After a stressful start wherein thick fog the day of messed up the few remaining flights left after the pilot strike, I finally made it to Speyside, along with many other whisky fans who turned up for the festival. This year was my third year in a row attending.
Last year, Jason suggested a few potential ways for the festival to move forward. One was extending the festival in order to craft a more relaxed pace. This will be the case next year, changing to six days from the current five. However, May is now getting busy, with the Highland Whisky Festival following shortly, and Campbeltown/Feis Isle. Potentially nearly the entire month could be turned into one long whisky festival. Probably not affordable for most budgets, and likely not advisable from a health perspective, either!
As for the festival bottlings question raised, it seems most distilleries and IBs now have some kind of offering. Many at, in my view, silly prices, but as is typical these days, most sold out anyway. However, in discussions, it does seem more people are just not bothering to chase bottles now. And several were priced too high even for the current market perhaps. For example, Mortlach opened up their £225 BYO during the festival for people in the area, rather than just the tours; presumably, as they were not going to sell out?
I suspect the festival bottlings are a reflection of the industry at large. There are still enough people buying bottles, but prices increasing at far higher rates than people’s salaries are surely pushing more and more whisky beyond the reach of the average drinker. At some point, the whisky bubble will burst (presumably once there’s a proper market crash and all the real investors race to cash), driving those whisky drinkers who also invest/collect and see prices drop to dump their collection into auction, depressing prices even more. Unfortunately, some who put too much of their money in the belief that “it will only go up” will get badly burnt. As is the nature of capitalism, others will then have made a lot of money and left before this. When this happens, it’ll be the time the industry will need drinkers to keep buying bottles.
That said, I guess damage is being done now, with the high prices pushing people into other drinks that are more affordable. This will likely be made worse by the large amount of new distilleries/large expansions we are seeing, meaning a new whisky loch, in addition to the one in collector’s cupboards. When is anyone’s guess, but history is nothing if not repetitive. Quality, being different, and not having screwed over drinkers in the past will be key during this downturn.
Back to a more positive note, this year’s festival: I had three favourite events which sum up what I love about the whisky world. The first was the GlenAllachie Blending Class with Billy Walker, where we had a brief tour of the distillery with Karen (a well-known face from Glendronach previously) before settling down for what was effectively an informal chat and playing around with whisky. We had five single casks we could blend (oloroso, PX, virgin oak, rioja and chinquapin oak). To start us off, we got some guidance on potential directions to take, but were also encouraged to mess around with really different combinations and see what we thought of them. The focus was on what works personally for each of us. It was great fun, and I certainly learned a lot. I got a nose I was happy with quite early on, but it took a lot of playing around to avoid the finish being too dry. While we were blending, were got to know new people, have lots of laughs and hear some interesting thoughts from Billy. I’d recommend trying this at home: use a pipette and see how blending small amounts of a different whisky can add a lot of complexity, sometimes in a surprising direction.
The second highlight was the Off the Beaten Track, where we visited Allt-A-Bhainne, Braeval, Tormore and Dalmunach. The day was split by a stunning lunch with Ghillie Basan. She managed to do to food what you get with great whisky: building different layers of flavours to make it evolve, but also complement, each other. This was set in a beautiful location at her remote cottage, with chat ranging from ski touring in the area to the whiskies we were drinking (a dram from each distillery). The 16-year-old single cask Braeval from Distillery Collection was the clear winner here.
Allt-A-Bhainne and Braeval provide a contrast to the pretty distilleries generally open to the public. Instead, these are post-war buildings, built at a time where the focus was on being a factory to provide whisky for blending, rather than catering to tourists. Even so, they have their own beauty as a result inside. Tormore is far better described here than I can cover now (link). Dalmunach, being just a few years old, had a focus on aesthetics and is designed round the concept of a stalk of barley. There’s a great bat story about it too…
The final and third event was the Glen Moray World Cup event. This was a very relaxed event, with a more clear focus on the social aspect. There were eight different single cask whiskies, each representing a country in the “quarter finals”, with two going head-to-head each time. Everyone voted, and the winner went through to the next round. The winner will be a Bottle Your Own at the distillery. During half time, we had beer and a cheeseburger pie from the local butcher, and the second half was a repeat with peated whisky. The “shock” winner here was Scotland, with the crowd bursting into a round of “Flower of Scotland” at one point too!
One of the small pleasant changes at this year’s festival was most distilleries allowing the option of photos in most, or all, areas, including the larger companies who have said no in the past. Sadly on I did see one incident of sexism during the festival, but hopefully, this dies out sooner than later. For the most part, the festival brought together many of the best parts of the whisky world—meeting great people; some for the first time, others regular friends from previous years. This was all done while solving the world’s problems over a dram in the lovely Scottish weather of Sun and May snow!