Much of the Speyside landscape is a gentle mixture of rolling hills and pleasant glens with forests, fields and pastures that are rather similar to the countryside of Central Europe. But when the hills turn into mountains, the terrain becomes rougher and reminds you of the fact that you are indeed in the Scottish Highlands.
A very prominent Speyside mountain is Ben Rinnes, located not very far from Dufftown and Aberlour. The Spirit of Speyside Festival featured two events on Sunday that were just perfect to experience this Ben in the heart of Speyside: A walk up to the summit (and of course down again) as well as a whisky tasting in the stillhouse of Benrinnes distillery, which not very surprisingly is situated at the foot of Ben Rinnes. As both events werde led by renowned whisky writer and fellow Malt Maniac Dave Broom, I did not hesitate to book the events when I saw them on the festival website. I thought the hike should provide a welcome oxygen boost after several days of heavy dramming.
A group of about 25 people led by Dave Broom and two experienced Munro climbers set off from the cark park at the base of Ben Rinnes. The weather proved to be just about perfect, so the rainproof gear could be left at home. It was quite an illustrous band that also included Alan Winchester of Chivas, Dutch whisky writer Hans Offringa and his wife Becky, Neil and Joel of Cask Strength and Tim Forbes of the Whisky Exchange.
Ben Rinnes is 841 m high, from the car park there were more than 500 metres of height difference to climb over a distance of 3.5 kilometres. It turned out that with a few breathers in between this task was quite manageable. Two Dutch families even brought their children, two sisters climbing the hill like mountain goats and a toddler being carried on daddy’s back.
Because of the good weather conditions, the view was spectacluar albeit a little hazy, not only from the top but as soon as we had gained a few meters of height. The mountain itself only has heather vegetation with virtually no trees growing on its slopes. At a few places you could see the peat bogs that in the past were used by the surrounding distilleries for their maltings.
The summit offered a stunning view of the surrounding villages and distilleries – Allt-à-Bhainne, Benrinnes, Glenallachie, Craigallachie, Aberlour and Macallan as well as Speyside Cooperage. Dufftown could be seen too, but none of the local distileries were visible from that distance. You could just gueess the North Sea behind Rothes and Elgin, the Cairngorms could be seen quite well as well as Ben Wyvis.
Needless to say that there was a little party on the summit. Some bottles of Benrinnes Flora & Fauna and Glenlivet 18 were provided for everybody’s enjoyment. Nosing came a little short because of the use of plasctic cups, but hey, you don’t hike up there to write tasting notes anyway. Dave Broom re-baptized the orientation plaque with a dram of Benrinnes, and then the group headed back down again.
Can there be a better place for a whisky tasting than the stilhouse of a working distillery?
Just like Mortlach and Dufftown, Benrinnes is a Diageo distillery not normally open for visitors. They do open their doors for the Speyside Festival, though, this time not for a guided tour but for a proper tasting. The stills were not in operation; much to my surprise we were told that Benrinnes is not working on weekends like most other Diageo distilleries.
The setup of the tasting was most delightful – on a platform with a nice view on the stills. Dave Broom selected a very interesting theme for the tasting: The development of Speyside whisky styles over the course of two centuries.
Beginning with the light-bodied delicate malts of modern distilleries the journey went backwards in time over the fruity favourite style of the turn of the last century to the richer and spicier character of the mid 19th century to finally arrive at the tradtional sherried whiskies of the first Speyside distilleries.
The six drams tasted were:
- Tamvavulin 1973 cask sample (light modern style of the 1960s blend boom but sherried)
- Imperial 1988/2009 Signatory (fruity style of the 1900 blend boom)
- Craigellachie 12 yo cask sample (waxy and herbal style of the late 18th century)
- Longmorn 16 yo (spicy sherried style of the late 18th century)
- Benrinnes 15 yo Flora & Fauna (slightly peaty sherried style of the mid 18th century)
- Glenfarclas 40 yo (old-fashioned sherry)
Dave spiced up the tasting with a wealth of information about the distilleries and whisky production in general and also provided chocolate, cheese and other small treats to complement the drams. The participants were truly delighted by this tasting, one even stated he had learned more here than in twenty years before.
If I had to pick a favourite among my festival events, it would have to be this perfect combination of geography, nature, a distillery and whisky on a splendid sunday.