Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Whisky Writers' Spey Journey - Part 1

Last week I had the pleasure of sharing the majestic Spey with a charming group of enthusiastic whisky writers. The group included London-based Alwynne Gwilt (@themisswhisky); from Falkirk, Nicola Young (@thewhiskyboys) and writing for the Scottish Malt Whisky Society magazine 'Unfiltered' ~ Fiona Russell (@fionaoutdoors). 

Also, taking part in this special journey, providing great support and depth of malt-whisky knowledge to the venture was The Balvenie UK Ambassador, Andrew Forrester (@balvenienotes). Andrew and I have worked together for some time now and he has accompanied me on the river on previous media trips. (Indeed Andrew’s own Stag Weekend in the autumn of 2011 was a ‘spiritual’ canoe journey on the Spey!)

Some travelling by train and others by road the writers’ group gathered in Speyside on the afternoon of Tuesday 9th April at our Victorian home The Beeches, here in Newtonmore. On the first evening the group were treated to a sumptuous ‘whisky-dinner’ which included ‘Fiddich Prawns’ and Shetland Salmon in a Balvenie cream-sauce. Then, sitting in front of a roaring log fire the writers were treated to a full, unabridged Andrew Forrester Balvenie tasting ~ delivered, as always with an obvious passion for the handcrafted expressions being explored and savoured by those present.

The week previous had produced in Scotland some record breaking high temperatures and I had hoped the writer's group could experience the lovely Spey in stunning sunshine, with the new voyageurs perhaps wearing shorts and t-shirts. However, this was not to be the case. Temperatures dropped, snow fell and, on our first morning,~ canoes and all kit loaded everyone was padded up in cosy fleeces as we headed towards our starting point at Knockando, in the shadow of the ghostly buildings of the presently deserted, soon to reopen, Tamdhu distillery.

Canoes unloaded and carried to the riverside, as we packed into the boats the food barrel and dry-bags for personal kit, Lady Spey smiled warmly as the clouds cleared and we were bathed in spring sunshine for at least half an hour. The brightness continued as we slipped our canoes into the clear Spey waters and stayed with us through the iconic Knockando fishing pools including Slioch, Vrennan, Island Rory and Craigsteel. The water levels were fairly low for the time of, meaning that a great many large stones were peeping above the water’s surface, requiring paddlers to be vigilant and react quickly to avoid striking the rocks. However, now on the water, with a pot-pourri of basic strokes learned, even those that had not canoed previously were becoming masters of their craft and any initial apprehensions had dissipated. 

The group weathered well the turbulent fast water if the exciting rapid oddly named ‘millionaires’. Next major feature high on the bank river left, glowering down upon Lady Spey is the austere form of Imperial distillery, mothballed several years ago and its derelict brick buildings giving the impression of an urban Victorian factory, even workhouse rather than a rural Highland distillery. However, the dower demeanour of the Imperial brick facade is soon forgotten as we round the next bend to be confronted by the fine steel spanning arches of the very attractive Carron Bridge. Once carrying the main road and also the Speyside railway – a major transport artery savagely slashed by Dr Beaching in the 1960’s – this fine bridge still carries the road but now instead of trucks laden with whisky, cattle, barley, even passengers its subsidiary roe is to offer walkers an elevated view of the majestic Spey as she flows swiftly below. The buildings hidden from the river at this time of year with the trees having no leaves one can sometimes see wisps of steam and smell the aroma emanating from the dark grains production unit attached to Diageo’s Dalluaine distillery. Along with a handful of other such processing plants, draff the spent husks of the barley taken from eh mashtuns and pot ale, the slurry draw from the bottom of the still are mixed together and formed into cattle feed – very little is wasted in eth production of the golden elixir we call whisky.  

With mysterious Carron House nestled above her fine lawns river right, my groups are always impressed by the fairytale like appearance of Laggan House standing proudly on its elevated position river left. Very soon we are in view of the picturesque Victoria Bridge which heralds our approach to Aberlour. On the hills beyond we can see the modern warehouses of The Macallan ~ looking rather more like James Bond installations, than whisky bonds!

A little further downstream, with the fine Victorian white-washed elegance of the Craigellachie Hotel ~ our home for that night, my paddlers are enraptured by the attractive span and castellated towers of Thomas Telford’s brilliantly engineered bridge. All this ~ and it’s only lunchtime on day one!

Part 2 will be posted soon .....

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