There’s no better time to head for the Scottish Highlands and Islands than May, especially for lovers of a wee dram. This most picturesque region of the country boats a pair of fine distillery trails where some of the world’s greatest malts emerge from the pot stills as liquid gold.
Why May? One reason is the start of the White Nights season, where daylight seems never-ending, another is generally benign weather, but most importantly, it’s whisky festival month. Considerately, these separate festivals are staged consecutively. allowing aficionadoes to hop from the mainland to the islands and back in search of the perfect drop.
The festivities are kicked off by the Spirit of Speyside Festival, running from 30 April to 4 May this year. Thousands flock to the home of the world’s most famous whiskies for everything from serious appreciation masterclasses to wild ceilidhs and comedy sessions. For a full list of what’s happening, check out www.spiritofspeyside.com
One of the most interesting and offbeat things to do on Speyside is trek the smugglers’ trails where whisky-makers once rolled their barrels over the hills in secret when the spirit was still contraband. The founder of The Glenlivet was among the first in the covert distilling business, until he was urged to get a licence by King George, who was anxious to legitimately drink this particular brand of liquid gold.
Glenlivet is offering a special off-road tour of the smugglers’ trails during festival week, with a “whisky horse” treadng the hoofprint of his ancestors. It’s an easy walk of just under two miles and ends with a grain-to-glass visit of the distillery, but it’s also possible to do the trails in an 8-wheel Argocat.
While in many ways Glenlivet is a whisky for the ladies – light and fragrant, particularly the new Founder’s Reserve, made to join mixers in Old Fashioned and other classic whisky cocktails – many of the island malts are distinctly macho, heavily smoky with peat. Which explains why the Islay Malt and Music Festival, May 22-30 this year, attracts the blokes – there’s golf, bowling and even Gaelic lessons to punctuate the whisky tasting at the various Islay distilleries which open their doors to visitors on different days. Check out www.islayfestival.com
It would be a crying shame to leave Islay, which has both ferry and plane links to the mainland, without taking another ferry a tiny hop and skip across the sound to Jura, perhaps the least-known and most beautiful of all the whisky isles. Tastival, its own distillery festival, takes place on May 27 and 28 this year, and will appeal to female whisky-lovers, as Jura’s style is more feminine and less smoky than the likes of terrifyingly smoky Laphroaig and Lagavulin. The island also offers non-alcoholic pleasures like a boat trip out into a famous vortex just off-shore.
Tastival promises to bring taste to life in the Cooperage this year, with a street artist painting the personal tasting notes of attendees on the walls of the distillery while they sample a dram from the Jura’s range, building up to one hell of a tribute mural to the malt.
An experiential dining session, inspired by the sweet and smoky sides of Jura’s whiskies, will be hosted by Dram & Smoke and fans can also enjoy a specially brewed bottle of craft beer from Drygate Brewing Co., which has been created to pair with the limited edition Jura Tastival whisky.
Tasting sessions from the rarest casks in Jura’s warehouse will take place alongside a special distillery tour and tasting with Jura Master Distiller, Willie Tait and Jura Distillery Manager, Willie Cochrane. It’s worth every penny of £15 just to hear this duo relate their war stories, though the malt sampling that goes with is prety good too.
Possibly the most interesting Tastival offer this year is Whisky on the Waves, a 30-minute cruise with tot in hand. It’s described as “a sensory journey out at sea to enjoy this dram the way it was meant to be – with the wind and sea spray in your face.”
Ticketed sessions are limited and range from £10-45, with complimentary distillery tours and access to the Dramming Bar on both days.