One of my personal highlights from the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival was the chance to attend the festival’s opening dinner at Macallan distillery. The opening dinner is an opportunity for the festival organizers to start the festivities on the right foot and showcase one of the region’s distilleries. Each year the dinner moves among Speyside’s Scotch houses – in recent years it was held at Glenfiddich and Benromach – and this year Macallan had the honor of hosting the dinner, which was actually perfect for me since I had been to Macallan only on a brief tour in 2009.
After an engrossing trip around Glenfiddich and tasting of its excellent libations, I sped over to nearby Macallan distillery to catch cocktails before the official dinner started. Macallan is one of the big boys of Speyside along with Glenfiddich and Glenlivet from a production and popularity standpoint, and I got that sense as soon as I stepped foot on the grounds. Macallan has an industrial feel, but parts of the distillery have been updated and beautified, and the gorgeous view of the Spey valley cannot be dismissed.
A classy tent with hardwood floors had been erected to serve as the cocktail-hour abode and entryway into the distillery. Mixologists cooked up creative cocktails using Macallan 10 and Cutty Sark. I had a delicious variation on an old fashioned that used Macallan 10 instead of Bourbon or brandy and left out the soda. While the opening dinner leaves many slots for general registrants, you need to be quick to claim one; they sold out on the first day of open registration. The rest of the spots are reserved for industry people, festival organizers, press, and special guests. This explained why I spotted no less than 10 distillery managers and owners in the crowd, and why I was severely under-dressed in my dusty all-purpose travel clothes. My kingdom for a suit coat and a kilt.
Leaving the cocktail tent, I filtered through the distillery on my way to the warehouse where dinner would be served. Macallan’s stillhouse might be the most modern stillhouse I’ve visited. Cooling water flows through translucent, back-lit pipes like some kind of avantgarde art display. Alas, pictures were forbidden so you’ll have to either take my word for how unique this stillhouse is or make your way to Macallan and see it for yourself. I recommend the latter.
I was intercepted on the way to the dining warehouse and directed to a table where I was able to score three pairs of whiskies to determine winners for the festival. It was a blind scoring of pairings from different age brackets, and a really fun (and delicious) way to contribute to the festival.
Macallan did a marvelous job creating a sumptuous dining hall out of thin air. Round tables with crisp white linens were gilt with candelabra, a bottle of Macallan 10, and a trio of drams meant to be paired with each course. One whisky in particular, the one meant to be paired with dessert, sent my jaw crashing to the floor: The Macallan 1946. Distilled a year after WWII and sitting in a glass before me 66 years later. Yes. Please.
Along with me at my dinner table were others attending the festival as press, including Miss Whisky, the gents from ScotchBlog.ca, and Heinfried Tacke, a writer for Germany’s premiere whisky magazine, among others. The conversation was excellent, the Cullen Skink, poached salmon, and cheese plate were delicious, and drams and endless bottles of wine flowed freely. As dining transitioned into partying, I had the opportunity to say hello to many of the folks I’d met over the past couple of years, people like Keith Cruickshank, distillery manager at Benromach, George Grant, heir to the Glenfarclas empire, and Ian Chapman, marketing manager at Gordon & Macphail.
The festivities of the night peaked with a performance from Eddi Reader, one of Britain’s long-time musical sensations and best-kept secrets (though she did have a song on the Batman Forever soundtrack). Her renditions of original songs and old Scots tunes got the kilts moving.
It was a privilege to be a guest of the festival at the opening dinner and an unforgettable experience drinking such fine whiskies in such excellent company. More than once I recall leaning over to my dad to whisper in his ear, “Can you believe this?” It was a moment of deep gratitude for being invited to the dinner, and a moment of pride for Traveling Savage that, at least in some sense, it had “made it.” And Macallan, well, they had made the opening dinner of the festival one to remember.
Disclosure: I attended the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival as press; attendance at the opening dinner was complimentary. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.