Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival 2023: See behind the scenes at these usually closed distilleries

Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival 2023: See behind the scenes at these usually closed distilleries

We speak with two distilleries not usually open to the public which are inviting whisky lovers through their doors for the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival 2023

News | 19 Apr 2023

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The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival 2023 is just around the corner, showcasing the best of the famed whisky-making region to fans from across the world.

Taking place from 26 April to 1 May, the festival will offer Speyside whisky fans the chance to see behind the scenes at a number of distilleries – including some that are usually closed to the public, including Speyburn (which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year), Craigellachie, Dailuaine, Tamdhu, Tamnavulin, and Linkwood.

We spoke to the teams at Speyburn Distillery and Craigellachie Distillery to find out more about their exclusive Spirit of Speyside visitor tours.

Speyburn Distillery

With Euan Henderson, distillery manager, Speyburn

Can you tell us a bit about the history of Speyburn?

Speyburn Distillery produced its first drop of whisky in 1897. Founder John Hopkins worked tirelessly with his team of dedicated men through freezing winter days and nights, determined to fill its first barrel of whisky in time to bear the date of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Finally, after long days and overcoming challenge after challenge, they did it, sealing their first cask on Christmas Day.

125 years later, Speyburn continues to be a bustling distillery, producing quality single malts by using many of the same traditional techniques and practices that were used all those years ago.

To celebrate such a milestone anniversary, Speyburn is opening its doors to the public for the very first time at this year’s Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, offering whisky fans from across the world an exclusive opportunity to experience the distillery for themselves.

Speyburn Distillery. Credit: Speyburn / International Beverage

Why has the Speyburn team chosen to open the distillery for the festival?

We’re incredibly excited to open the doors of our distillery to mark our 125th anniversary, offering the public access to our home for the very first time. Inviting the public to experience our distillery after all these years is really special – our distillery has such a rich history and an amazing story to tell, and we’re so excited to share it. As a mainstay in any whisky aficionado’s diary, we felt the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival was the perfect opportunity to welcome guests from around the world through our doors as part of the festivities this year.

What can guests expect from Speyburn during the festival?

During the festival, Speyburn will be offering two types of distillery tours: ‘Behind the Scenes Tour and Tasting’ and ‘125th Anniversary Tour and Masterclass’.

Those on the Speyburn Distillery 'Behind the Scenes Tour and Tasting’ will offer insight on Speyburn’s unique whisky making process, which brings together traditional processes from the late 1800s with new and innovative technologies. Guests will also be treated to an exclusive sampling of the single cask whisky released to mark this year’s festival, plus Speyburn’s core range.

The '125th Anniversary Tour and Masterclass’ will offer behind-the-scenes access of the distillery’s listed drum maltings for a unique insight into the history of the distillery, followed by an extensive tasting of Speyburn’s core single malt expressions, along with archived and historic bottles, cask samples, and the distillery’s single cask anniversary release. Both tours will give exclusive access to our distillery, where ticket-holders can learn about our history and heritage, and taste our very special whisky in an intimate setting.

We’re very proud to be celebrating 125 years of Speyburn distillery – every bottle we produce has all those years' worth of craftsmanship, expertise, and passion poured into them, and we’re excited to show this to whisky lovers from across the world.

Behind the scenes at Speyburn Distillery. Credit: Speyburn / International Beverage

What are some interesting facts about, or sights at the distillery that visitors should look out for?

Set in the heart of the Speyside region on the banks of the Granty Burn, Speyburn is the only distillery to use its crystal-clear water in the whisky-making process. A quaint distillery with its beautiful stonework and pagoda roof poking through the trees, it’s one of the most picturesque distilleries in the region.

Speyburn produced its first drop of whisky in the 1890s, and 125 years later, the distillery is just as dedicated to creating quality single malts as we were all those years ago, using many of the same traditional techniques that were used back then, for example, using our worm tubs and drum maltings to maintain that traditional approach. At the same time, we use innovative ways to create our whisky, such as recycling the heat generated throughout the distillery.

What do you feel are the main benefits of the Spirit of Speyside Festival for distillers and the region’s distilleries (whether usually open or closed to the public)?

Speyside has long been regarded as one of the best whisky regions in Scotland, known for its rich and fruity expressions, and the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is a great opportunity for whisky lovers around the world to come together and experience some of the best distilleries in the region. For the first time, Speyburn will be opening its doors to the public – a wonderful opportunity for the distillery to pull back the curtain on the magic behind its liquid.

What does Speyburn hope to gain from taking part in the festival, and what does it hope to teach festival goers and visitors?

Offering never before, behind-the-scenes access to Speyburn’s distillery guests will gain an insight into the workings of the distillery, along with an understanding of the rich story Speyburn has to tell. The team at Speyburn is very excited to show off the technique, devotion, and expertise that goes into each and every bottle.

Craigellachie Distillery

With Gary Ross, brand ambassador, Dewar's Aberfeldy Distillery

Can you tell us a bit about the history of Craigellachie?

Craigellachie Distillery sits in the heart of Speyside, proudly perched upon a rock that divides the River Fiddich and the mighty Spey. The distillery was among many that were built during the whisky boom of the 1890s, and was designed by the famed Elgin architect Charles Doig.

