Travel / Weekend breaks

Spirited away at the Spirit of Speyside

By martin booth, Tuesday Aug 30, 2016

Shivering and covered in a sludge made from molasses, pot ale, water and wood shavings, two apprentice coopers proudly swig from their bottle of personalised whisky.

Their initiation is over, having first been caught by their colleagues, stripped to their underpants, doused in the sludge, covered in feathers and flour and rolled around in barrels; basically ridiculed in front of friends, family and paying guests at the Speyside Cooperage.

If anybody deserves a bottle of whisky, it’s these two young men, now joining the ranks of coopers and having been ritually humiliated as their forebears have been for more than a century in a ceremony which is known as a ‘blackening’.

A few days later, at the closing of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, the blackening was voted best event of the festival – up against stiff competition such as whisky and food pairing, blending your own whisky, and expert talks.

Whether it be careering up a Scottish mountainside through bracken and peat bogs in a glorified golf buggy imported from Canada known as an argocat, or dining at Gordon Castle, the ancestral seat of the Gordon clan, it was remarkable to think that Bristol was only a few hours away via direct flights from our airport to both Inverness and Aberdeen via EasyJet and BMI.

Speyside sits in the middle of these two cities and within a few square miles has dozens of whisky distilleries – more than half of all of Scotland’s total. Drive down the quiet country lanes and you will spot what looks like a Japanese pagoda in the distance, which on closer inspection is the shape of the roof of many of the distilleries, built this way for a very particular reason to make Speyside whisky taste even sweeter.

One of these distilleries is The Glenlivet, the very first to be granted a license to make whisky legally in 1824 and now one of the most well known brands in the world.

Like everything in Speyside, however, it’s worth reminding yourself that you are in an area known across the globe for its whisky as at times it seems like a small village.

The manager at the wonderful Station Hotel in Rothes knew one of the coppers who had been blackened as they were both volunteer firemen, while the master distiller at The Glenlivet greeted many of the guests at a tasting session by name as we worked through single malts from the 1990s back to the 1950s.

The Spirit of Speyside is an opportunity to become part of this community for yourself, bumping into familiar faces at the many different events which have been cleverly put together so as they are not simple distillery tours and tastings. 

On a day where the sky could not have been more blue, granting wonderful views across the Cairngorms National Park where whisky smugglers used to ply their trade, our ride up the mountain in the argocat saw us sample a dram of The Glenlivet standing just metres away from the very first distillery here before moving on to a stone bothy shelter where a roaring fire, some whisky-soaked fruitcake and of course another dram was waiting for us.

It’s a bumpy ride up the mountain in the argocat

And the ride ends with a dram – of course

If this was taking things back to simpler times, our visit to Gordon Castle was a taste of the good life as were treated to a sumptuous four-course dinner hosted by Angus and Zara Gordon Lennox, sat in an octagonal dining room with many of Angus’ distinguished ancestors looking down on us from the walls.

The next day, there was just enough time to stock up on some local delicacies at The Whisky Shop in Dufftown and even sample a few ice creams made from local whisky at the nearby Balvenie St. Ice Cream Shop before a plane back to Bristol where the inflight meal had barely been served before our wheels touched down on the Lulsgate tarmac, already planning a return trip Speyside.

The next Spirit of Speyside Festival takes place between April 27 and May 1, 2017. For more information, visit


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