There’s a famous quote from Hunter S. Thompson that sums up the current whisky environment. You know the one where you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. How far can things go with whisky before that sudden shrinkage and subsequent retreat unfolds?
It’s a question I asked myself as I drove through the Spirit of Speyside Festival on a glorious Saturday in May. This year there was no Tormore4, Malt representation, queueing for a certain release, antics around a campfire or nursing wounds the following morning. This year the focus was just merely an encounter in Ballindalloch carpark with friends from afar. Recently I seem to be collecting and swapping things from the back of a car boot with increasing frequency. How this looks to onlookers I don’t know, but it’s not pirate films or illicit substances. Rather whisky contraband.
This outside view for 2018 offered the opportunity for reflection especially as we passed Macallan and headed towards Elgin, Forres and then into the Highland region. Personally, I’ve attended the festival several times and its grown from humble beginnings of just a handful of events into the behemoth it represents today. For the record last year, the T4 was invited along to a lovely meal with the organisers themselves and the journey they’ve been on. The Spirit of Speyside (SOS) Festival is a marvellous success and credit to everyone involved but now is the time to step back and consider the future.
My tour across its confines brought about several chance encounters with complete strangers and the topic of conversation was whisky. These chats with attendees, business owners and industry workers helped spark this retrospective insight. There’s a sense now of what next for the Festival? The easy answer is more of the same thing, please. Yet knowing some of the team involved behind the event, I cannot envisage the SOS resting on its laurels for too long.
Let’s consider the fundamentals of time and place. The Thursday to Monday format even over a bank holiday is too restrictive now. The festival needs more time to breathe and this space would allow it to be fully appreciated and experienced. The format can be easily expanded into a week of celebration. This would give attendees more time to see and enjoy the delights of Speyside beyond the festival itself.
Many I’m sure can only manage a couple of days in the region and from experience, you feel compelled to cram in as much as possible into a day. This often leads to charging around the countryside rushing from event to event. Come the evening, you’re exhausted and potentially considering dropping events from the next day’s portfolio. In our group, we’ve settled on the approach of 2 events a day. This gives us the room to meander and discover hidden delights across the region whilst actually feeling relaxed. It’ll help the accommodation issue as well. Some visitors may attend the full week, whilst others may decide on a couple of days. The week format potentially places less strain on limited resources such as somewhere to sleep.
We’ll come back to the sheer scale of events shortly but next up the Speyside region itself. Maybe I’m in more of a minority here but the Speyside region has been stretched to breaking point. I can understand that everyone wants to be in the gang and take part in proceedings. We’re big fans of Benromach and GlenDronach here at Malt but do these distilleries spring to mind when describing the Speyside region? It seems a bit of stretch in the case of both. Mark here would deviate into his diatribe that the regions were only set up for tax purposes, whereas I rest upon the belief that certain areas of Scotland did offer a common style to that region. This is unlikely to change after all both distilleries are excellent additions to any festival and offer something different, but the point has to be raised.
Now onto the number of events. It’s the whisky equivalent of the Edinburgh Fringe. The excitement mixed with fear and loathing when the programme debuts with all those listings to literally wade through. The positive emotions soon give way to planning and the reality of trying to snap up tickets for the events that are smaller and more bespoke. If you’re not first then you’re looking at substitutes. Less is more at times, or more dates over a longer period…
There’s the age-old problem of events clashing and difficult decisions to be made. Does there need to be a more cohesive collective approach to the scheduling? I presume that currently everyone just submits their own events including the dates and times. Perhaps there’s a better approach out there? The Feis Ile does a good job of giving each distillery a day in its own limelight. Whilst Speyside harbours more distilleries – although this may change one day given the projects on Islay – perhaps it’s a valid option for some of the Speyside big guns?
In a word bottles. The 2018 incarnation heralded the arrival of Festival bottles. Yes, for a few years Glenfiddich and Glenfarclas have admirably done their own thing and the festival did put together its own blend on occasion. This year independent bottlers got in on the act with various releases and distilleries such as Glenallachie couldn’t miss out on such a good thing, but at least some of these offerings were reasonably priced. I stepped away from the Glenfiddich bottling as in recent times it’s been more experimental and therefore interesting. Their offering of 2 different ex-bourbon casks this year wasn’t of interest regardless of how good they were; especially at the prices being charged.
Whisky festivals should be more than standing in a queue for a bottle. I know for some out there this is your general whisky experience. For those queuing overnight for the latest Macallan Folio I have to question your sanity and endgame. Festivals should exist to offer experiences for all levels of enthusiasts whether young, old, new or well oiled. The danger is that 2019 brings more of the same and before long the Speyside roads will be full of auction vans dashing across the region and those merely engaged in the pursuit of profit.
Then there’s the age-old problem in Speyside of getting around. The best approach is for some poor soul to be the driver for the day. This works for our group and I don’t mind it whatsoever. For others this isn’t an option and transportation can be costly. I was told that normally to go from Aberlour to Ballindalloch is around £12 in a taxi one way. During the festival, this had increased to a remarkable £26 one way. That’s the sort of profiteering that will turn away attendees from returning year in year out. Agreed, fixed flat rates much like those you see at airports should be considered, or at least some movement towards ensuring those that require transportation are treated fairly.
Ultimately as the festival reaches its 20th year in 2019 it’s a milestone to celebrate. At Malt we’ll be attending the festival in force regardless of the format. However, we believe as well as looking back there is a tangible benefit for a shake-up of the fundamentals. In the meantime please mark the 2nd to 6th May 2019 in your diary!