The plan for Craigellachie was conceived by two prominent figures in the whisky industry at the time, Peter Mackie and Alexander Edward. Mackie was a well-established and outspoken figure within the industry. He was described by Robert Bruce Lockhart as "one-third genius, one-third megalomaniac, and one-third eccentric", known as ‘Restless Peter’ to his friends. His family owned the brand White Horse, as well as the Lagavulin distillery on Islay, and Hazelburn in Campbeltown. Edward, on the other hand, is very much an unsung hero of the Scotch whisky industry. At the time of building Craigellachie, Edwards father had the lease on Benrinnes distillery which he would soon inherit, and he saw the business potential of whisky making. After Craigellachie he would go on to build the Aultmore distillery, buy Oban, then move to Forres where he would build Benromach and Dallasmore (latterly known as Dallas Dhu).

Craigellachie Distillery was completed in 1891. It was remarked by whisky writer and travelogue author, Alfred Barnard, shortly after that the distillery made a style of whisky that was "seldom met with nowadays". In 1917, Edward sold his share to Mackie, who took sole ownership, and I think it shows. The style of whisky made at Craigellachie to me really reflects Peter Mackie’s character: robust, unapologetic, and stubborn. The character is largely the result of our distillation process and the worm tubs we still retain for condensing. We call Craigellachie ‘The Rock of Speyside’, which I think is quite fitting for this stubborn, unmoving character, but it also ties it to where it is made.

A few years after Mackie passed away, his company, White Horse Distillers, merged into the DCL [Distillers Company Limited, the predecessor of Diageo], where it would remain as part of the company's holdings, through various mergers, until 1998, when it was purchased by Bacardi. Under Bacardi’s ownership, a lot of investment has been made both at the distillery and into the brand, which we thankfully now have available as a single malt for people to try in its own right.

On a Burns Night tour of Craigellachie Distillery. Credit: Craigellachie / Bacardi

Why has the Bacardi team chosen to open the distillery for the festival?

Matthew Cordiner, our global malts ambassador, and I have been managing our programme of events for several years now, and we open the doors to the Craigellachie Distillery during most Spirit of Speyside festivals. Getting the chance to show people around Craigellachie, and usually Aultmore as well, allows us to introduce our brands to people over a conversation and a dram or two. That is what the festival is all about for us: introducing people to our whiskies for the first time, or allowing those lovers of the distilleries to get a look around a site that is usually closed to the public, in an open and conversational way. We are keen to show people how we do what we do at Craigellachie, and what makes it different from other distilleries.

What can guests expect from Craigellachie during the festival?

This year at the festival we have changed our usual events about a bit to focus more on hosting tours of the distillery. The main reason for this is the sheer demand we have for people wanting to see around Craigellachie. It is always one of the first events to sell out at the festival, so we are delighted to be running twice as many tours as last year (that said, they still all sold out within a day!).

For those that were lucky enough to grab a ticket, we are looking forward to immersing them in all things Craigellachie. We will start off with an in-depth discussion about the story of the distillery itself, and its founders, before taking a relaxed walk around the distillery, discussing the quirks of Craigellachie that make it so unique, and what helps contribute to our robust and characterful style of whisky. After this, we will take guests through a tasting of a few expressions of Craigellachie in our old cooperage, including a taste of our new make, as well as a rare and special dram.

Additionally to the tours, we are delighted to return again with our Scottish Aperitivo hour, where we welcome guests to the banks of the river Spey, at the base of the Telford Bridge in Craigellachie, and share a few choice drams of Craigellachie. We are big believers in the fact that whisky is made to be enjoyed and shared, and what better location is there to do so?

Inside the stillroom at Craigellachie Distillery. Credit: Craigellachie / Bacardi

What are some interesting facts about, or sights at, the distillery that visitors should look out for?

What I would say is most unique about Craigellachie is the fact that we still use traditional worm tubs for condensing our distillate. This may not be overly unique in terms of the modern industry, with more and more distilleries installing this piece of equipment to help create a more complex style of spirit, (20 sites now use them), but what is unique is that we have a viewing platform that goes above the worms. This offers a glimpse into our condensing process, and also worm tubs in general, which are often misunderstood.

As well as this, one of my personal favourite parts of showing people around Craigellachie is our mash house. Over the years, the distillery has been expanded and altered to increase our capacity and upgrade our equipment, the most recent of which saw the installation of a new mash tun. What is special about it is that we installed the new tun in what used to be our kiln, so you are under the roof of our historic Doig ventilator. It is a very beautiful (and warm) space within the distillery, and a memorable part of the tour.

What would you say are the main benefits of the Spirit of Speyside Festival for distillers and the region’s distilleries (open or closed)?

I think what the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival offers to distillers is a platform of very engaged whisky enthusiasts to talk to. I would say especially for geekier brands like Craigellachie, or sites that aren’t open to the public, we want to show off what we do, and immerse and connect people to our whiskies on a deeper level.

Festival bottlings and ticket sales are also a benefit for companies taking part. In recent years we have had a few single casks from Craigellachie available, which have been received very well, and we will have another one for the festival this year. For our ticket sales, as the festival is more about talking about the brands, we actually give all of the proceeds of our events to local charities, so for us it is also a great way of giving back to the communities that support our distilleries.

What does Craigellachie hope to gain from taking part in the festival, and what does it hope to teach festival goers and visitors?

Whisky is a means for bringing people together and sharing in culture and stories, and when that marries up with the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, and the sense of place you get from being in Speyside, it brings a certain level of magic and wonderment. In the end, you can’t not end up falling in love with Speyside and sharing those moments that matter, dram in hand. And if we can make sure that it is a dram of Craigellachie that you are sharing in that moment, and remembering, then we have done our job right!

We are there primarily to raise awareness of the fantastic spirit that our team at the distillery are crafting, and how our blend team in Glasgow care and nurture it through maturation. Craigellachie is an old distillery but still a relatively new brand, so we are there to help people discover and fall in love with it.

Discover the full Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival 2023 programme of events here.
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