It was when I was in the village hall in Aberlour that I really grasped the true meaning of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival.
Inside the traditional wood-floored, stained glass windowed hall, dozens of people of all ages gathered together for a ceilidh. White haired ladies and dapper elderly gentleman sat chatting to tourists from Brazil, Canada and America, while a wedding party – dressed up in their finest – created a buzz of happiness felt by all.
At my table, James Walker – the humble and inviting head of the Walker Shortbread family – spoke to me about his memories coming to the hall as a child to watch films with his fellow local school children, while beside me festival organiser Mary Hemsworth spoke to everyone about the success of the many days of events.
As the ceilidh band struck up a tune and the newlyweds (who’d decided to celebrate their wedding evening with the local community) stood to take their first dance, I marveled in the wonderful welcoming nature, the simplicity and friendliness, the true heart of a community that one doesn’t find just anywhere anymore.
This is Scotland to me. And this is Speyside.
While the whisky we love gets its fair dues, it is the people, the beating heartbeat of the Speyside region that make the wonderful product. And it is at the festival of the same name that I had a moment to slow down and see just what makes it such an important spot.
By the time I took a second’s breather to realise all of this, it was already the final night of the festival for me. I’d been in Speyside for four days to take in the yearly event which sees hundreds of distillery tours, parties, ceilidhs and concerts take place in the heart of Scotland’s whisky making world. I’d attended the opening dinner of the festival at The Glenlivet; witnessed the re-opening of Tamdhu distillery and seen well-known TV and newspaper commentator Olly Smith talk about its new 10-year old whisky release; visited The Macallan, Aberlour and Mortlach; danced to the Treacherous Orchestra at Glenfiddich; eaten my way through plates of smoked salmon; and, tried more drams than I can remember.
But on that final night, I saw why people keep coming back year after year to the region – it’s because it has a heart and soul that far surpasses just the whisky but which is instilled in each bottle.
Over the coming weeks, I will write about the distilleries and drams I visited and tried, the positives and negatives and the various characters that keep Speyside alive.
On the opening night, I was awarded the honour of International Whisky Ambassador of the Year for the festival in tandem with fellow blogger Keith Savage. I was completely blown away with shock by this honour. I don’t remember entirely what I said in thanks that evening but I know it went down the lines of being so proud to be able to talk about such a wonderful area not just because of the whisky but because of the people, because the region embodies a similar spirit to that which I grew up in Canada with.
I hope when you open your next bottle of Speyside whisky or if you get the chance to head up to the region to meet the people behind the spirit, you too get the chance to witness the conviviality of it all. I may be a Canadian, living in England, but there will always be a little part of me that feels Scottish. The festival simply cemented that for me.