffed breast of chicken served on rosti potato with a green bean parcel, baby carrots and a cider jus. Whisky pairing: Benriach Sherrywood Matured 12 year old. Thank goodness they did some presentations after we ate our main course as it allowed for some digestion and great conversation with the other guests at the table. I was shocked and so proud when they announced Frank & Jacqui Scott from Fredericton, New Brunswick Canada as the Speyside International Ambassadors of 2014. I've known them for a few years now, and our local tasting society in our hometown would not exist if not for the help, guidance and friendship provided by the Scott's. The award was truly deserved since they have been to the Speyside Festival for 13 of the 15 years of its existence.
After chatting with many people, getting to meet the likes of Mary Hemsworth, Hans Offringa, Penny Ellis and so many others, it was time for dessert and of course more whisky. A well designed and mouth watering trio of a raspberry pannacotta that exploded with flavor, a pear and caramel bavarois and a mouthwatering and rich chocolate torte. All paired with a Glen Grant 10 year old. It was at that point that I realized it was almost 11:00pm and we had been experiencing the gala for 4 hours. We finished off the evening with a small auction for a local fundraiser that ended up raising 500.00. More great conversations, meeting some social media "friends" I had been waiting to finally introduce myself to: Kirsty Clark, Annabel Meikle, Chris Coates & Alwynne Gwilt.
One more whisky (there's always one more, isn't there) and they placed the bottle on each table under the condition we drank it all before we left. How could we let them down? And so we did. Bottle empty, bellies full & hearts aglow we all left the marquis. It was almost 1:30am by the time I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. My last thought as I began to drift to sleep was I may be mad but I'm happy. The opening gala was by far a highlight for day one. Truly was a magical night that will not soon be forgotten. If the rest of the festival is anything like my first day, I'm in for the festival experience of my life.
Day 2 itinerary is as follows: James Fleming Guided Walking Tour, Roseisle Distillery and Charlie MacLean's Reflection of life in Elgin. Blog to follow.... :)
Life on the road, albeit quite twisty and turny in Speyside is proving to be quite fantastic indeed!